Worth Reading #4: This is our normal

Worth Reading is a weekly rundown of interesting stuff I've found. Sharing is caring! <3

If I seem out-of-sorts this week, it's because I'm crazy-busy getting Legacy of the Elder Star ready for our showcase at Salt Lake Gaming Con... and also because I've had far too much coffee today and it's making things weird.

How game developers became expendable

There is so much untapped potential out there. People are driven out of the industry by unfair pay, a disregard for mental health, discrimination, abuse, or all of the above.
— Eira A. Ekre, "The Expendables: How Game Development Standards Are Inherently Harmful"

Two years ago I left the games industry "proper" – that is, working in a studio, for someone else, in exchange for a regular paycheck – because I was tired of working overtime every single week, feeling chronically stressed, sacrificing ever more from my personal life, and seeing no light at the end of that tunnel. And I'm not alone: stories of ex-AAA indies are so commonplace these days they don't even merit a mention any more.

This is why.

Is it worth it?

Of the many problems with overwork in the game industry, the fact that we so often fetishize it and see it as the “one true way” is one of our biggest problems.
— Richard Rouse III, "Is It Worth It? Whiplash and the Fetishization of Crunch"

You might respond to the "Expendables" piece above with an argument like, "Crunch is a necessary component of creating great entertainment". I don't believe that's objectively true, but I can see where it can feel that way in the industry as it exists today. The problem is, by accepting crunch as a fundamental law of the universe, we abdicate our ability – and I would argue, our responsibility – to find a solution for it.

Complicating matters is the fact that short periods of crunch sometimes are beneficial, especially when they're self-imposed, self-directed, and passion-driven. It's too easy to make a blanket statement like "crunch is always bad". The truth is always more nuanced than that.

In this piece, Richard Rouse III takes a look at the nuance surrounding the question of whether (and when) crunch is worth it.

We are not doomed. This is our normal.

Videogames, selling videogames is fucked. This much is true. I cannot think of a time in the past 30 years where trying to make a living from videogames hasn’t been fucked.
— Rob Remakes, "The End"

So we have all these AAA ex-pats going indie to get away from crunch and instability, and at the same time we have all these new, comparatively easy-to-use engines and tools democratizing game development and seeding a massive ecosystem of hobby games and art games and (yes) clone games and all the rest. And those of us with some experience start to notice how rapidly that ecosystem is evolving and how many developers keep joining it every day and our eyes kind of start to go O_O

It seems impossible. It seems like it started out impossible, and it's well on its way to being... impossibler. Impossiblest? We left our studios behind because the chronic-crunch lifestyle felt unsustainable, only to discover that being indie feels just as unsustainable, only here it's for different reasons.

I had a bit of a rant about that recently, with some online friends in a private chat, but – and I didn't realize it at the time – I was wrong. We are not doomed. This is our normal.

We have to stop trying to be perfect

Here's Rami Ismail's Develop 2015 keynote. In it, he discusses finding a balance between respecting your customers and maintaining your autonomy. This industry wants to be perfect, he says, and as a result we've fallen into the bad habit of pandering. We want to solve every complaint, implement every idea, please every person... and that's not actually helping us at all.

Rock, Paper, Shotgun also did an interview with Rami just ahead of his keynote, which adds some more detail to the topic.

There's a really critical bit he talks about, both in the keynote and the interview, which is the idea that as game designers, it's kind of our job to "not know" things. Personally, I'd put it a different way: it's our job to manage uncertainty.

We don't know if a particular feature is going to work out. We don't know what other features we might suddenly discover a need for three months down the road. We don't know which bits of the game people will latch onto and which bits they'll reject. We don't know exactly how long this is all going to take us to finish, or how much it's going to cost us to finish it.

And it's okay that we don't know, but we have to stop pretending to the outside world like we do know, because that way lies broken promises and unfulfilled expectations.

And now for something completely different...

So you're working on your Unity game and you need to implement some dialogue trees. Dialogue trees are basically "choose your own adventure" in dialogue form, right? And what better tool for writing a "choose your own adventure" than the widespread, free, incredibly easy-to-use Twine?

What's that, you say? Twine doesn't integrate with Unity? Well, Alec Holowka (of Night in the Woods fame) decided that was a load of crap. He's built a Twine-inspired system called Yarn, along with a set of Unity bindings. They're on github here and here.

See you next week!