An experimental “game”

As you may know if you follow me on twitter, I am currently working on a side project. It is still very early on, so I won’t really say much about it yet other than it is a sci-fi game coming out of a love for the pacing of Alien and 2001: A Space Odyssey, the characters of Firefly, and the sense of freedom and exploration in Super Metroid.

I have started working on this new project for a few reasons, most of which I wasn’t conscious of when I began. The biggest reason is that I am straight-up burned out when it comes to working on Duet. I have been working on it for somewhere close to three years now, and it is still far from finished. I am not very technically skilled when it comes to game development, primarily from a lack of experience. This makes it difficult to implement even relatively simple features in a appropriately simple way. Although Duet is a small game, with only six worlds and somewhere around an hour and a half of playtime, it is still extremely ambitious because of the level of polish required for a beautiful HD hand-painted world that feels alive.

I have learned a lot of things over the past 3-4 years. One of the best lessons I have learned is how unbelievably hard it is to finish building a game, even what you think is a small one. Duet is not finished. It is not even remotely close to being finished. Looking at the state of the game in comparison to the length of time it has dominated my thoughts makes me feel like a failure. I don’t know how to see the good things in it anymore, all I see is an incomplete game which I am taking way too long to complete. I still believe in the idea of how great the game could and should be, but I find it increasingly hard to see a clear path from here to there. That makes even thinking about opening up the code for Duet a pretty draining thing.

A good piece of advice I have heard for beginning game designers is “think of the simplest possible form of your idea, then make it simpler.” I would add, “and then make it even simpler than that.” This is much easier said than done, of course, since it can feel to a young designer such as myself that simplifying an idea necessitates compromising the vision. However, the past few years have made something clear to me: lack of experience is the number one thing that will kill your game. The reality is that you only get better at things by doing them, and that includes completing games. Since I have spent most of my game development history with a level of ambition far beyond my ability to achieve, I have gotten quite good at being stuck in the middle of development on a game, and have next to no skill at finishing them.

i have been making games for 14 years, so why have I never released anything? Because I haven’t been trying. Oh, I’ve worked pretty hard on a lot of projects, but I am never considering how I’m going to be able to complete them as part of my grand visions. This is a pretty big oversight on my part, because games can balloon very quickly into being much bigger and more complex things. It’s easy to keep dreaming up new features, new locations, and new characters without even contemplating or understanding how much work you are adding in order to reach a state of “completion.”

As an aside, but giving more context to my predicament with finishing projects. I usually exist in one of two modes: I either tie my self-worth to my productivity and feel terrible about myself all the time because I’m mostly unproductive apart from the rare moments when my self-loathing actually inspires me to get a little bit of work done, or I don’t care whether or not I do anything creative or useful or career-building, and so I don’t. It is very difficult to find a middle ground.

So, what was the point of all this?

Duet is on hold until two criteria have been met: First being that I feel like I can actually finish the project without having to compromise the vision. And second that Erik is not working full time on a different project which actually pays for his living expenses.

In the mean time, I want to make more games, and start getting better at finishing things. This new project is already ballooning like crazy in my mind, but I’m cutting it down as much as I can. Realistically, I can only really excel at one thing per project with my current level of skill. That naturally limits the scope or appeal of a project, but I would be much happier with a small but complete game that I can show everyone than I am with a much more ambitious game that is so half-baked that I’m embarrassed to even show screenshots of for fear of letting on how incomplete it is.

As part of this goal to finish more games more frequently, I’d like to make more games under limited development timeframes. Consequently, I actually did make a full game in around 4 hours this past week, so I’d like to post it for you to play and maybe even give some feedback. It’s super experimental, and you probably wouldnt even call it a game. But it is at least, a complete experience:

Experiment Number 89

Click here to download. (.ZIP 8.9MB)

Created with: Game Maker 8.1 Lite (apologies for the watermark, as I haven’t paid for the software)

Uses great spooky music by Kevin MacLeod, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution License.