Product vs Project

Games are a really unique type of software.

For starters, they’re a real technical challenge: mixing some of the hardest and most demanding aspects of programming, with a need for visual art, UI design, audio engineering, musical composition, and storytelling. But their purpose can often be just as difficult.

I’ve talked about the difference between games and software before, but to recap: the end goal of a game is ultimately to generate an emotional response in your player. This is why a lot of people will argue that games have more in common with music or movies than an app on your phone or computer.

Though many dispute this notion, I am someone who fully believes that game can be an artistic expression. In some cases, games can do an even better job of helping an artist convey a desired emotion or story. This is due to the level of immersion that a game can achieve in telling you a story or putting you in the world that it’s presenting.

But at what point does a game being a “game” damage its intentions as an artistic project? Likewise, when does the artistic intent damage its viability as a game?

The reason I’m writing about this today is because we just went through this on a title we were working on called, “The Grind”.

Some Backstory About the Project

Let’s start at the beginning. “The Grind” started as a simple experiment by my good friend, Dan Taylor, who wanted to make…

A Tamagotchi-like sim about a freelancer living in Seattle and working from various Seattle coffee shops.

This original incarnation was entirely 2D, and Dan built the entirety of it himself. It featured a cute, pixel-art aesthetic that purposely resembled the classic Pok√©mon games on the original Game Boy. The idea is inspired by his own life, and the character in the game reflects this, as it’s essentially a pixelized caricature of himself.

Eventually, he completed his initial version of the game and started getting feedback from people playing it. This feedback, along with his own time away from the project, continued to generate more ideas about what he wanted the project to be.

Catalyst Joins the Project

While working together on BullShoppe, Dan started sharing some of his new ideas for his title, which was now becoming “The Grind”. He wanted to move away from the purely 2D aesthetic to a 2.5D one, with a 3D environment that still conformed to the rules of conventions of pixel art. His ideas and excitement were fuel that created more ideas and excitement in the rest of the team for what the project could be.

But there was a fundamental difference in the team’s collective vision. For Dan, this was a personal initiative; one he wanted to see come to fruition come hell or high water. For Griffin and myself, it was an investment of time into something we hoped could be a fun game that people would want to purchase and play.

As we started developing the new idea together, something kept happening. As Griffin and I would push for more gameplay systems to be added to make it more of a “game”, Dan became less enthusiastic about the direction that the end product was heading towards. It was subtle at first, but it became more apparent as the project went on.

In trying to better understand Dan’s underlying goals, we learned that he really wanted to convey (what I call) an “emotional caricature” of his experiences being a creative-type working in various coffee shops around the city of Seattle. Through a series of conversations, we eventually settled on a set of compromises that we believed would make an interesting game while still protecting Dan’s original vision.

A Trailer Was Made

Eventually we hit an awkward phase in the project. We had a collection of ideas and gameplay systems that we were trying to fit together, somewhat clumsily, while still trying to preserve the original intentions of the project. Having just learned the importance of getting feedback early on with BullShoppe, we knew we needed some.

But we didn’t really have a playable build yet… at least not one that showcased all of the various systems we had been designing and implementing. We decided that the best way to demonstrate our ideas was to make a trailer that combined the completed components with the ones that were still being developed.

We Got Feedback!

The trailer actually turned out to be a great strategy (in my opinion) and even allowed us to collect speculative feedback from potential players. We quickly got a laundry list of ideas, desires, and opinions from a decent collective of people who viewed the video. From all of this feedback there were 2 common themes forming:

  1. They really enjoyed the calming, pixel art aesthetic.
  2. They didn’t understand what the “game” was.

Uh oh…

That second one was a real problem. Some of this could be chalked up to the trailer itself… it can be somewhat hard to understand how a varied set of screens tie together into a cohesive and fun gameplay experience. Except… we were also struggling in figuring out how to make these various systems a cohesive and fun gameplay experience. And we’re the ones making it.

So we looked even harder at the feedback people had given us about what they wanted the game to be. They wanted a full city, not just coffee shops. They wanted more stat management and varied objectives, with a more complex set of NPC encounters and subsystems. They wanted moral dilemmas and a more dynamic world. None of this was the game we were making.

A Decision is Needed

It was becoming clear that we needed to pivot our idea further if we wanted to create something that was more likely to succeed in a commercial marketplace. We needed something that relied on more traditional gameplay elements and offered a clearer hook to our players.

As we continued to discuss the various avenues we could take to try and accomplish these goals, each one presented a mutation that further moved the project away from what got Dan excited about the project in the first place. In the end, we decided that a better direction for the project was to allow it to just be a project and not a product.

Dan could continue to develop it in his spare time with the level of creative control needed to make the experience that he wanted to see, rather than something we were collectively hoping to generate some of our livelihood on.

Final Thoughts

There was a reason I made the distinction between the games and traditional software. The choices you’ll make if you’re trying to develop a commercial product likely won’t be the same if you’re creating something as a passion project. In fact, it can be really easy for these two goals to result in clashing objectives that result in sacrifices to be made.

All in all, I spent about a month on the project in total. Even though it didn’t pan out the way we were all hoping, I was able to learn some important lessons about game design along the way and have an even greater appreciation and understanding of what it takes to turn an idea into a product.

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