Friday, January 13, 2017

My First Game, Failure & What I've Learned from the Experience



I recently competed in a Game Jam, and over the course of the 2 months I spent doing so I learned stuff about the road ahead of me to becoming a game developer.

It's hard to admit mistakes and criticize yourself and your work at times, especially when you're competing for a hefty prize. You need to believe in yourself, because if you don't how could you expect others like judges to believe in you? I lost the game Jam. That was a completely expected result I was prepared for. What I was NOT prepared for however was to lose in the way that I did. I tried to minimize my expectations to be more realistic, while also being realistic on the opposite end and not being overly critical of my work.

The end result of that effort was that I was never too stressed during development. I had a very positive, and in my view, productive experience. When the pencils were down, this test of my abilities left me proud of what I created and my leap forward towards my goal of being a game developer.

This left me in a vulnerable position however. I didn't expect to win, but I did expect success in the form of mild popularity of my game. I tried to create a game that stood out from the pack. One that had character, humor, interesting premise, etc. Something that win or lose, people would be talking about. Something that would gain me and the game a few fans to help motivate me along to a commercial release. The vulnerability was exposed when none of that came to materialize.

I felt like I had modest goals, and failed to reach them. This left me in such a dazed frame of mind, that I wasn't sure of how to continue forward. I wasn't sure if I even could at all. It felt like I tried my best and the world spoke "Your best isn't good enough! Give it up!".

I questioned continuing forward, because in my mind, how could I? Mistakes happen. Poor performance happens. etc. These things you can learn from and try and do better next time. When you think you have done your best, what is there from that to learn from?

After spending some time trying to reflect and figure myself out, I was finally coming up with some answers. Sure I still feel and believe that outside forces played the major part in my games performance, and if it wasn't for those my minimum expectations would have been met. But I need things to blame myself for. Things I can improve on. I needed to look at things for a different perspective as well.

It was helpful to find a video on YouTube that helped make me realize. I'm not alone. Other Indie developers go through very similar struggles. I'm coming up as a indie on the outside, alone. I have to predict and learn things myself. So it's easy to feel like no one else can identify with me. Finding evidence to the contrary is very encouraging. And it helps me build up the armor that I need to shrug off failures like this. That's why I'm writing this post now. In hope that others will some day relate to it.

In the end, I've been able to think more clearly about my recent game. What I've realized is, it wasn't the right choice for a game jam. I'd put it like that it was "to rich" of an idea for a game jam. It was to complex for me to conceive, fully prototype to find what works best, and build into something that's award winning. All in the span of just 8 weeks with a $0 budget. I selected this idea for the jam because I thought it was complex enough to be interesting, but simple enough to do with all those limits. But I was mistaken.

I also have to reflect on what the games that beat me had that mine did not. On the surface, most look like rehashes of decades old game ideas for a new platform (VR), mixed with pre-made purchased art and scripting assets that don't reflect the jam game developers skill at all. That's what I see when I look at them. It's the negative view though, even if it may be correct. I need the positive view to understand how maybe I could have done things differently.

The positive view is. The developers were less burdened in all respects. They didn't have to divide their time between designing the games mechanics and doing art/scripting. By adopting older game ideas as something new to VR, while not creative, they had a solid game play base to work with to add in their own minor unique details. They started with a solid idea for mechanics, even if derivative, while I just had a basic premise.

I found my answers. I didn't want or need another harsh "learning experience" instead of a prize from a game jam. But I'm happy I now found even that. It was discouraging to feel like I wasted 2 months with zilch to show for it. Not even mistakes to learn from.

If your wondering, what I personally learned was. I need to focus more on a unique mechanic as the base for a VR game like this. Not a unique premise that isn't necessarily a VR thing. Jams call this "VR Innovation", and score highly for it. I didn't really innovate anything for VR specifically.

As mentioned, I learned I need to dial in my scope of what is a Jam viable game project better. If I'm going to be doing everything myself, no budget, and in a limited amount of time. Well, now I have a better idea of what kind of project is to much. Companies like MSI/Oculus don't care about previous definitions of what a "Jam" is. They will redefine it to suit them. And with that, any notions of whats "fair" based on previous definitions is irrelevant. A short demo made entirely in 2 months by a single person splitting his time between mechanics, code, art, etc, that may get fair attention and criticism in more traditional jams. But not ones like these. A game like that just cant compete with games developed by several people who are talented in different areas, budgets to spend on store assets, and many months to years of development/polish. They're worlds apart. It sucks, but that's just how it is.

I need to remove some of my limits to compete in such jams. Like my ideals about not using previous work outside of prototypes. I need to work on and refine ideas on my own time, before I even know of a jam. Maybe expand my idea of whats a prototype to cover what I'd otherwise consider an alpha.

I need to not go into the jam with something to prove, and a want to do everything myself so my game is a 100% reflection of myself. If only 10% of a game is reflection of myself, but I think its more likely to win, then that's what I need to do. I need to find any budget I can to buy attractive store assets.

I also learned that I shouldn't give up on my game just yet. Since it was a mistake to try and build it for a jam, it didn't get the proper prototyping phase that it should have. I still feel like there's a diamond in the rough there, and proper prototyping would help reveal it. I need to move on for now, but I should revisit it later.

For now I'm going to focus on prototyping ideas for innovative VR mechanics. I already have a new game in mind, but first I'm working on some scripts to both help realize those mechanics, and also release as my next VR asset for the unity asset store!

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