For the love of it

ACHIEVEMENT, n. The death of endeavor and the birth of disgust.
- Ambrose Bierce, the Devil’s Dictionary

If you ask me, and I strongly advise you don’t, I’d say a love for playing games is the worst reason you can have for joining the game industry as a developer. Similarly, a love for playing Japanese games is probably the worst reason to relocate to Japan to do the same. If you’re anything like me, poor thing, it will ruin your enjoyment of games, any games, possibly for the rest of your life. Okay, maybe that’s a bit too strong, but it will certainly change your perception.

When I was at college and developed my first photograph the sudden appearance of the image on paper as it floated in a bath of chemicals was a kick. Seeing other photographs became a study in technique. When I was taught filmmaking and editing things became a little more complicated. I started seeing the cuts and edits in other productions. Whenever an action line was crossed or a continuity error occurred it became poison in my eye. But when I entered the game industry I became privy to the Belly of the Beast, cut open and sprawled out in front of me; a sight I am unable to unsee ever again. Games were never the same. It’s a little bit like meeting a hero of yours and finding out he’s a prick, or loving sausages and visiting a sausage factory. Some things are better left unknown.

Since I have known the effort, politics and struggle that goes behind every game production playing games, though not quite torture, has been spoiled somewhat. Only a handful of games ever fulfill their potential; the majority never reaches that level it could have been if the harsh reality of economics and time weren’t an issue. Development shortcuts, asset recycling, gameplay padding all jump out at me with every game I play. As an artist I pay particular attention to those errors that relate to my skills; texture warping, bad UV layouts, tiled textures with seams, I see them all. And I know in the back of my mind some poor artist had to throw this particular asset together in a matter of hours as a deadline loomed or a last-minute change was required. In stead of playing and enjoying the game I am constantly on the lookout for these little slips.

And it spills over into real life too. Walking the streets I am constantly looking out for modeling issues. Ah, that building, I could do that in a 100 polys and a single 128 texture. Oh, I wouldn’t have put that wall there; a meter or two to the left and it would block out that expansive view behind it. Man, that little corner there is a collision model nightmare! How would I fudge that interior if I wasn’t able to use alpha maps for the window?

In my career I have been lucky enough to not really have worked on any games I like playing myself. Working on a title I would never buy means I won’t be confronted by all the mistakes and errors and shortcuts. I see the art asset and know it isn’t as clean as I would have liked, that it wasn’t the well crafted and organized piece of geometry I set out to make but that it turned into this Frankenstein’s monster of a hacked together piece of garbage because of the many changes that had to be implemented at the last minute. I know the original Maya file was obfuscated and slow, with unnamed texture nodes referring to files all over my hard disk. This doesn’t matter to the consumer, but dammit, it matters to me!
I thank whatever Deity there is that I have never worked for Nintendo, so I can still enjoy their games as I do. Luckily for me Nintendo feels the same way about me, as their rejection letter proves. In my nightmares I would stop playing Zelda because I am privy to and part of the inevitable development Hell that created it.

Another aspect of this is that I hate whatever I create. The moment something I do is finished it’s already not good enough anymore. This makes it very difficult for me to create a personal portfolio, as you can imagine. It goes with everything I do, including this blog. The moment I press that “publish” button I think “Oh flip, why did I do that? What a horrible, whiny waste of text. People are going to hate it.” Given an unlimited amount of time I would never finish anything. At work too I often find myself scrapping a few days’ work to start again from scratch, simply because I feel I have to. I work fast enough for this not to be too problematic in terms of scheduling.

Don’t think me a miserable old coot. I think it stems from an obsessive compulsive need for perfection, which, of course, is unattainable. The worst thing that can happen to a person is for him or her to realise his dream because that puts an end to the drive for it. I always set my sights too high and when it looks like I am close to achieving my goals I reset them; I move the goalposts just a little further, otherwise I become complacent and bored. A friend once told me I do my best work when times are hard, when I absolutely must do, and not when I have the time to pore over it with leisure. And she was right.

So if you are thinking of working in the Japanese game industry simply because you love playing Japanese games, beware! Think twice about it before you pack your suitcase. Knowing how things work on the inside may ruin your appetite, the very same drive that brought you here in the first place! Maybe, just maybe, it’s best to leave your view on the matter on that high pedestal and enjoy it from afar as much as you can. Or you could choose to not be such a preening ninny like me and enjoy your achievements as a sane person would, I’d imagine.

I guess this malaise was brought on by the looming end of the current project; apparently this time it’s real. The game is complete enough for me to look at it and see all the missed opportunities and the things I’ve created that really should and could have been better. And I know I’ll never play it once it’s finished. Familiarity breeds contempt, it is said, and I have spent a large enough chunk of my life in the company of this project to never want to see it again. Soon there will be the inevitable journalistic exposure where people either agree with me or have some strange, positive reaction. I found general gaming forums a pretty decent place to gauge public opinion amongst the so-called hard-core crowd. They all speak in hyperbole so you have to even out the responses a little. And there will be outright lovers and bitter haters of your game, which is a given. But in the end if even just a few people think it’s fun, or looks good, it’ll be somehow worth it. Not in a financial sense, of course, but in a personal sense.


  1. As an art student who is lectured in the semiotics of movies and animation, I understand that inside knowledge can spoil ones enjoyment of a movie. However, I have found I can kind of switch this on or off. I can either sit in front of a game or movie and choose to be the reviewer, analysing the material, or just feck everything and watch it oblivious of all the rules. It's a skill worth developing, I should think.

    Of course, when one encounters an obvious jumpcut or other extremely obvious flaw, no barrier can prevent you from noticing it. But that needn't spoil your enjoyment. Just like I can't watch any movie anymore without identifying the Wilhelm scream as soon as fighting commences. But that only adds a layer of amusement, I guess :)

  2. Man, who do you work for and what kind of game is it?

  3. It's really fun and interesting reading about the life of a gameartist in japan.

    Being a graphical artist myself and working on my first project to be released and sold in stores it's very nice to see that the feelings and experience I feel now is something ordinary. You could say I really relate to what you say about how whenever something gets nearly finished it's not good enough and how comments on the games forum makes it worth it for thoose few that seems to like it.

    I think I probably dont enjoy games the same way I would have if I didn't know what I know now as a gameartist, but what makes it worthwile for me is the urge to make that perfect game

    bottomline is that for anybody to enjoy this work you need to like the craft not the playing or consumtion of the product. Sure I like games alot but I enjoy it even more to produce content and trying to achieve a result that will make others happy.

    One needs to find it fun (hopefully most of the time) to sit in photoshop and work on that texturemap or tweak the uvs to perfection. It's not only the results that counts but for one to work with this you need to enjoy the tools and craft.

  4. There are certain people in the company I work at completely unable to ignore any glitch in a game, no matter how small. They generally hang around the gaming corner when a new game is inserted into the machine and point out all the flaws in the game without ever laying a finger on the controller, all the while spoiling MY enjoyment of said game.

    Whilst I notice problems more than I would if I had never learnt how games are made, I tend not to let it affect my enjoyment of the game. If the game is shit and full of problems, then I wouldn't have enjoyed it anyway, but if it's a fun game and has a few rough edges, who the hell cares?

    Still, I know how annoying it can be when dealing with your own work in a game. If you are forced to knock something out quickly, or have to make alterations against your will for some reason or another, it can be quite annoying to see the finished product in a screenshot or in a magazine. "Damn, if only they had given me another week to polish that level up!" or "Why on Earth did the (code/art/design) lead request that to be changed? It worked much better before".

    Still, at the end of the day, seeing the product on the shelf is still cool - even if the cd inside contains a wreck of a game, it's kind of cool that it's on the shelf and people are going to buy and play it. Of course, it would be much better to work on some awesome game that's a million seller and that you are really proud of, but that won't happen every project (unless you work at Blizzard or Valve... git)

  5. Imagine this "eye" or "musician's ear" as a tester.

    Also, watch out for the ever intrepid "internet detective" - enterprising and idle-handed people will try to determine who you are and use the information to "grief in real life".

    I also like quotation marks!

  6. This just means you're the same as all of us "artists" (pah!), JC... Despising your own work and the majority of games out there is an occupational hazard it seems, and precisely what turns me into the unintelligbly nazi-ish nerd that I am, who only likes, but really really likes, about a handful of titles out there. And never really the ones I've worked on, ofcourse. I find that I do the best work when I am free to do exactly what _I_ want, but still under some kind of self-inflicted pressure that keeps me from caring TOO much about every single little thing to mess it up. I reckon one is as good as what comes out of these kind of cirumstances, where there is inspiration under time-pressure, be it for personal projects or on a reasonably interesting project at work... But then yeah, things are NEVER good enough, are they? And thank god, or we might just stop there.

  7. Any kind of similar burn-out effect with concept artists? I'd imagine it'd be harder to be such a perfectionist when everything you do is meant to be provisional ( or so I'd hope).

  8. Andrew, I'm not talking about the indiscriminate bashing of other games; something that happens in Japan too, actually. That is for the young and irresponsible. I used to do that too, once.
    No, I'm talking more about being acutely alive to the many little imperfections ALL games quite naturally have. And not in an arrogant, know-it-all way, but in a painful understanding way.

    Gene, yeah, I think so. I've worked with one or two burned out concept artists. Just think; you're making your hobby or artistic skill your dayjob. There is bound to be some love lost.

  9. "It goes with everything I do, including this blog. The moment I press that “publish” button I think “Oh flip, why did I do that? What a horrible, whiny waste of text. People are going to hate it.” "

    Oi, JC Benton, you are litrally taking the words out of my mouth. LIT-ER-RAR-LAR-LY.

    I don't mind though. I think we had a good conversation about this, and you helped remind me that to enjoy life, all these artistic endeavours should be taken on for the implicit joy of creating. Money should be the means, not the end. To do it for the love of the creative process, rather than the monetary (or even artistic) ends normally leaves your work glowing with your own creative soul, rather than the drips of sweat you've shed to get it in on time for a friday night booze up.

    Seriously, thinking of your job as... well... a job definately helps to cheapen the reasons you endeavour. It has been shown in studies. But then, I don't think it's in me to work on something I don't fully believe in, which would be a useful skill, for sure.

    Working on our game, I had been pretty low because lots of the early stuff was engine work, and I didn't feel like I was able to help (I'm a game designer/game programmer, but not so hot with low level engine stuff). Now, a lot of the foundation is in place, and I'm well oriented around our code base... I'm starting to be able to actively create, properly sticking my teeth in, and I am happier than I've ever been for about 2 years.

    I get the same enuii about squandered opportunities when playing games, by the way, but again, that normally just fuels me to make use of the freedoms I do have while respecting (but not fearing) the limitations I'm under. Terry Gilliam said that limitations saved him from mediocraty many times: it's good to learn to embrace the swerves they throw you.

    Oh dear... I'm sounding terribly naive and full of vim, aren't I?

  10. Hehe, sorry Bez. But in fairness I had written this post (but not posted it) before that TCE thread.
    I think the idea bloggers hate their own writing isn't just us, though.

  11. There is bound to be some love lost.

    Guess I'll just have to console myself with all that money I'll...

    Oh, right.

    Someone remind me why this is my life's ambition.

  12. Although all the points you mention for game-playing going sour (or fading) I can totally sympathise with, I'm suprised you didn't mention the really obvious one; working in games, we have a hell of alot less spare time, so the meager non-sleep non-eat time-off we do manage, we're alot less likely to want to play games (especially given how flaw-sensitive we've become).

  13. Ah, indeed. Last thing you want when you come home late of an evening is stare at more screens.
    For me personally too, if I play Japanese games I actually have to concentrate on translation; which is no fun.
    Hence when I play I usually play throwaway, no-brainer, no thinking required, pick up and play titles.