A very enthusiastic, clever teenager I work with keeps telling me about these ideas he has for comics or games. I feel kinda mean doing it, but my response is always been the same; “How are you going to make this idea into a thing that I can consume?”. This is because I’ve been in his position. And now I’m a 28 year old dude with 2 kids still figuring out how to make my ideas into actual things.
Ideas are like seeds. No amount of talking is going to turn that seed into a tree. Maybe if you’re standing very close to the seed, so that your talking inadvertently provides it with an abundant source of CO2, and you’re simultaneously providing it with the right amount of water and the right type of soil. I don’t really know where this metaphor is going anymore.
It’s a harsh lesson, but anyone who wants to spend their adult life paying the bills while making entertaining or expressive work needs to learn it quick and fast. I’ve done a string of creative things in different media, some successful, some not so much. I’ve learnt the hard way that ideas alone have very little value. Think of the worst movie or TV show you’ve ever watched. It’s often the case that the central idea could’ve been something you enjoyed, had the execution been different.
Adjust Your Expectations
The trouble is – particularly for newer game designers who tend to think in terms of stories and settings rather than mechanics – the thing in our head is so often at odds with what we’re realistically able to achieve. Take that cool videogame idea in your head. If it’s mainly a narrative thing; could you make it into a Twine or Adventure Game Studio thing? If it’s mainly a mechanic thing, could you boil it down to a small arcade game first, or even something analogue using cards or dice?
Keep asking yourself these sort of questions and you’re already well on your way to Actually Finishing A Thing.
One friend of mine wrote a really great script for a sort of sci-fi comedy TV thing. It was a great script with humour and pathos, and I genuinely think I would have rated it highly even if this guy wasn’t a friend. After sending it off to THE TV PEOPLE and getting no reply, my friend had plans to cast the thing and shoot it himself. I keep trying to get him in the studio to make it into a Hitchhikers’ Guide radio-play/podcast, because that would be far easier to self-produce and it would take off easier in that format, with a potential conversion to TV later. Even with the script written, that idea is still very much a seed. It’s still just that.
So when I hear aspiring creatives talk about their ideas, I think about the unheeded advice I gave my friend: Don’t write a script for a relatively-high budget TV series that will never be made, make a script for a dramatized audio play and then make the thing. In order to do this, you have to adjust your expectations so that the thing you want to make is feasible. I’m sure you can already see parallels with the way that every aspiring developers wants to make a VERY BIG RPG (see here for my own VERY BIG RPG).
Do It Yourself
So you write down all your game ideas into a game design document and set about finding people to help you. The reality is that even if you’ve spent what seems like an eternity writing those ideas out, your programmer, artist, sound person etc. are all going to have to put in more work than you.
If they’re any good (i.e. they’re able to work to the standard of the Unrealistic Thing You Have in Your Head) then they’re unlikely to trust you enough to work for free. If they’re any good, they’re probably already regularly working freelance for people who finish projects. You’re an unknown quantity to them, and seeing as you’re reading this blog, I’m going to assume that you’re not wealthy enough to pay a team of people to water and feed your idea seed for you. Where does this leave you?
Well first off, you can start practicing an additional creative role, like programming or graphics. Make something that looks like it has enough potential for other people to want to work on it with you. I personally have been modding games since I was a teenager, and did a little bit of BASIC as a younger kid – I can’t really code, but I can use Stencyl and similar programs, so I’ve opted for making my own 2D assets. This is a slow process! But I did do art and design up until university, and I do believe that anyone with a good enough eye can do visual art if they stick at it.
Part of this, again, comes down to readjusting expectations. So you can draw buildings but not characters? Great; make a game with buildings and no characters! (This is exactly what I’ve been doing with Beatopia). After a few hours messing about in Illustrator or Inkscape you can draw characters but they are kind of childlike and derpy? Great! Make a game that makes good use of that! Maybe you want to practice drawing static, un-animated characters? Then spend a little time working in a game genre that will allow you to practice that (a visual novel, for example).
Adjust your visual expectations! Think of all the web series that are quite loved but use quite simple drawing styles but are very loved (The Meatly, Cyanide and Happiness etc.). I hope Ben Ward and Dan Mashall won’t mind me using them as an example; but their adventure games Ben There, Dan That! And Time Gentleman, Please! are really good examples of this. The developers did what they could do at the time, and now one of them (Marshall) has gone on to make The Swindle and other games while outsourcing the artwork/animation jobs. Your art can be simple, just set yourself some basic rules (consistent approach to palette, line thicknesses, stuff like that) and roll with them.
Although it hasn’t always seemed that way, the choices for me over last couple of years have been simple;
- readjust my expectations to something I can make and finish myself
- pay awesome artists and programmers with my non-existent family fortune
- never make games at all and just cry in the dark instead
One of those things is impossible and one is kinda sad. So I scale down my projects until they’re things where I can realistically do all or most of the work myself. If you’re constantly buzzing with ideas, then paring that list down to the viable ones can actually be quite liberating, allowing you to focus on brushing up whatever skills you need. And all those people who are better than you are coding or art or narrative design are never going to come and work for you until you’ve proven that you are a person who finishes stuff. I’m still getting there.
So when I say to adjust your expectations, the same goes for mechanical features too. If you’re new to game-making and coding then you will probably have similar experiences to me. Standard game systems; things like dialogue boxes and inventory systems that we take for granted in software like RPG Maker – these are a pain in the butt to put together. Does your game really need a massive inventory system where you can slide things around? Have you ever tried to build one of those from scratch?
And finally, the most important question you should ask yourself: are there ways in which your game might actually be a better, tighter experience if you don’t include this or that complicated (but taken-for-granted in AAA) feature? Maybe the game would be more strategically interesting if your characters only have 3 inventory slots. Maybe your game will be emotive and immersive if you chop out those 10 screens of expository text [that you didn’t even write very well anyway]. Remember earlier when I asked if your game would work as a card game or a Twine project? Keep asking yourself how you can chop that Ridiculously Ambitious Idea down into Something You Might Eventually Finish. And in doing so you can reflect on whether the feature bloat we see as ‘standard’ in some genres of game is actually good design in the first place.
So, what is your ‘minimum viable product’?
I’ve been talking to a successful graphics guy I know about making some sort of visual novel in the near future. Something where I can concentrate primarily on narrative/world design type stuff and he can really flex his muscles at making static monster and character portraits. He’s an artist but he’s also a business-dude, so his approach is very pragmatic and informed by lots of TED talks by wealthy successful types; what is your minimum viable product. Those of us who are more artsy don’t like thinking of what we do as product (and that’s perhaps why he’s making a living solely off of design right now, and I’m not).
To understand minimum viable product in relation to games or similar work, you need to imagine what you’re trying to make, and pare it down to the version of that thing that will get the most buzz with the least effort. It’s less risk – it’s putting less eggs in a single basket. But mainly because it’s a way of getting as many of those cool ideas to fruition. If your game is narrative heavy, can you release it episodically, giving people the first part of an overarching story while only having to produce the content for a quarter of the whole game? If your game is more of a mechanical, arcadey affair, can you work toward an early version with less levels just to build some buzz?
Throughout this post I’ve been emphasising just getting something finished. Make a thing and put it on The Internet! Getting feedback and validation from players you’ve never met is so important to growing and keeping yourself going. But also, if you can start to get a trickle of money coming in from itch.io or an appstore or similar, then you’re on your way to becoming a professional.
Unfortunately we live in a world where the worth of what someone does is judged by whether and how much they get paid. “Oh, Jennifer’s wedding band is getting so many bookings she is only working at the office part-time now!” said the person who thought Jennifer could never have a career in music.
Those around you – your immediate emotional support network who may know or care little about games – will often need to see those first steps being taken, in order to take you seriously and to be able to fully get behind what you do and let you get on with it. That’s not people being mean, it’s just realistic in a world where everyone has a ‘good idea for a game’ but isn’t willing to put in the grind to make it.
But I’m only an expert in how to fail!
So feel free to share any further tips or opinions you have in the comments.