How building 1 ½ crappy video games changed my life

This is the never-before-told story of the time I tried to become a video game developer. Two point five years ago I was burning out. Hard. After 7 years running my web business, I felt trapped. Was this my mid-life crisis?

At this point in time I had been working on Statamic for 5 years. Building and supporting a CMS is a tough business. You need to keep up with cutting edge tech and process more than most product categories. The web never slows down.

Every day had begun to feel like I was living a rerun. I was living the nerdiest version of Groundhog Day, and I never got any better at the piano.

Wake up, answer support emails, fix a bug, close an issue, rewrite some docs, answer another email, write some more code, check Twitter, answer more emails, have dinner, watch Netflix, go to bed, wake up and repeat.

I had lost my joy and found myself dreaming about doing something else. Anything else. Starting a lawn mowing company sounded nice. I was jealous of the neighbor kid's lemonade stand. That kid had it made.

Usually a few days of vacation or curling up with a fantasy book might help, but this time felt different. I had to find a way to snap myself out of it.

Then one day I saw a therapist. She was buying produce at the grocery store and even though she was on her phone, she seemed really nice. At this moment a thought occurred to myself. "What if I were building video games instead of websites? Certainly that would be way more fun and fulfilling!"

And thus it all began.

Doing It Anyway

I'm a designer. Even though I've gotten used to watching my work disappear after a year or two, replaced by the next visual trend in the never-ending battle to stay relevant and stand out, part of me still aches inside when it happens. All that time invested, all my ideas consolidated, funneled into a singular concept and fully executed. Design is not art. It can incorporate art, but it's purpose is to communicate. It's easy to miss the nuance of this difference, to get caught up in the details, to hang on to something you love and are proud of, even if it isn't communicating properly.

The dream of building video games - products that can bring joy and entertainment to others long after I'm was gone - is pretty appealing. I could create something that wouldn't be redesigned or upgraded out of existence. I could remember an 8-year-old Jack telling my parents, "I'm going to make video games when I grow up!" It woke something up inside me.

Now to be fair, I also wanted to be an ice cream tester. That would be a sweet gig.

I talked to my wife and she encouraged me to go for it if it would make me happy. I talked to other people and they said "I wouldn't recommend doing that", "That's a really bad idea", and "Sorry, I'm on the phone".

So I started a podcast called "Doing It Anyway" and set to work. If I pulled this off, the podcast might help sell my games. If it was a spectacular failure, perhaps the podcast would be a hit and I'd salvage something out of it.

Cover art for Doing It Anyway

(Unreleased podcast cover art)

The exciting beginning part

New beginnings are exciting. The prospect of learning new and interesting things is positively electric to me. This is who I am. I was homeschooled all the way through high school, I run my own business, and teaching myself stuff is just a normal way of life. If you're in the web industry you can probably relate. They don't teach most of what we do in school.

I put two boundaries into place. I would only work on this in the evenings after the kids went to bed, and I wouldn't invest more than 10 hours a week. By day 4 those constraints were a distant memory, a scarf fluttering in the rearview mirror of my convertible as I cruised off into the sunset.

It became all consuming.

I let the podcast drive my process and made sure to record audio every night. I captured every thought and detail. This was how I was going to gain an edge when I was ready to release a game. I was Growth Hacking! I was a genius. Why hadn't anyone thought of this before?

Each episode began by laying out plans and taking an educated guess at what I needed to learn to accomplish them. Moments of frustration, explanation, confusion, and elation were all present along the way. I even recorded audio of friends and family trying out my little experiments and games. This was going to be one heck of a podcast! Maybe even better than the games.

You can listen to the intro episode if you'd like. The excitement is obvious in my voice, the hope of a dream realized tangible in my words. This thing was happening — I was going to become a video game developer!

I caught myself daydreaming. A lot. I could almost hear the voice of Guy Raz or Alex Blumberg promoting the show:

"A groundbreaking new podcast takes you on a magical journey, a never-before-seen glimpse behind the scenes with the infamous man, the myth, the legend, the one and only Jack McDade — yes, he who who blew the world's collective mind hole with the most innovative and imaginative new game franchise in history..."

Yikes. It's embarrassing to remember.

First, I had to pick a game engine

I started with heavy research on what game engine to use. I wanted one that had the best chance of leveraging my current skills in PHP, JavaScript, and design. I wanted to stick a C-like language if possible.

I also had to make sure the types of games I’d like to make would be possible. Some engines are 2d or 3d only, for example. 2D games seemed to be simpler. After all, there was 1/3 less D's to worry about.

I was surprised by how much of the game dev process was GUI-centric. You didn't work in a code editor, you usually just open a script window in the GUI when you need to write code. Engines do most of heavy lifting as their powerful interfaces expose a lot of those capabilities without having to wade through thousands of pages of docs. It makes sense, but it felt a bit like cheating at first.

I finally picked Game Maker Studio over Unreal Engine, bought a license, and started working my way through all the tutorials.

Then I built my first game: BB-8 Pong

After a week or two, I had my first playable game. It was a Pong clone. Two players slapped a copyright-infringing BB-8-shaped ball back and forth with paddles shaped like copyright-infringing lightsabers in front of copyright-infringing Imperial troops.

BB-8 Pong

It was pretty easy to build after having completed all the core tutorials. My Photoshop skills made crafting game assets quite simple. I wired up the score board, rebound, trajectory, and velocity physics (without actually understanding any of the math), collision detection, player objects, keyboard controls, and the win condition. From start to finish it only took a few hours. I was pretty good at this.

It was as amusing and entertaining as any clone of Pong ever made, which is to say, not very.

The game did have an odd bug I never was able to fix. If the ball (BB-8) clipped the very top or bottom of the paddle it would double the velocity and the gameplay would get significantly more intense. Exponentially so if it happened a second time. This was a rare and genuine case of a bug becoming an actual feature, and I kinda liked it. It made the game at least 3x as fun, which meant it could be tolerated for a whole 3 matches instead of just 1.

If you want to try it out, feel free to download it (don't tell Disney), just remember it really isn't anything special. And it's MacOS only.

The Controls

Player One
w = up
s = down
Player Two
⬆️ = up
⬇️ = down

My second game is where it all fell apart

For my next game I got a more ambitious. I decided on a top-down wave shooter with randomly generated enemies. Something like a really simple SMASH TV. I wanted to step off the tutorial track and start to apply what I've learned without following a step-by-step guide.

I needed to figure out how rudimentary A.I. worked to control the enemies, how to track hit points, trigger various animations for shooting movement, shooting, and explosions, X and Y axis control, per-wave difficulty scaling, firing speed throttling, highscore tracking, game over and win states, sound effects, and those were just things I could think of. I still didn't know what I didn't know.

While searching through forums for clues on how to tackle these features and mechanics, I began to see a theme emerge in almost every single post: Defeat. Jaded, frustrated, dejected, and utterly hopeless defeat.

This wasn't a passive sort of defeat, but rather an active, aggressive force constantly throwing wet blankets on all newcomers. Stay away! This industry is toxic! Run away! Save yourself! YOU WILL LITERALLY DIE HERE! I'm not talking about one or two trolls, this was a practically an army, and it was overwhelming.

At this same time the scale of this endeavor started to really hit me. This was a huge investment of time. Many of the features I needed complicated the game by an order of magnitude, I had no idea how long it would take to even build a prototype, and this was only my second game.

A knot began to develop in my gut. Not the delicious garlic variety, but the whirling vortex of doom kind. You know how you feel after eating free sushi at a pop-up carnival? Exactly like that.

I dug deeper into these depressing and hopeless threads. These were thousands of game developers trying to tackle the gigantic task of building a game by themselves or with a tiny team. Projected timelines spanned multiple years for even conservative, unoriginal games. This wasn't isolated to Game Maker Studio either, I explored half a dozen different engine communities and found the same thing.

One person was working on a Roguelike game where the only original aspect was a theme that hadn't been done before (I can't remember if it was warrior Mermaids or a planet full of burrito people invaded by psychic octopodes). This guy was 3 years into building his game and had at least 2 more to go.

Five years! Five years to build a small game that really wasn’t new, fresh, or original in any meaningful way. Five years to build something you could be fairly certain would fail immediately. 😳

I was five years into building Statamic, and it had been generating income nearly the entire time. We could iterate on features people needed instead of guessing what they wanted. Maybe this web thing wasn't so bad after all...

This suddenly didn't feel very fun anymore.

What was I getting myself into?

The enormity of the task ahead collapsed on me like an avalanche. Should I sign my family up for 5 to 10 years of stress and unknown trials just so I could scratch this itch? My wife was on board, endlessly supportive as always, but I felt like I was betraying her blind trust in me.

This is a brutal industry. AAA companies rule the world. And while the dev tools and game engines are amazing, the fact that it's easier than ever to build games means the market is oversaturated with a glut of mediocrity. Just look at GOG and you'll know what I mean. Games are routinely discounted to $1.24 to try and gain traction.

It's harder than ever to stand out and I have no reputation or name in this business. No idea how to market in this space. The more I thought, the longer the list of challenges grew. I stopped lying to myself and evaluated the situation clearly. The glass was shattered.

I had found wisdom and insight in the comments section. The video game industry was not for me. I will run away and save myself. I will not die here. It was clear as day: the web will drive my career. Designers, developers, and bootstrappers are my people. I’m already established, have built up a good reputation, and the bills get paid. It was time to get back to reality.

I shut the experiment down halfway through episode three. I deleted my GameDev bookmarks folder, archived all my work onto an external hard drive, and uninstalled all the tools. It was over as fast as it began.

My evenings were once again full of family joy, backyard soccer, ice cream testing, and Netflix. Life was good, and I didn't look back until now.

The postmortem

You may be thinking I gave up too early, didn't try hard enough, gave trolls too much credit, or picked the wrong game to build. You might even be right on one or all points. But in the end, it doesn't even matter.

I found a state of awareness and perspective that I couldn't achieve from the outside looking in. I began to see the shape of my future, jaded defeatism or not, and it had lost all its appeal.

The moral of the story

&&If you have an itch to scratch, find a way to scratch it.** Eliminate those burning "what if" questions if you can. You never know what you might learn.

Doing the same thing every day does take its toll, so find ways to change your perspective, approach, and replenish your creativity. Later that year I did a talk at Laracon 2017 called Wizards, Lawnmowers, and Hovercrafts on this very idea. My material was inspired heavily by everything I learned and tried during this period.

Through it all I found a renewed sense of momentum and purpose in my business. I was excited to work with my team again. I started having fresh ideas on how to market and promote Statamic, and over the next year those changes led our revenue doubling and the freedom to work on it full time.

I'll never know what would have happened had I not taken this journey, but I know my life is on a different trajectory because of it. I no longer wonder "what if I was a video game developer?" anymore. I was able to find more joy and productivity in my life and business, and even though I went right back to working on Statamic, my approach and outlook had changed. I had overcome my burnout.

Now, two years later, I can look back see the positive difference all this made and I'm thankful for it. I wouldn't change a thing.

The charge I give to you

If you're reading this because you're in the web industry in some capacity, join me in an effort to do better than the jaded developers on these forums. Let's be encouraging, help new folks out, take time to write blog posts for beginners, and do what you can to make this a welcoming place for everyone.

I know for a fact a lot of you do this already, so if I'm preaching to the choir — thank you and keep it up!

I hope you enjoyed this story. Digging it all up again was a good reminder for me. I needed it.

(P.S. Sometimes late at night I lie awake and wonder "What if I were a sitcom writer?")

Published May 15, 2020

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