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A Former Dishonored Dev: Why I'm Going Indie

Joe Houston, previously a core member of the Dishonored team, talks about why he decided to pitch it in and "make games for nerds".

Joe Houston, Blogger

November 16, 2012

18 Min Read

UPDATE: We have now launched a Kickstarter project with details of our first game. Check it out.

Unless you’re my mother, stumbling across this post via a series of social networking step stones, chances are strong that you don’t know who I am. I was a core member of the Dishonored team, working as a gameplay programmer, and if you’ve played the game at all you experienced some of what I worked on for over three years. But I suspect that’s not why you clicked this post. You were most likely lured by the proximity of Dishonored, a recent release of some critical import and success, to the confessions of a developer doing something drastic. Something like pitching it in and going indie, security for himself and his family be damned.

If you’re here for gossip, under the assumption that I’ve come to expose the game development underbelly of a high profile game, let me disappoint you right away: Dishonored has been one of the best, most defining, and most surreal achievements of my career. It has been formative for me. It is in that sense that Dishonored belongs in the title. Without that jumping off point I can’t imagine being what I am today, let alone making the decision I’m making now.

So I apologize for the unintentional bait and switch. There will be no airing of development dirty laundry here, mostly because it would be irrelevant. This is partly because, while I’m utterly possessed with excitement about entering independent games, I’ve also found that my philosophy peacefully coexists with the “triple A”. It should be no surprise that a multi billion dollar industry, penetrating every demographic, has plenty of breadth to support more than one approach. And yet one would judge the levels of angst and anguish amongst the true believers, and deduce that a war for the integrity of the industry is going on.

And believe me: I can relate to that level of passion. However, my own conclusions have found that the industry is going through less of a struggle for supremacy and more an exploration of self. As game developers this journey can’t help but become personal introspection as well. The pulse of what games can and will be is etched into our neurological pathways, no doubt aided by the glow of LCD light and toxic crunch-dinners.

It’s in that spirit that I’ve decided to turn my soul inside out for inspection here. Although I can relate the disparate life lessons that brought me to my decision to quit and go indie, I find it impossible to make it hold together without the connective tissue, i.e. the sticky, gooey, emotional stuff. Ultimately it is thanks to my irrational parts, things like intuition and moral integrity, that cause me to do things that don’t quite make sense. Things like quitting my job at the apex of a major success. I hope this is informative for anyone that reads it, but mostly I hope it effectively answers my friends and family, the ones that ask...

“What the hell are you doing?”

Millions, Billions, and Me

How much can one person appreciate a global tragedy?

This was the question that a sociology professor of mine asked a packed lecture hall when I was in college. It was the first jab of an hour long emotional beating, challenging what we did and didn’t know about the world and ourselves. Ultimately the lecture came down to this: determine which was worse, an event causing thousands of human deaths in one country versus another with a deathtoll in the millions.

It seems obvious now, but I remember being staggered. When comparing different events of monumental tragedy and being completely honest with myself, I could feel no emotional change from one to another. This wasn't because I didn't appreciate their weight. On the contrary, each one was so difficult, so horrible, that they were all equally beyond my ability to comprehend them.

We each have a threshold where numbers instantly become functional instead of emotional. Rather than gradually creating distance from what they represent (like a linear progression), it is instead like a levee breaking. You transcend to a new realm, the realm of cold arithmetic. In this state of mind, you deal with the problem in a new, oddly functional way.

A video game getting shipped, destined to be played by millions of people, certainly doesn’t match the import or impact of worldwide calamity. However, when Dishonored shipped I found that it operated on a similar principle: namely, that one game-creator will struggle to form an emotional response to a million fans. Despite the smaller, hard-won successes that I could appreciate, I had to ask, what does a million sold copies of Dishonored, this game I worked on so hard and for so long, really mean to me?

There are exercises you can do to try and make sense of this. For example, one million games played for only an hour each adds up to 114 years of consecutive game time. Incidentally this exercise can also be an effective internal filter when working on a triple A game. Simply take any estimate of time the player will spend in frustration and multiply it by a million. You may find your moral compass reoriented when you realize a cut-corner decision costs the human race two full years of angry, angry feelings.

Still, even with these conversion exercises, it’s far easier to define what a million people playing your game is not. For example, it’s greater than the number of people you will know in your lifetime. It’s greater than the number of people you will meet in your lifetime. It’s probably greater than the number of people you will glimpse, and forget in your lifetime. There is no relationship, aided by any number of tools of the modern Internet era, that you can personally form with one million people. One million people is arithmetic.

But why then do triple A games aspire so desperately to selling millions of copies? Obviously the answer comes back the same: arithmetic. Big budget games, punctuated so frequently with high profile failures and big, breakout hits, simply must sell millions of copies. Game development costs soar, and most technology innovation in this space requires even greater content be poured into it. It’s a bit like the quip about the government, re-quoted dryly by the voice of Leonard Nimoy in the Civilization series: “the bureaucracy is expanding to meet the needs of the expanding bureaucracy”.

But it makes as much sense to begrudge this reality as it does to scream and yell at the ocean’s tides. Within the space of big budget games the decisions made are generally the correct ones, in that they’re bound inextricably to the numbers. And they do produce an experience that is unmatched in any other game space. At this time it is the only approach capable of constructing and rendering an entire world to finely crafted detail, at least without demanding a great deal from your imagination. I do personally believe that there are ways to create experiences like this without the big budget model we have now, but they are far away at the moment, and I digress.

Despite my reconciliation of triple A games with the need for those big sales numbers, it was this realization of the “meaningless million” that started me on my path to indie games. It led me to the next in my string of questions, self-asked and self-answered. Forget about why a large system, essentially a cascade of events, makes games. If I can’t reap emotional and critical rewards from the millions, what specifically am I looking for? It was possible that I needed vast worlds and finely wrought details too, putting me in an artistically economic space that also demanded the millions. But I couldn’t really tell without first figuring out why I’m even doing this in the first place.

Why I Make Games

I started making games as part of a ramshackle mod team in high school, using pirated software and reading unbought art and programming books while sitting on the floor of Borders book shop. I wanted badly to make stuff, but mostly I wanted to impress my friends.  A great deal has changed since then, and some important bits have not.

I’m often baffled by the fact that nobody believes that I had a hard time in high school. I’ve had plenty of opportunities to adjust to this reality too, as it’s a familiar conversation now that vicious bullying has entered the public dialog. I start talking about the different issues and support networks that “outcast” kids deal with today, usually contrasting against my own experiences, and I get the same response every time: “What? You? No way.”

Whether this is expressed as a cockeyed compliment or merely as genuine surprise, it just sounds absurd to me. Not that it’s absurd that people don’t know that I was a teen “nerd” exactly. I don’t really talk about it day to day because I don’t really think about it. It’s more that their reaction doesn’t jive with my own view of my self, which is that I’m a little “odd”, or “off” depending on your point of view. Nowadays this is as mundane a personality trait to me as the color of my eyes, but it so easily extends backwards in time to my childhood. I’m not a makeover miracle or a swan or any of that nonsense. I’m just an adult version of the weirdo kid I always was.

It’s mostly an issue of context. Society becomes much more tolerant of serious difference against the norm as you grow older. However, I don’t want to be glib about what that little switch in relativity means to kids on the outside looking in. Although it’s healthy to let go of feelings of insecurity and hurt from the past (which I have), I find myself in danger of drawing away too far from those memories, no longer understanding what growing up weird really feels like. Whenever I feel that last anchoring strand straining to break, I remember how I used to feel every Sunday night in high school. I used to lull myself to sleep, quelling fears about the following school day, by repeating over and over “don’t worry, you can just kill yourself”.

Whether I was in real danger of self harm, or if it was a kind of placebo that got me through a tough time, I honestly don’t know. I do know that for it to help me sleep in either scenario I really had to believe it, and I used to sleep just fine. I work to remember this because it’s so easy to forget the invisibly intolerant and brutal world that many kids see and relive generation after generation.

This is the period when I started making games, and as I said before I did it to impress my friends. It turns out that today my motivation is still the same, in the sense that I want to make games for oddballs. I want to make games for the kind of person that would have been my friend in high school. What age you are doesn’t much matter, since time doesn’t often extract the oddity from the nerdy types. However, when I ask myself why I make games, I do go first to those geeks in gestation, those kids. Maybe it’s because teen nerds struggling against suicide is now reported by the media, keeping my pinky toe planted back in time, pivoting around that shared experience.

I’m not saying that anything I hope to make would alter the painful experience of growing up weird, just like I would never say that games saved my own life. They didn’t, and neither did books, or movies, or any one thing that I loved. In my case it was more a matter of just surviving and making it through. But those things I read, played, and experienced back then did come through the crucible with me, and for that reason the things that touched me then became more important to me than any other pastime or diversion ever will again. Maybe it’s a bit selfish, but I want to be a part of that with someone else.

When Lee VanWallene (artist for my new indie venture Roxlou Games) and I were talking about creating a logo, I wanted to somehow express the previous sentiment simply. I feel that Lee’s work did an admirable job. In fact, it probably stands as a passable substitute for this entire post.

Roxlou Games: Made for Nerds

Roxlou Games: Made for Nerds

When it was finished I asked Lee what he thought. He said, “I dig it. Maybe they’re Superman’s glasses.” I can live with that too.

But anyway, articulating this thinking, the reason I do what I do, didn’t really change anything intrinsic in me but it did expose my priorities a bit. At this point I knew two things: I wanted to make “games for nerds”, and the maximum number of fans I could appreciate was not millions but probably fifty-thousand (or something). But was my personal need here irrelevant? Could triple A games satisfy my need to connect with an odd segment of the population even if they far outstripped my ability to appreciate the results? Frankly, was going indie necessary?

What is a “Gamer”?

It’s hardly a secret that gamer culture is conflicted about accessibility. Hand holding, homogenization, and the foolproof have become lightning rods for parody and message board fury.

Quake for Modern Consoles

At the same time those of us that have observed gamers in play tests know that games aren’t out and out ruined by accessibility. Players well versed in game “vocabulary” still need careful in-game training, still get lost in pre alpha builds, and most likely don’t really miss the days when all the answers were found in the manual. No surprise: the craft of player experience didn’t peak in the early 90s. However, there is much being conflated here on both sides, meaning that both gamers and developers are sometimes missing the forest for the trees.

Gamers are often unable to separate positive improvements in their player experience with the side effects of their favorite games outgrowing them (or at least outgrowing the market segment they reside in), now targeting a much wider swath of consumers. This is given away by the names we like to associate with ourselves. The term “Gamer” once made sense, in that video games of all stripes neatly overlapped a single band of enthusiasts. It was sufficient to tell others only “I play games.” This was also the time when the game industry, such as it was, depended on courting and delivering on the dreams of these passionate followers.

However, being a “Gamer” is hardly descriptive anymore, since “I play games” can be truthfully uttered by your parents, your grandparents, and anyone with the opposable digits to operate a smartphone. “Hardcore Gamer” is a valiant attempt to reclassify, but it does so without really finding a meaningful sub culture to attach to. Hardcore Gamers still expect to play major releases, but they find them increasingly broad because of the “arithmetic” required to bring them to market (as discussed previously). Not only are there not enough Hardcore Gamers alone to sustain a triple A release, the term doesn’t carry meaning for specific genres or experiences. Try to answer for yourself, what does a Hardcore Gamer play? It’s a broad, ill-defined generalization of what is perceived a niche group to begin with.

This often puts developers in an unhealthy space with regard to Hardcore Gamers. In the best cases I’ve heard them discussed as the holy grail, the player you hope against hope will still like your game. In the worst I’ve heard them used as a pejorative for the most outspoken and critical fans, often getting ignored because they are seen as unappeasable.

Once you’ve gone over the history and the state of the industry it’s not surprising. The only trait that all “Hardcore Gamers” are guaranteed to hold in common is “passionate”. They are classified only by how strongly they identify, so it’s no wonder that they respond vehemently to being ill represented by mainstream games. And ill represented they are indeed: big budget games cannot directly target their interests because the numbers will not permit it.

I feel that I was fortunate enough to work on a project that was essentially mainstream, but also managed to be something special to the fans. I’m especially proud that Dishonored reached fans that I feel had not been listened to in some time. I may be referring to the “Hardcore”. I don’t really know, since I don’t know what that term means. But it did illustrate to me that mainstream games, crafted by those with extremely strong will, do have something to offer game players of all walks of life.

However, it feels to me a roundabout process. While a game created by those means may retain value for my target audience (the “nerds”), it does it sideways and at great expense because of the overhead required. However, my position at Arkane felt rare, as did the studio’s output. I’m both a writer and programmer, both abstractly creative and disciplined. It felt within my ability to work out an internal compromise that satisfied my artistic calling.

However, strangely I think it was my programmer’s lust for efficiency that prompted me to try something different. I’ve always reconciled the art and engineering parts of me by using “the right tools for the right job.” I could spend years writing an algorithm to look for synaptic jumps between words and concepts, eventually dumping out digital poems. But why? Better yet to take advantage of that different axis, the intuitive expression of art, and jot a sonnet out in twenty minutes.

And digital distribution, a collaborative and supportive indie community, and an educated and savvy target audience all seem tailored to making games for nerds. Since I’d already determined that my own particular form of brain damage required that end goal, the choice wasn’t only obvious. It was unavoidable.

Quit your awesome job and go indie. Somehow for me it was the only logical conclusion.

Do What you Want to be

At Arkane every new hire at the Austin office is assigned an animal by his or her coworkers, one that sums them up as unflatteringly as possible. Mine was the platypus, which seems about right. As a mishmash of evolutionary mixups, I probably do little that makes sense to others. Splitting open my head and letting the words spill out here may or may not have been edifying, but I hope it at least conveys the great fondness and fierceness I have for games and especially the people that play them. It is what my life is about from sunup to well after the sun goes down.

I also hope that my optimism comes through, because even on my bad days I’m ridiculously excited about where the industry is and where it is going. There is no doubt that we’re in a place of transition and fragmentation, but it’s far too easy to identify those facts and convert it to hand wringing. On the contrary, we’re seeing the rise of small to mid range studios again, and these smaller ventures are reacquiring niche groups long abandoned. To me the future is bright, and I want to be a part of this new frontier.

I’d like to conclude with a final lesson I learned from Arkane, simply by observing their public record from long before I got there. Arkane’s road to Dishonored has been a long one in some ways, but as a company their releases show a firm internal compass. From Arx Fatalis, to Dark Messiah of Might and Magic, to contract work on Bioshock II and others, Arkane has maintained its core value: creating first person, immersive experiences. Presumably they did this even when times were lean. I contrast this example to other studios I watched that took more “sensible” paths. Working on license and scattered “work for hire” projects, some even achieved great stability and success, but always with the assumption they would return to what they identified as their core value. In most cases even these successful companies found that what they built was not the kind of place that could or would pursue what was now a distant dream.

I choose to interpret these examples not as mere cautionary tales, but as an uplifting revelation. The hidden fact is that merely by going out and trying to be something, you are already there. You may be at the start of that road, and you may be stumbling the whole way, but by making the attempt you are in the spectrum. To me, typing this out in my home office located in a bathroom closet, this is good news.

I’m glad to be on my way.

Joe Houston is a game developer and writer, and is the founder of the independent game company Roxlou Games. Follow the progress of Roxlou Games here. Read more of Joe’s ill advised brain dumps on his personal blog, State of Houston.

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