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Youngster Lessons

Some meandering thoughts on indie life and lessons learned from a few years in the industry.

This indie thing has been really fun, really educational, and completely bizarre.  When I started I didn't really know what to expect.  Set my own hours, work on games that I love, and even have a life outside games.  I figured it would take a couple months to get into a so-called rhythm.  But one of the biggest challenges is that as an indie, you have a different rhythm than other indies.  You work at different times.  Some are full-time industry folk making games in spare hours.  Others (including my business partner) are still in school and/or working non-industry jobs.  Others are full-time indie, but on the opposite coast.  (When they are finishing their day and you're still struggling to get in some last work for critique but you know it's going to finish when they're eating dinner...)  Working from home has continually been about fighting the lack of rhythm.

When I graduated college (2009) I spent that summer looking and eventually finding a game job.  GO ME!  I moved into 9-5 (really it's 9-6) because that is what the world expected of me.  The world offered me a path into corporate game America because our very system of education and growth is built upon bells and whistles and the factory floor and blah blah blah.  I followed school safely through to the end of college because it was the natural progression.  Now I found myself in a 9-6 thinking, "This is it.  I am in the game industry."  An hour commute to work and another hour back.  I can do this… forever?

I love the industry but one of the biggest revelations I ever had (several years ago while interning) was that it is just another job.  It's a dream for some, and others it's fun, and others it is work.  We take different things from the job.

You can work from the inside of that corporate world and have good and bad experiences, or you can break out and experience some thrilling good and bad experiences.  Why not live a little?  (Though the following is relevant to indie and mainstream.)

Some Lessons

Try non-electronic games and other games that stretch boundaries.  At Floodgate Ent., we would spend one lunch a week playing a non-digital game, sitting around a big conference table.  Learn from the group dynamics that they employ.  The best ones understand the importance of staring down your friend, trying to discern what he might do.  Is he going to shoot you or is he bluffing to take more of the money.  Understand different game mediums.

Before I started writing this piece, I was very critical of myself.  I have never beaten a Mario game, never beaten a Final Fantasy game.  Never got addicted to WoW.  Have played a total of about an hour of Peter Molyneux games.  I used to think I wasn't a gamer.

But I'm a random encounter type gamer.  When I was young with no console and no money I played demo after demo.  All I had was a subscription to PC Gamer, and I lived and died by that demo disc.  (Why oh why did every disc have a ridiculously difficult flight sim?)  With the internet and high school I got some big name PC titles and also played ROMs. (Shadowrun and Aladdin on Genesis, anyone?)  In college I finally experienced consoles.  Tony Hawk 2 and Shadow of the Colossus ruled my world.  Now I'm into indie and iPhone.

Think about how the game works!

Every game I play informs my decisions about every game I make.  Every choice a game offers me is in turn a question of whether that choice was necessary to make the game great.  I compare every linear game to the original, beautifully open Shadowrun.  Every piece of game-art faces my scrutiny.  Every HUD is a test of its own usefulness.  One game I'm working on has just added a new HUD element, and it has completely shifted my perception of the game variables it tracks.  Pay attention and pause and think about everything the game is doing.  Do you like what it's doing?  Why or why not?

If you want to be a powerful, desired asset, you need to be more than a specialty.  Learn ZBrush, sure, learn Objective-C, learn Photoshop, but far more important than those individual packages are the general skills of art and code and design.  If you become an expert at ZBrush, what happens when a new program comes along and trumps it?  Far more important is how that shape and model fits in with all the other 3d models and how they all relate to the mood and movement of a space.

I daresay I have no real specialty.  But I understand a lot about all the facets of game development and I can pick up and run with different tasks.  If you want to know how to get recommendations, understand how important every other game job is to yours.  Programming has a huge effect on art.  Art has a huge effect on design.  From HUD to level-building to game interaction to the general mood.  You should always strive to appreciate not only how your work fits into the game, but how what others are doing informs your work.  Games are beautiful machines, why not learn about the whole thing?

Work with Passionate Folk

This is the most important rule I have taken from my few years in the industry.  If you want to go anywhere exciting, you must work with passionate people.  People who care about why the game works.  People who care about how the game works.  You will do nothing exciting unless you work alongside other excited people.  Oh my gosh, enthusiasm, it feels so good.  I am not an adventure gamer or a horror gamer or a Facebook gamer.  I would much rather play something else.  But I am excited about making games, and when I talk to someone about making any of those types of games, if they are excited, then I feed off of that.

You can get excited about almost any game if you step back and appreciate what a developer is trying to do.  You may not particularly care for that type of game, but think about the basics of play and interaction and story.  Every game has these elements and if you let those general concepts wash over you, there is so much to discover and experiment with.  The question is not how far you can take an idea, the question is where do you stop?  That is how passion works.

You learn passion through knowledge.  Through experimentation, through play, through others.  The more I grow as an artist, the more I love making art.  The more I make games, the more I cannot stop thinking about them.  When I used to do parkour, every piece of scenery was potential.  I thought differently about the world.  If you break beyond your expertise, if you say you want to be a game designer, you damn well better understand the limitations of art and coding.  If you want to code, you should be thinking how an artist will understand the asset pipeline.  If you want to draw and model, learn up on how the engine is interpreting what you do.  Games are mechanical, understand that.

And if you want to be an indie, learn everything about everything.  Because on a team of two, you need to know way more than 50%.

Randy is working on several titles at the moment.  You can follow him at twitter.com/randyzero and now read his blog at phoolishgames.com

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