Making games, or any entertainment for profit, carries inherent risk. You can do a million different things to minimize it – choose a smart programming methodology for your team and project, work with talented producers to set up milestones, thoroughly document your design, create a meticulous business plan – but in the end it’s still there. The fact remains that you can make a fantastic game that fails to find an audience. It may be no fault of the game itself. It could be the timing. Maybe it gets released among AAA monsters who dominate sales for that period. Maybe the target audience was there years ago, at the start of development, but has since been served by other products. Maybe there isn’t any identifiable reason. Maybe people just aren’t into it.
This truth permeates the culture of the game industry. There’s a mutual understanding between developers that the line between a success and a failure is very fine. It’s something everyone in the industry has to make peace with. Interestingly, developers that I’ve spoken with often find it difficult to anticipate a game’s success or failure while it’s in development. It can be hard to tell if a feature in the game is ill-conceived or just not yet properly built out. Developers of successful games are often surprised to discover that their work “just fit together in the last few months.” For five years it was a buggy, awful, frustrating experience, which kept the developers awake at night. But then that feature gets a tweak, and it just works. That placeholder art gets replaced, and it fits perfectly. And that multi-million dollar train wreck waiting to happen is suddenly a beautiful, harmonious testament to the talent of the team who put in the hours.
But that’s certainly not always the case. It doesn’t always come together. And, similar to the great successes, it can be hard to tell before the final stretch that something just isn’t going to work. How do you ever become comfortable with this? That’s a question I’ve asked a lot of developers. Most of them will tell you that you need to be uncomfortable. You need to be afraid. And if you’re not, you’re either not aware of the risks or you’re not creating a product that’s worth all the heartache.
I’ve also noticed that successful developers are willing to sacrifice nearly everything to see a product through to completion. They will work insane hours, and in some cases obliterate their own personal lives. They will sacrifice their health, their relationships, and their security to make sure a product ships in the best state possible. Then, post-release, they do their best to pick up the pieces and repair the damage before the cycle starts again. It makes sense that they feel this is necessary, due to that inherent challenge in predicting a game’s success. Since even perfectly executed games can fail, the one thing you have the most control over is delivering your vision to its fullest extent. If that vision fails, then that’s life. Ideally, with enough hours and focus, the game won’t fail because it fell short of its aspirations.
But there are some things you can’t get back. There are relationships that can’t be rebuilt after the fact. Not everyone will understand an artist’s seemingly selfish devotion to a video game. Many developers I’ve spoken with have described this willingness to sacrifice as a flaw in their character. Usually it’s something they’ve learned to identify and accept, but few are proud of how quick they are to focus on their work. This becomes harder if they make the choice to become someone’s spouse or parent. You may be able to explain to your friend why you’ve been busy for a year, but you can’t explain that to your five-year-old. The core question is whether it’s our industry or our craft that demands these sacrifices. Is the instability in the industry addressable through changes in development and funding, or is this the cost of making a living through your art?