Writing a videogame is hard.
I see this at least once a week. And yeah, writing a videogame is hard.
Except, I sorta think when everyone else says this they kinda mean “hey, putting code in the right order and making graphics and sounds and putting them all in a big jumbly mix of stuff so that what pops out the end is really bloody awesome” and that’s not really the bit I find hard. Well, not all of it anyway. Some of it is awkward, some of it is beyond my current skills, it’s time, care and patience hard. That’s if I sit down and put my mind to it hard. Solvable hard.
I can learn to be a better designer. I can learn to be a better coder. I can learn to be better at art. I can learn to be better at music. Sure, there are some of these things I’m probably best just going off and asking someone else to do because they can do it much better than me but in the main? Generally fixable-one-way-or-another-hard.
I’ve managed to not write a videogame for the best part of a year now because writing a videogame is hard. Generally not-easily-fixable-one-way-or-another-hard.
I can’t recall the exact words but it was something like “OK, so what do we have to do to get you to write a game for us?”.
That was around a year ago. A lovely chap from a certain platform to me.
I’d had invites from them before going back a few years. First to travel down somewhere reasonably local and pitch to them. I sat at home in my dressing gown and drank tea instead. I was depressed and pitching at a huge multinational videogame company didn’t seem like a healthy thing to be doing right then. Yeah so I’m fairly certain sitting at home in my dressing gown drinking tea wasn’t either but at least it was comfortable-ish.
A few years, a few other invites landed in my mail box telling me that they thought my games were great and they’d love to see them on their platform. It was lovely. I really appreciated receiving them and all that but I tucked them away, sort of pretending they weren’t there. I wasn’t ready for all that stuff. Not then.
This time? Sort of. Kind of. Almost.
I’d gotten to the stage where with Death Ray Manta, I’d reached a sort of dead end on things. I’d taken this whole “arena shooter with a single stick, fish with lasers and flashing lights” thing to somewhere well, I won’t say I was content with because I’m never content but certainly to somewhere I couldn’t be fucked pushing it any further. I’d gotten to somewhere where I fancied still doing something with Death Ray Manta because y’know, it never was all I wanted it to be, but not do it the same all over again. And sometimes being asked to put a game elsewhere is all you really need.
What do I need to bring Death Ray Manta elsewhere? Well, I need someone to help me bring a new Death Ray Manta game elsewhere because man, I cannot do this whole console dev thing on my own because… well, we’ll talk about that in a minute. What else? I need time to bring a new Death Ray Manta game elsewhere because making videogames is hard.
“OK, let’s talk”
I can’t do this whole console dev thing on my own because I can’t code for shit. I write all my games in Gamemaker, something I’ve been proud to be doing for over ten years now because not only does Gamemaker suit my brainspace but for the games I generally want to write, it’s just fine. In early 2013, the idea that Gamemaker would be a thing that would come to consoles was, well, I had vague hopes but nothing you’d pin a contract on. So I needed help.
The first and most obvious option would be to find a porting house to take Death Ray Manta elsewhere. That would be fine if I could be happy just putting Death Ray Manta elsewhere as-is but I’m really not. I don’t think it’d suit a console or handheld device without major tweaks. Worse, it’d be boring for me.
This isn’t and has never been about building a sustainable business, it’s about making me happy. I make games because I’m a selfish old man who wants to make games exist that sit in his head. I’m essentially a porting house nightmare just waiting to happen. So no. That won’t work. Not for me and certainly not for any sane porting house who values their sanity.
Luckily, I didn’t have to stress that one for too long as a friend offered to step in and help out. Let’s make this game together and make it happen. He seems really excited too. I reckon I can kill that in no time. We’re cool. Let’s go.
“Rob, you can turn your camera off if you want”
I’ll admit, I don’t know how to. This is only the second time I’ve ever used Skype, I’m just glad I can turn the thing on. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves here, you’re going to have to put up with this unshaven bleary eyed hairy beast staring up from a table at you.
It’s early morning. Andy, who’s going to be writing Death Ray Manta with me has gone down south for a meeting to see if we can all come to an agreement on taking Death Ray Manta elsewhere. I’m Skyping in from oop north. I’ve just gotten out of bed. I can’t even begin to imagine what a state I look. Maybe if everyone just doesn’t look down at the ipad, it’ll be cool.
It’s a short meeting. There’s a bit of chatter about what’s on the table, where we stand, what we can and cannot talk about in public, who we can kill (wait, not who we can kill, sorry). It’s honest, it’s straightforward. It’s everything you’d hope dealing with someone could be. It’s agreed. Death Ray Manta will be a new thing and not just on the PC.
I turn Skype off, close the iPad cover over and I go back to bed. I’m knackered.
It feels like my head is going to drop off.
I’m in fucking agony. Every time I bend down it feels like my head is going to come away from my neck. It’s like I’m always just one stretch too far away from managing my own decapitation. I’m trying to pick up my kid from her travel cot except every single time I reach over to go and pick her up, there’s that “ooh, hope my head doesn’t fall off” wince accompanied by that weird sensation you have when you’ve got stitches in, where your body goes “hey, I’ve got stitches in here you know?”.
Logically and realistically I know my head isn’t going to fall off, that would be amazingly stupid. When you’re in pain, you don’t really thinking about things rationally most of the time though. Especially when you’re in fucking agony and all you’re trying to do is pick your daughter up.
My daughter was born a few months ago. She’s absolutely lovely but it’s been a kinda hairy time. Mrs B hasn’t been in the best of health and I’ve been running around the clock trying to keep shit together. For the first few weeks of my daughter’s life, I’ve spent most of it doing the night shifts to ensure Mrs B can get some rest. Weirdly, this is an improvement from just before my daughter was born where I was doing day and night shifts trying to keep things together. At least now I can sleep through the day and get some kip whilst Mrs B picks up the slack.
But then I had this operation. A fairly straightforward procedure that, to be blunt, involves a nice chap cutting my neck open and taking a (thankfully benign) lump out of it. It’s a bit of a rough thing to have to go through in the first place but made just a little bit more awkward when you’ve got to look after a wife, older kid and a new born daughter as well.
And made all that bit more awkward by it really fucking hurting each time I bend over. Or sit in the wrong position. Or try and sit down to write a videogame. It’s been a few months since I signed on the dotted line now and I’ve made precisely no progress at all because sitting at my desk to do anything fucking hurts.
Writing a videogame is hard.
It’s true. Making a videogame is hard. But the hardest part isn’t the code, it isn’t the design, it isn’t the balance, the sound or the art. It’s being able to make a videogame.
The past year and a bit has been one of those years where I’ve bounced from one thing to the next, from Mrs B’s pregnancy woes to looking after a strident new born daughter to having my neck sliced open to trying to keep the older kid on the level to Mrs B getting ill and having to fill in where she couldn’t. So many times where, with all the will in the world, I could only work inbetween the chaos, I could only work when the painkillers kicked in or the money that week hadn’t been thrown down on a run of hospital appointments for one of us.
I’ve been making games for eleven or twelve years now and the easiest game making has ever been for me is when I’m safe and comfortable. I do my best work when I’m not up against it. I do my best work when I’m not starving. I do my best work when I’m not suffering. I do my best work when I’m safe.
Sometimes that means that I’ve got enough money to see me through the days without too much stress. Sometimes it means I’m not having to pull stupid hours because when you’re me, that’s a thing you don’t really get a choice over. Sometimes it’s just not being in pain. I’ve been skint, I’ve nearly died twice. I’ve collapsed through exhaustion (Amazingly, I was on the bog at the time so at least that had a funny side to it. I’ll not forget the ambulance guys face when I came round, bless him).
When we talk about how hard it is making videogames, we forget that there’s a human there having to write a videogame and human lives are weird. Some people are fortunate and have a nice clean run at things, they have money, they have health, they have time or at least some combination of these things that enables them to work on videogames safely and comfortably. Some people, well, life is a little bit more messy and sometimes you can have a nice clear run and then bam! Life hits and it all goes to shit fairly fast. Sometimes people just roll from one crap day to another.
It’s taken me nearly twelve months of going right up against it before I’ve been in the position to write videogames again. When I signed on the dotted line a year ago, I had no idea that it was going to be one of those years. I’ve been very fortunate that my partner in crime, Andy, has been patient. I’ve been fortunate to work with people who understand that life can get in the way. In a way, it’s kinda worked out really well because now, I can write console games with Gamemaker so Andy doesn’t have to shoulder the making most of Death Ray Manta burden alone. It’s going to be a better, stronger game with two people able to approach it with a passion. We’ll make sure of that.
When I say that making videogames is hard, I know it’s because writing videogames is hard. Because sometimes life isn’t easy and that makes writing videogames hard.
I can’t help but think the world of videogames would be a whole lot better if more people understood this, y’know? That when we talked about the difficulties of writing videogames, we talked about humans as humans, as people who lead lives that aren’t always straightforward. I’m not the only person who writes videogames and goes through the mill. If anything, I’m lucky because there is another side for me. Things do get better.
And yeah, it’s like don’t ever let anyone tell you that life should be hard for people making videogames. Don’t tell anyone that life should be hard for people who make videogames. Or for anything else, really. That’s bullshit of the first order and everyone deserves better. All of you deserve better. One of the wonderful things about the internet is that you can still come across as leading a fully functional life with ease, even when the shit has hit the fan. You never really know who’s going through what.
Being aware that sometimes life is hard and learning to tread carefully knowing that? That’s something that’s really not hard to do, yeah?
Let’s do that.