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27 Feb 2013

I've been second-guessing myself a lot lately.

I'll come up with a new game concept and feel super-excited for a couple days, and then it'll come crashing back to Earth in a storm of "this isn't progressive enough" and "this isn't innovative enough" and "this isn't saying enough". I'll realize that a hundred other people have already done something like this, only bigger and better. I'll start thinking about all the things I don't know about the topic ("This'll take months to research") and all the experience and qualifications I don't have for working in it ("I've never made a game in this genre before"). Before you know it I've convinced myself that the idea isn't worth doing at all. I put it in a drawer, sulk for a few days, and then the cycle repeats itself.

Jay Smooth calls this "the little hater". (Thanks to Matthew Gallant for reminding me about it last night; it's what got me on the train of thought that led to this piece today.)

So I asked myself: who (or what) is my "little hater"? And I think it comes down to this:


I've been in the games industry just shy of eight years now, and in that time I've met a lot of amazing people and read and played the works of many, many more. These are peers, fellow creators, for whom I have an enormous amount of respect and whose respect I aspire to earn.

But they are "wrong" on the internet, and I've let it get to me.

Not objectively wrong, mind. I'm talking about a difference of perspective I've internalized to an unhealthy degree.

These are my peers and role models, and when I see them say (for example) "Yawn, another shooter," I think, "Maybe I should steer away from shooters, they're no longer respectable."

When I see them criticize a new indie game for being "yet another pixel art platformer" I think, "Hmm, pixel art platformers really are a bit overexposed, I should probably not make one."

When they sneer at story-driven games for "having no interactivity", I think, "Well games are supposed to be interactive after all, maybe stories really are a waste of time."

The chorus of perspectives from my well-respected peers has become an amalgamated meta-critic (no pun intended) against which I subconsciously judge all my creative ideas. If someone I respect has ever come out against something I want to do, I suddenly feel like I should not do that thing.

The problem, of course, is that this meta-critic is composed of hundreds, maybe even thousands of individuals, and they don't speak with one mind. The group of creative people whose perspectives I value is large enough that, for any idea I could possibly come up with, there's bound to be at least a few people in that group who would criticize it.

Of course, everyone has the right to their own perspective. I'm not saying, "Hey guys, please stop being so wrong about everything!" A variety of perspectives is what makes any creative medium work, and I'd be doing games a disservice to argue otherwise.

What I am saying, is instead of blocking my own ideas because other people have different views, I need to start respecting my own perspective and putting that into the world.

Exhibit A: Shooters

I've got respected peers who have a knee-jerk negative reaction to the announcement of any new FPS. This was particularly pronounced during the PS4 reveal when Killzone: Shadowfall was shown (I've anonymized these comments to prevent this kind of backlash; I'm not trying to have a conversation about specific people's specific opinions, but about the aggregate feeling I get from the community around me and how I've been responding to it):


I felt the same way… or at least I thought I did, for a while.

But then something started to bug me. Like many of my peers, I grew up on the FPS. My obsession with Unreal Tournament kindled an interest in level design and modding that led directly to my first game industry job. I sunk untold hours into everything from DOOM to Deus Ex, from Halo to Crysis. I enjoyed the hell out the first Modern Warfare, which to this day contains several of the best-designed and best-excuted shooter set pieces in the genre. I geeked out over the seismic shift in shooter design that was Gears of War and I giggled with glee at the combination of smart, fresh mechanics and puerile humor in Bulletstorm. When a guy talks for an hour about the details of tuning one gun I think, "That guy is awesome!" and also, "I could be that guy!"

And of course I did my own part to push the genre forward: seamlessly integrating high-speed jet fighter combat into a multi-modal third-person shooter in Warhawk, and letting players drop buildings from space to dynamically modify the battlefield in Starhawk.

I realized what was bugging me. I don't have shooter fatigue: other people do. I think the genre has narrowed too much and I'd like to see it cast a wider net, but I still love shooters and I simply can't agree with my peers that turn their noses up at them.

I love and respect you guys, and you have every right in the world to be sick of cinematic man-shoots… but it's time for me to accept my own perspective.

Exhibit B: Pixel Art

I've got respected peers who will tear down anything with pixel art: "Oh it's so overused, it's just cheap nostalgia, make a real game already." And so I've thought, "Okay, maybe I should steer clear of pixel art in my games. It's about as overexposed as cinematic shooters anyway, right?"

I said before that I grew up on the FPS, and that's half the story. The other half is classic 8- and 16-bit JRPGs: Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior and Secret of Mana and more. Chrono Trigger, my favorite game of all time, is the reason I decided to join this industry. I have a special relationship with these games — one that's only part nostalgia — and great pixel art evokes it powerfully.

When I look at Cave Story:


When I look at Retro City Rampage:


When I look at Offspring Fling:


When I look at Stardew Valley:


When I look at Anodyne:


And when I look at countless others, I honestly get a little bit giddy. It's not just an art style, it's an entire aesthetic: it sends signals about mechanics and feel, themes and tone. I love the style, I love what it evokes, I love all the new things that are being done with it, and I love that it's actually something I can do in an indie context. It needn't take a huge team and tens of millions of dollars to make a beautiful, evocative, unforgettable game.

So no, I don't think pixel art is just derivative nostalgia, and I can't agree with my peers who dismiss it as such. I still love and respect you guys, and you have every right in the world to give pixel art a pass… but it's time for me to accept my own perspective.

Exhibit C: Narrative

A year or two ago there was a period where it felt like everyone I respect was on a "games shouldn't have stories" bandwagon. And so I thought, "Okay, I should really focus my games on mechanics. Besides, that's easier to make on an indie budget, right?"

When I finished Heavy Rain, I had the sense of having experienced a major step forward in game narrative design. It was tight, focused, deeply involving, and extremely powerful.

I've never felt more alienated from my peers than at that time, when it seemed that everyone was bashing that game for being nothing more than one long QTE. When your peers, people you respect and whose respect you aspire to earn, are so unanimous in their denouncement of a thing you like, it really does a number on your self-confidence. I did push back but I wasn't convincing anyone, and it made me start to think I was just wrong to believe that games should aspire to narrative excellence.

But my favorite game of all time — Chrono Trigger — holds that honor largely because of its story. I grew up playing games with great stories, and I got into games to create great stories. I was genuinely excited to finally work on a single-player campaign in Starhawk because it had a story.

They're few and far between, but there are games with fantastic narratives that are still engaging to play: Deus Ex, Planescape: Torment, Mass Effect, Skyrim. And I do believe games can and should aspire to narrative excellence and continue to forge strong bonds between narrative and interaction.

So no, I don't think stories are a handicap for games, and I can't agree with my peers who dismiss narrative and treat mechanics like a sacred cow. I still love and respect you guys, and you have every right in the world to skip the narrative if you want… but it's time for me to accept my own perspective.

My Own Perspective

I see all this stuff on Twitter and Facebook, all day, every day. People I respect, lots of them, sharing opinions that I don't agree with. Because I respect them — and because I'm (hopefully?) not an arrogant snob — I try to give them the benefit of the doubt, to think, "Maybe I'm wrong?"

With so many people I look up to expressing perspectives opposed to mine, I start to feel kind of stupid after a while, like there's something I just don't get about the industry. So I cope, I gradually shift my opinion, I adapt to fit into the crowd… and then I worry that I don't have a unique perspective to share, and the reason for that is precisely because I've adopted everyone else's!

But I do have my own perspective, otherwise I'd be agreeing with my peers that there are too many shooters and pixel art sucks and stories have no place in games. I do have my own perspective, but I've just drowned it out in order to fit in. Or at least, to feel like I'm fitting in.

The thing is: I don't need to fit in. In fact, fitting in is probably the worst possible thing I could do to my creativity. Meaningful creative work has always come from the misfits, the weirdos, the people with unusual perspectives and ideas who refuse to conform their imagination to that of the crowd. When I was a kid, too young to have been socialized to care what other people think of me, I was that misfit and I embraced it with zeal.

What I've realized today is that it's time to get back to that. It's time to make what excites me, to put my own perspective out there unapologetically, and with seven billion people on this Earth it seems like a pretty good bet that there's a like-minded audience out there somewhere!

I still love and respect you guys… but it's time for me to accept my own perspective.

So Here's My Advice

If anything I've said here rings true to you, if you see a little bit of yourself in my creative struggle, then here's my advice to you:

Make a great game and stop caring what other people are going to think of it — even people you respect. Make the game that makes you happy, that makes your inner child vibrate with anticipation. Make the game that your ten-year-old self would geek the fuck out over, and make it without reservation and without restraint. Fill it with enthusiasm and love and then — and only then — go find your audience of like-minded gamers with whom to share your joy.

People respond to passion, but passion withers under the harsh glare of criticism. Cultivate a safe space where your passion can thrive, where you can be your creative self regardless of what everyone else thinks. Creativity is intensely personal and it does not require approval.

And never, ever forget the people you respect. Even when you choose not to listen to them — even when you must not listen to them — never forget that you respect them for a reason. They're your peers, not your enemies, and your differences are your strengths.

I'll leave you with this thought from Seth Godin. I've found it comforting:

"The only alternative is to humanize our work. To create something that only you could have made, or said, or conceived of. When it looks and feels like you, when you are the trusted source (not an anonymous trademark) then you are on the spot, under pressure and deservedly valued."

It's time to embrace your perspective. I know I'll be embracing mine.

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