Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Persona 5, Cartoon Cats, Depthless Evil, and Dating Your Teacher.

Strap in. This might get a tiny bit weird.
I write long RPGs for a living. Yet, I am the most jaded RPG gamer in the world. I tend to hate playing them. Yet, I force myself to play a long RPGs, because if you become totally divorced from playing the sort of game you write, you are lost.

That is why I recently spent 92 (92!!!) hours completing Persona V, Altus's cool, quirky, cult-hit JRPG. I didn't play it. I sunk into it, like a warm bath. For 1-2 hours a night, for months, I led my band of oddball Japanese high school students through their routine of going to school, dating, capturing demons, crushing evil, and being the best darn flower salesmen and part-time curry cooks they could possibly be.

It's really weird. When I look back on the obscene amount of time I spent on this game, I remember so many flaws. Storylines that were dull and uninspired. Repetitive dungeons and combats. A flawed translation. A lot of padding. A lot of content that was genuinely disturbing.

Yet, let's be clear, this game took over my brain. It’s the best example I've seen in this medium of a work that is much stronger than the sum of its parts. If you love this genre, it’s really worth playing, at least through the end of the first chapter.

So please allow me to go on about it for a while, as I process the experience and try to figure out why it works. Because it kind of shouldn't.

I freely admit that I can be very juvenile in my video game selection standards.
So What Is This Thing About?

Persona 5 is part of the (deep breath, bear with me here) Shin Megami Tensei media franchise, a sprawling web of books, anime, video games, etc. that have been very popular in Japan for 30 years or so. The last video game in this world to gain traction on my continent was the cool and utterly bananas 2011 puzzle dating game Catherine, which I still believe does not actually exist as it was merely a fever dream I alone experienced.

I want to try to explain what Persona 5 is about in a way that will probably agitate Megami Tensei fans to no end but will actually have a chance of getting civilians to comprehend it.

So you play a teenager in high school. You spend your days deciding what to do. You can study, or work at odd jobs, or go on dates, or hang with friends, or go see movies with your intelligent talking cat.

But you are also a, I don't know, a soul wizard. You are able to travel with your friends to the "Metaverse," which is where everyone's souls hang out. There, you can summon demons called Persona and fight the souls of bad people. If you can beat up their souls enough, you can change them and make them be less evil (or just kill them).

However, these enemies are also able to summon their own Persona demons. But then you can capture and use them yourself, in a process that plays out like Pokemon on shrooms.

So it's a JRPG, combined with an anime dating sim, with heavy Pokmemon elements. I am now stepping out of the way of those of you stampeding toward the exit.

What really sucked me in to this game was the first chapter, where you do battle with that most sinister of foes, your school's volleyball coach.

Just don't forget who, in the end, your real enemy is.
The First Storyline

The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt was, by video game standards, fantastically written. This means that most of the writing was simply fine, but it has one storyline (the infamous "Bloody Baron") that was genuinely good. In game writing, one good story can go a long way.

In Persona 5, when you learn how to summon demons and punch the souls of your enemies, your first foe is the evil volleyball coach Kamoshida. As a famed Olympic athlete, when he retired from competition, your school eagerly snapped him up as a teacher. And then proceeded to look the other way as he repeatedly assaulted his students, the boys physically and the girls sexually. He's famous, so nobody does anything about it.

You discover that he drove one of his students to attempt suicide. You confront him. He then swears to use his position to get you expelled. Thus begins a race, with him trying to destroy you in the real life while you try to wear down his spirit and change his personality in the Metaverse. If you lose the race, the game ends. Badly.

Let's be clear. Persona 5 is a really dark game. Horrible things happen. Some of the enemies are truly evil. Not evil in an abstract Sauron/burning eye/save the world whatever way, but in a skin-crawly "Yes, this actually happens. All the time." way.

Kamoshida is one of the most loathsome characters I've ever seen in a video game. He is so horrifying because he is so believable. It happens in the real world to the point of being mundane. A game like Tyranny can play with evil all it wants, but it's in a world full of magic and elves and cat people, so who cares?

In Persona 5, the bad guy is, and let's not mince words here, a serial rapist. In a seemingly light dating sim RPG. This is what led me to write this blog post. Video games only rarely tackle this sort of extremely difficult material. So when they do try it's worth figuring out if it worked. If so, how?

Persona 5's graphic and interface design is relentlessly cool.
Video Games Have No Limits, But They Have Limits

Here is the quandary: Video games are art, and therefore no element of the human experience, no matter how horrible, is off limits. Yet, video games are mostly adolescent power fantasies, so some topics seem too serious for them to address. Much of human experience, therefore, must be walled off in weenie little indie art pieces that nobody plays.

Now look at Persona 5. It is full of horrifying abuse. And wacky JRPG battles and hijinx. With a rapist gym teacher. And a cartoon cat.

Persona 5 is a financial and critical hit. I have read criticism that there are flaws in the ways it addresses the issues it does, but I have not seen anyone, male or female, seriously say that the game is disrespectful or should not exist. If they did, I would not agree with them.

This is a game full of horrors. It shouldn't work. People should recoil from it. But people don't recoil, and it does work. This is a good spot for some meaty game criticism. How do they pull off this magic trick?

To show how it can work, I'll point out one tiny, vital part of the game: how these traumatized kids get their magical powers.

How Can a Game Have Such Horrible Things and Silly Things Next To Each Other and Not Be a Mess

You might be thinking, "How can an RPG contain material like that and still be bearable and not super-gross and offensive?" Part of it is that, when dealing with sexual assault (and it comes up a lot), Persona 5 never jokes. It treats the topic seriously.

More importantly, they use a bit of a narrative trick, which I want to highlight because I think it works extremely well.

OK, so you play a band of teenagers who gain the ability to summon demons to attack the souls of evil people. Fine. How does this happen?

It's not like Harry Potter. A fat guy with a beard doesn't show up and say "You're a wizard!" and you go off to boarding school.

Here's how it works. You have to be betrayed. Someone has to be truly cruel to you, completely take advantage of your trust and weakness (and you've been weak and trusting in a way only a child can be). And then you have to realize it. You have to enter the Soul World to fully comprehend the magnitude of what has been done to you, and you have to completely lose yourself to rage. When this happens, a mask will appear on your face, the visible form of your still belonging to and believing in society. And you have to rip it off. It's AGONIZING. There is blood. And when it's finally off, you're free.

Here is what it looks like. (The one at 9:17 is pretty good.)

It's intense and bizarre and glorious and totally silly and utterly sincere, in a way that the Japanese do really, really well. It’s full of crazy animations and cartoon cats, but it's SERIOUS. I think it's the secret to what makes the game work.

He never saw it coming.
I Love Tonal Inconsistency

Now I know I am doing a super-crappy job of selling this game. I mean, I promised you a totally bananas adventure where you travel through surreal magic lands summoning demons, and then you return to the real world to be a seventeen year old tending bar before going on a date with your high school teacher.

This is a game with a really inconsistent tone. It can switch from weird and silly to dark and heavy in a moment.

I love that. I think tonal inconsistency is one of the necessary traits of a really good story.

It's not just that, if you never allow your tone to vary, your work is monotonous and grueling. It's that, if you want your work to in any way mirror life (and Persona 5, above everything else, wants to be a life simulator), well, life itself has an inconsistent tone.

Persona 5 is about damaged people trying to recover and build happy lives for themselves. It's about having been exploited and having your trust betrayed, and healing and rising above it and building a life. So when the characters recover from the latest outrage by going out for fried octopus balls, it's not a flaw but the whole point.

Window Into a Foreign Land

Persona 5 is a work of Japanese cultural and societal criticism, focusing on the ways in which old people exploit young people (and young women and girls especially). It can get really rough.

So if this doesn't sound like a place where you want to spend 90 hours of leisure time, I'd certainly understand.

I valued it greatly, though, as a window into another culture. This game is thoroughly and unapologetically Japanese, with Japanese characters commenting on Japanese society, in a very, very cynical way.

Politics in the U.S. in the last year has been a bit, shall we say, unsettling. As a big politics and civics nerd, I really liked stepping out of it for a time to be reminded that other societies have arguments and their own problems. They are the main characters in their own stories.

I love works of art that give a view into foreign mindsets and problems, like how The Witcher comes from a very Eastern European point of view.

Of course, selecting any character as "Best Girl" is offensive and problematic on so many levels, and I apologize for any inference that I ever engage with a sincere work of Interactive Art in such a childish way. Video games, as a true art form, deserve better, and so does humanity.
"Enough of This Serious Nonsense. Get to the Important Part."


"Who is Best Girl?"

Makoto. #shotsfired

As for good optional storylines/people to date, a lot of the side storylines are kind of bland. It's kind of a problem, alas. I found the most interesting characters to be Kawakami (teacher) and Tae Takemi (doctor). There's a lot of room for disagreement here. Feel free to point out other good bits of writing in the comments. (Also, be sure to never miss a chance to be mean to Mishima.)

Oh, and as one more aside, I have never liked music in video games. This is the first game I’ve ever played where I really, really liked the music. I still love the main battle theme after hearing bits of it 10000 times.

The Fun of Transgression

One of the coolest things about video games is that they give you the freedom to misbehave. This is one of the unique things about vidya as a storytelling medium. It's one thing to read about someone misbehaving, and another thing entirely to control someone being bad. Even if we know it's not real, when you choose for your avatar to do something crazy or bad, for a moment, it FEELS real.

You play a highly rebellious high school student, and Persona 5 lets you be transgressive in a way a western game could never allow. You can be responsible and do homework and get a job, sure. Or you can get a job as a bartender, or hang out with your alcoholic reporter friend, or, yes, date one of your teachers. (In a storyline that ends up being weirdly sad and touching and is one of the better bits of writing.)

This is just a first bid in picking apart Persona 5.

Be warned. While Persona 5 will allow you to two-time (or 9-time) your girlfriend, there may be consequences.
There's Plenty of Flaws

It's a 90+ hour game, how can it not? It's about 10 hours too long. There's a lot of bland writing and weird translations (in English). The writers had kind of a weird obsession with modeling. The combination of utter weirdness and total sincerity really requires some getting used to. The depictions of gay people are pretty offensive. The character of Akechi (Boy Detective!!!) seems to have been parachuted in from a different, worse game.

But if you care about the art form and the genre, this game is INTERESTING. It swings for the fences. Its reach exceeds its grasp. I haven't even begun to sort out all of the fascinating choices and ideas in this crazy, overstuffed game.

If nothing else, the next time I hear someone gassing on about how, "Video games can't do this," or "Video games can't cover that topic," I can now just say, "Persona 5, fam," and walk off to a more interesting conversation. Persona 5 got me thinking about all the things we can still explore in this young, weird medium, and I'm grateful for that.


Our very non-JRPG games are always available here, and I am on Twitter.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Games Have Too Many Words: A Case Study.

In this chapter, I unwisely critique the work of my betters.

I recently wrote an article about how video games have too many words. We designers don't properly edit our writing to make sure our words are worth a player’s time reading them.

I want to do a case study where I go through a wordy game, step-by-step, and show what it's doing right and wrong and how it could be doing better. Most game criticism frustrates me. It tends to deal with generalities and floaty ideas, instead of dirtying its hands with specifics that could actually help make for better games. This is my chance to egotistically provide a different approach.

This breakdown will be long and gritty, but I'll try to include a lot of solid pointers. I'll throw in some jokes along the way.

The Subject

Let's look at the very beginning of Pillars of Eternity, developed by Obsidian and released in 2015. This game was a huge hit, critically and financially, taking advantage of a shortage of quality Baldur's Gate-style, gritty, isometric-view, story-heavy titles.

I really wanted a game like that, so I bought it. I finished it in a little over 20 hours. The combat was fine, though really chaotic and hard to follow. (The best description I read was "clusterf***y".) The story was OK, but the game is loaded with words, many of them written by Kickstarter backers. I ended up getting through all the conversations in the back third of the game by typing the '1' key as fast as I could.

I did play Pillars until the end, which is rare for me. Overall, it was pretty good. It made a lot of money, and the crowdfunding for the sequel is doing quite well.

I don't usually like being negative about the work of other sincere, industrious creators. Luckily this game got enough cash and acclaim that its creators can comfortably ignore the nattering of a non-entity like me.

This is how I picture the devs of Pillars of Eternity. They walk everywhere with big clip art watermarks floating over their chests.

"So What's Your Complaint?"

Too many words.

Pillars of Eternity wants to have a really elaborate world and story, which is fine. It wants to have a creative game system, with new, innovative sorts of character classes and spells, which is great.

However, it doesn't do a good job of communicating stuff to the player, because there's no editing and care in giving out information. The game just floods the player with text, important bits buried in gushes of irrelevant detail, practically training the player to think that the words aren't really important. (Again, I played a huge chunk of the game without reading anything but the quest log.)

To illustrate this, I'm going to go, step by step, through the introduction and character creation, the stuff anyone who tries the game is sure to see. Let's see what the game thinks is worth the player's time and how good a job it does splitting up vital knowledge from static.

"So What? You're Just Scared of Words, You Sub-Literate?"

No, I have a problem with the pacing. The human brain can only absorb so many random facts about game systems and lore at one sitting. This stuff needs to be carefully paced out, or it'll just slide off of the brain.

But character creation in this game floods the player with tons of facts, both about the game and the world. I came out of it feeling numb and confused, and almost none of it stuck.

So. You start the game. You pick your difficulty. And then you begin the eleven (!!!) steps of character creation.

I. Introduction.

A pretty graphic and some basic text saying what is going on (you're on a caravan going to some fantasy town, you feel sick), read by an old guy. About 140 words. It's fine.

II. Pick Your Sex

And now the troubles begin. You need to choose whether you are male or female. Here's a description:

Describing the sexes is about 160 words total. But look, it mentions a bunch of different countries. Let's mouse over one of them and see what their deal is.

Yikes! That's a lot of words. All the descriptions together are about 330 words, much of it references to random game locations the player has no knowledge of. "Ein Glanfath" "Dyrwood" "Glanfathan" "Ixamitl" "Naasitaq" How can anyone get anything coherent from this tangle? This is literally the second thing the game shows you.

Seriously, try this: Read the description of "Eir Glanfath" above. Then close your eyes and count to ten. Then say everything you recall about Eir Glanfath. I'll bet you retained very little. And that's setting aside whether this stuff is actually necessary to play the game. (Not really.)

And, worse, it's all irrelevant to the actual choice the player has to make, because the vast majority of players will know whether they want to play a man or a woman before they even launch the game. If a woman only ever plays female characters, telling her, "The men of the Derpaderp Tribe of Sirius XII are in charge of all of their basket-weaving!" isn't going to turn her head around.

My Friendly Suggestion - Go through all these random facts and see if there are one or two of them the player MUST know. Pluck them out and put them in the Introduction. Cram the rest of the lore in books the player finds in the game world. Then make Male/Female be a toggle in the next screen.

III. Pick Your Race

OK, we're into solid fantasy RPG territory now. Here are six races to choose from:

You've never heard of three of the races. This is good. Pillars's desire to create new, weird things is one of its good points. Each race has about fifty words of description:

Now, this is a description of a "dwarf." But, if you have even the slightest familiarity with fantasy, you know what we're talking about here: Standard-issue, Tolkein dwarves. Short. Stocky. Like digging holes, gold, and ale. Grumpy. Scottish accents. We get it. All you need to say here is, "Strong, durable, great warriors."

For each of the races, the description mainly says the lands they live in. Let's be clear. This is useless information. If I tell you dwarves come from New Jersey, whether or not you've heard of New Jersey, this tells you nothing about whether you want to be a dwarf in your adolescent power fantasy.

It's a total cliche to say, "Show, Don't Tell," but this is a PERFECT example of why this is a key concept in writing. If I say, "Dwarves come from New Jersey," and you've never even heard of New Jersey (or dwarves), you won't care. But if you go to New Jersey, look around, and see nothing but dwarves, you'll instantly be all, "Oh, I get it! I'm in Dwarfland!"

But it gets trickier. This is the first choice you make that has actual impact on the gameplay. There are six statistics in the game, and your race affects what you start with. Each statistic description is 50 more words. Let's take a look at one:

What "Might" means is important information. The player needs this. This text needs to be punchy and clear. Something like, "Improves damage from all attacks. Gives a bonus when healing. Helps intimidate people in conversation."

And this description does that, but messily and with lots of extra words. Pillars tries to do a lot of things differently from other RPGs, so it needs to be extra-clear about the surprising stuff. Having the strength skill also improve spells and healing is neat, but it's also really unusual. ("Dwarves are better wizards? Wut!?")

My Friendly Suggestion - Editing pass. Shorter and clearer. Ask, "Why does the player need to know this?" If you don't have a good answer, save this lore for much later.

IV. Pick your Sub-Race

This is where the seriously over-designed quality of Pillars starts to show up. Picking a race isn't enough. You have to pick your sub-race:

So about 160 words (not counting rollover text), to learn about the woods dwarves and the mountain dwarves:

None of this lore has anything to do with the actual game.

What bugs me here is that this choice has gameplay significance. One choice gives you resistance to Poison & Disease (though you have no idea how serious these conditions are or how often they appear in the game), and one gives you a bonus against "Wilder" and "Primordial" creatures (though you have no idea what on Earth those are, let alone how often they show up in the game).

Giving a player seemingly high-impact decisions with no ability to tell which one is correct is stressful and confusing.

My Friendly Suggestion - Ditch sub-races. Instead, give Dwarves BOTH of these bonuses. This creates more distinction between the races and getting multiple bonuses helps the player feel more powerful instead of confused and stressed.

"Cutting Out Lore? What Is Your Problem With Lore In Games, You Jerk?"

Lore in games is great, as long is it's not thrown at the player too quickly and without any gameplay context that makes it mean something. Anyway, let's keep going. There's a LOT more screens to go.

V. Pick Your Class

Hokay! At last, this is the big one! This makes a huge difference in your play experience. Here are your eleven choices:

One of the coolest things about Pillars is that they tried to make some weird classes unlike anything in other games. The cost of creativity, however, is that you have to be extra-careful when explaining to the player the weird stuff they've never seen before.

When I started the game, my eyes were instantly drawn to "Cipher". That sounds neat! And here is the description ...


The main description of the class is four long sentences, but only the second sentence actually says much about what the class does. Then a very vague description of the powers, which involve something vitally important called a "Soul Whip," with no explanation of what that actually is. Then a bunch of algebra.

That's about 120 words, for one class. You have to go through all of it to get a vague idea of how the class plays. The other ten class descriptions are comparably complex.

This is just too much stuff to muck through, too early, for a choice so important to the play experience. Bear in mind that we are still less than halfway to actually playing a game.

My Friendly Suggestion - For each class, only show the stat bonuses and two or three carefully written sentences describing what it's like. Move all the weird lore and mathematical formulae to a different tab that can be opened by those who care. When the player starts using the class in the game, bring up some tutorial windows saying the key details of how to actually use it, like what a "Soul Whip" is.

VI. Pick Your Class Details.

If you're a priest, you have to pick your god. If you're a caster, you have to select a spell or two from the starting list. For the Cipher, the list looks like this ...

The spell descriptions look like this ...

Again, a ton of reading, referring to statistics, distances, statuses, damage amounts, damage types, etc. that mean nothing because you've never actually played the game.

My Friendly Suggestion - Lose this screen entirely. Pick one basic, useful ability (the best one) and give it to the character automatically to get through the tutorial. Then, after the first bunch of fights, have the player meet a trainer and be able to choose new abilities in an informed way.

VII. Edit Your Character Attributes.

Figure out how many points of Strength, Constitution, etc. you have. The game, to its credit, says which ones are most important for your class. Standard RPG fare.

VIII. Pick Your Culture


Yeah, I know you aren't reading all of this. This post is wayyyyy too long and gritty and nit-picky and tedious. But reading this article takes much less time than actually picking through all of these windows in the game. Which is too long. That is my main point. Now scroll to the end and call me an idiot in comments.

Anyway, yeah, pick some country you're from ...

Each of the 7 contures has about 70 words of description.

None of this has anything to do with playing the game.

This is the most unnecessary step in the whole process. When making an RPG character, you need to build two things: Its stats/abilities and its personality.

Knowing your character is from "The White that Wends" tells you nothing about its abilities, and it's a lousy way to determine his or her personality. If you read the description of "The White that Wends," and learn that people from there are mean and selfish, that's still not the way you want to player to create a mean, selfish character. You do that by giving play options in the game that are mean and selfish and letting the player pick them. Show, don't tell.

My Friendly Suggestion - Lose it entirely.

IX. Pick Your Background.

Choose from one of nine backgrounds.

The main thing this affects is that, every once in a while, it will open up a new dialogue option. This never makes a big difference.

My Friendly Suggestion - There's a real lost opportunity here. Once again, "Show, Don't Tell." Instead of having me declare that my character is a Slave or Aristocrat or whatever, why not, once you’re in the game, make every conversation option for all of these different nine backgrounds available to me when the game starts.

Then, if I keep making the "Aristocrat" pick, start removing the other options, so that I end up always talking like an Aristocrat. Then my character's personality emerges organically from the sort of dialogue choices I make in the actual game.

X. Choose Appearance and Voice.

Standard appearance editor and list of different voices. It's fine.

XI. Choose Your Name.


X. The Game.

And, finally, the games starts with the tutorial. Which begins with a long conversation. Which I barely pay attention to, because my stupid brain is tired.

It's all way too much. Too many words, too many irrelevant choices, exhausting when it should be informative. Not that they will listen to me, but it might be an improvement to look for in Pillars of Eternity 2, because the market is not what it was in 2015.

"But Who Cares? The Game Was a Hit, Right?"

The real test of how good a game it is, is not how it sells, but how much its sequel sells. And it is entirely fair to ask what business a pissant like me has criticizing a hit game written by a bunch of big names.

Let's leave behind the idea of craftsmanship and a desire to always keep improving our work.

Lately, sequels to hit RPGs have been selling far worse than their predecessors. Obsidian's successor to Pillars, Tyranny, by their own words, underperformed.

Also, I looked at the Steam achievement statistics for Pillars of Eternity. According to those, fewer than half of players finished the first chapter. Only about 10% of players completed the game.

Now granted, this is not unusual. Most games remain unfinished. But that still invites this question: If the vast majority of players didn't want to experience the Pillars of Eternity they already paid for, why think that they will want to buy more?

Everyone should keep improving, if just for their survival in this mercilessly competitive business.

Video games are a new art form, and there is still so much we have to figure out. That's the terrifying and awesome thing about making them. And now, having already written way too many words, I will take my own advice and cease.

Edit (6/19) - For fairness, I want to point out that Josh Sawyer of Obsidian did write a rebuttal to this piece.

It is an extremely dignified and thoughtful response, and it makes me really interested in seeing how Pillars of Eternity 2 turns out. (And, of course, I wish them every bit of good fortune.)

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Does Your Video Game Have Too Many Words? (Yeah, Probably.)

TLDR.jpg (Also note: This gigantic lore-lump is just for choosing your character's sex.)
"Too long. Lose half."
"Which half?"
"The half that you don't need."
- Their Finest
My whole career has been based on writing very story-heavy games, with lots of words. Our company, Spiderweb Software, is small. We can't afford fancy graphics, so we have to rely on words. Interesting, quality words.

We're currently remastering the series with our most loved story and our bestest words. We also finished a new series, which had a lot of words which I suspect weren't as good because it didn't sell as well. Now we're planning a whole new series, and we need to figure out how many and what sort of words to cram into that.

We have a lot of decisions to make, so I've been thinking a lot about words in games. I have made a number of observations.

For Reference

A decently sized novel contains about 100,000 words. The Bible contains about a million words.

My wordiest and most popular game, Avernum 3, which I am now remastering, had about 200,000 words. At its release, people talked about how very, very, many words it had. Yet, by current standards, it is very terse.

In comparison, one of the best-written RPGs in recent times, The Witcher 3, had about 450,000 words. For The Witcher 3, "best-written" means "One really good storyline and many, many other storylines that were basically OK." (To be fair, I think the Heart of Stone DLC was really well-written.)

The word bloat continues. While Divinity: Original Sin had a mere 350,000 words, Tyranny spent 600,000 words telling the story of how you became the word's most evil middle manager, on a bold quest to try to tell apart the game's 73 factions.

And this is positively tongue-tied next to Torment: Tides of Numenara's 1,200,000 words. I admit I am curious about what story is so gigantic and epic that it requires 3 times more words than The Lord of the Rings. I will never find out, as there is nothing that will tempt me to play a game with 1.2 Bibles worth of text.

This is me playing your RPG lol.

Vogel's Laws of Video Game Storytelling

1. Players will forgive your game for having a good story, as long as you allow them to ignore it.

2. When people say a video game has a "good story," what they mean is that it has a story.

3. The story of almost all video games is, "See that guy over there? That guy is bad. Kill that guy." This almost never leads to a good story.

For reference, this is how to get me to read the text in your RPG.

Observations About Words In Video Games

1. For a while, there was a big demand for games like Baldur's Gate and Planescape: Torment. That is, old-school icon-based RPGs with big stories, told in lots and lots of words. Early hits, like Divinity: Original Sin and Pillars of Eternity made a lot of money off this demand. Sales of later games in this style, like Tyranny and Torment: Tides of Numenara suggest that this pent up demand has largely been satisfied.

2. It's really easy to make words. Really, really, really easy. Any writer with half a grain of skill can spew out 500,000 like it is nothing. And if that writer's fingers get tired, an intern with aspirations of authorhood will chip in 100,000 more. And when that intern passes out, you can let your Kickstarter backers add words to your game and they’ll pay you for the privilege.

3. No, really, think about that last point. People will pay you to be able to write for your game! Adding words to your game has negative cost! Think about this the next time someone tries to use a giant word count to sell you a game.

4. The secret of great writing is not adding words. It's cutting them. You can almost always improve your writing by slashing chunks out of it and refining the rest. However, as game development is done with limited budgets and limited time, this editing process almost never takes place.

5. When a writer gets famous, they stop being edited. This is why the fifth Harry Potter book is 900 pages in which only like two things happen. This is also why, when a game in 2017 is written by a Big Name and has a script with one bajillion words, most of those words are going to be pretty boring.

6. There are well-written games. Fallout: New Vegas and Witcher 3 are solid. I remember Baldur's Gate II and Planescape: Torment were all right, but I played those 20 years ago, and there may be a lot of nostalgia in play there. (For me and almost everyone else.) Planescape was cool, but I definitely remember blasting past a lot of text just to get through it.

7. Sturgeon's Law is in play here: "90% of everything is crap." For every Planescape: Torment, where they had a cool setting and story idea and really put the time in to write good text and have it interface with the gameplay well, there have been nine other games where they just threw up a bunch of Tolkein-light Kill-that-Bad-Guy stuff and hoped it stuck. It didn't.

8. Having lots of lore in your game is OK. Some players really love lore. But then, a lot of players really don't. I think it's best if you try to keep your lore separated a bit from the significant game text, like Skyrim putting the stuff in books you could easily ignore. World of Warcraft quest windows did this perfectly. All of the lore was in one lump ("You mean dwarves like to dig mines? WOAH!"), and the actual text of the quest ("Kill 10 goblin toddlers.") was broken out of it so you could digest it quickly.

9. Humor is very hard to write well. It is also one of the most enjoyable things to read. If you can make your game genuinely funny, people will love it forever. (The actual gameplay of Psychonauts was only B-, but people LOVE that game because of how funny it is.)

10. The ultimate goal of writing in a game: Have it be good enough that getting past the gameplay to reach the writing is your goal. Your writing should be the REWARD. If your writing is something the player has to slog through to get to the game play, there is too much writing.


Physician, Heal Thyself

Every game I've ever written has had a lot of words. Some of those games, my fans really loved the words. Some of them, not so much.

My goal for my next series is to use fewer words, but to make them as light and interesting and funny as I can. I want words to be the reward, the thing that pulls people through the story. I am dreading this, because, again, writing something good and short is way more work than writing something dull and long.

In the meantime, I am remastering my old Avernum 3, with its pokey little 200,000 words. This means giving those words an editing pass. A lot of my time is spent chopping out extraneous words and revamping what is left to make it smoother, easier to read, and, whenever possible, funnier. If the new version has more words than the old version, I've done something wrong.

For a long time, I sold games with a lot of words. Now there is a lot more competition in that space, and words are super-cheap. I need to try to sell good words. Even if I never make a nicedank meme, in this crowded market, you need to get every little advantage you can.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Writing Indie Games Is Like Being a Musician. In the Bad Way.

"Our game is called Mystik Spiral. It is an indie interactive aggression about the evils of conformist corporate culture. Coming on Steam for Windows and Mac and as an XBox One console exclusive."

Over the last couple years, I've gotten a fair amount of attention for my articles about the Indie Bubble and the Indie Glut.  (And even a GDC talk.)

Quick version of indie gaming history: In 2010 or so, due to a combination of factors (AAA creative stagnation, better development tools, better online stores to sell on), indie games caught on in a big way and made a ton of money. For a short time, getting the Golden Ticket and landing a game on Steam was guaranteed big cash. This was the "Indie Bubble" phase.

People who wanted to write a video game (i.e. everyone) saw this and went, "Hey, I wanna get rich following my dreams too!" There was a big pile-on. MANY indie games became available, more than anyone actually wanted. This was the "Indie Glut" phase.

At last, I can complete the trilogy of articles. Now we can look around and see where we've ended up, a phase which I suspect will be permanent. (At least until the Earth gets hit by a large solar flare and we get to start over.)

You can't deal with this business without grasping its fundamental reality. So it's worth wallowing in this topic one more time. A proper understanding of reality will help us process a lot of otherwise perplexing issues (like Apple or Steam charging devs to have games on their store, or the ever-present "discoverability problem).

To see where we are, let's talk about a long-standing rite of passage for young creative types: Starting a band.

I think this would be really funny if I knew anything at all about music. Can someone translate it into a Guitar Hero chart for me? I think it means I have to learn how to play the orange notes.

The Story of Being a Musician

For decades, many young, enthusiastic, creative people have worked through their dreams, energy, and youthful ambition by forming bands.

Why not? It's takes a fair amount of technical and artistic aptitude to learn an instrument, write songs, get gigs, press a CD, etc., so it's a good sponge to soak up excess ambition and energy. But it's not a prohibitive amount of energy, so just about anyone can start a band.

Usually, this band is a reaction against corporate pop culture. "Screw your plastic, AAA, mass-produced, soulless Katy Perry crap! We're going to create real art." This is an entirely worthwhile goal, even if it fails 99.999% of the time.

Of course, most bands die. After all, most bands are terrible. Even if they aren't, people grow older. They lose their energy. Their dreams die. Life intervenes. They get jobs as insurance adjusters or whatever. Their demo CDs get stuck in the attic, forgotten, and then they have kids. Who start their own bands.

Not everyone gives up, though. A tiny handful of bands, through a combination of skill, connections, and luck, become actual successes and make careers out of it. Other musicians make a living as freelancers or working in a business environment (studio musicians, corporate gigs, etc). Others, the damned souls, trapped between a lack of talent and an inability to quit, live long (looooong) lives as failed musicians.

Most quit (or do art as a hobby). This is ok. The world needs plumbers far more than it needs musicians.

But the hard inexorable math of the thing is this: There are far more people who want to make a living as a musician (actor, writer, dancer) then there are paying jobs they can occupy.

There comes a time when you have to face this. Disney movies and La La Land lied to you. There is a point where refusing to give up makes you stop being an admirable young spitfire and start being a cautionary tale.

Anyway, this is the basic cycle of the thing. For the last few decades, younger people with a certain amount of talent, energy, and time could soak all that into starting a band. A few prospered. The rest went on to other things.

The current location on Steam of the New Releases chart. (Artist's conception.)

You Probably Figured Out Where This Is Going

Getting together with some friends and writing a game is the new Starting a Band. I'm not saying this is going to happen. It already has.

Plenty has been written about the flood of games appearing on Steam. As I write this, 125 in the last week alone. More games than anyone wants, that's for sure. That's why Steam has made it very difficult to see all new releases. Let's be honest. Almost nobody cares to drink from this firehose.

Don't believe me? Check it out yourself!

It is very instructive to look at these new releases, which is why the site What's On Steam, which just shows all new releases, is useful. Take a look. New titles appear FAST. Most of them will bomb, and their creators will vanish from the public view forever.

Here’s a fun trick. Write down the most recent 10 Steam games released. Wait a month. Check their sales on SteamSpy. (Bear in mind you need a few sales to appear on SteamSpy at all.) You will see very few games that get any traction. Each of their creators is just another kid who started a band (and there's nothing wrong with that).

There's no need anymore to predict the endgame for the video game glut. It's happened. We're living it. Bands haven't gone away. There's still a billion of them. People making lots of video games won't go away. There'll always be a billion of them, offering their hot take of the procedurally generated Roguelike 2-D platformer (now in VR!!!!!).

This is why "Indiepocalypse" is such a useless term. Other fields have exactly the same situation, but nobody talks about the Musicianpocalypse or the Actorpocalypse or the Writerpocalypse. It's just part of life.

This is the new normal. So, if you are one of the doomed souls who is determined to make a living in this business, you must figure out how to deal with it.

Fun business tip! When you start seeing articles like this, you've already missed the boat.

Curation Won't Make a Difference

Here's what gets me about the situation. Often, when people talk about the flood of games on Steam, they act like it's mostly trash and Steam should just curate most of it away.

I wrote a whole article’s worth of stuff in this section, but this post is already stupid long, so I chopped it out to post on its own. I’ll bullet point it for you:

1. Steam doesn’t want to curate. They hate it.
2. Even if they did curate, at least half of the stuff would remain, because it’s good enough. It’d still be a flood.
3. A fee to get on Steam won’t change anything any more than the fee to get on iTunes did. In other words, not at all.
4. Steam and iTunes don’t have a discoverability problem. They and their customers are doing great. Developers are the ones who have the problem. Nyeah.

College Degrees In Game Development

Colleges are, for all practical purposes, businesses. They charge a fee and provide a product (your degree). Like good, practical businessmen, when they saw video games get hot, they jumped forward and generously offered to give you, in return for over $100K USD of post-tax money, a piece of paper that claims you know how to make them.

I've written about college video game degrees before. I don't have much more to add to that, except to say you shouldn't get one without being realistic about your chances.

You might have a lifelong career in video games. Hey, anything's possible. But video games are an artistic field. Writing a successful video game is HARD (like becoming a full-time musician), and a huge portion of the field burns out of it before they hit middle age.

Want a degree in video games? Fine. But you may want to approach it like getting a college degree in, say, playing the trombone. You might be one of the ones who makes it, but you'd damned well better have a solid Plan B.

Steam tried to get me to pay full price for an indie game. My face when.

Global Competition!

The competition in the vidya gaems biz is going to get even more gruesome. Development is starting to become far more of a global activity. This will mean not only more titles to fight, but more downward price pressure.

The Law of Supply and Demand already tells us that when there is a glut of supply (games) and roughly constant demand, prices will be pushed inexorably downward. (Which explains deep discount Steam sales and Humble Bundle.) I've sadly watched indie devs plaintively asking their fellows to join them in trying to keep prices high, only to see those efforts get ground to dust by the inexorable gears of Economics 101.

(Though I would note that if your business model requires Price Fixing to survive, it may be a bit flawed.)

But prices will get even lower, because you will increasingly compete against developers in the third world. Having a hard time competing now? Wait until you’re fighting someone in a country with 1/10 the cost of living of yours. Someone who can charge $1 USD a copy and still make out great.

Yeah. However pessimistic you were feeling about your game's chances before, it's even worse than that.

So What Does It Take To Succeed?

A really good game that feels fresh and new and is solid and also manages to, through going viral or really good PR work, get attention. Sometimes bands still get rich. So can you.

You just need to watch for those rare opportunities to make a game that says, "It's Like [Popular Thing], but [Some Small Change]." in a new way. "It's like Harvest Moon, but 16-bit." "It's like Minecraft, but 2-D." "It's like a JRPG, but with bullet hell shooter combat." “It’s like Huniepop, but more Huniepop.”

There will always be ways to get rich. All you have to do is be brilliant, spot the right opportunity at the right time, have at least a little luck, and then make an amazing product.

This is all getting depressing, so, to cheer you up, I added a picture of an adorable doggo.

My Grim Future

When the Indie Bubble happened, I made a bunch of money. More than I deserved. And then I saved it. I'd been around long enough to see both booms and busts, and I knew you had to save during the former to prepare for the latter.

But the games business for small developers (and if you are an indie developer who didn't write Minecraft, you are a small developer) is in a bust phase that won't end. So now I'm asking myself, "How am I, between new games and remastering old ones, going to stretch Spiderweb Software for 20 years and reach retirement."

It's scary. I don't know if I can do it. Our newest game, Avadon 3, didn't do that well. I think it's a really good game, and the people who bought it seem to like it. But there are new RPGs coming out on Steam every single workday, some of them are good, and you can only hold off so much competition before being overwhelmed.

Next year, I am going to write an all new game engine and series. I think it's going to be really neat and different from what I've done before, and I'm excited about it. But I'll tell you this: Its development is going to be LEAN AND MEAN.

I'm using as little custom art and music as I can. (Working title is "Unity Asset Store: The Game.") Any way I can cut costs and still maintain a constant art style and game quality, I will take it, and I won't apologize. This market doesn't allow for blowing money unnecessarily anymore, at least not for me.

If you criticize me for that, feel free. It's your right. I'll just think of the developers who, during the Indie Bubble, flush with easy Steam money, made fun of my development style TO MY FACE. Developers who are sadly no longer in business. While I keep plugging along in my humble little bottom feeder way.

My goal is to prove you can live an entire fulfilling career writing indie games. From college to old age, all the way through. I'm over halfway there. But man, the next two decades are looking like a long road.

I'm Done Writing About This

This blog has been focused on the indie business for the last few years, and I'm mostly done with that topic. I believe we are in a stable phase now, so there isn't much else to say. I think that most gamers don't actually care. They don't care about business stuff. They just want to talk about games and how awesome they are.

I write this blog to get attention for myself, because it's really hard for a small developer to get attention. From here on, I want to write outrageous funny things about games in the hope that I get a little attention and something goes viral and I pick up a handful of customers along the way.

Good luck to everyone in this business. Unless you're directly competing with me, in which case I wish you luck in some other business.

And if you want to make a living in games and need some advice, here it is: Write a VR game. It's TOTALLY going to be the NEXT BIG THING and not a faddish washout AT ALL.


All of our delightful retro RPGS are out on Steam. I occasionally mutter on Twitter.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

We Are No Longer Supporting Android. Sigh.

When I stare into its cold, dead eyes, all I see is my own failure reflected back at me.

So I won't bury the lead in this blog post.

As of the very near future, Spiderweb Software will be discontinuing support for the Android platform. We will be removing our games from Google Play and the Amazon App store.

If you purchased Avadon or Avernum for Android from us in the past and need a copy for your device, please contact us and we will arrange a private download or refund, as needed.

We recently had a false alarm where we temporarily thought we would stop developing for the iPad. I was able to fix some technical issues and we're back in business on that platform. This will not be the case with Android. We may develop for that platform again, but it will be years before we are able to, if ever at all.

That's it. We're really sorry to anyone bummed out by this. If you're interested about the hassles of being a small software developer, read on.

So What the Hell Happened?

In the big indie gold rush of 2011-2, there were lots of dollars sloshing around for anyone who could come out with competent products. A good business opportunity came along if we let a certain company port two of our popular games, Avadon and Avernum, to Android tablets.

We took the deal. Solid ports of the two games were made. We got a bunch of money, and a bunch of customers were happy.

However, we did not control the source code to those ports. The 3rd party company did. This means that, if things broke, we couldn't fix them. We had to get the company to fix them.

Then the company went out of business. Now it is gone. Things are starting to slowly break.

We want to be an honest company. If we can't support it, we can't sell it. So off they go.

Well, If You're So Big, Why Don't You Port Them Yourself?

Because I'm only one guy, and I have limited brain bandwidth. I currently support three platforms. That's all I can handle without freaking out.

A lot of the problem is that we're using a pretty old game engine. Soon, we want to switch to a new engine, but first we have to find one that suits our needs. This may not exist. Then we have to switch to using it, which is a big job. Then that engine has to support Android, which it may not. Then I need to take on the considerable job of learning to develop for Android, which I might be too sleepy to do.

On top of all of this, in our experience, for us, Android doesn't make that much money. Honestly, iPad doesn't either anymore. I mainly write games for the iPad as a hobby, because it amuses me. (By the way, if you want to know why we don't develop for Linux, consider all the arguments above, but triple.)

If I Send You a Really Angry Email, Will It Change Things?

No. But you might as well try. Nothing has ever stopped people from sending us angry emails before.

This Is a Bummer. Anything Else?

Just that we are very early in the history of giant online video game stores. App stores like iTunes, Google Play, and Steam are fairly young in the scheme of things. As time goes on, more and more of the games in those stores are going to be abandoned by their publishers.

Our Android games are breaking, but it's OK. I'm still around, and I'm honest, so I can remove them. But what if I moved on to another job and forgot they existed? Who would be looking after them and making sure they're not ripoffs and traps for the customer?

I may have another blog post on this topic in the future.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

A Very Long Post About How to Become a Creator.

Even by my wordy standards, this page is super TL;DR. I suggest just reading it until I get to the bit where I plug my new game.
It has come to my attention that quite a few young, aspirant creators find my opinions to be of value when it comes to making a career in the game industry.

It's true, and it terrifies me.

Kids, most mornings I don't know whether to crap or wind my watch. (You used to have to wind up watches. Also, people used to wear watches.) My own kids don't pay any attention to me. I see no reason why you should. If I'm so smart, why am I old?

But I do get asked for advice about making a career as a game developer. A LOT. And some questions come up again and again. So I’m writing an answer to the question. I know it is hopelessly, bone-jarringly arrogant for me to do something like this, but I wanted to put my answer on one web page so I can send them here.

These are the answers that worked for me. Your answers will definitely be different. But still, this is a set of possible answers.

(Also, I have a new RPG, Avadon 3: The Warborn, to promote. I need to get it attention to buy food for my kids. Sorry. That’s how the sausage is made.)

As a bonus, much of this advice also applies to other fields. This blogpostlet might be useful if you want to be a writer, or a comedian, or a sculptor, or make naughty needlepoint.

Much of it is focused on encouraging you to actually create something, by yourself or in a small group. There's a reason for this: If you want a real job in AAA gaming, the best way to get it is to have a portfolio to show them. Being able to point at something and say, "See? I made that!" is a huge advantage, if not a necessity.

Here are five bits of advice, elaborated in my trademark snarky, excessively-worded style. Each bit of advice comes with an exercise for you, the aspirant. Do not skip the exercises. They are more important than the advice.

This person took my artistic advice once. Then he embarked upon a memorable career in hotel management.

This is MY advice. Mine. It is what worked for ME.

My advice is mostly oft-repeated cliches, written thousands of times already by more attractive people. My advice may not help you. It may, in fact, harm you. Do not use my advice without consultation with a physician.

A young lad in Dublin tried my advice, and he came down with simultaneous scurvy and rickets. He travels with the circus now. For four shillings, they'll let you poke him with a stick.

This advice is worth what you paid for it. Opinions are like assholes: Everybody has one.

That said, let's begin.

When you make 1000 things, make sure you make 1000 different things, not the same thing 1000 times.
Advice #1: Make Games.

"Eighty percent of success is showing up." - Woody Allen

If you want to make games, make games. You don't need permission. If you want to make board games, make them. If you want to make computer games, learn a programming language. Or learn GameMaker, or RPG Maker, or Twine. No wrong answers.

Or mod one of the many video games that are moddable. Again, you don't need permission. You can make a Skyrim dungeon and upload it and people will play it and let you know what they think, and this is amazing.

Once you have a game/mod/whatever, show it to anyone who will look at it. Get their feedback, and LISTEN TO IT. More specifically, listen when they say, "I liked this," or "This confused me," or "This made me want to quit." They will also give you advice for how to fix the problem. Ignore it. They're not the creator; you are. Just listen to how your work affected them. That is the precious feedback.

Then make another thing. And another. This is a very difficult craft to learn, and you will have to spend a lot of time and endure a lot of failure. In the end, the only way to ever learn how to make games (or sculpt, or write plays, or knit) is to do it. (It's the same for everything else. Want to be a carpenter? You'll have to saw a lot of wood.)

If your job and/or kids keep you too busy to do this, please believe me when I say you have my sympathy. Look at the bright side. At least you have a job and/or kids.

(Note that I am not saying, as some do, “You must create EVERY DAY or you FAIL.” You’ll probably need to take breaks sometimes. Just remember that, whenever you put the weight down, you do have to pick it up again eventually.)

It is sometimes possible to make a mod or adventure for a game so good that some company will just up and notice you and offer you a job. It has happened. Good, dedicated, serious talent is rare and valuable. (Warning: The quality bar for this is VERY HIGH. Yet, your goal is to be that good. That is what you are working toward.)

Exercise #1:

You should have these things around your home: A chess set. Checkers. A pair of dice. A deck of cards (any set of cards, from any game, even Candyland). Paper and a pencil.

Use some or all of these components to make a game. (If this exercise is too wide open, try using these materials to make a game where the players are trying to win a race. Limitations aid creativity.)

Teach the game to someone else. Play it 2 or 3 times.

If you want to create something (a game, a story, an earwax sculpture), and you've never tried to create that thing, STOP READING. GO DO IT. NOW. NO EXCUSES. YOUR LIFESPAN IS LIMITED, AND YOU WILL BE DEAD SOMEDAY! GO! You'll learn more from an hour of creating than from reading a thousand blog posts. This article will still be here when you're done, and blogs are dumb.

Real artists ship. Heck, I once had a big success with a game that looks like this!
Advice #2: Play Games. Thoughtfully.

If you want to excel in some art form, it is extremely valuable to be very familiar with that art form. Play games. A lot. Experience it. Know the history of your craft. Know how it developed and the mistakes and clever inventions people made along the way. The more you know, the more tools you will have in your happy little toolbox.

This is meant to be work. Playing one game fifty hours is fun. Playing fifty games of different genres and styles, for one hour each, is work. Really picking them apart and figuring out what worked, why it worked, what didn't work, and why it didn't work, requires effort and concentration.

It also provides an invaluable education, and you don't need to pay one penny beyond the cost of the games to get it. With freemium titles, bundles, and Steam sales, you get honestly get a ton of games (and thus a ton of education) for really cheap.

Exercise #2:

Think back to the last 3 (or more) games you played for more than ten minutes. For each one, come up with a list of three SPECIFIC things it did well, and three things it did badly. Then come up with one design element you can see yourself wanting to use in a game of your own.

You should be able to do this for any game. Every game has problems or rough spots, and I've never played for 10+ minutes a game so bad it had nothing to offer (even if it's just a cool little animation on the title screen).

A great example of inspiration from varied sources. Also a great topic for the "Find three good things. Find three bad things." exercise.
Advice #3: Absorb All Media.

Be a voracious consumer of media. Books. News. Movies. Even music. The more you understand humans and how the world works and stuff, the more resources you have to draw from when you create.

People always ask artists, “Where do you get your ideas?” Often, we get our ideas by filling our brains with as much stuff as possible and letting it swirl around and recombine until weird stuff pops out. The key step is the “filling” part.

For example, I am a news junkie. I read the New York Times every day. In 1996, I was writing a game called Exile 2: Crystal Souls, about a war in a huge series of caverns far underground. (I recently rewrote this game. It's pretty sweet. Check it out.)

At the time, the Siege of Sarajevo was going on. I read about it, and, as I did, it infected the story I was writing. It filled me with ideas for encounters and infected the mood of the whole thing, making for a grittier, realer, cooler game.

But others drew much deeper, more productive inspiration from that tragedy. For them, it inspired a terrific indie hit called This War of Mine. I can think of no better example of how being attuned to your world can improve your work.

Exercise #3:

Go look at a reputable newspaper and read the headlines. Pick an intriguing one and read the story behind it.

Now design a game based on that. Not just a few quick sentences. Really think about it. What genre? How would it play? What are the goals? What makes you fail? Try to get your mental design to the point where you can close your eyes and picture a minute of actual gameplay.

Then think of one aspect of your design that really intrigues you, and one aspect that is underbaked or unfun or won't work.

(For example, at this moment, I'm looking at an article about a young woman who died young and had her head cryogenically frozen. It is very sad, yes, but it also makes me want to write a funny, macabre business sim set in a second-rate fly-by-night head storage facility.)

I tried to come up with the best royalty-free image to convey the concept of "College Debt."

Advice #4: Be Careful About College.

At some point, if you're young, you have some formal education ahead of you. Perhaps college. In these exciting days, you don't have to teach yourself to make games. There are educational programs specifically designed to cram game stuff into your brain folds.

I am REALLY nervous about giving kids advice about where to throw tons of their post-tax education cash. I'm not trying to ruin anyone's life here. I must, however, say this:

Most people who try to get into the gaming business don't succeed. And most people who do get into the gaming business leave within 10-15 years.

When choosing a place to buy your diploma, ask yourself: "If I don't work in games, will my education plan still help me get a job?"

If the institution grants standard-issue bachelor's degrees, the answer is yes. Otherwise, be honest. If the answer is "no" or "probably not," think VERY hard before going into debt to go there.

Established creative types tend to be somewhat suspicious about schools that teach art. If you have drive, talent, and inspiration, you don't need a degree to express it. If you don't have those three things, you probably aren't going to make it no matter how many degrees you get.

Don't get me wrong. Going to college in your chosen field CAN help. It really can. You get to spend several years focusing on nothing but honing your craft, relatively undistracted by the hassles of life. Even better, you get to do so in the company of passionate, like-minded students, who can work with you, challenge you, and provide valuable networking contacts later on. These things are truly precious.

Also, a real college will require you to study a wide variety of different subjects, and this can be very valuable to a budding creator. Revisit Advice #3, above.

Yes, college can help. Just, if games don't work out, be sure you have a Plan B.

One more thing. College can be fun. Live a life. Just never forget one thing:

Somewhere in the dorms, there is a young woman who is working her ass off. She is going at it hard, day after day, studying like her life depends on it, because it does. You don't know her. Nobody does, because she is too driven to leave her room.

In five years, she is going to be your mortal competitor. When you start your business, if you aren't ready, she is going to kick your ass.

So I think it might be a good idea for you to be ready. Don't you?

Exercise #4:

If you're in college, finish your blog-reading break, and then get back to work.

If you aren't in college, you have saved yourself a ton of cash, but you will need to educate yourself. Go do Exercises 1-3 again. And again. And again. Also, find your own community of like-minded folks, online or in reality. Challenge each other. You can make your own college experience, if you try.

This article is long and I am tired and coming up with incisive images is a lot of work why are your still reading zzzzzzz.
Advice #5: Find Your Own Voice.

You are a unique being. Humans are unimaginably complicated. There has never been a person exactly like you, and there never will be again. You have within you, somewhere, a game/book/song/scarf that only you can create. Your job is to find your way to let it out.

This is called Finding Your Voice. If you can do this, and your work is good, you are very close to attaining your dream.

(Of course, it's possible that, in the end, nobody will want the things that only you can make. Don't feel bad. Happens every day. It will happen to me someday. Then I'll get a soul-deadening job writing database software until I die. Oh, well. I had a good run.)

The problem is that, as you work, everyone in the world will be screaming at you what you should and shouldn't do. These loud people come from all design aesthetics and from both ends of the political spectrum. They all have one thing in common: They want to control you. You don’t have to let them.

Academics and college professors will tell you the true meaning of "Games" (or "Ludic Creations" or "Interactive Oppressions", or whatever intentionally obscure term they come up with). If your professor comes to you with friendly, concrete advice about improving your work, give them a serious listen. Otherwise, duck and cover.

No matter what you make, someone will try to bully you for it. Everyone in the world will have an opinion, and it will be LOUD. Don't let them into your head. Find your own voice. It's more fun that way.

This is art. Nobody knows anything, really. Just remember that, at several points in your learning, a trusted authority figure, in person or online, will serve you up a plate of pure, good olde-fashioned crappe.

This is OK. It's part of the process. Often, figuring out why someone’s bad idea is bad is far more educational than just meekly absorbing a good idea.

Just don't ever take anyone's words as Absolute Truth. Your path to success might be proving them wrong.

Never forget that, in the end, all of the teachers and web commenters and friends and family and me will fade away, and it'll just be you sitting there staring at a blank screen. It's all up to you, friend.

Exercise #5a:

You might profit from spending a little time developing confidence and humility. You should know about and beware of Imposter Syndrome. However, you should equally beware of its evil opposite, the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Learn about them. You have to be confident enough to persevere, but not so confident that you can't tell that your poop stinks.

For a little reality about the road ahead, you should hear about the 10,000 Hour Rule. When you are 5000 hours in and not sure you're making progress, this will remind you that you are still getting better. Just slowly.

Exercise #5b:

You need to be able to recognize when your own work is flawed. Go back to the best games that you made. For each, identify one flaw or way it could be improved. Then make it better.

Sometimes I can't resist ending with a bonus inspirational quote.
The Hard Truth Of The Thing

A career in games is hard. You really have to scramble to get a long-hour low-paid position, and you may well be laid off right after your game ships. In other words, it's as harsh and demanding as most artistic careers.

Don't try to do games for a living unless you're pretty sure you couldn't be happy doing something else. You can always write games as a hobby. It's still a fun creative outlet, and who knows? You might have a financial success and end up doing it for a living despite yourself.

Time For a Big, Rousing Finish. Cue the Trombones!

At least 20% of what I've written is useless garbage.

For you.

If you try to be a creator, you will end up developing your own way to do it, your own process, your own workflow unique to you. This always happens. Some of the smug, cookie-cutter "wisdom" above just won't apply to you. It's OK. You're a free person, and it's awesome.

I love making art. All guidelines can be ignored. All rules can be broken.

I especially love making games, because games are weird and new and nobody really knows anything about what they can do. Plus, games! Games are fun! Wheeee!

Your elders can give you a ton of advice, but, in the end, it's your brain on the line, splatting itself out for all to see.

You're a creator now, another in a lineage of creators millennia long. That is awesome. Be proud.

Get going.


Little nuggets of my dubious wisdom can sometimes be found at my Twitter. The really nifty retro RPG I just released is on Steam.