October 27, 2010

Overcoming the sound and fury of the internet

It’s hard being an indie game developer. Not because of money pressures, and not because of lack of exposure, though both of these things certainly take their toll. No. I’ll tell you why it’s hard to be an indie: it’s the emotional strain of being continually subjected to the internet for your livelihood.

I’m still appalled at the treatment Notch (Markus Persson), creator of indie success story Minecraft, has received since he publicly released stats detailing his incredible daily sales revenues. First people wrote petty posts about it on TIGSource. Then people discussed the merits of preventing him from competing in the IGF. And now his server has been attacked by some of his own customers.

Though his success makes him something of an outlier in other ways, Notch certainly isn’t alone in being a target for cruel remarks. Resolution Magazine recently ran an article interviewing other indie developers on this topic. Dan Marshall of Zombie Cow Studios described his own experiences thus:

Negative comments are crushing, soul-destroying and it really affects me. Not every game is going to be to everyone’s tastes – and that’s fine. The trouble is that internet comments are so disposable and easy; people rarely write ‘the gameplay wasn’t quite to my tastes’, they’ll just declare it’s ‘fucking shit’ and move on.

I’ve had the same experiences myself. Trying to promote Telepath RPG: Servants of God online has been something like slogging through waist-high mud while the locals take to the trees to pelt me with their own feces.

My most recent heart-warming story: Jay Barnson made a fantastic post about Telepath RPG: Servants of God on the Rampant Coyote blog a few days ago. He described the game as an “ever-more-cool-sounding” “turn-based, role-playing & dialog-heavy indie RPG” “that eschews the traditional Tolkienesque fantasy world, instead going for something that seems to have more of a steampunk-ish middle-eastern flavor.”

The post got a single comment: “I’m more excited for Captain Jameson, in fact.” Really? This is someone who shows up for your birthday party, sniffs in disdain, loudly announces that he cares more about your friend’s party, and then leaves. Who does that? (On the internet, the unfortunate answer is “damn well near everyone.”)

I’ve been working on Telepath RPG: Servants of God for just shy of three years now. If this were the sort of reaction I received everywhere I went, I would have probably quit and taken up gardening. To persevere, I have found it necessary to cultivate sources of emotional support.

My community of fans has been my greatest motivating tool, without a doubt. Their ceaseless curiosity about the game world (and just-as-ceaseless nagging about removing bugs/adding new features) has helped me get TSoG to where it is now. And it makes me smile any time someone edits the wiki or posts fan fiction.

Last night, I discovered another means of motivation, one I hadn’t thought of before: actually just sitting down and playing my game. Somewhere along the line, being subjected to the sniping of a thousand amateur critics had played its own games with my subconscious. I was convinced that TSoG was clunky, the combat boring, the characters hackneyed, the dialog poorly written, the pacing all off.

And then I sat down to play it. What does it say that I was surprised–actually surprised–to find myself having fun playing my own game? The main campaign moved along at a satisfying clip. The battles were challenging without being frustrating. The characters were well-written. Suddenly, I found that I wanted to finish this game, and not just get development over with. Because, I decided, it’s worth finishing.

I just wish I had someone else to promote it for me.