[Letters from a New York Indie is a diary written by friend of Hookshot Inc, Kevin Cancienne, one of the creators of Drop7, who recently left his position as Director of Game Development at area/code to pursue life as an independent game-maker. The series documents life as a one-man indie as Cancienne explores what happens next.
Since becoming independent, I’ve pursued the notion of going it alone with stubborn and possibly self-defeating alacrity.
For a variety of reasons, being a one man band seemed the natural course: after a slightly soul crushing year in a big company, it seemed just the thing to shake off my hangover. And with the fervor of a recent convert, it seemed the purest expression of being an indie developer. Additionally, I’ve always found jumping into the deep end a good way to learn new things.
But sometimes, as I sit in front of a Blender screen full of unruly vertices, or fret about optimizing draw calls in iOS, I wonder: What is my obsession with doing things I’m bad at?
I’ve banged on quite a bit already in this column about the benefits of a punk rock approach to game development. Being not-so-good at what you’re doing can be an excellent way to spur creativity. If you’re sick of music full of self-indulgent guitar solos, just start a band with a guitarist who lacks the technical virtuosity to play them. Or pick up a guitar yourself, and see what happens.
Chris Hecker, virtuoso programmer and designer of Spy Party, spoke at GDC a couple years ago about being held back by his own technical expertise. He shared examples from a series of unfinished personal projects and described his habit of “ratholing” -- becoming so excited by a particularly juicy technical challenge that he ultimately spends all of his time on it, while starving the rest of the game. A newly-minted indie at the time, Chris saw this habit as one of his biggest challenges.
I like to think my own mediocrity as a programmer helps inoculate me against such challenges. I like short games, but if I scale my ambition to my abilities, they’re also roughly the right size for me to pull off.
“Artisan” has become a ubiquitous adjective among marketers pushing scented soaps and overpriced flatbread. But it’s not a bad expression of a certain ideal in indie games. Game artisans like Bennett Foddy, Terry Cavanagh, and Michael Brough create hand-crafted games, without the weird or hard edges polished off. And they make it look easy, though I’m sure they’ll each tell you it’s not. Still, Anna Anthropy, another game artisan, espouses an extreme DIY approach in her book, and is extremely persuasive as she does so.
I’d like to aspire to that ideal, but a tweeted warning from David Edery of Spry Fox nags at me: “How to fail miserably: keep trying to do everything yourself, forever.”
My current list of tasks includes programming for a new platform, switching from 2D to 3D, graphic design, 3D modeling and animation, and game design. Is this a charming exercise in self-determination, or the height of hubris? Or worse: is it an exercise in masochism and self-sabotage? If I’m honest, I have to admit I’m awfully susceptible to those tendencies, and should probably guard against them as strenuously as Chris Hecker tries to guard against technical ratholing.
I wonder also if I have the guts to really push forward with a fully DIY game of my own. The line between a so-so game and a great one is often polish, and the line between an “artisan game” and a shitty one is a certain je ne sais quoi that je ne sais whether I’ve got.
Going it alone has been a bit of a painful exercise so far, but I’m not ready to throw in the towel. I’ve learned a bunch of new stuff, so whatever happens, it won’t be a complete loss. I’m also willing to bend the rules a bit. Some amazing concept art by the awesome Rachel Morris has been an inspiration and an incredibly valuable tool.