I've been possessed of late, animated with a need to write about games, mostly surrounding a topic in gaming that's become absolutely radioactive. Likely everyone who follows gaming news knows what I'm talking about, and it's extremely divisive, so I don't want to talk about it here. But I find that I feel so strongly about it that its cut into my game development time, so maybe writing here is a way of recovering balance.
So, with that in mind, be warned. Serious TL;DR ahead.
I'm not posting much about games these days, but I'm still working on them. Some of the ideas I've posted about ages ago are still alive. I'm not sure I'll ever stop loving space games, or wanting to make them.
This year, however, has been about beating the logic of the "sunk cost fallacy," the lie that you can't turn back now because you've spent too much going the way you're going. I had been working on a game using Torque 2D, but the farther I got, the more wrong the process seemed to be. Torque's a great engine, especially in its new open source form, and my project had started life on the closed source version (Torque Game Builder) as an epic space trading RPG set in a randomly generated galaxy. Initial development seemed easy once I'd picked up the scripting language of TGB, and once it went open source I started dreaming of a sort of Dwarf Fortress in space, with a huge emphasis on exploration, crew development and random encounters.
But as I succeeded, I began to struggle with an embarrassingly simple problem. I didn't want to make a 2D game.
Yeah, I know. Dumb. What's that they say about insanity?
I'd originally chosen Torque because it felt faster to get up and running for a lone wolf dev. My dirty little dev secret is that although I can program, I don't especially enjoy it. The faster I can move a thought into interactions on the screen, the happier I am, and I've preferred engines over rolling my own because I really can't stand the fiddly bits. I'm like an author that just wants a typewriter without having to learn the metallurgy and chemistry needed to build one.
Torque Game Builder had rudimentary 3D support, treating 3D objects as sprites. It was perfect for what I was planning. But the collapse of Garage Games took out TGB, or at least any future updates, and when the company came back from the dead with Torque 2D MIT, 3D didn't make it and wasn't planned. Not devastating, though, because there were lots of other goodies, and isometric was still possible. A big challenge was that the engine now lacked an editor, which was a hit to productivity, but I reasoned that I had lots to learn, the editor was around the corner, and the ability to customize the engine was compelling.
After awhile, though, I felt frustrated and stuck, less due to the engine and more to my own limits. The smart thing to do to learn and improve in game development is to make and COMPLETE small projects, but every time I've done this I've felt my motivation disappear mid-project. At this point in life I realize I'm only ever going to be who I am. Whatever is happening in my head that causes this experience is unlikely to change any time soon. So the best I can do is manage my own insanity and try to abstract and constrain gameplay in a way that doesn't balloon content and coding requirements.
(My success here may be debatable.)
So I lost a lot of time trying to shoehorn my ideas into 2d. I cut things out, I abstracted, tried to add gameplay to bolster weakened areas, saw the design contort in the wrong direction (life sim/RPG?) and through it all attempted to maintain my failing morale by playing games more like what I was likely to be making. Smugglers IV, for instance, showed me that abstract space combat might be fun. Weird Worlds gave me quick and dirty planetary encounters. Character portraits could stand in for characters. Exploration might work like in Planet Stronghold.
Maybe? Maybe? Yeah, maybe.
At this point I'd sunk probably thousands of hours into design and development. I'd gotten as far as a huge space map, randomly generated planet surfaces, rudimentary logic for procedural empires, some specific encounters. There was a bit of base exploration, a history generator that I thought could be turned into some sort of procedural story/mission generator and a sweet random word generator I'd stayed up until 5 AM coding one night. I was about to push into procedural cities.
At this point I was starting to notice that it was getting harder and harder to make the game more granular, and the more zoomed in I got the worse the game looked. I'm only slightly dangerous with art, and it's a heck of a lot easier to animate an asteroid than it is an animal. Add to that Torque 2D MIT still didn't have an editor, even months after release, and I was increasingly finding it hard to learn and experiment with risky concepts.
Eventually, I hit a wall. Carving up my design into more and more abstract representations began to feel like bludgeoning myself with a hammer. I think I stopped working on anything for months. Maybe lots of months.
Unity had been exploding through this time, maybe well before, but I barely noticed other than to note the growing number of "Made With" games out there. I think I'd last looked at it back when it was Mac only, can't really remember. But I have a habit of sticking to whatever I invest myself in, sometimes well beyond the point that it's not working (queue life lesson *bing!*), so I didn't notice.
It's a weird fact of my life that no matter how hard I try to get away from game development, even when it's not working,I can't stop doing it for long. I once gave up gaming entirely, no making, playing, thinking or talking about it allowed. I got into motorcycles and databases and stressed out a good gamer friend who suddenly didn't know what to talk to me about anymore. I lasted a year.
I guess this is a curse, one which some of you share. To me it's not about profit, or career or success. It's about the need to say something no matter what. To quote the annoying mission failure screen in Fuel, you.. "Keep trying, or fail forever."
So at some point I stopped being stubborn, started seeking other options and risked Unity. Hidebound as I am, afraid of change as I am, I gambled that it had to be better than being stuck where I was.
It was the best decision I've ever made.
I think I started experimenting near the end of last year and since then my productivity has exploded. As with Torque, I find there's a huge learning curve, and I've always had crappy math skills so I'm again confronting that. But the stability and maturity of the engine has really rescued my project.
So what do I have so far? Lots, though not yet tied all together, and no part by any means finished. But there are explorable solar systems again. There are MASSIVE procedural planets with biomes with levels I think larger than Fuel, a severe allergic reaction to Mass Effect's disappointing postage-stamp sized worlds. I've got the barest beginnings of randomly generated interiors I hope to turn into faction bases and alien ruins. I'm starting to learn Poser Game Dev (and just spent 3 days trying to model #*@!&$! boots) and as that comes along so will characters, armor, and gear.
Of course, it's only a start and I'm quite aware that there's far more ahead than behind. But what the hell! Even if it snowballs, I'm having more success and more fun than ever before. And when I think from time to time about whether this is the best use of a limited life, I'm not in the least bit regretful. Yeah what I'm dreaming about is ambitious, ludicrous, devouring of time and resources, but really, what else am I gonna do with myself?
See ya in 2020.