Interviews

A Discussion With Nathan Meunier: How Hard is it to Make a Game?

Angry Man

While gaming is one of the most interactive and engaging forms of media, it always seems to attract an intense amount of criticism from every corner. Sometimes it is an ignorant politician looking for a false explanation of a violent outburst, and at other times it is an ungrateful teenager with some strong words over the internet. While both instances can be incredibly aggravating, the latter is actually more detrimental to the gaming community.

As gamers, there is simply one thing we all want. Good games. Coincidently, this is the same exact thing that every game developer yearns for with every new project they start. There is not a single developer in the industry that wants to create a bad game. The gaming industry is superbly competitive and is barely financially rewarding once you finally find success. It maddens me to see gamers carelessly throw out words like “lazy” when describing game developers. These men and women devote their lives to entertain us. Many studios require more than 40-hour work weeks and can often hinder their employee’s personal lives. It is a shame that so many people on the internet are so ready to berate these incredibly creative and hardworking individuals that give everything they have so that we can get momentary escapism and entertainment. By emotionally tearing down game developers, we are only hurting the industry.

Angry Man

Let me clarify; I have played bad games before. I have also failed in some of my life pursuits. Sometimes things just don’t work out no matter how hard we try, but we cannot allow our first responses to be as barbaric and thoughtless as “this game sux.” Criticism is completely different than meaningless and offensive words and abuse.

Experience is one of the best ways for us to understand someone’s perspective and difficulties, so I took it upon myself to try to learn how to make my own game. I plotted out a story, sketched out different game mechanics I wanted to incorporate, and spent a dozen hours researching game development and trying to start creating my project on GameMaker: Studio, one of the easiest programs for game development. After all that time and effort, my product was rubbish. I was able to create a flat 2D background with a stick figure with blonde hair (it was more like a yellow squiggly line). Players could move this “character” vertically and horizontally, but there was nothing more to enjoy. Just a sad stickman in a dreary and lifeless block. I accepted my fate and realized that development was just not for me, but thankfully it is certainly something that Nathan Meunier is great at.

Nathan is a well-known freelance writer that has written for some of the largest gaming publications in the world, an author of several books such as Up Up Down Down Left Write, and an indie game developer. He creates some of his games all on his own, such as This Book is a Dungeon and the currently-in-development Missile Cards and Doom Parade, both of which can be found on Steam Greenlight. He has also worked on games with Touchfight Games, whose next title is Nuclear Golf, which is scheduled to come to PS4 and Vita this year. Nathan and I spoke for two hours about the rewards and hardships of game development. It is hard to truly understand the commitment and responsibility that developers have until you hear it from someone who has experienced it firsthand. Here is some great insight from a talented man on several key topics about game development.

Doom Parade

 

Constructive Criticism

“I don’t feel bad when people criticize the work that I’m doing. My projects aren’t for everybody; they are small experimental, streamlined games. If people give me negative reviews or constructive criticism, I take it and try to apply it as a learning experience to the things I’m working on next or to make changes to the games that I’m able to. But, there is a certain level where people can be so demanding and toxic on social media and steam. That’s the thing I have the biggest problem with. You made a game, and they didn’t like it, but oftentimes they’ll just be like, ‘this looks stupid, downvote.’ So, it’s tough. It’s been rewarding and exhausting, and I sacrifice a lot in terms of free time with my family. Mental health just isn’t always the best because I’m just always pushing and stressed because something isn’t getting done fast enough.”

The Challenge of Releasing Games and Patches

“You can spend years finishing and launching your game, but you’re not done yet. In some extreme cases, people will hold developers hostage, and be like, ‘Downvote! Negative review! This sucks and I’m not going to change my review until you fix this!’ And that can be really stressful because you’re like, ‘Listen, if a game isn’t selling, you can’t afford to spend that much more time on it.’ People expect you to continue to spend so much time to fix it, and obviously a lot of developers will try to do that. It’s sort of a juggling act. Some of the games I’ve put out have had flaws in them, and I’ve tried my best to fix those, but sometimes it’s not feasible to fix things the way someone wants. People will come at you and expect you to do things. But it’s like, ‘Dude, I have a full-time job, I’m running a studio on the side, and I’m making like half a dozen games. I do the best I can, but I can’t do everything for everybody.’ And there’s a certain point beyond a games’ launch where if the game isn’t making any money, but people want you to fix stuff, you can’t afford to do that sometimes. It’s a difficult challenge of development, especially when you’re an indie or small studio. I work full time and that pays most of my bills, but I’m literally spending every other waking second working on these game projects to get out these cool ideas because I love making games and it’s creatively really fulfilling, but also because I want to do more of this. To be able to spend more time on this, I need to have projects sell and make some income from them. It’s a very difficult balancing act.”

Steam Reviews and their Importance

“Steam reviews are basically one of the first things that gamers look at and decide whether they want to buy your game or not. They’ll see your title and imagines and think, ‘Oh, this is cool,’ but then they’ll go and see what people are saying about it. That social proof can either make or break your game sometimes. If you have mostly positive or a lot of positive reviews, people will probably take a chance on your game. But when the average starts to dip below and begins to get mixed or negative reviews, people won’t buy your game and you’re basically screwed. It’s tough because you might have a game that has lots of positive reviews, but if you get a stream of negative reviews they will just show up in a row.”

Steam Reviews

Development and Delays

“We started working on that game, Nuclear Golf, in August 2015. So, it’s been almost a year and a half. We initially were hoping to get the game out by last summer, so we wanted to keep it at a year dev cycle. And you know, things didn’t really work out that way [laughs]. Took a lot longer to design some of the aspects we thought were going to be easy. It’s like, ‘Oh! We can do this in six months. Cool! Actually, nope. No, we can’t.’ That game has taken about a year and a half so far, and it’ll probably have been about almost two years by the time it finally does come out. Our goal is to try to finish games within a year as much as possible, which is a pretty tight timeline for most indie studios. Even small studios tend to work in 2 to 3-year cycles if they’re trying to be ambitious and keep things constrained.”

The Rewards of Game Development

“It feels really good to be putting a game out on a proper console. It’s a lot more work to make sure that your stuff works when you’re working with a big hardware maker, Sony, versus just PC and stuff. It’s pretty exciting to be like, ‘Hey, this game is coming out on PS4. Woo!’ But, I think the stuff I’m most looking forward to is the things I’m working on now or the things I will be working on down the road. After working on so many projects, I’m learning how to do more and more. That personal growth feels good, but it’s also evident if you look at the different projects that I’m making. It’s sort of this visual evolution of getting better at pixel art and getting better at learning how to do the code stuff and make things work better. There are complexities that I’m learning how to do that feel really rewarding in terms of ‘Wow, I can do this!’ ”

Game development is an exceptionally underestimated craft. Developers must deal massive amounts of stress throughout the whole creation, release, and post-release periods. Let us all keep this in our minds the next time we run into a game that we are not particularly fond of. Just like any other form of media, the use of compassion, constructive criticism, and support are essential for a more positive and efficient industry.

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