Friday, 4 January 2013

2012 introspection

I'm not usually much moved by new years, the calendar being such an arbitrary division of time. But recently reading a lot of other people talking about what they've achieved in the last year and their plans for the next has got me thinking about the same.

Putting things in context, in 2011 I released Vertex Dispenser, which I'd been making in the background for years. This was massively stressful: first I overworked myself crunching to finish it while simultaneously trying to do a PhD, then at release some new bugs showed up - this isn't unusual but I panicked over each one, and then sales were very poor and it became clear that I'd failed in a lot of what I'd tried to achieve with it (I'm still proud of it, but it's not what I wanted it to be). This was followed by a period of depression in which I did very little. Gradually towards the end of the year I started recovering by jamming on small games, I moved back to the UK, and released Glitch Tank - which I'm massively proud of.

2012 largely continued on from there; I'd gotten into a rhythm that worked really well for me, and I've managed to mostly stay there. I had a ridiculously productive year, in fact. The things that I've released are only the iceberg-tip; finding good ideas involves a lot of time spent filtering through bad ones, trying things out, making prototypes. Here are some highlights:

- Released Kompendium. Most of these games were made in late 2011, but I'd kept them sitting for a while.

- Pirate Kart V. This is an event focused on making lots of games in just a couple of hours each - I find this is usually too short for me to do anything I'm satisfied with, but the experience of making things so fast is worthwhile in itself. Multicolour Alien Olympic is a worthwhile companion to Kompendium, it came out better for my having spent a lot of time exploring similar ideas already. Game Title and Lost Levels ended up taking much longer than the prescribed time, but were well worth it, and have made some appearances on people's end of year lists which is wonderful!

- The Indie Royale bundle featured Vertex Dispenser, which was really great for me. It was lucky enough to be alongside a first-person-shooting-thingummy that people actually wanted, and so sold a substantial number of copies. It's keeping me going. I jammed out an interesting remix for the bundle, which was worthwhile, used a couple of ideas that I'd had floating around for a while.

- Made Zaga-33 for the 7-day roguelike challenge, following it up with an expanded version later. I had tried making roguelike games before, but each time I got over-ambitious and ended up in a sprawling mess; I wanted to make something that did everything all the games I loved did and more. With Zaga-33, I took the opposite approach: instead of adding features, I dropped them, pruning down to a delicate bonsai of a game, and I found something quite special in the process.

- Continued updating Glitch Tank, and it's gotten even better. We still play it quite a bit, more than a year on. Seriously happy with it.

- Started Helix at a Cambridge jam back in August, have been working on it on and off since. I have mixed feelings about it. It very consistently evokes a positive response from people I show it to. It might turn out to be the most popular thing I've made, but that will be because its virtues are more obvious rather than because they are greater. It's very conventional. But still, it's quite a good game.

- Made VESPER.5. It's kind of silly, it's just one simple idea, it completely baffles me how well received it has been. It's by far the most viewed post on here, and it's been mentioned on a few different people's end of year lists - which is all lovely, but completely unexpected, I don't really know what to make of it all. I love seeing the sporadic flurries of discussion about it that crop up on twitter; people speculating about the tiniest details.

- Finally quit my PhD. A slow and painful process of something that I loved becoming a burden to me. It was tough, but I feel much better now that it's over, and now that I have no formal obligations to the subject I'm able to approach it more comfortably.

- Made O. This is just so good. It's the platonic archetype of touchscreen multiplayer. It goes down amazingly well with almost everyone I show it to. Groups of friends or relatives gathered around watching heated matches, taking turns. The delight when someone realises they can throw off-colour balls to disrupt their opponent's scoring, or gather great handfuls on the screen to collect all in one bunch. So pleased with it.

- Made Corrypt. This was a beautiful ordeal. Nobody who wasn't present when I was making it will realise how difficult it was to put together: everything had to be arranged just so or the whole thing would fall apart. It's not perfect; I don't think there exists a perfect solution to all the constraints I was under; but it's pretty great.

- edit: Porpentine just reminded me I made Walking Story. I'd forgotten this because it was so quick to make, but that frenzied speed is what's interesting about it. Twine is an amazing tool for making games in the moment without anything getting in the way.

Lots of good stuff. On balance it was an amazing year. There have been a couple of negatives though:

- Aside from the bundle, nothing has brought in much money. To some extent that's okay; the bundle makes up for it; but it doesn't bode well for future sustainability. My wife's income is similarly volatile; more regular at the moment but equally uncertain for the future. I expect to keep going for another year or two and then have to give up and get a real job.

- I feel like I've failed O and Glitch Tank. These are the best things I've made, but they haven't reached many people. This isn't about money, it's about people missing out on playing them because I haven't managed to communicate that they'd love to. The games deserve better marketing than I'm capable of. This makes me really sad, and I don't know what to do about it.

Plans for 2013: continue on in very similar form to 2012. I have a few games I'm working on at the moment to finish, and many ideas for more, and no doubt new ideas will take hold of me along the way. Multiplayer games are important, and I'm finding the iPad ideal for them, so expect more of those. Corrypt was very satisfying to make, so expect more of that sort of complex level design and weird world-sense. I'm trying a bunch of ideas for roguelikes (or zagalikes), so expect something there. I'll follow inspiration wherever it leads; can't predict where that will end me up. Looking forward to it.


  1. I think your output has been absolutely incredible this year man, I think you're on the verge of making one that not only do you like as much as GT / O but also which manages to take on that mystic viral quality that Vesper.5 did. Hopefully then you won't need to worry about financial crap anymore!

    Best of luck with 2013, I have no doubt that you'll continue to make fascinating and bold work for us all to enjoy!

  2. Orson Welles said: "A writer needs a pen, a painter needs a brush, but a filmmaker needs an army."
    Yes, but a game developer needs to create his pen, his brush, and his army.

  3. Yeah, that marketing thing is a hell of a problem, but I think that you will find a unique way to solve it. At least O and glitch tank aren't going away or in a limited edition of any form (except apple tax related).

    As sad as it is to put a year or two cap on it, I am looking forward to what you come up with this year.

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  5. Have you put anything out to pay for on PC, even a rerelease? I always feel that to get noticed on iOS you need to be lucky and/or mainstream...

    1. Yeah, that's something I need to try again this year. I keep making things that need touchscreens or that nobody would pay for on PC (kompendium, zaga, vesper, even corrypt I expect..)

  6. Have you got a paypal? I've really enjoyed everything you've made and wouldn't mind paying a small amount for the privilege. One other thing you could try to make a small but finite amount of money is offering your games at a 'pay what you like' price. I think everyone who enjoys games should experience Corrypt, O and Glitch Tank. They are as good as anything I've played in a long while. I think many people realise that you can't afford to keep making games for nothing.

    I really hope you overcome the marketing issue, your games are a bit special! I'd be sad if there weren't any more.

    1. I'm not comfortable asking for donations right now, because although I'm concerned about the future I'm way better off than many for the moment. But I will try putting a price on some PC game(s) this year - iOS isn't a great place to sell things.

      Thank you! Words like yours help me keep motivated.