Lately, I've been thinking about Game Dev Story — a cute little mobile game on iOS and Android about managing your own fictional game studio/empire. As a developer myself, I was quite interested in how it portrayed the profession.
Here's the thing; I suspect it's more than its saccharine-innocent exterior lets on. Based on my totally qualified scientific sample of two people, I posit that it has a near supernatural quality to reflect the fears and desires of any developer that plays it. Game Dev Story holds up a dark mirror to one's own psyche, ever the watcher but never the judge.
My programmer friend/colleague picked up Game Dev Story, and within hours his company had spiraled into debt and ruin. Too much money was spent on outside contractors when he made his first game, which unfortunately didn't do all that well. Following that, he chased software development contracts outside the games industry for meager and ever-diminishing rewards until he no longer had enough to pay his staff.
Thing is, he's also one of the owners of the small indie company we work at, and these are very real fears that he faces in real life. To keep the company afloat during development, he's had to take software contracts with sometimes flaky individuals for very little gain. Quite a lot of work on our current game was done by contractors because we've had trouble finding people to do the job (for example — our main theme was done by a guy we met on OCRemix).
A cautionary tale, a morality play? Or a stark vision of the end? Game Dev Story remains silent.
Personally, I did pretty well at my own company. I kept making games and chugging along until my studio had become good at it, and I knew it would only get better. I then cast a critical eye at my employees and noticed, from a coldly business point of view, that the early hires were the least skilled among my roster of devs. I could train them if I wanted to, but it would ultimately mean diminishing returns. The purely logical choice was to fire them to make room for the better-skilled.
Except I didn't. I pulled up the stats window and stared at the portly young designer. In him I saw myself — my real, real-life self — and all of my greatest fears manifest.
I am both a game designer and artist. Having suffered from depression for the longest time, I've only seriously started honing my abilities very late in life. I was, and still am, far from the creative gods that grace the front pages of conceptart.org. People who could easily replace me at my job. People I could hire in-game with nary a thought.
It was my greatest nightmare, but the tables were turned. I was the Suit, the alpha and the omega. Careers were birthed and destroyed at my whim and fancy.
I didn't fire him, or any of the other early hires. From a purely business perspective, this was crazy. It was the wrong thing to do. I didn't care – I could have made more money, but I made enough. I trained every last one of them to the best of their ability. The Designer in question changed jobs rapidly, from Coder to Sound Tech and eventually landing into a Director position about two years later with stats in the hundreds where he had begun with barely 30 in each.
Around that time, I got a story event pop-up window. These show up time to time with mostly cut and paste events, such as X magazine deciding Y game was game of the year. But this was different. My Director had given an interview to a prestigious game mag. I don't recall the exact words, but he expressed happiness that he was given the chance to grow and thanked the company for supporting him. Back in real life, someone started cutting onions in the room.
Eventually I did hire extremely talented people when the studio expanded (the Hacker class is overpowered), but I made it a point to hire responsibly to fill in necessary roles. The games we made ended up raking in the millions. At the end of my two decade run, I made whatever game I felt like. I put out mainstream hits like Templar's Order 3 and War of Worldscraft which frequently got more than 25 million sales, then I'd make a Romance Shooter just because I could. I'd build a console that ran on potato chips and engrave advertising into the moon, just because.
Game Dev Story exposes our own humanity, laying it bare for us to see. The Faustian bargain rejected, the company's soul intact.
Today in real life, our first game is about to ship, and we have conquered many of our trials. I've fought a terrible battle against my depression and have emerged victorious. My art skills have grown better, I've started valuing my own ability as a designer, and for once the future seems wide open.
I recently tried to boot up the game, but recieved a license error on startup. Brief anger and confusion gave way to dawning revelation. Satisfied, I closed the application. Game Dev Story had done its work, had sensed its counsel is no longer needed. It departed to the beyond, into the electronic sunset and the mists of myth and history, until the days darken and it is needed once more.
Or until I redownload it.