One of the things that has been rattling around inside my head lately is the question of why a person would pursue a dream, especially a big dream, and especially one in a field as miserly and short-lived as game development. What makes the risk worth it, when you consider that there are so many other stable, safe and lucrative avenues? Ernest Adams' 1998 Game Developer's Conference Roadtrip lecture, Some Practical Problems of Immortality, sums up the game developer's situation perfectly: "Our work is as bright and as beautiful as the wildflowers of a Sierra mountain springtime... and just as ephemeral. Our work cannot serve, unaided, as our monument. When we die, we leave nothing to remember us by."
As some of you may know I'm pulling together a team to work on a science fiction role playing game. The working name is Straylight (soon to change in order to avoid a possible trademark dispute). The game's focus is on combat, stealth and trade while running a starship or base. If I can put in everything I want, it will feature freeform adventure in a post-apocalyptic galaxy teaming with struggling empires and hostile life. There will be character and property development, randomized missions, and what I call a Reactive Cosmos--a game environment that responds to the choices you make.
One of the things I'm aiming for is trying to capture the soul of science fiction. I feel that many SF games are more about things than about people--lasers, robots, hull configurations, weapons, etc. In science fiction writing, these are called "gadget stories," and they're the type that writers like Isaac Asimov and Athur C. Clarke were famous for. But while they can be very fulfilling stories, their main drawback is that they never give you a sense of a living, breathing world, a view of the human experience in a future impacted by grand ideas. You never get the ever-famous "sense of wonder" science fiction is supposed to be reknown for.
Some games try to give you a taste of this, but in doing so tie you to a claustrophobic plot. You get a strong sense of character, you may get a sense of the world, but you do so on the designer's terms, when he decides the time is right. Exploring the world in depth is usually impossible. Want to see what the people are like? Better hope its in the script. Want to experience a day in the life? Too bad, you've got mission objectives to fulfill! Want to replay and have a different experience each time? Forget about it!
Well, I don't know about you, but I play games in part to escape the confines of fiction, so that I can make meaningful choices.
What would it be like to stand on the deck of a ship you've built, with a crew of different personalities you've picked, and explore and adventure in the direction you choose? What would it be like to set that ship down on alien worlds and explore, on foot or in a vehicle, environments both strange, lucrative and deadly? What would it be like to be caught up in the intrigues of clashing empires, the destinies of ancient cultures and the challenges of a mystery spanning the entire galaxy?
I've been holding a vision of what this might be like for many years. One of the major reasons why I went into the game industry--and a major reason why I left--was that I wanted to see this vision realized. I grew up playing games like Elite, Starflight and Master of Orion, and have forever wanted to build a unique game that blends elements of all three: The freeform, "pick your own path" gameplay of Elite; the beautiful scope of Starflight's planets and plot; and the turmoil of a changing, growing, thriving galaxy as found in Master of Orion.
A project like this is going to be very difficult to organize and difficult to finish. The challenges in technology and content are formidable. Design, programming, art, management and marketing will all require a potentially exhausting commitment in time and energy.
So why do it? Why even try?
Because it should be done. I think that's the answer to why you should pursue a dream, especially a big one, even one as miserly and short-lived as game development. If it has been in your head long enough, if you've tried to pare it down and make it more safe and traditional and reasonable yet it resists, if it haunts you through wake and sleep, it should be done.
I think the things that we hold inside our thin, fragile skulls are lost forever if we don't give them shape, commit them to form, try to breathe life into them so that they can survive outside of us. I figure that we all have a very limited amount of time on this earth, and I have to ask myself, given this, what it is that is really worth doing. I think that doing something that you really care about, despite the cost and the challenge, no matter how short lived it may be, is worth both the risk and the effort.
At least, at the end of all of this, that's the answer I intend to give.