A lot of people get into the games industry because of games they loved. Artists, sound designers, and graphics programmers awed by immersive worlds or game designers and writers inspired to ask “what if?” — art always inspires its consumers to dream, and I am no different. Although I didn’t know at the time, my first dreams of game design started in elementary school. Imagining shinier new evolutions for pokemon eventually grew into brainstorming ideas for characters and stories in middle school. Talking about these dreams of design was play for my playground friends and I and when I discovered in college that one could make a living by making games, I felt I had found what I wanted to spend my life doing.
Now, after having spent 2 years working as a part of CGC Games, I have a much clearer picture of what the path of the game designer is.
Making a Dream vs Making a Living
Like any creative industry, the games industry is sometimes a little touchy about these two topics. Many a dream game has failed to reach fruition due to the game’s makers’ need to make a living. As you can imagine, someone like me who got into the games industry on a dream had a fair amount of crashing down to earth to do in order to mature.
Now, I’m not here to tell you all that you need to abandon your dreams and sell out in order to survive in the games industry, I truly believe the most compelling games are products of executing on dreams. However, there are real differences between making one’s dream game and making a living in the games industry, and being too touchy to have a candid discussion about those differences hurts only the aspiring designer.
The Biggest Difference
The biggest difference I’ve noticed is that making a dream game and making games for a living are actually separate things. And maybe it’s just me, but that wasn’t totally obvious to me until having worked on games myself.
In reality, these two goals actually aren’t dependent on each other at all.
Making games for a living requires a broader understanding of the trends in the games industry. It also requires working with a team and commercially distributing the game in order to support that team. The game’s vision must also be communicated to and subject to the feedback of the whole team.
However, if the goal is just to make one’s own dream game, the game can take the risk of ignoring more conventions and isn’t necessarily accountable to the influences of others in its vision. The game doesn’t even need to be commercially distributed if making money off the game isn’t necessary.
If you have a dream game that you’ve been wanting to follow through on, I’d suggest trying to work on it as a hobby. It’s always easier to scale a project up than scale one back, and if you’re interested in making games for a living there’s no better preview than trying to make one.
The Games Industry: the Realm of Dreams?
For myself, however, it was worrying about needing a dream in order to be able to work in the industry that was more relevant. Right around the time I was working on Arena of Mythos (aka Warden’s Arena), I was struggling with impostor syndrome quite a bit. It felt like every game design blog I read made it seem like their writers were working on their magnum opus, and that if I was going to be a part of the games industry too I had to justify it by doing something huge. Each time I reviewed the design goals for Arena of Mythos, it failed to evoke those same feelings of grandeur. So each time I resolved to have the game encompass more types of play, more fun, more everything and the game’s design sprawled messily. Eventually, I realized that these designs were really a myriad of systems with their own directions rather than a singular game idea and I worried my lack of ability to unify the ideas made me a bad designer. Then, while working on potential Terrene Odyssey expansions, collaborating with other designers in real time revealed that my blog readings suffered from a “Facebook effect” where positive stories are over represented because they are the most notable. Not every great game starts out as a singular unchanged dream, but showing the intermediate steps it goes through can be hard since things probably aren’t even fully cohesive to the designer who’s sorting it out.
These past 2 years have been great learning experiences! While there have definitely been even more experiences and reflections than I have gotten down here, I think I did manage to mature a lot in the way I think about and balance making a dream game and making a living.