Daniel Benmergui, creator of art game I Wish I Were The Moon
among others, uses a very iterative approach to development. In a short talk during the Indie Games Summit at GDC in San Francisco, he discussed the process of making the game that put him on the map, and is an IGF Nuovo finalist this year, Today I Die
“It was hard mostly because I was totally clueless as to what I was making in the game,” he said. “Mostly people believe making an art game, you go from nothing, get some inspiration and then make the game. This was not the case.”
At the early stage, he had no clue where he wanted to go. So why did he even start? “It was during a time when somebody close to me was having trouble getting up in the morning,” he said.
People whose jobs are boring, or who feel they don’t have a lot to live for have a difficult time getting out of bed. He was interested in that slice of time in which you’re asleep and having to force yourself out of bed, “and it’s a struggle because you have this image of what you do that day.”
From there he got the idea of a girl sinking in stale water, struggling to come back up, conquering her fear. At the time, he really liked this poem builder mechanic that a friend had made, so he thought he might use it as a worldview. He made it so you could change the words, and showed a prototype in which you could move them around within a sentence by dragging and dropping. Each word would change given the context of the sentence– but nobody understood it.
He started freaking out. “At this point I’d make all these folders of work,” Benmergui said, scrolling through numerous folders on his laptop. He had made over 100 versions of the poem mechanic, trying to get it to work.
“But it was definitely not working, so I gave up and said maybe this is not the game I should be making,” he admitted. So he set out to make a space tactical shooter “which is kind of ok,” he joked, as the audience laughed. “You inspect stuff and kill ships. But I started feeling like this was wrong too.”
“When you’re stuck with a problem in a current game, the next idea looks more tempting at that point,” said Benmergui, “because there’s this illusion that it’ll be easier to make this next project you’ve thought about, because it’ll be more incremental, cleaner, etc. But that’s not true, that never happens. Eventually all games become difficult.”
“You need to start from games you feel are important,” he says. So he got rid of the poem thing, started a mechanic of swimming by dragging. This was also not working. “The words changing according to context was a cool idea. I got the feeling I could do something very interesting with it. I couldn’t make it work though. Eventually I realized that sometimes you have ideas you can’t handle by yourself at some point.” So he had to let it go.
So he made it so you could only switch in words that are floating from outside the poem, and it became more simple to understand. You have to realize that “sometimes you’re just not skilled enough to make it work,” he said.
It took him six months of iteration to get the game to the state of release. He concluded with the humbling statement - “If all else fails, you can ask for help!”