Please note that a lot of information here is theoratical and unconfirmed, if I say something that is wrong I apologise, this is not an article to inform, moreso an article to express my views.
So this kinda came up in my mind a while back after listening to Jim Sterling's interview with The Slaughtering Grounds developer, Digital Homicide and I think it might be a good idea to put this into writing so that I could keep these thoughts as a record. So the topic is Game Development - The Dream and The Reality. I want to ask everyone here a question. Have you ever had dreams of becoming a game developer? I'm positive that 90% of you have and of course you have. Who wouldn't want to develop their dream game.
Now after reading Manchild's Let's Make a Game blog, it brought a lot of things to mind and I can completely relate to a lot of what he said. As a gamer who has experienced so many wonderful games, I've aways craved that sense of creativity which flourishes in most games. It's kind of inspirational as to how great some games are and it's hard to not think to yourself "could I do this? The short answer? Sort of but I'll get to that later. First lets talk about my experience.
Now I've always been creative in nature. I just love creating my own stuff, I crave it but like Manchild, I've always created in theory. That being said, I remember as a child having a box full of written designs from box art to fully blown world maps. Of course they're just scribbles and looking back at them now, they look tacky (obviously). These days we have games such as Minecraft which are creative sandboxes, thank god for games like this. Whilst I never played much of Minecraft, I have played Space Engineers and I have also used Halo's Forge. Those have been my two favourite sandboxes to date. I don't know whether it's the sci-fi appeal or the fact that it already had a ton of assets (Halo at least). I liked to build space ships in both games... somehow. I Don't know why but I just did. Space Engineers perfected this in a way as it allowed be to build ships that could actually function as ships as opposed to Halo where they were nothing more than static objects.
Now my first ever game was Pokemon Yellow, as you probably already know by now. Now I've said it before, if I was to design any game, it would be a Pokemon game. However, a point I'm going to come to later will change that statement considerably and I will come back to it. In any case, I had dreams of making my own Pokemon game in my early years (who didn't?) and to be honest, if the certain circumstances did come to be (which would never happen now), I would have probably stuck with it. Of course, realistically speaking, that dream was impossible and there are many factors to it. I will tell you right now that if you dream of making a Pokemon game (that isn't a mod) then you have a 2% chance of achieving that dream for many reasons. Again I'll get to this later.
So I had drawn a map of the world in which my Pokemon game was set, I've always loved making world maps for some reason, this leads me to my RPGmaker days where I just drew world maps for fun and that was after drawing them on paper, in fact, part of the map I did for the first game I made using RPGmaker VX was actually designed based on the drawing. Looking at it now, I think that I mistook the scale, heck I mistook the scale in both games. Before I move on, lets talk about RPGmaker VX, my god is that software a lot of fun. You actually felt that you could make whatever you desired and it made it possible to create whatever you want... within certain limits. As a gamer, I wasn't a programmer, an artist (can't draw to save my life) nor was I anything. I was just a guy with a vision and RPGmaker VX helped me achieve that vision.
This image is not my property, nor does it involve any of my work
Now what was the first game I made all about? Looking back on it, the game was actually quite unoriginal. I had obviously played Final Fantasy at the time so it was highly inspired from that game (it even had cameo appearances for teh lulz). In fact the game can be summed up as this: Tales Of Phantasia: Fucked Up Edition, ironically I had never played Tales Of Phantasia at the time but looking back, I somehow managed to make my game so ridiculously similar that I might as well have given it that name but it was actually called "Legend Of The Spirits" (it had obviously contracted the "legend of" curse which continues to plague many games to this day but on an epic scale).
Now Legend Of The Spirits is actually a game I have used a lot when comparing bad games because it is a bad game. In fact I often compare it to DOTA as being a superior game, it's an inside joke of mine but it's true (at least to me). Oh ok fine, the Warcraft 3 world editor is more complicated and I couldn't design triggers to save my life (even though it's basically the same thing as RPGmaker VX but just way more complex), however just by looking at both games, even though I probably had an easier time making Legend Of The Spirits due to the overly simplified engine, it still managed be a superior game to DOTA... somehow and no I'm not blowing my own trumpet by any means, Legend Of the Spirits is like if Big Rigs Over The Road Racing and Tales Of Phantasia had a child born with a defect.
But of course, there's a second game. In this game I had set out to do something many other RPG's didn't. Multiple perspectives. Unfortunately I was unable to retain the character's levels each time they switched but I did manage to engineer a clunky, yet functional character swapping system but not just that, I also changed character parties and split the game's story into multiple scenario's where you swapped between different parties at certain intervals in the story, kind of like a "meanwhile with X party" *swaps to party X who is stranded in the middle of a desert* (yes that is an actual scene from the game). I'm honestly surprised more RPG's don't follow this formula. It would have been cool if in Star Ocean, where the characters are split up in the time gate, you could have experienced Ronyx and Milly's side instead of just Roddick and Illia's side, so you could witness both character's perspectives whilst they are searching for one another. That is precisely what the game's story was all about, uniting with everyone to face a common foe. It might sound interesting but it really isn't. Then again, the multiple perspectives is probably the game's most prominent feature and was probably my biggest accomplishment. It might have been a small one but it was still an accomplishment nonetheless. It's like a baby taking its first steps.
Accompanied with terrible humor that was somewhat cringeworthy, yet surprisingly funny at times (at least to me), terrible writing filled with awful cliché's, characters with zero personality, characters with zero importance to the plot and are just there to say Hi. NPC's that said dumb things (even though some of them were funny to me) and of course the most generic villain ever conceived to man. Add a few songs from popular games that I liked that had been butchered using the game's tempo editor to make them move faster and slower (I actually used F-zero's white land music for the battle theme and fire field's music for the boss theme and both songs were surprisingly fitting for their roles) and you have a terrible game in the making... but that's not all. I had spelling errors everywhere, dungeons which were nothing but mazes and constant bugs which were unfixed. The mapping was terrible and horribly inconsistent and there was no sense of direction provided to the player, essentially offering the worst possible gaming experience a player could ever have (except for DOTA). I always said that Legend Of The Spirits is the second worst game ever made and Revenge Of the Underlord (the glorious sequel) was the third worst game ever made. Though the improvements I made in my second game were noticeable, it was still shit.
As such, Revenge Of The Underlord served as a scale for judging bad game design which I have used in many of my reviews for terrible games and funnily enough, Pokemon Yellow of all games was actually one of Revenge Of the Underlord's many comparison's. As such when I read this article: Let Me Level With You About: How Pokemon Is Well Designed, I disagreed simply because I noticed that Pokemon Yellow fell into many of the same traps as my RPGmaker game and when comparing it, I noticed a lot of issues that simply wouldn't have happened if it used the RPGmaker VX software, which led to bad game design. Now this was my first ever game, a game I have loved for a long time and this was the point that I realized, from a design standpoint, it was abysmal. Of course that's not the developer's fault entirely, back then, RPGmaker wasn't a thing so you actually had to program everything yourself yet the code was so abysmal that it created countless glitches such as Missingno that has become a famous glitch known by all Pokemon fans. Now had the game been made on RPGmaker VX, this could easily be fixed by fixing broken variables and after having experienced many similar issues with RPGmaker VX, I can relate to this design issue and any novice design issue which I can relate to is the first sign of bad game design as I am a bad game designer.
Anyways enough about me, lets talk about the reality. What game development is really all about, the hierarchy, the difference between triple A and indie and the explanation as to why they are so dramatically different (it's not all about money, though it partly is). I'm going to explain about AAA games first and how being a developer of a AAA game works, just in case you don't already know.
So the hierarchy of a development team works as follows, the producer is at the top. The producer's job is to come up with a suitable goal for the development team to achieve based on their research. Let's look at Namco's Hideo Baba, the producer for the Tales Series. Now why has he gone to America to visit all these expo's and communicate with Tales fans in the west? That's simple, research. As the producer, it's Hideo Baba's job to make sure that the fan base are satisfied enough to purchase the game and to erect a goal that when accomplished, will give them that satisfaction. However, as the producer, Hideo Baba doesn't directly play any role in the game's design, that would be the job of the director.
Now let us use Masohiro Sakurai as an example. Masohiro Sakurai is the director of Super Smash Bros. As a director, it is his job to create a vision which would successfully accomplish the goal's set by the producer. The director answers solely to the producer and is a delegator but this job is a lot harder than it sounds and requires one to be resourceful. Nevertheless, a video game director is quite possibly the most desirable job in the gaming industry. This is the job that many of us dream of, to be a game director for the games that we love. Unfortunately it's not all about creativity. Being a game director is all about being resourceful and it is required to have experience in many fields of game design. The reason for this is because you have a deadline. As such, you will need a fast and competent development team to work with but that's not all, it is your job to prioritize what is most important. It is your job to decide what makes it into the finished product and what doesn't. It is your job to make sure that the game is ready for release. In other words, you don't want your game to end up like Batman Arkham Knight on PC.
So ultimately, being a game director is all about being resourceful. Sure, having a creative mind does help but it is not the most important factor in directing a video game. If you have played Game Dev Tycoon, you would understand the basics as to how being a video game director works... only less realistic. In real life, a director will have to cope with stuff such as having staff on work leave, staff not performing competently and possibly losing his/her job or position over a failed launch. If the team provided to you fails, you will have to answer for it. For this reason, having competent staff is crucial and working with them is even more crucial for a successful game. This is the reason why Masohiro Sakurai struggled with directing Smash 4. He was given a near impossible task by the producer. To make a game that is better than Brawl. Did he do it? I wouldn't know as I had not played it but considering the fact that the Subspace Emisarry was removed along with a lot of characters I liked, I would say that Sakurai had failed to achieve his goal, hence why I didn't buy the game because I saw it coming. However this was not the fault of the director. This was the Producer's fault, either that or Nintendo's fault for demanding a new Smash Bros to save the dying Wii U and sell more consoles.
In any case, now you know the jobs of the producer and the director, the two most important components of development... but they would be nothing without the multitude of design teams working under them. This is the bottom end of the hierarchy. Each developer has a specific task given to them by the director. Put simply if we put this in a Warcraft perspective, Sargeras would be the CEO, Archimonde would be the producer and Tichondrius would be the director. The designers themselves would be Arthas and his scourge minions. Put into military terms, the producer is a Brigadier, the Executive Producer would be the General, the Director would be the Colonel and the Design teams would each be a regiment, each with a Captain and a bunch of Sergents. This makes the army that is the development team. Their mission? To create an experience so good that it convinces us, the consumer to open their wallets and supply the company with money.
Of course this is before we even start talking about Publishers. Publishers are essentially the guys who sit on their BIG FUCKING CHAIR and invest in development studio's who make games for them so that the Publisher can sit back and watch the money roll in. Either that or they perish in flames like THQ. Of course, the Publishers have a job to do, it's their responsibility to market the game and make sure word of it gets out. It's also their job to hype it up. The CEO's job is basically this:
That's right, the CEO sits on his huge chair and talks sales and stuff, they are basically Odin from Valkyrie Profile 2, whose job is to sit there and look important whilst making lots of money (or in his case power) at other's expense... or so it seems with the likes of Moneyvision. Ironically, the first thing mentioned by Geoff Keighly in the E3 interview with Peter Moore was his "suit collection". My first assumption was that it must have been funded by all the DLC... but of course as a PLC, that presumes that Mr. Moore is a share-holder of said company which he may well not be. In which case, the CEO is just another staff member whose job is to ensure that the company generates enough revenue to satisfy the share-holders. Now Peter Moore is actually the COO of the company, though his job is very similar to the CEO as he is essentially the vice president of the company, Andrew Wilson being the real CEO. That's about it really.
Of course, publishers have their own hierarchy. They have their own marketing division and sometimes even their own development division such as EA Black Box and in Moneysoft's case, 343 Industries. Publishers like to slap their name on the box as if they're the ones responsible for it. As such a lot of people new to gaming often mistake publishers for developers. This isn't true and credit deserves to go where it is due. As such in case you are new to gaming, please understand this point.
Now do publishers have an impact on game development? Absolutely. The producer of Star Ocean 5 Shuichi Kobayashi mentioned that Star Ocean 4's failure was due to Square-Enix's attempt to cater to western audiences. Good on you Mr Kobayashi for vocalizing this as you have taught many of us the reality behind the relationship between publishers and developers. I truly believe Shuichi Kobayashi to be a sincere producer and after witnessing his E3 interview, he appeared to be very blunt in his expressions towards the series and managed to see the fault in it. In addition, he also vocalized his opinion over DLC claiming that he would rather put more work into a new title than merely add padding to a current title. He vocalized his disagreement with DLC in such a manner that he deserves my praise.
Now then, lets say that you want to work for a AAA company. Well for starters you're going to need experience and qualifications obviously but what exactly? Well development teams look for well-rounded qualifications to fill in the gaps should they need to. For example, if a programmer is off sick, they would need someone to fill in for him should the director deem it important to do so. As such if you want to be a developer, the first thing you definitely need is programming skills. Without them, your application will be considerably weaker, even if you are an artist. Having a multitude of skills work here. If you look from the director's perspective ask yourself what you would want in your development team, that's what you have to be. You have to be well-rounded to cover other sectors of development should there be a close deadline. For example, if the game is to be released in a week and there are tonnes of bugs. Everyone with programming skills must chip in to make sure those bugs are gone. If you have programming skills, the employer knows that they have you to fall back on should such events occur.
In addition you will also need to be a perfectionist in your respective craft. If you are an art designer, you will have to be a damn good artist. You will need to be consistent in your design and never slack. When you realize that there are thousands of art to be designed, you may find yourself overburdened. This is where the hardship of game development comes in, you have a lot of tasks to do and you have to be consistent with them or else you will fail. Same goes for other designers such as level designers, character modelers and even non designers such as testers.
Most big development teams have about 3-5 people in each division, this splits the work each division is given by 3 to 5. Now if there are lets say 2000 pieces of artwork required be they enemies, characters, weapons etc, divide that by 5 and you are given 400 designs for a single person. That is insane. Just imagine being consistent with 400 character designs to do... holy hell. Put simply, being a game developer is a very tough job.
Now when you consider the many, many stepping-stones to get to your dream position and when you consider the workload you will have to take on to get there, you will realize just how brutal the gaming industry is. Then you get people like me and you, the consumer and critics who have the power to turn people away from bad games. Being a game developer in a AAA company makes you feel like the world is against you, theoretically of course as I've never been in that position, I'm just speaking from theory.
So due to all of this, most people seek an alternative route to game design, that route is known to us as Indie development.
Indie development is drastically different. Indie devs come in all shapes and sizes, they can vary from 1 man, to a small team of dedicated individuals with the task of building their dream game. Now if we look at AAA games, you will understand why indie games feel so lackluster compared with AAA games and usually only provide around 15 hours of entertainment, if they're lucky. Sometimes they can provide way more. I have invested over 700 hours into Space Engineers for example which is a strangely successful Indie title, a sleeper hit you could say. In any case my views on that game are mixed and considering the fact that they've made a name for themselves in the harsh environment that is steam, i'm going to decrease the scale a little.
Now lets talk about a game I've been playing recently. Neon XSZ. Neon XSZ strives to be a 6DOF shooter with the lootwhoring elements of Diablo. Essentially creating Descenterlands... or something. Now I have spoken with the developer on the steam forums and man is he such a great guy. I will link you to the forum post on steam: http://steamcommunity.com/app/296010/discussions/0/598198356176054233/.
In this post, the developer requests feedback, naturally as an Early Access game, feedback is important so that the developer can build a better game. As someone who writes reviews of games and picks out game's flaws as a hobby, I was the first to jump in. Now for starters I asked the developer how big his team was and pondered whether he was a 1 man band. It turned out that the team was comprised of just him and one other guy (who did the music). This couldn't have shocked me more considering how well the game plays and how well it is designed. The fact that this one man did this proves that he is an extremely talented programmer and could easily become a AAA programmer if he wanted to. However he has chosen the more difficult route of creating his own game. This is a challenging task because as a lone wolf indie dev, your job is to do not only the programming but also the art design, modelling, animations and lighting (though the music was done by someone else). Now the developer used the smart approach of making the game a roguelike in the sense that his levels were randomly generated, removing the necessity of level design. In addition, he allowed the player to alter the environment at will. A great way to mask his limited consistency in art design.
Now as for the programming and the game's AI, it is masterful. Put simply, Paul (the developer's steam username) is a highly talented programmer... but is also capable of modelling and art design and seems to do a great job at them too. However, as he is just one man, it is impossible to remain consistent for anything other than his programming quality as that is his niche. Whereas AAA developers have multiple teams of perfectionists, Paul has to fill in for them by himself. As such it is completely natural that the other sectors of the game are severely lacking compared to that of a AAA game but surprisingly the game manages to still look great.
Now as a wannabe critic, I decided to analyze the game for possible flaws and then it hit me. The RPG mechanics just didn't meld well with the gameplay and as such, the pacing felt awkward. Borderlands had this problem too, the fact that you're fighting against enemies 10 levels higher than you and it's impossible to kill them as their shield regen is higher than the damage you deal.
This created a problem which I mentioned to the developer. However I also realized the developer was also the game's director and his "vision" was to have a 6DOF RPG Roguelike experience, it would be disrespectful of me to request that he changes that as you cannot change someone elses vision. I learned something that day about video game critique, as a reviewer, it is your job to inform the consumer as to whether or not the game is worth their money. However, when delivering critique towards a developer, it is different, particularly in Early Access. You cannot ignore the developers vision and demand that they change, however, you can identify the issue so that they might choose to alter their vision for future projects. As someone who obviously wants games to improve, I identified these issues and told him in the feedback.
His response was very well received and I felt that the developer and I actually understood each other, something we never see from AAA developers as they are all separated into different divisions. This is what distinguishes an Indie developer from a AAA developer. Whereas AAA developers are focused on one particular job, indie developers do everything. If you wish to contact a AAA development team, you don't get that one-to-one discussion between gamer and developer, instead you are met face to face with a community manager (yep Andy, your time in the spotlight has come, let dongs surround us all... even though you're retired, you'll still be the community manager to me). The community manager is the direct connection between the community and the development team because the development team do not have the time to dedicate towards to the community as they are working hard. As such it's the community manager's job to relay that message amongst many things.
Now there are also "indie teams" and whilst they do generally make better games, they also lack a very important thing, "marketing". Triple A developers are usually associated with a publisher who practically do all the marketing for them. If you're an Indie developer, you are not only a developer but you are also a publisher, you're essentially publishing your own work. As such you have to do all the marketing associated with it. I hope you have a wallet crammed full of greenies because you're going to need to flush it all down the toilet when it comes to marketing. Marketing is an investment, you're investing in consumer interest. However, consumer interest is not always taken in by just one form of marketing. You will need multiple kinds of marketing to succeed. This can cost you a hell of a lot of money. Marketing is a high stakes casino where you can win big or lose hard, Publishers are the high flyers when it comes to marketing, they've made countless successes where others failed and why? Because they found the right games to publish.
As an indie developer, you have to be confident in your own product but you also have to be aware of its ups and downs. You essentially need to ask yourself the question "would I risk everything on this game"? If you do then how much are you willing to risk. Some indie developers are risk takers, some aren't. It's usually the risk takers who invest into marketing that become recognized whereas those who don't take risks generally have an empty discussions section on their game's community hub.
As such, being indie is just as hard as it is working under a company... just in a different way. You have to be aware of your strengths and weaknesses and be able to convince that your piece of shit game is worth their time and money because it is a piece of shit game, it doesn't have those insane high-definition graphics as AAA titles so no one is going to be interested. You have to make them interested and as such you have to be passionate and look after your fans, interact with them and be modest. This is where Digital Homicide failed, The Slaughtering Grounds was a piece of shit but the developer started throwing insults at Jim Sterling. This essentially killed a lot of his rep and rep is everything when you're an indie developer. No one wants to support an arrogant asswipe. Basically you need to ask yourself why you are an indie developer and why your idea is worth the market's notice. You also need to ask yourself if it's financially viable.
Anyways we have covered the two basic routes towards becoming a game developer and if all else fails, you can just go mobile and throw microtransactions at your piece of shit game, good luck, you'll need it.
Anyways time to revert back to the dream. We have covered the reality. The gaming industry is a hell hole but it is our hell hole. Without it, we wouldn't have all these masterful games we have enjoyed for so long however without us, the developers wouldn't be able to feed their families.
Now can you transform your dream into reality? Of course you can, in life, anything is possible with persistence. Will you get to make your dream game? Not very likely. Will you get the next best thing? Very likely. Even if it's not the game you dreamed of, if you become even just a level designer, you can be proud at yourself that you were a vital component in making the masterpiece game that fans love (or hate). This is the reward for your work... as well as money of course. One thing though, don't go into game development for the money, do it for the glory. Do it for the place in the credits where your name will either be honored or shamed.
Now let's go back to the Pokemon game I dreamed of developing. Will it ever happen? Hell no, Can it ever happen? Extremely unlikely, Can I make a proper game? With effort, yes, Will I ever make a proper game? No.
You see the biggest problem is that Pokemon is a Japanese game. Now I can't speak Japanese... but I can learn it. Additionally I would be required to have skills in programming, art, level design, modeling, animation etc. I could go to college and learn it but I'd also need to learn to drive to get there as game development courses are miles away. Now I would also need to be consistent, in other words I'd need to not be lazy. I am as lazy as they come, hence the reason why I am near-jobless. Also I would need to work my way up to becoming a director which would take years of hard work. Finally, if I did become a director, I'd require enough time to make my dream happen, additionally I'd need a goal that I could work with.
Long story short, I don't want to be a video game developer. Instead I want to enjoy my hobby. Sure, it can be tempting at times to have second thoughts... but then I see the steam forums and I think "nah". As such, I have great respect for game developers, though I may slate your games off, though I may make jokes at your expense, I will still respect the work and effort gone into all your games. That is a difficult job within itself because some games want me to stab the developers to death for making me go through some of the most painful sections in gaming but then I realize the work that goes into their games. I will be the first to admit that if I were in the developers shoes, I too would throw a tantrum like Digital Homicide, I respect those developers who manage to remain composed in a position where I would fall apart. Oh and by the way, Peter Molyneux, your games suck donkey balls, now I expect a professional response - Terry309 Angry Video game Consumer.