Game Design: Step by Step
January 12, 2000
Boy--what a week it's been.
For those of you following the discussion in the forums, I guess I don't have to go into all of that again, right?
I have to be honest with you. There have been times this week when I've been really, really close to saying to Hell with all of this. Sure, I love the project--otherwise I would've never started it. Yet, when you get right down to it, I had to keep asking myself: is it worth it? Which brings me to the subject of this week's column.
Some of you have asked for more insight into the process in general, rather than detail specifically tailored to UnderWorld, so, with that in mind, I'm going to blow the lid of one of the behind-the-scenes facts of the gaming industry.
The cold truth: it's not worth it. Not by a long chalk.
The simple fact of the matter is that aside from a very small minority in this field, no-one makes anything resembling a living doing this. The money just isn't there. Even those who are lucky enough to make a living wage are hovering down around the I-just-got-out-of-college-so-I'll-slave-for-what-they'll-pay-me end of the salary scale--which is fine, if you're in your early twenties, and there's a chance of advancement. But if you're in your late twenties, or thirties, or older, that just doesn't cut it anymore. Sooner or later you get tired of Ramen for dinner.
Now, before everyone gets their panties in a wad over the mercenary nature of the preceding paragraph, let me expand upon that--- the fact that there is no money to be made in this industry is not the problem. There are plenty of people (myself included) who would choose to do it for the pittance we receive, for the simple fact that we love doing it. We love gaming, and the ability to make any money at all is great. The problem arises from something else entirely.
The problem comes from the fact that despite the lack of any real income provided by this industry, the amount of work remains at a level consistant with other forms of publishing. The books need to be written. They need to be edited. They need art. They need lay-out. They need to be advertised, shipped to distributors, and gotten into the stores. Everything that needs to be done in general publishing needs to be done here--but with the people doing it getting paid much, much less.
See the problem?
In fact, when you get right down to it, there's even more work to do in the gaming industry than in general publishing. Product needs to be playtested--not a step you'll find in general publishing. Games need to have a presence at conventions (especially GenCon--if you're not at that show, you're assumed to be dead & buried)--also not a must in general publishing. On top of all of this, because of the size of most companies in this industry, you have these responsibilities being piled on to much fewer people than would handle them in general publishing....again, for much less money.
But we still do it.
Then, you add to this the unfortunate side-effect of the "expert-gamer" syndrome--and we've all dealt with them, let me tell ya. The "expert gamer" is the guy (or gal, or group) that will inevidably come out of the woodwork and tell you that you don't know what you're doing...that you've plagiarized X, Y or Z...that your system is crap...or your layout is crap...or your editing is crap. They'll tell you that they'd do a much better job of it. They'll tell you (and this is the part that really amuses the hell out of me) that you're obviously putting out sub-standard work so that you can release a second edition and screw the gamer out of their hard-earned money.
That's right--they'll tell you that you're doing it for the money. (Try very hard not to laugh at this. Go ahead. It ain't easy.)
Unfortunately, there's a paradigm at work--a minority of folks who like what you're doing will tell you so....and the majority of folks who hate what you're doing will loudly tell everyone. So, what we're left with is the distinct impression that the audience for whom we do this work...the end-users who are the entire reason the industry exists in the first place....don't give a rat's ass what we're doing.
So, we end up asking...is it worth it?
The point of this little rant, you ask? Think of it as a splash of cold water in the face of anyone who's interested in design. You will see very little (if anything) in the way of return for your efforts, you will work harder than you could have possibly imagined, and in the end, the very people you're looking to as your audience will most likely not care. Be prepared for this reality. Oh--and I almost forgot to mention that if you do get successful--if you become one of the lucky few who can make a living at it, the majority of gamers will accuse you of being a corporate sell-out and call you clever names like T$R.
So--the point that I'm at now in UnderWorld is deciding for myself whether any of this is worth it. If I decide it isn't, then I stop. The column goes monthly rather than daily, and will discuss more general design issues, rather than the specific design of a game from start to finish. To be quite honest, I'm not sure what my answer is, just yet.
...and for those of you who think that this week's installment had nothing to do with design, then think again. This sort of doubt is part and parcel of the process--more so than anything else I have told you about so far. If you're absolutely sure of what you're doing, then chances are you don't know what you're doing. Game design is, despite what some might tell you, an artistic exercise--and as such, you'll find that you'll doubt yourself from start to finish. It's part of the deal.
Thanks for your time.
Underworld, and all related terms and concepts contained herein are copyright 1999 by Gareth-Michael Skarka. All rights reserved.