So I was at a birthday party last weekend, and it just so happened that said birthday party’s guest list included several of my high school friends who have gone on to bigger and better things over at BioWare. They make awesome games, and are totally cooler than I am. And despite the fact that we practically grew up together, playing video games and getting into trouble (bonus points if you can find my two cameos), it still somehow managed to be an intimidating experience to be arrayed next to these game development Titans with all of their triple-A mastery.
One of the BioWarians leaned over to me at one point and said, “So Kev, what are you playing these day?” I have a stock response prepared for this question, but knowing what the answer would be, I struggled as I said it: “Well, now that I make games, I don’t really have the time to play them anymore…”
“Bullshit,” said the Titan, “Don’t pull that on me. What are you playing?”
I was stunned into silence. I wasn’t lying when I said I don’t play much anymore. The last game that I finished was World of Goo in June, and before that it was Braid back in May. I played a bunch of Puzzle Quest in the spring, and Plants vs. Zombies in the fall and winter before. The game that I spend the most time on in any given day right now is Frontierville on Facebook, and those minutes are precious few. I’ve become a casual gamer. But could I admit that to this guy? He and I used to play Call of Duty and Battlefield 1942 together at LAN parties, and we were damn good at both. We’d play through a game like Portal in a single sitting, and even epics like Half Life 2 or Mass Effect would pose us little challenge. We were hardcore, and that passion ultimately led us both to try and make our own ways within the game industry.
The difference between us is that he went to work in a triple-A studio, while I’m trying desperately to scratch out a living as an independent developer. And while I’m sure that he has had to make some sacrifices for his career, I’ve had to sacrifice what makes me a gamer for mine, and nearly what makes me a human as well. I don’t have evenings; I don’t have weekends. I fill my time with everything that needs to be done in order to build a company from the ground up, and then I let my friends fight over my remaining free time like seagulls over a pack of crisps.
The irony? The fact that I’m trying to make games without continually playing them puts me at a serious competitive disadvantage. BioWare knows their stuff. They make excellent games, and they treat their employees right. Independent studios try our best to look down our noses at triple-A studios, but the truth is that despite all of our creative freedom, we live in awe of the things those guys can accomplish, and only hope that we can someday aspire to their greatness. And though you might think that we like being poor, we’d surely be happier if we could work 8 hour days and draw a steady paycheck, too.
I’m sure there’s a simple solution in here, somewhere. I need to set some time apart for “professional development”, and in my case, that means a legitimate excuse to play games again. Bioshock, Assassin’s Creed, Mass Effect 2, Dragon Age, even Baldur’s Gate… they’re all beckoning to me. The only question is where that time is going to come from. After all, coffee dates are still sacred.