Video games are emotionally exhausting. I’m not talking about playing them. I mean MAKING them. A console game can take years to make, and even more years off your life. The highs and lows are frequent and extreme: The thrill and promise of pre production! The tears and anguish of crashing builds! The joy of free finalling cookies! The frustration of not being able to fit into your pants at the end of finalling! If you don’t keep your wits about you, by the end of the project you could be reduced to a blubbering mess, huddled in the corner of your bedroom with a bottle of cheap whiskey, obsessively turning the light on and off (or maybe that’s Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction.)
But it doesn’t have to get to you! Over time I’ve noticed that there are some recurring patterns in game development. I’m here to point out some of the more common emotional pitfalls and keep you on an even keel.
EMOTIONAL PITFALL: I’m finally going to make the game I’ve wanted to make since I was 12!
EMOTIONS EXPERIENCED: Joy,
Why is “Joy” an emotional pitfall? Because I hate to see other people happy? Not at all!
There’s nothing wrong with a little happiness. Your inner child is probably thrilled that you’ve been allowed to design the game you’ve been dreaming of your entire life. I just don’t like seeing you get your hopes up, only to have them crushed under the crushing weight of chubby, crushy reality. You and the few others lucky enough to work on the concept will soon be joined by a horde of designers, programmers, artists, and project managers. And...I feel like I’m missing someone...Oh yeah. Audio guys. They’ll all come with their own opinions, knowledge, and concerns. They’ll join you to make a game that probably won’t look exactly like the game of your dreams. It might actually be better. Just don’t get too attached to that early concept, or all that joy will turn into bitterness, and you’ll be “that guy” wandering around the office in his socks, crushing a Mountain Dew can in your hand, muttering about how great the game COULD have been.
Look. I know I sound cynical. But honestly, I’m not. The dreamy, optimistic, even unrealistic phase of a game’s development is critical. We should always aim too high, because at some point, schedules, technology and competing ideas - ones that aren’t YOURS, basically - will inevitably alter that dream game of yours. And if that dream isn’t big enough to handle it, there won’t be enough of the original cool idea left at the end. The most important thing to hang on to throughout development is a vision. At some point in the concept development, you’ve hopefully captured a description of what the promise of the game is. You’ll need to be able to remember that feeling that got everyone excited about the game in the first place.
EMOTIONAL PITFALL: “Why won’t the stupid thing just DO THE THING ALREADY??”
Frustration, exasperation, vexation, irritation:
I refer to Pre-Pro (that’s what we call it in the biz, baby) as the “Banging Rocks Together” phase. Partly because you’re just trying to get a little spark to happen so you can turn it into a fire, yes. That’s a pretty metaphor. But mainly because at this stage, NONE of your tech does what you want it to, and you feel like a caveman inventing fire, just trying to get your character to climb a freaking LADDER ALREADY.
This period also marks the first time someone looks over your shoulder at your initial attempts, and harshes your buzz by asking “Yeah, but what’s the game going to be ABOUT?” In pre-pro you’re trying to answer all of the unknowns, and still stay focused on the vision for the game. You want to figure out all the tech you’ll need for the cool ideas you dreamed up during concept development, which means your tiny team will be faced with identifying and making that tech. All of a sudden “banging rocks together” doesn’t sound like a metaphor, does it?
The most frustrating phase of pre-pro will be “Vertical Slice”. It even SOUNDS scary. That’s when you take a tiny bit of ALL of the features you’ll be making during development, and put them into one small experience so that your boss’ don’t have to use their imagination I MEAN, so you prove you can do it. “But wait!” you plead, “If this is supposed to be include all of the features of the final experience, doesn’t that mean I have to have all of those experiences built at an insanely early date just to show all of that?” Haha. Shhh. We have our own foosball table, have you seen it?
Just as in the concept development phase, the important thing is to not get too attached to an idea. You can burn through pro-pro chasing Big Ideas (Create-a-dinosaur-car, Create-a-Car-For-Dinosaurs, Truckasaurus, whatever) down the rabbit hole, and forget about covering the basics that you’ll need for production.
EMOTIONAL PITFALL: “What were we making, again?”
EMOTIONS EXPERIENCED: All of them.
There isn’t just ONE emotional pitfall in this stage, there are daily ones. There’s the excitement of seeing the first playable level in game. The pride that comes when you show that cool mission off to the rest of the team at Beer O'clock Fridays. The disappointment felt when a programmer tells you that you’ve blown the memory budget with your fancy-pants models. THE RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE (when the build repeatedly crashes for no apparent reason)! Games are basically just cool ideas you spend 1 day coming up with, and 3 years making. It’s a marathon where you’re chained to the other runners. So just remember: Make sure you’re all running in the same direction. Work hard, and be nice to each other. You’re going to want to make sure you all can work together well, because at the end of that marathon is a sprint.
EMOTIONAL PITFALL: HAHAHAHAYYEAAERRHHGGHGGHHHHBLLPPGGGHHT!!
EMOTIONS EXPERIENCED: Blind rage, Tears of joy.
As a man, it would be highly presumptuous of me to even suggest that the experience of finaling a game is anything like that of childbirth. So let me just say, finaling a game is exactly like having a baby. There are tears. Pain. Maybe even a little poop. But in the end, you’ll see this beautiful creation, all covered in slime, and you’ll know it was worth it.
There will be longer hours, more stress, frayed nerves. Such is life in production. The little things that might have annoyed you about your coworkers are suddenly enough to make you freak out.
There will be a lot that’s out of your control. All you can do is give it an honest effort, and try not to lose your sh*t on your coworkers. And remember the words of perhaps the greatest game developer of all time, Rudyard Kipling:
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs, and blaming it on you,
Yours is the Earth and everything in it,
And - if you’re lucky, a percentage of the profits on the backend.