About seven or eight months ago, a developer I work with at my day job named Doug approached me and asked if I’d be interested in doing some content writing for a browser-based game he’s working on. He had seen some science fiction I wrote and thought it was fine stuff, so I was like, “Hell yeah, let’s do the thing. I’ve always wanted to write for a game.”
Sound like something you’ve heard before? Here are some True Facts:
- Talk to one hundred people about video games, and you will come away with at least as many ideas for a new game.
- All of these ideas will probably suck, but that doesn’t matter—when you have an idea for a video game, you are always convinced of its excellence…
- ...especially if you consider yourself to be a writer of any caliber whatsoever.
- Creating a game bears very, very little resemblance to writing a story.
The project is ambitious—a massively multiplayer, browser-based game about building and managing civilizations that span multiple star systems. And it’s close to our hearts. We are, in a manner of speaking, trying to build a game we have always looked for but never found. Or, when we did find it, it fell far short of our expectations. We are those idealists seeking to fill a perceived, shared void through creativity and creation, and so far that is a good thing—as far as I know, it’s how Stuff gets Done.
But It’s Hard!
God damn, it’s hard! Especially when we have only one programmer, both of us have full-time day jobs (and full lives outside of that), and we are bootstrapping the project ourselves. Add in the facts that only one of us has any appreciable software development experience and neither of us have any professional AAA-title game industry experience, and you start to see that we might be acting like total fools.
But Doug is damned good. He’s been doing this—coding, like, on the real—for fifteen years. And I am a reasonably decent storyteller and have designed games before—not video games, okay, but simple card, tabletop, and board games—so I know a little something about probability and statistics and game spaces and creating systems of play.
So, as things progressed, I started writing up design documentation: a high-level, 100,000-foot view of the project; some backstory and fiction; descriptions and histories of some alien species; proposed lists of game features and mechanics and how they might work. While Doug nailed down an incredibly solid, high-performance communication framework to build this thing on (see also: Doing Actual Work), I was busy becoming (oh, gasp) a designer.
So what if:
- I’m not an artist.
- I’m not a programmer.
- I’m not a graphic designer.
- HTML and CSS are the full extent of my coding knowledge, I’m not an expert in those by any means, and this project uses neither anyway.
Right? So what? I don’t have to know all that stuff! What I don’t know, Doug knows, and we can find people who know what neither of us do. Surely we will find an artist and a graphic designer and a UI engineer all eager, willing, and jumping at the opportunity to work on our game. In their spare time. For free. And they will all be 100% reliable, dedicated, committed, and mentally stable. And all I would have to do is apply my existing skills and talents toward designing the game. Which I can totally do because I’ve been playing games my whole life.
Right? Yeah, uh, no. Not really.
I don’t feel too badly for having thought that, though—apparently a lot of aspiring video game designers go through it. The thinking is that, as long as they can communicate their brilliant ideas to developers, artists, content writers, and producers, all those people will happily go about realizing any designer’s grand and glorious vision. This is horse shit, of course, since everybody knows that developers don’t read design documents (without being forced at gunpoint, at least), producers are self-serving and only care about money, writers are all drunks, and artists are utterly unglued in the head.
Okay, these are generalizations and stereotypes and they are not true. What is true: nobody gives a shit what’s in your little notebook or on your damned wiki—unless someone on your team is illiterate, everyone is a writer, and if all you do is write stuff down, why the hell are you even here? Your only real value to anyone as a designer lies in what you can actually produce or (this one is key) how you can help someone else produce.
Additionally, there is this fallacy whereby a designer believes that simply playing games makes him an expert on building them. This is a lot like driving cars to and from work for fifteen years and getting it in your head that this somehow qualifies you to build anything more complex than a soapbox racer.
At some point—I’m not sure when, but it seems like it came on suddenly and with force—I realized that I was way, way out of my depth and had very little to bring to the table aside from love for the game I wanted to co-create. It was depressing.
“Here I am, 31 years old, a college dropout. I have been in and out of dead-end customer service, sales, and tech support jobs my entire professional life. I know I have always wanted to create games, but felt it was too hard or beyond my mental ability or just stupid and a total crap shoot at success. I now have this opportunity, but I have wasted all this time and wow, I really don’t know shit.”
Well, shit. What do you do when you realize your existing knowledge is not sufficient to reach your short-term goals? I’ll tell you: you fuckin’ learn a thing or two. Pick up a book. Look it up. And, once you have learned, use your new knowledge to do something.
What You Don’t Know, You Can Learn (No, Really)
We’re using Silverlight for this project, so I started tooling around with Expression Blend. I watched a bunch of Microsoft training videos and went through more than a few tutorials, and eventually taught myself some XAML over the course of a couple of months. I’m still no expert, but I learned to create functional UI wireframes and do some fairly complex data-binding, and I’m now familiar with a number of essential best-practices.
I read a few of Jeannie Novak’s books.
About halfway through Art of Game Design, I realized there was no way I would get by without learning some real actual programming. I looked up how to write some simple data converters, went through half of a really easy, quick online C# course (I’ll finish the other half some day I swear), and I used my new knowledge to prove some UI concepts and illustrate ideas to my partner (which is helpful, because he’s a developer, and we all know how those types feel about design docs).
(About Doug: he always seems slightly amused—but a little put off—when I show him something I coded. He’s a real programmer. I’m not. So he probably thinks I’m kind of an asshole, but if that’s true then he’s extremely gracious about it, for which I am thankful!)
This whole time, I continued to use XAML and, by proxy, continued to learn more about the language. You might say I got better. Fancy that. My existing web code knowledge really sped this up—XAML is just a markup language and not dissimilar to HTML. I have a certain very nice lady to thank for showing me the ropes there.
Finally, and more recently, I started in on art and graphic design. I went through Photoshop tutorial after tutorial, picked up a trial of Adobe Illustrator, and worked out some rough concept art and visual target type stuff for our game. It’s not amazing. I’m no Picasso. My concept art is fairly predictable, and everything I do in Illustrator is all Playskool (“Look, a triangle…that glows!”), but the point is I did it and I continue to get better. So I bought a copy of CS5 and continue to use it daily.
I’m no sort of illustrator, and there’s no getting around the fact that we will need a fine artist for character illustrations, spaceships, buildings, etc. But planets? Little pictures of suns? Background images of space dust and star fields? Buttons, arrows, and icons? Shit. I can do that.
Kinda The Point
The thing is, I didn’t know I could do any of this until:
- I had a reason to do it.
- I made the attempt.
- I learned some things—figured it out.
- I repeated the second and third items above until I got dizzy, threw up, passed out, and upon waking started over at step 1.
And, essentially, I just keep doing that. At this point, months after joining on to this crazy bus ride, I have learned quite a lot about what I want to do and how to accomplish it. I still feel a little nauseous when I think about how I squandered almost my entire 20’s not practicing any of this. But, at the end of the day, everyone has to start somewhere and I’m not dead yet. I just have a lot to learn, and a lot of hard work to do.
In a few years—which is probably how long this game is going to take to bring to closed beta—I’ll be well on my way. Or, here’s hoping, at least.
Now I finally feel comfortable calling myself a game designer. I haven’t completed a publishable game design, no. I don’t get paid to design games, no. (I’m in tech support—I don’t get paid to design any damned thing) Given these facts, my referring to myself as a video game designer might be offensive to people who actually are well-paid professionals in the field.
But I am designing a game, I am doing it in a manner which I believe is methodical and educational to myself at the very least, it is a collaboration that I feel very lucky to be such a big part of, and this process will ultimately produce something of value. I—we—are determined.
But, I must say…if you are a paid game designer and you are offended by my self-administered title, then you can go fuck yourself! I make no pretense about the quality of my work thus far or what I’m actually capable of. I’m not trying to step on anyone’s toes here or discredit what others are doing. I have read Gamasutra blogs and there are far bigger asshats than me running around out there; if you really want to strut your cred, you can always go pick on one of them.
So, anyway, that’s that. I’m a fucking game designer now. Just…not much of one yet!
Hmm. Guess that means I’ll need to make some changes to this blog.