Starting is hard!

Anybody who is creating something is familiar with it. The blank canvas. The empty document with a blinking cursor on the upper left. The baby-blue default background in Unity. The template class definition. The creeping need to procrastinate some more. Underneath my poker face there’s a war in progress, The Urge to Create battles the Fear of The Void.

The war is never won for either side, heavy casualties on both fronts make it hard to determine a winner, merely the one who momentarily lost less. Procrastinating when feeling creative is no fun. Forcing oneself to produce some inspired output now is brutal, too.

But I love to create. It shouldn’t be a battle! I enjoy coming up with new stuff and then making it real. Yet starting is just so hard. I guess I am a bit along the line of Dorothy Parker:

I hate writing. I love having written.

So why is this? And what can there be done?

Coming to terms with yourself

Curse you, modern times!

I used to have a longer attention span when I was younger but, alas, that train has departed long ago. Instead of just sitting down in a café, whipping out my notepad and start drawing for two hours, my activities became shattered into tiny fragments:

I sit down. I want to just read. So I read for 5 minutes. Then 3 minutes of checking Twitter and Facebook. 5 minutes more reading. Feeling giddy to do something creative. Forcing myself for 5 minutes to at least finish the current paragraph/article/chapter. Done. As soon as I open my notebook, the inspiration has vaporized. Frustration. Back to Twitter & Facebook, angrily. Then a different book/magazine. Reading for five minutes. Feeling inspired again. Flipping open a blank page in my notebook. Yet the bright fire of the muse’s kiss translates into a dim candle on paper. Utter shit. More frustration. More procrastination.

It gets a bit better when I force myself to do something, ideally with something at stake beforehand. Like promising an update to my game for a certain date. Or being very outspoken about my partaking in Ludum Dare before actually starting.

Still, instead of trying out something novel, the beaten paths are the most comfortable ones. I’ve had various versions of Unity installed for three years before having it open for longer than a minute for the first time. With Game Maker I remember it taking me more than a month of constantly engaging with the software before I felt somewhat comfortable with it. I had to schedule daily sessions or else I would have given up at first.

Why can’t I do the same again with Unity?

Because I don’t want to make beginner’s mistakes when doing something new.I’ve read a lot of stuff about making games over the years. Many volumes of books and articles in the publications I subscribe; I watched hundreds of hours GDC talks, interviews, post-portems and reports on games and many aspects of game design. Because I love it. I love video games and how they are created.

And surprisingly that’s the biggest hurdle.

Stifling Knowledge

In the old days, there was not much shared knowledge about making games. Especially the first hobbyists who distributed their games as cassette tapes in plastic ziploc-bags weren’t concerned with design patterns, project management or UI/UX best practices. Many of them just had toyed around with BASIC and felt like making a game and inadvertently laid the foundation of the medium.

Certainly, not everything was gold but with trial and error certain patterns emerged over the years. Aspects that were fun or worked got copied by others, things that were frustrating slowly disappeared from the games. You could liken that process to evolution.

I don’t mean that nobody knew what they were doing (especially Shigeru Miyamoto showed early an incredible literacy of the medium game. Just look at how well World 1-1 of Super Mario Bros. is designed!). My point is that these designers didn’t have their brains filled to the brim with theory because simple there wasn’t much put onto paper (well, almost).

And that’s exactly my problem: I towered up so much knowledge on me that I don’t know where to start climbing out. Anything I want to pick as a starting point feels random, I realized I fear that I am missing something crucial. I feel I need more background knowledge to start properly.

Because I don’t want to make mistakes. I’m too old and too lazy to be learning by doing, right?

Sadly, that’s arguably the best way to learn: Fail fast. Fail often. Fail until you have failed in every aspect so you can finally start with the real deal. It’s true for anything creative. Practice makes perfect. There’s this saying that everybody has ten bad screenplays in them, so they better start writing to get them out fast to get to the first good ones. There’s also the 10,000 hrs rule as described in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers: It takes 10,000 hours of “dedicated practice” to achieve world class mastery of a given skill, which mean’s I am still 9,800 hours away from being a world-class FTL player.

So why not get over myself and get the shit on top of the gold out of the way?

Impeding Success

Pondering a lot about this, I realized my problem lies in my unexpected success of my first released game, Fine Sweeper. While other developers pour many months, years even, into their first very original gameplay concept, I spent about a week recreating Minesweeper. The other developers might fail financially and/or even critically first but once they get over it, they keep trying. They keep getting better. Because they have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Eventually they get passable, even good at what they do. They gain a lot of insight and expertise and one day they are exceptional.

Not me, I fear.

I recreated a simple puzzle game. I just polished the crap out of it and introduced some light new elements but that’s about it. Sure, I’ve learned quite a bit in terms of community interaction, user interfaces and difficulty progression, but not enough that I feel like I really could give a talk about any of it.

Yet the game sold really well, at least from my perspective. I have a handful of engaged players now. I have made a name of myself. A very small, footnote of a footnote of a name somewhere in the glossary of Gaming, still to me that’s really a big deal.

Yet I feel a tad unworthy of all the positive responses I got so far, because I don’t really know what I am doing. I enjoy the benevolence given to me, yes, but deep inside me I know that I don’t really deserve it: The game I made is just a fancy HD-remake of a classic.

Next

I want my next game to be bigger and better. I want my next game to be my own in terms of rules, mechanics, setting and whatnot. For this I need to become better. Much better. I need to know as much as I can to truly feel equal to the Big Kids, the indies who produce quality content because they know exactly what they’re doing.

There you have it.

Anything I know, anything I’ve learned, is not “good enough”. I am feeling old and I am lazy. I don’t want to learn through evolution, I want to learn through revolution. That’s why I am having such a hard time deviating from my known paths:

Unity is a lot harder than the sequential code scripts I have written in Game Maker’s scripting language GML so far. In GML, you can get away with some hard-coded stuff, some chaotic dependencies, some hierarchies only you and you alone understand. Fine Sweeper is having some of this spaghetti code but because of its small scope it still is maintainable for me.

But a bigger game? In Unity? Impossible.

The only way of pulling this off, being able to alter/fix code from half a year ago, is to be(come) a militant nitpicker towards yourself. Your code should be as modular as possible, rely on the least dependencies you can get away with; and game logic, game values and representations in the game should be as separate from each other as possible. But I’m a pasta programmer.

Gulp!

Hell, I am not even a “real” programmer, I’m an autodidact on a lucky streak. I don’t think my luck will translate to object-oriented programming in a much more complex and powerful engine.

My first Unity prototype was a simple hidden-object game supporting localization and modding and with the help of tutorials and Stack Overflow it was set up within two weeks. Despite my best efforts, its code-base is a mess. I know too little about C# and Unity to see where things might become a problem through refactoring and additions down the line. I am still troubled by the much more powerful OOP concept, as much as I feel constrained by the procedural philosophy of Game Maker.

So I started researching and studying, Game Programming Patterns, the Model-View-Controller philosophy, I talked with programmers and fought against the windmills of trying to understand Wikipedia pages on computer science.

In the end I painted myself into a corner where I don’t dare to take a step in any direction because I know it will be the wrong one. I am not a programmer. And I am certainly not a game designer. I’ve just picked up lot of things about games. I can give you my thoughts and insights on your level design. I can look at your visual design and point out what’s inconsistent and what’s clearly wrong with your mechanics. I just don’t know how or even where to start with something of my own. As prolific writer Nora Roberts once said:

“I can fix a bad page. I can’t fix a blank page.”

Pretty bleak, eh?

What I need is a completely new approach to break the thick ice causing my creative inertia, my fear of undertaking a bigger project. I fear it never comes…

Article by Phil Strahl

Phil got released around the same time as the Famicom and has since been constantly updated and bugfixed. Yet still, he considers himself to be in Early Access. Splines have been reticulated.

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