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This Stalled Game Designer Needs A Jump

I think perhaps the last entry was a bit of a mistake.  It took me over eight hours to write and then edit my impressions of recent Steam releases into to a semblance of readability.  But this was a pointless endeavor because it's too damn long to read anyway.

Besides, would you really learn anything from "a jaded look at recent Steam releases" that you didn't know already?  After all, most of the games on the market are probably things you have no interest in playing, that's the reality you face every day anyway, so it's little surprise that I feel the same.

Looking back, I can think of only two real benefits to continuing that feature:
  1. To pick out the few things that might actually be worth playing.
  2. To make fun of the ridiculous extent some games go through to be not worth playing.
At least the result should be a lot shorter, because I can just skip the rest of the titles that fit neither category.  Maybe mention they happened by title, if that.

In the meanwhile, lets talk about something which might be a little more relevant and interesting: making games.
Extra Credits basically says what I already learned the hard way in "So You Want To Be A Game Designer," although they might be slightly too jaded in some ways... I suppose it's better to be pleasantly surprised when unusual circumstances let you to get away with what they say you can't here.

For quite some time, I have been an aspiring Indie game developer who has largely been unable to make progress in making games.  I've had practice enough that it's not that I don't understand how... if I were content in making a simple game, it'd be a cinch.  No, the trouble is that I love to over-think things, and consequently I've over-thought myself into many corners.

Here's some of the bigger problems I've been unable to resolve to my satisfaction:

#1: The need for money versus the need for innovation.

If you want to make a good game, you'll make a game you know is good, based on your personal preference of what "good" means. you want to make money, you'll try to make a game you think others might enjoy, based on what you imagine they might enjoy. 

I think it's pretty obvious that the latter approach is wrong because it sacrifices your artistic integrity in order to try to make something you don't even know how to make because it is not your own.  This is where all casual sellout games come from.

Yet, at the end of the day, a fellow needs to eat.  I'm working a part time job, and my budget looks grim.  If it weren't for the generosity of my parents, I'd probably be struggling to make ends meet even if I worked full time.  The clock is ticking: my parents can't support me forever.  I've got student loans to repay, too.

I wish I could afford to take the risk of creating something I think is good, as opposed to a real audience, but not even Kickstarter is likely to deliver.

What to do?

If I were to proceed at this point, it would likely be to make what I'd like to make, and not what others expect of me, but I doubt success will follow.

#2: Make it single player versus make it multiplayer.

As a game developer, if you go single player, it's generally a lot easier to design.  Not only do you not need to design in such a way as to take into account the unpredictableness of several players - few games succeed utterly along these lines - but there's a lot of technical overhead in coordinating a multi-player experience.

Yet, the kind of games I want to make are typically virtual environments with great sandboxy potential.  Playing those alone seems like a great waste of opportunity for something exponentially greater, doesn't it?

Maybe, if history had not shown us that if you open a sandbox to the public, half of them will ruin everything for their personal amusement.  Basically, some gamers just don't take sandboxes seriously, at all.  Ergo, I might be better off sticking to single player.

What to do?

Probably both.  Like Minecraft, make the game single player with the potential to host more players.  Ugh: that doesn't make things any easier.

#3: To mod an existing product versus create my own.

Modding an existing product saves a ton of time.  Lets say I started with Minecraft, learned the ins and outs of Forge, and used my already existing knowledge of how to program in an object-oriented, interpretted environment to create a mod for Minecraft that makes the game do what I want it to do.

Alternately: Starbound, Space Engineers, Skyrim, ect -- the list of mod-friendly games that are already environmental RPGs is a formidable research topic in and of itself.
Motivations to mod games can... vary.

There's two minor downsides of the mod approach:
  1. Mods are very hard to monetize, so don't expect to get compensated for your work. 

    The main trouble here is that most games are a legal quagmire where the developers would really like you to stop reverse engineering their hard work, please.  Nevermind if you've the audacity to try to drag in some other popular intellectual property on top of that.  Monetizing modding is often just begging for a cease and desist.

    Monetizing modding is also tricky in terms of the devising an effective delivery method.  Copy protection is unlikely to work, people will just be bandying around your mods without any particular need to pay you a penny.  I'm pretty sure nobody ever made a significant amount of money for creating Skyrim mods as distributed over Steam Workshop, as there's no place to set a price.  Modders usually just dangle a donation link to their Paypal account, and hope.

    On the other hand, riding the coat tails of existing products might get you a lot more traffic than trying to get noticed for a new product, and the good nwes there is that some developers actually go out of the way to support modders knowing they'll ultimately be getting community support to improve their game at no cost to them.  Thus, modders can be allowed to dig into game, no lawyers attached, and maybe even be handed an approved distribution method that could land some coin in their pockets.

    For example, even though Minecraft radically changes its code to put off piracy with every major revision (and this makes modding it difficult) I've never heard of Notch putting out a cease and desist on a mod... maybe because he's sick of the ones he gets for no good reason.   Minecraft is actually overwhelmingly popular, and popular mods may tout tens of millions of downloads.

    The vehicle of monetization that many Minecraft modders use is usually AdFly download links, possibly backed up with donations, and this has generated more than a little controversy.  Actual disclosure of how much money the modders make has been hard to find but, based on some cursory research, it seems AdFly is fairly poor supplementary income... modders can count themselves lucky to make $50 a month!

    As for other games, there have been some incredible success stories about people who simply were selling Team Fortress 2 hats.  Team Fortress 2 has grown into a game developed deliberately to let community members sell content for it.  Yet, bear in mind that there's thousands of community-made hats that never made a dime.

    Then we have something like Garry's Mod, which basically grew out of being a mod for Half-Life 2, and uses a lot of Half Life 2 assets.  It sells at $10 a copy, and I don't think Valve (makers of Half-Life 2) get much of that, yet it's being sold on Valve's own delivery service, Steam.  Weird.
  2. Creating a mod limits you to a far more narrow scope than trying to create something on your own.

    This is because an existing game is a much more narrow platform to develop upon.  Everything hard-coded into the game either must be worked with, or worked around, and many aspiring mod concepts are simply incompatible with the existing game.

    On the other hand, having looked into gaming development suites quite a bit, I'm going to say that the alternative might be more restrictive than you would think.   Something like Unity is great, probably the most flexible engine in the biz, but it's still an existing engine, and that means you're going to be limited by whatever that engine can do.
What to do?

Lately, I've been thinking that maybe working with modding might be a good "warm up" before moving on to higher concept ideas.  In other words, modding could be good practice of game development skills, because it's trickier to reinvent the wheel than it is to tweak one that's already rolling.

I have a fortune cookie message here that reads, "Avoid unchallenging occupations - they will waste your great talents."  Flattering little confection, wasn't it?  But this coincidentally makes the point that it's possible to set your sights too low by settling for modding.

#4+: And then there's everything else...

Honestly, there's so many devils in the details of making a game that getting tripped up by the above is relatively small potatoes.  I'm not going to say it's impossible for me to get over this, but my track record isn't looking particularly good right now.

Maybe I should chalk up my inability to commit to Unity as a platform failure; Unity is great, but it might not be for me, at least not yet.  Instead, lets set my sights on something a little more accessible; lets set them on modding.

Maybe I'll see how tough Minecraft Forge is to get into.  But then, even something like RPGMaker would work, because that particular game development IDE just hands me an existing game I can tweak.

If I can stick to doing that long enough, maybe I'll get warmed up enough at it to be ready for the next step: truly independent creations.


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