Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Labour of love or labour of money?

I have spent a good number of years now working on a game somewhat irregularly.  Initially it was called Fantasy Monster Beatdown (hereafter FMB) and was basically a system of combat that allowed several people to duke it out with fantasy armies under their control.  Every player could customize their army to be full of whatever type of unit they wanted from Assassins to Treants, Skeletons to Wizards, Footmen to Vampires.  Each player had 5-12 units that could move around on a hex grid and try to kill off the other person's units.  I was extremely proud of my little creation and roped many of my friends into playing with me.  The mechanics were simple yet fun and the game was full of emergent complexity.

Emergent Complexity:  The ideal game from many standpoints is one that has high Emergent Complexity.  This means that the game is simple to explain and the rules are easy to understand but that the strategy can be incredibly complex, so much so that it is nearly impossible to say with certainty what the best move is.  Chess or Go are classic examples, the rules are simple to explain but playing well is hard and playing perfectly is impossible.  Most wargames are the opposite with byzantine rules and easy choices.

While I very much enjoyed the game from some perspectives, FMB had a serious flaw.  It had no particular reason for the armies to be fighting, and in many cases people ended up in standoffs with both sides taking defensive positions and being unwilling to budge.  Once the units were actually fighting it worked beautifully but there was no good reason to think anyone would actually attack their opponent aside from boredom.  This is clearly not a good design.

The original incarnation of FMB was created in 2002.  For several years I regularly changed and updated the game trying to refine the core mechanics and fix the seemingly insurmountable problem of how to make people fight each other and not just stand at a distance.  There were obviously fairly easy kludges I could use to force people to fight, but in the end they never ended up being very compelling.  I didn't want something like "Player 1 loses the game in 10 turns unless Player 2 is dead" though I did try various permutations like that for awhile.

One of my inspirations for this effort was BloodBowl, which is a fantasy football game that had great ideas combined with many gameplay issues.  That said, once the Comfy crowd in university fixed up the game mechanics a bit we had a huge amount of fun running a BloodBowl league.  The very natural meshing of fighting and scoring touchdowns that BloodBowl achieved is something I quite admire even though much of the rest of the system was pretty miserable in the eyes of a game designer.

Rather recently I finally came up with a way to resolve these issues that I have been having with the game.  The way I did it was to change the win condition away from "Kill the opposing army" to "Force your opponent to starve to death".  The idea now is that each army has to be fed, and there are a number of specific points on the map that they can capture to facilitate that.  Some of those nodes provide food directly (farms), some provide other bonuses to your units (armory, blacksmith, stables). Each player has to feed their army each turn, and if they cannot their own monstrous minions come to eat them alive!  I set up the numbers so that the amount of food both armies require is greater than the amount of food all the farms can create which means that somebody is going to run out of food eventually.

The advantage of this is that now each army has distinct goals aside from fighting each other.  They must capture farms to feed themselves for as long as possible and they also want to capture the other nodes to make themselves better at fighting.  This clearly leads to conflict since both players want the same thing, so the players strategize, the armies clash and somebody wins.  The rules are easy to explain and we have a wargame that doesn't take long to complete but which has an real depth of strategy.

The question of course becomes:  What am I going to do with the game I have created?  The interesting thing to me is that I don't have any particular inclination to rush out and try to make money from it.  This fact is possibly surprising in light of the fact that so many people in my life either try to make money from game creation or insist that I should do so.  The primary argument seems to be that I would be happier if I was getting paid for doing the things I do now on my own time.  One thing that I do find interesting are that the two people who have tried to convince me to sell my games professionally are my father and a friend, Sandbox Lady.  Neither of these people is especially focused on monetary acquisition as a life goal, both are generous with their time and money, and yet both found my total lack of interest in turning my hobby into a business completely baffling.

My father spent his working years on a job he seemed perfectly content to do, though it never really struck me that he had any tremendous passion for it. I know that often he found office politics and bureaucracy infuriating, but I am sure that would be true in a multitude of positions given his temperament.  The impression I always had was that he felt that the security of his job was extremely important given his dedication to his family and that since he found the job perfectly fine there was no reason to go elsewhere.  Just to be clear, I have no issue with the idea of sticking with a job that seems fairly suitable because of the good benefits/security/hours/whatever.  There are people out there who are desperate to follow their dreams and passions and are quite willing to endure whatever deprivation and drudgery might be necessary to do so, but my father never struck me as the kind who is happy to wait tables for years while he waits for his acting career to take off; I am not that sort either.

Sandbox Lady is working at a job she is perfectly content to do, but also does not seem to have particular passion for.  It has excellent conditions and benefits which are a compelling reason to stay.  Her reasons for working where she does make sense to me given her family situation and talents, but she certainly isn't chasing some pie in the sky dream job.  She seems particularly eager to encourage me to go and make money doing what I love to do instead of just whatever job comes along though, which I find interesting.

Another parallel experience I have had is talking about game design with other friends Full Throttle and Butcher Knife.  Both of these individuals are good at games and interested in design, but both take a completely different tack than I do.  Whenever I started working on a game with either of them they inevitably became far more interested in marketing and production details than the game itself.  In several cases we ended up having long discussions about these sorts of topics before we had even played the game!  I always felt like production details could wait until we had played the game 100 times to see if it was truly excellent.

When I was working as a commissioned salesperson I played the game of "Make the most money possible."  I made sure to be truthful about the product I was selling and to make a real attempt to get the customer the information they needed to make a good choice for themselves.  I also took a lot of pride in being the sort of salesperson that people want to deal with.  Thankfully these two goals generally work well together.  In this case I was trying to maximize my income and that provided a good 'score' to determine how well I was doing.

So why do I not feel any inclination to try to sell a game I have made?  My current theory goes like this:  I love my games, much moreso than I ever did selling things.  I want my games to be perfect.  When building a game I don't look at the success of the game as my benchmark.  If I made a fun game that made me $50,000 or a absolutely perfect game that made me nothing I would take much more pride in the perfect game.  Certainly I would like the money, but I would never feel entirely right about having my name stamped on a product I felt wasn't up to the most exacting standards.  When I make games I do it to make something beautiful.  If I had two ways to build a game and one was the popular way that would guarantee big sales and one was the right way, I would build it the right way.

More and more often lately I have been feeling a bit like the stereotype of the starving artist.  Whether that artist is visual, musical or otherwise they (according to stereotype) are poor but refuse to compromise their art to conform to what the public is interested in.  I could spend time and energy trying to make my art form more palatable for the masses or I could labour on in obscurity achieve my own version of perfection.  When I consider these two options there simply isn't a choice at all:  I want my creation to be perfect, not successful.

At this point my best guess at explaining all this behaviour is that the people in my life who encourage me to make money from games really believe in the idea that if you do something for money that you would do for free anyway you will be happy.  While that has some merit, I think in many cases 'starving artists' like me should not pursue their dreams as entrepreneurs.  I would spend all my time pursuing perfection instead of the bottom line, which is a terrible formula for a business.  Far better would be for me to be employed by someone who is willing to accept a little bit of perfectionist neurosis on the part of their employees but insist on deliverables and ship dates.  I am not interested in or suitable for the part of a company head, but I do think I could find a lot of satisfaction in creating games for somebody else.  It would allow me to work on things I enjoy while having someone else change the goalposts from 'unattainable perfection' to 'the best you can have ready by next thursday', and since I always do my best work when dealing with an impossible deadline it might even make me better at what I do.

So until someone walks up offers me a job building games for a living (and these jobs are hilariously hard to get, by the way) I will continue the way I am going.  I fully intend to follow my dreams, but my dreams don't include cash incentives, but rather simply the joy of making something ideal.

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