Welcome to our worlds
Game development seems to be shrouded in secrecy as far as the average gamer is concerned. There are a lot of reasons for that, but the end result is mostly disconnect between both parties. This can leave plenty of gamers frustrated with certain decisions game developers make, which often leads to voicing those frustrations online. And while there’s no inherent problem with doing that, gamers can often be left scratching their heads at the developers’ response (or, sometimes, lack thereof).
As a gamer, game developer, and game journalist — a gamefecta, if you will — I have some insight into the different worlds each group resides in. Here is a non-exhaustive list of things that I’ve not only told my own players over the years, but some sentiments from other game developers as well.
1. Not all games are created equal…
…which says more about the resources available to each developer than the game itself. Game developers run the gamut from a single person spending their free time messing around on RPG Maker to one of the 6,000+ employees that make up Nintendo. In fact, the label “indie” has been experiencing growing pains for years, with terms like “solo indie” to infer the game is made by a single person or “AA” to mean the game was made by a bigger, more established indie studio (like Supergiant Games) being coined to better reflect teams and budgets. Some developers have help by way of a publisher, while others don’t think it’s dangerous to go alone.
Of course, as we’re all well aware, having more resources doesn’t automatically translate directly to a more beloved experience — Undertale was mostly made by one person, while BALAN WONDERWORLD had big names like Yuji Naka and Square Enix attached. But as a general rule, resources sure are nice to have.
2. We love taking risks…
…until we can’t afford to anymore. There’s a lot of love for indies because of how unique and innovative they can be. A game about a jerk cloud raining on parades? Hilarious! One where you’re an elderly person trying to date again? Unique! A title where you psychoanalyze patients as Freud? Fascinating! AAA studios would never. But the main reason behind that? Money. Some indie developers are making these games in their free time, their day job funding their projects. Others try to get funding through Kickstarter or Patreon. Others still are lucky enough to secure funding through different programs available in their countries, such as Ontario Creates or the German Games Fund (“Deutscher Games-Fonds”, DGF). Some get ridiculously lucky and have an influencer play their game, meaning more sales to fund their next project.
When it’s a single person or a small team relying on day jobs or family to pay their bills, a dev can take whatever risks they want to in a game, because their rent money is not dependent upon the game’s success. Even established, small studios that are paying the bills through their games can take some risks since they don’t have the years of debt bigger corporations have, even though they often have the resources to allocate for marketing and user acquisition to ensure there’s a niche for their game. So the next time you see yet another Zelda or Mario title, know that there’s a reason why they aren’t taking the risks you want to see — those games are estimated to bring in a certain amount of revenue, which keeps the lights on for 6,000+ people.
3. We do this for the love of game…
…not necessarily for the money. Game development is not all that lucrative — for every game rolling in the dough like Fortnite or new iteration of Call of Duty, there are thousands upon thousands more that leave the game developer in the red. Have you ever played a game you loved and asked yourself “why didn’t the dev make more titles?” It’s likely they couldn’t afford to, or they felt the effort just wasn’t worth it after less-than-amazing sales they may received the first time around. Even studios that are doing decently aren’t always able to pay their employees as much as other industries, and some flat-out just don’t pay well period (side note: I once interviewed for an Assistant Manager of Marketing position for a AAA company (which shall remain nameless) and my salary offer was lower than what I had made as a Marketing Assistant in a medical office).
But most of us aren’t in game dev because we are trying to accumulate wealth — programmers, project managers, marketers, and other fields have other, far more profitable options — we’re passionate about games and want to make them. I am at the point in my career where I could absolutely go find a higher paying Marketing Director position, but I’ve spent three years on the same game. My heart is here.
4. We play our game more than you…
…more often, more iterations, and very, very differently. The first playable version of the game is going to look wildly different than the released version you see. We’ve painstakingly started and restarted games to try to recreate and fix bugs, tweaked gameplay elements, (sometimes unsuccessfully) fought off scope creep, and more. Some games receive ongoing content updates, meaning we can spend years developing the game pre-release, then years afterwards churning out more stuff for players to do.
I’ve spent three years on my own game in a post-release state and can’t easily remember specifics that apply *now* because they weren’t always true *before*. Did we fix that one bug? Did we change that gameplay element? When did we add that content? When did that mechanic get rebalanced? Sometimes it gets a little fuzzy since things evolve and it’s not always easy to remember off the top of our heads every single item in the changelog. You may have platinumed a title or two (and honestly, well done, you!), but that doesn’t mean you’ve played the game more than the people who made it.
5. L-A-Z-Y is a four letter word…
…and if you call us that, you’ve pissed us off. It’s crazy to me that so many articles can come out about crunch in game development and gamers STILL think we’re lazy. We often work much more than 40 hours a week — hell, in this pandemic it’s been easy to accidentally work 14 hours a day — and those of us working on projects in our spare time are doing it after our day jobs. I had an ex-boyfriend who worked for a different nameless AAA company and he’d routinely come home at 2 – 3 AM in September/October just so gamers could find their desired titles underneath their Christmas trees.
Calling a game developer lazy, especially in a public forum like Twitter, is guaranteed to bring all sorts of game developers out from the woodworks explaining how untrue that is — some more patient than others. And if you’re an aspiring game developer or game journalist and you say such things? The game development industry is a lot smaller than you’d think — word gets around fast, and plenty of us silently take note of people who hold toxic opinions to ensure we don’t work with them in the future.
6. We are human…
…and not your punching bag. My team’s game has 20 million players, and I’d say the majority of them are utterly delightful. But there are quite a few messages we get from a subset of our players that are extremely toxic. Gamer Karens, if you will.
The ones who email us at 3 AM with expletive-filled messages wishing death upon our children because something happened in their game and we didn’t respond within 11 seconds (God I wish I was making this up). The ones who harass us for months on end, messaging us our daily reminders that we need to go f*ck ourselves because they deleted their game and we couldn’t refund them (even if we wanted to — iOS doesn’t allow developers to initiate refunds). The ones who have threatened to “come get us” because of a very specific bug we’re having trouble replicating without their help.
It’s soul-crushingly toxic to the point where I had severe anxiety even looking at player messages. It’s one thing to be upset and frustrated (and we WANT to help you), but quite another to be abusive. If you’re like this, stop. If you’re not like this, keep being awesome — you make our days a lot brighter.
7. Bugs aren’t always apparent…
…in fact, you may not even notice how many bugs a game actually has. There’s no such thing as a bug-free game — even the most perfectly playable game, indie through AAA, has a list of non-critical issues that were deemed safe to ship. Of course, the flip-side is true: we may not experience a bug while coding and playtesting, but for some reason players using a specific device or OS may run into it. This doesn’t mean we didn’t send our game through QA — we do, and more often than you might realize — but there are so many variables we can’t account for, like things that are extremely specific to your device or usage.
The best course of action in this case? Reach out to the developer and let them know what you’re experiencing, and get as detailed as humanly possible. What’s your device? OS? Game version? What level were you playing on? Difficulty? What were the EXACT steps that you did to get the bug? Can you recreate it? If so, can you walk the developer through how to recreate it on their end? Like the video states above, most of the time we can’t solve the bug because we can’t recreate it.
It’s like someone explaining a problem with their car to a mechanic. How are they supposed to fix it without popping the hood? And pending actually plugging YOUR phone/device into OUR computer to see what happened in your specific game, trying to recreate it on our end is the next best thing we can do. Help us help you help us help you.
Side note: If you leave a negative review and promise to update it when the issues you’re experiencing have been fixed, follow up on your promise. Better yet, just message the developer the issues so we can work with you.
8. We see ourselves as problem-solvers…
…and love getting creative about it. You’d be surprised how many bugs are solved by just rendering the issue irrelevant. Always experience a bug while walking between point A and point B but can’t figure out what’s causing it? Just put a cutscene at point A that transports you to point B automatically after the scene ends. That bug still exists, technically, but now players will never trigger the step that causes it. My favorite example of creative problem-solving is in Fallout 3 Broken Steel where developers actually didn’t code a moving transit system but instead used an NPC whose arm was the train.
There are so many examples of creative problem-solving that functionally work but are wildly unexpected, save time and money, and — most importantly — allow the game to run effectively and smoothly for the player. And chances are the developers are more than happy to talk about it — trawl the #GameDev hashtag on twitter or scroll through a game dev subreddit to find plenty of bug fixes, changelogs, post mortems, and dev diaries to read very clever solutions to persistent problems. Game developers are creative problem solvers!
9. At the end of the day, it’s just a game…
…so treat it like one! Have fun with it, enjoy it with friends or unwind solo at the end of a long day. We’re so happy you’ve taken the time to enjoy something we’ve poured our blood, sweat, and tears into. But if you’re obsessing about it to the point where it’s causing you distress or harm? It’s okay to step away from it. Even we have to take a break from our own games and go take a walk, read a book, or zone out for awhile.
If you’re messaging the developers in the wee hours of the morning and wondering why you’re not receiving an immediate response, chances are it’s because we’re sleeping. If we’re not responding to your tweets over the weekend, maybe it’s because we desperately need a break to spend time with our families. We certainly work hard, but we can’t be expected to work 24/7 (can you?).
Remember, if you run into an issue with a game, it’s definitely frustrating, but not a life-threatening emergency. We hear you (oh boy do we hear you), but it’s a game, and we need to sleep sometimes. My family needs to recognize me as something other than “the cavewoman that only emerges from her computer for more coffee.” On occasion I need sunlight. Every developer from the bottom of their hearts are grateful that players have decided to play their game, but please — be kind to those who are human (and gamers!) like you.
Although this list is by no means exhaustive and there’s plenty more I could add, I’m at 2,000+ words already. If you’re still here reading this, thank you for making it all the way to the end — if there’s one thing I hope you can take away from this, it’s to be kind to game developers. You never know which ones are fighting for the exact things you want; messaging abusive things to them turns allies into anxious wrecks. Play responsibly!