Can we create games and be good parents? Sure and here is why.
Let's connect and share our stories.
In February 2014 I was participating at the #flappyjam while on paternal leave for my then half year old (third) child Nina. Working on my game was only possible when she was napping during the day or when she was asleep at night. The the rest of the day was filled with household chores and taming all three children when the bigger ones were back from school.
Just before the jam deadline Nina was feverish and would wake up often every night. It was getting-at-least-some-sleep vs. more features for my #flappyjam entry Ridiculous Glitching. Although the days after those rather short nights were kinda rough because I chose features over sleep, I didn’t regret using the extra time for an intro, a trailer and some additional gameplay features. As a bonus achievement this was my first ever personal game I had ‘shipped’ due to an actual deadline forcing me to prioritize and making quick decisions. So little Nina had to endure a tired but very happy dad for a few days, especially when some nice reviews started to come in.
But my love for creating games goes way back - back to when I was a teenager awaiting a special christmas present in 1982 - a Commodore VIC 20. This home computer came without anything except the manual. You couldn’t load or save, there were no games included, only the basic interpreter. Type in some code, run it and everthing is gone when you turn the machine off. The next days were spent exploring simple code: 10 Print 'Hello' 20 GOTO 10 Run. The results were not really important. Important was the fact, that my first contact with this new world was not as a consumer, using readymade software such as games, but as an explorer, a magician. The computer was obeying as I wished. At least when there wasn’t a dreaded SYNTAX ERROR somewhere. The flood of games came soon after of course, on cartridges and cassette tapes. Those tapes took ages to load on the datasette if there wasn't a LOAD ERROR (I really loved the glitchy looking vic20 version of Shamus). Luckily I had a smart friend in school, a whiz kid who could write machine code as an early teenager. He wrote pixelart tools, which would convert the 8x8 pixel black&white spaceships and monsters into DATA that the computer would recognize. He also wrote machine code scrolling routines, a magic loader showing highres startup screens while loading a game from tape and a music player. And I was allowed to use all of his wonderful code without the need to fully understand it.
My first homebrew game done in basic and using lots of my friends low level machine code on the VIC 20 was DUDU. A nearly unplayable Moon Patrol clone ripping off every popular other game character at that time. But it was MY own game. As I grew older, creating games was neglected because of girls, music and playing other's games. But when some friends and me started our digital agency gosub.de many years later in 1997, to create websites, advergames and interactive entertainment, it was me who kept pushing for more game-like projects because of my love for making games.
My two sons were born with 5 years in between them, starting in 2003, always messing up family & work routine in the 'best' possible way. Work life balance was going in circles with the need to adjustment, depending on the overall needs of the family. And even though we did some really great projects at the agency, I needed a creative outlet that wasn’t ‘design by commitee’ or client driven and so - as the kids grew up and got less demanding at day & night - I slowly returned to making tiny games for my very personal pleasure.
Starting 2012 I found out about the amazingly active gamedev scene in Berlin. There are tons of local events like the amaze Berlin indie festival and the 8 hour Berlin mini jam. I also started participating at lose online communities such as the ever motivating #screenshotsaturday on Twitter and began visiting many dev blogs and indie sites. Around that time I discovered Unity - when before I had used Flash and Director. And so I commenced jamming to make games again BUT I wasn’t doing this by myself anymore. I was often accompanied by my oldest son Anton who had become interested in looking behind the curtain because of his ventures in Minecraft. He started off by doing pixelart experiments at game jams, tried Scratch, liked tinkering with Arduino and Kodu and has helped me by creating Pixelart for my jam game 'The Glorious Revolution Dogfight'. And then everything changed.
Crossing the Rubicon
One morning after I woke up I caught him learning C# from a tutorial on Youtube. He had used the Unity editor at jams before, creating funny things like Moonwalking and Elephant Simulator 2014 with a friend - without having written a single line of code. And he has even given a short talk about Kodu and its scripting block logic at a barcamp, but this was the very first time he dove into actual code writing.
He stayed on track and expanded his scripting adventure at the next 8 hour Berlin mini jam to proudly present his result at the end of the jam in front of a 70+ people grown-up dev crowd in English (German kid). I usually get nervous when presenting my game at the end of a jam and was wondering how he would do. But because Anton had written code on his own (even though he was following a video tutorial) it had made him pretty confident and enabled him to present his efforts in a fun way.
My very own focus group
Basically each of my kids has helped me becoming a better parent. And even though I have little time for my games now being a father has maybe made me also a better game designer and here is why.
My younger son Felix has taught me loads of things by letting me watch him exploring new touch device games and finding out his favorites in the edutainment/learning genre. Anton is a master in Minecraft and other stuff I won't get to dive in anymore, but with him there is some sort of rubberbanding connection to contemporary gaming phenomena and I can hold on to younger players interests.
Both Anton and Felix have playtested the levels for my first published mobile game Cool Cubes (currently 800+k installs) which I designed with my company gosub for Lipton Ice Tea. But Anton has really helped me much further. He worked with me to balance the level succession and tries/difficulty curve to make the game much more accessible.
And even 1 year old Nina has contributed. In April I badly wanted to go to A MAZE. Berlin for which I had already bought early bird tickets in December. Looking forward to the talks and the exhibition I wasn't sure if I could make it because my wife was working and I was supposed to look after Nina. After considering the options I just took her with me, risking to ruin everyone's fun. But luckily Nina was pretty relaxed and I was rewarded for being a daring devDad. She even seemed to enjoy it as you can see on the photo (bonus achievement: took a picture with the two organizers in the back as proof).
Sometimes Anton's critique of my jam games is hard to take because he does see the weak spots and does point these out (and he will always try to add more and more features). But it is an incredibly satisfying feeling if your kids share your love for creating games. And even more important it helps to build a very strong connection between father and son, which might come in handy in the teenage years to come.
Striking a balance
I have read about the troubles of people going all-in as a dev parent ('Being a indie game developer dad', 'Indie dad survival tips'), some even try and succeed as a whole family (Polygon.com: ‘Making games as a family has…’). Although I am just a hobbyist and not a full time indie developer (yet, never ever ?) it is even for me very hard to balance job/kids/relationship/fitness/friends and hobby gamedev ambitions. But making games has been an important creative outlet for me for more than 30 years now and will probably remain a part of me for the rest of my life. So I need to be able to integrate this into my life in a good way. How to do this will be an ongoing challenge and I will chew on this for quite some time. Having an understanding wife and kids who like what you do surely helps a lot and I am truly thankful for that.
I followed the discussions about the 'indie' label topic and that it has no coherent meaning anymore and I somehow agree. But there is one out of many possible definition attempts I do like and that’s the one that points in the direction of authorship, of an 'auteur' in the filmmakers sense. Game developers like Jason Rohrer (and lots of others), who is also a father btw., already use the medium on a very personal level, offering the player a very different and possibly more intimate experience in their games (e.g. Passage by Rohrer). And that's an interesting path to follow.
First Person Soother
As I started caring full-time for our youngest daughter, knowing I would do this for the next 7 months instead of sitting at my desk in our office, I suddenly realized how this would change my perspective of basicly everything. I had to change diapers instead of working on the next big important pitch, or find a quiet spot for the lunch nap of the baby instead of fantasizing about global campaigns. Other, very everyday things became suddenly much more important and changed my perception of life, offered new ways of thinking about games and their mechanics. I knew I would’t be able to come up with a thing as profound as Passage especially with my daily schedule at home and the kids. I still felt the urge to try something more personal and much more related to my everyday life for the next mini jam.
I gave it a try and the presentation of the 8 hour prototype 'My Finest Hour' can be watched here. But the game itself is not really important since it is not a very fun or deep game. What is important to me is that I started to reflect on new personal game topics such as family life or raising kids for example.
Failure IS an option?
Learning and dealing with failure are two important aspects of raising children for both the kid and the parent. When I teamed up with my friend Lorenzo Pilia, who is hosting Talk & Play and Join (a local multiplayer summit), to participate in the Global Game Jam 2014, we talked a lot more about games than we worked on the game itself. We felt like trying to aim for a game which would reveal something about us. We ended up creating some playable meta piece called ‘what if' about our failed efforts and the process of creating a game. You can even find our sms chat from the morning before the deadline where I pleaded to give up and quit. Knowing this was an experiment I was really scared to present the game to the Berlin jam crowd. But I was surpised when we found out that we won the audience voting later that day. So other people can relate to personal issues and even seem to enjoy such insights. I don't think I would have dared to do & show a project like this without having lived through these 'family years'.
Don’t call me Indie, dad.
Sometimes it is hard to listen to indie dev life according to Twitter without being able to spend as much time as others seem to do. Following young devs working day and night on the next indie hit, having to watch documentaries such as 'Indie Game: The Movie' or 'Super Game Jam', reading about best of Ludum Dare entries on your favorite blog or just participate in local game jams can sometimes be tough without feeling old, ugly and useless.
But we parents should embrace our fate and use the rollercoaster of emotions which is accompanied by parenthood to our advantage to create games only we can come up with. Games that poke the membrane of the medium a little more outwards, if we can still lift a finger once the kids have gone to bed.
As I am trying to finish these lines Nina has woken up early and is howling - she might be hungry. Damn. I won’t be able to finish this post now. Maybe I can work a little tonight but maybe not.
p.s. Maybe we should have a #devParents jam soon.
pp.s. Ben Kuchera's article on gaming as parent just made my day. Still laughing. Thank you.