Friday, July 2, 2010

Moving on

I came to the realisation recently that my career has been driven by a secret achievement grind, hidden relatively successfully by the fun of making games.

It started off pretty innocently. "Work on a game" seemed like a pretty fun achievement to go for as a gamer, and it brought me into my first games job in the late '90s, but the first hit is always free. "Work on a game" very quickly leads to "Ship a game".

So you ship a game, and get the adrenaline rush of being able to show something you made to your friends and the world. The trick here though is that you very quickly realise the path you were on before was the tutorial, and now you've got multiple paths in this huge world to chase down for completion.

"Ship a game" gets replaced with things like "Ship a game that's good" and "Ship a game that non-gamers recognise when I mention the name of it". There's sidequests of "Make an original IP" and "Make a game that people still replay after the first month". They're great goals that give you design constraints on the fun and awesomeness of making games.

This was great until I started working at Harmonix. Working on something like Rock Band basically allows you to auto-complete most of the achievements on your life list. "Make a game with unique controllers", "Make a game I'm not sick of after making it", "Make a game that makes first parties do anything to help you" and "Make a game that hits the zeitgeist" all got annihilated in the course of a few years.

At some point during all of this, I forgot to keep track of what achievements I was going for. The sheer fun of crafting new experiences for players puts everything else in the background. Sure, the hit from releasing the title and seeing people enjoy your games was still a big part of it, but I craved the hit of being hands on. It's 100% of your job as a staff designer, but as I became a senior and then a lead on AAA titles with 200+ people on them, the ability to chart the vision and the direction of a title starts to encroach how much time you can spend tweaking the details personally.

This realisation put me in a weird position: I want to be able to help drive the vision and direction of a game, but at the same time be hands on and physically implement and iterate on the low level of making games in a more substantial way than time affords me when working as a lead on multi-hundred person titles.

So, with Rock Band 3 now design complete and on the final path to 0 bugs, GM and distribution, I decided to do that. Today's my last day in the office at Harmonix. Tomorrow, I hop on a plane and fly down to Austin, TX, where I'll get ready to start work at Twisted Pixel on a ridiculously cool new project. It's the holy grail of game design positions - I'll get to contribute and help drive the direction of a well funded and supported new title with a close knit superteam, while at the same time being hands on and able to directly impact all aspects of the game. 

I'm sure new achievements will spawn and complete that I didn't even know about while I'm there, and I know we'll be making some amazing and memorable games, but that's not the only goal anymore. I'll be too busy having fun working on awesome new games, learning a whole new set of ways to make said awesome games, eating breakfast tacos, and never shovelling snow ever again to notice.