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How I Learned to Find Success in My Game Development Failures

I was in a Game Production II course at Indiana University, and the time came to pitch and demo my first game that I had a hand in creating. It was a cute game, which my team and I summarized as “multiplayer Angry Birds at night.” We were young game-developers-to-be, and we had high hopes and very limited capabilities. A team of five who had never made a game before, we were trying to build a multiplayer empire, and we went into that first pitch day thinking we would do just that.

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Our pitch bombed. The idea was good, but the scope was notNo one had rehearsed,  we began to flounder in front of our professors (the stakeholders), and our roadmap got very feature-heavy very quickly. Each question from our professors warranted grandiose answers, putting us into dangerous scope territory with each add-on feature. After the pitch, the professors took a moment of deliberation, followed by giving three thumbs way, way down for green-lighting our game. All the while, we stood there as a team wondering what we had just done to ourselves, and more importantly, to our hopes and dreams.

After the big thumbs down, I walked out of class with my head hung low. But before I could reach the door, my mentor touched my shoulder to get my attention and asked, “Are you okay?” I said emphatically, “No,” and proceeded to crumble into tears in my professor’s arms. I will never forget that moment of pure defeat, pure anger, and pure disbelief in myself, my abilities, and my endeavor into making games.

I was defeated. How could I lose this idea that I poured my heart into for three months?

I was angry. How could these people, the professors who were supposed to nurture and teach us, think that they can crush our dreams like this on our first foray into games?

Most importantly, I was in disbelief. I no longer believed in myself as a writer, a historian, and most importantly as a game designer. How could I do anything like this for a living and face soul-crushing failure for a multitude of reasons?

Searching for the right words to say, my mentor took me to the side and told me that experiencing tough failures is the sad truth of any creative industry, and it’s a very common occurrence within game development. He proceeded to tell me about the projects that failed in his life, the layoffs he saw coming and the ones he definitely did not. He explained to me the precarious balance of caring and letting go that game development requires, and ultimately, he taught me that uncertainty and most importantly failure are your life in the world of game development.

Failure. That was a word that I had not experienced before. I was a history major at the top of my class, focused on names, dates, and analytical essays. Failure was not in my vocabulary; not until that day. My game had FAILED. The end. No more. It was over, and I wasn’t sure how to handle that.

Little did I know that I would become all too familiar with failure at the hands of game design in the coming years. Failure due to time. Failure due to expenses. Failure due to bad ideas and execution. As it turns out, failure is a fact of life in game development. But if my experience in game design has taught me anything, it’s that failure is only failure if you learn nothing from it.

So, my first game failed. As did my second, my third, and potentially my fourth. I’m not a superstar working for Blizzard or Gearbox, and I have little to no published work to show anyone for my time as a game developer. I just managed to garner enough professional experience that my resume doesn’t look like I’m a professional restaurant server who moonlights as a game developer, and I’m three years post college graduation. To so many, that could be the textbook definition of failure. But to me, it is a huge success.

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My portfolio is brimming with potential ideas, experience, and stories to tell. Each failure brought out a success in me, and each game gave me experience that I couldn’t have gotten any other way. I have cute vectored images that I spent 12 hours fiddling around with in Illustrator to create. (Success!) I have a working dialogue tree of choices for a narrative game. (Success!) I have full design documents fleshed out, feedback loops, systems, and a full narrative backstory to characters who may never have life in them again. (Success, success, success, success!) I even have a semi-working build that I fumbled through coding by myself. (HUGE success!) All of these pieces are from games that failed in becoming a reality, but the experience and the portfolio-building did the opposite.

I have stories to tell about taking three hours to create a start menu. I have jokes to share about the font we put in our game, not realizing it would seem like all of the characters were screaming at each other. I have memories to look back on fondly, such as taking an idea that used to live only in my mind and turning it into a functioning design document, ready for production. But most importantly, I have skills that I would never have gained without these failed games.

I’m a young developer, just starting out in my profession. I am bound to have many more failures, layoffs, and disappointments in my career making games, but out of my failures I will achieve many successes. If game design has taught me anything, it’s this:

Failure is only a matter of perspective, and success can be found in even the worst moments of failure…but only if you’re willing to look for it.

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Andie Reinhart is an Instructional Designer for BitLoft Game Studios and pouring her hard-earned expertise into development of The Crystal Core.