The Thing I Could Not Predict

This is my game designer origin story. It is a story of predictable causes and effects that results in something rather unexpected. The latest chapter ends with me realizing the thing that I could not predict, but the first chapter began, in earnest, in about grade six.

It starts predictably enough.

This game is so great, but wouldn’t it be cool if…

I would have discussions at recess with numerous others about our cool game ideas. Cornell Skyers, Chris Semoff, Andrew Mayne, Andrew LaTona, as the list goes. Our cool ideas were mostly like playing dress up with a doll — add an accessory here, new pants here, maybe get a dog to walk.

I really liked games.

I would save my money for the near sole purpose of purchasing new games, and naturally, each birthday and Christmas wish list had a game at the top. If I played things correctly I could get three new games a year.

By grade seven game design discussions changed from what features could be added to existing games to creating new game ideas. These new game ideas started predictably enough:

It’s like ____ but with ____ .

What we called a new game design in the school yard was really a new body for an old soul. Maybe it was a new doll with a slightly different build, but it still had two arms, two legs, two eyes, two ears, as the list goes.

The summer before high school I completed The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. It was significant because it was one of the first games I ever beat by myself (without an older brother’s friend’s help), and at the time it seemed to blend so many different components together so well — music, story, graphics, controls, as the list goes.

I had levelled up. I acquired game-beating powers (Genesis games excluded).

My new skills coincided with a better internet connection, and a childhood of limited game exposure made one thing irresistible: ROMs.

This lead me to the second game that lead me down the Game Designer’s Road: Earthbound.

A screen capture from Nintendo & APE inc.'s Earthbound.

A screen capture from Nintendo & APE inc.’s Earthbound.

All the parts were so different than anything I had played before — music, story, graphics, controls…the ending.

I loved that game.

It was about more than just the enjoyment of playing it. It was about something that stayed with me well outside the game.

I had levelled up again. I didn’t just like games anymore, I loved them. These were the things I could express myself through; these were the things I wanted to make for a living.

For the first time I looked into what I’d have to study in school to work in the game industry. As you probably guessed, it meant taking programming courses. Grade ten was the first year I could study programming and so I did. It made literally no sense to me in the beginning.

First, Colin, you declare your variables at the top, then…

Woah, woah, woah, slow down. What at the where? What?

But I carried on with it through grade twelve. Back in those days there were no game development programs in university so I was gearing up for a life in computer science. That is, of course, until it was time for me to go to university. What happened then I did not predict, but it was not the thing I could not predict. More on that in a second.

By grades eleven and twelve game design discussions had changed yet again. Naturally, and maybe it was the programming, we started talking about the mechanics of games. We finally got to the core matter of game design: how does the game play? The dolls didn’t have to be humanoid anymore. They didn’t need to be dolls, either.

Because games were not toys.

Then, an unexpected surprise. Just as it was time to fill out university application forms one school would begin offering a university program specifically for game development. It was the only university in Canada to do so. The University of Ontario Institute of Technology, or UOIT.

Predictably, I applied.

The program would touch on many things, but programming, visual art and business were its pillars.

Programming, however, was no longer interesting, visual art was cool but, excluding filmmaking, never part of my interests growing up, and business…ugh…a necessary hurdle (in hindsight, ten hurdles). The interesting thing became the combination of all the parts: music, story, graphics, controls, as the list goes.

I wanted to be the guy who thought of the parts, and how they were combined.

It’s ironic that programming is the actual, physical means of combining the parts, but I assure you, the irony was lost on me (as it only occurred to me now). But programming was too low-level. At the time it became really difficult to conceptualize these new combinations and simultaneously have to worry about how to program System.out.println(“Something I don’t care about.”);

Game design discussions with peers had shifted yet again.

We were university students now; we were cutting edge. I had more disposable income then, but fewer games interested me. They just seemed not so different than the ones I already mastered.

Predictably, we saw many short-comings in modern games and would discuss our solutions to varying issues: telling emotional stories, eliminating cutscenes, true mature themes, as the list goes. There was a lot of debating over those four years and not everyone agreed on what the issues were, but our disagreements made us stronger — more aware. The possibilities of what video games could be seemed countless. The potential was immense but, as I saw it, unfulfilled.

It was an exciting time to be entering the industry.

Then came graduation and I was very fortunate to have gotten a job at XXXX (c/o cnsrb0t™) before the end of school. Though my whole life I was taught to expect getting a job out of university, as graduation got closer and closer this definitely did not seem like a realistic expectation. Knowing how things are now, it has become very clear that I was very fortunate to have gotten that job.

Video games are toys.

My new boss said.

What? No! I figured it out long ago that they aren’t just dolls that we play dress-up with.

No amount of debate would make any difference. I had to think of games like toys. Of course it didn’t last long because the studio soon laid off over half the studio, myself included.

Next was XXXX (♥cnsrb0t™).

Make a game like ____ but with ____ .

My new boss told me.

Pardon? But I spent my entire life practising to make new bodies with new souls.

Of course it didn’t last long because the studio soon laid off several people, myself included.

——PAUSE——

And that was it right there.

That was the thing I could not predict.

From since I was a child creating my first game ideas, until I was an adult thinking that games were this boundless, barely explored medium, the industry did not change, and yet I felt I had.

And now I didn’t fit in.

Maybe I should have been able to predict it. If the games being released were appealing to me less and less, why would I expect that when the opportunity arose to work at a game company I would be working on games that appealed to me? From all my game design discussions growing up the trajectory of what was coming next seemed so obvious. How could the industry’s growth be so stunted?

Is it because of the struggle between the Business Man and the Creator? Is it that the Main Stream runs too strong to change directions?

When I look to the stream’s edge I see a lot of interesting activity. On the outside looking in (and out, under, above and around), are developers who don’t just like games, they love them.

They love them.

And the difference is immense.
It means that when the stream has run dry, they will still be here.

It means I will still be here.

And that is predictable enough.

——UNPAUSE——

3 thoughts on “The Thing I Could Not Predict

  1. Well written sir!

    I think I understand what you’re trying to say. We need to buy an oil rig and make a development combine. Only, without a Lord of the Flies-esque conclusion.

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