2023 September Retrospective
September was the month of the Nun II, and as a result I decided to brighten up the place a little bit.
I haven’t had a chance to watch it yet, which of course is good, because it means that I can’t spoil it for you either. 9999 IQ thinking right?
In other news, unless you have been living under a rock, you probably have heard about the Unity drama and the total chaos that followed. I think it’s fair to say that this fiasco done irreparable damage to the Unity brand.
Now, I am not here to shit on Unity since plenty of that has been done already and it’s not fun anymore anyway, but I do want to touch on a few things.
Before I get into the nitty-gritty, let’s clarify something rather important. When I say indie game developer or studio, I mean having a team with a headcount between 1 and 20 people or thereabouts.
With anything bigger than that, the lines are starting blur a little bit and various degrees of so called AA-ness will start entering the picture.
So, if you are an indie, there’s absolutely no good reason to use an off the shelf engine or toolkit. Why?
Basing your entire livelihood and business, on third party licensed technology, in many cases without access to source code is just not the brightest of ideas. And, you really do not need to have graduated business school with a young american merit scholarship to figure that much out. It’s just good old plain common sense.
But, but, but wait a minute. Isn’t it like super hard and difficult to build your own tech? Oh and also it has to be portable, isn’t that even harder? What about mobile, what about consoles, what about …?
This is a very common misconception and this is exactly why people end up locking themselves into a black box and many times leave metric tons of money on the table by refusing to port their game at all, or throwing crazy amounts of money at third parties who in many cases do an absolutely dreadful job at porting their games. To make things worse, many times these ports are then never updated and they simply sit there and rot, which in turn ends up causing even more damage.
I spent quite a lot thinking about this, trying to figure out where this line of thinking is coming from and how it managed to permeate most of the industry, and I believe that I managed to come up with a pretty reasonable theory one might say.
During the 90s when Carmack and Id Software were pushing the envelope and kept outdoing themselves with every single new release sent a shock-wave through the industry and we can still feel its after-effects even today in some form or another. This created a rift and split the industry into primarily two main camps.
One camp said that they can’t possible to do all that wizardry in house, which led to the creation of early engine licensing business.
The second camp said that not only they can build similar tech, but even surpass it, which in turn ended up providing the engines to the first camp and many that embarked on this journey over the years ended up abandoning any in house development of games and focused purely on the tech.
Both of these camps were so razzle-dazzled by the pixel eye candy on their monitors that they completely missed the genius of Carmack and Id Software, and many of them continue to do so even today.
What do I mean by the genius of Carmack? Every single game built and released by Id Software ran on a wide range of hardware, which meant that little Timmy from Nebraska could probably play the games on their daddy’s business PC, admittedly with less eye-candy.
So let’s take a deeper look. The first camp thought that by licensing the engine they could not only save money and time but end up building a better game. While this line of the thinking seems very sensible and reasonable on paper to a bunch of people wearing tweed jackets all hoping to be the next Bill Gates, it doesn’t really work in practice. Why?
Because every single game will have some specific needs, some of which might not be very obvious from the get go and while in these early days one would get full source code access when licensing an engine, often times by the end of the development cycle almost nothing was left from the original engine that the game started out with.
In many other cases, the game just ended up feeling like a “cheap reskin” that even retained some of the same bugs.
So what is there to learn from all this? First, if you must license the tech, pick something with full source code access that lends itself well to customization and makes it relatively painless to replace entire subsystems if need be. This usually is not the case, unless the entire stack was built with this in mind from the get go, which 99.99% of the time is not the case, trust me!
Second, do not fall into the trap that you’ll be able to just roll with off the shelf tech, especially when the game itself doesn’t fall into what one would consider conventional game design, or perhaps it’s a completely new genre. And when it does, there might be just one thing that needs some deeper customization in order to feel just right and fit in.
And now let’s look at the second camp, the camp that accepted the challenge and started building their own in-house tech that matched and surpassed what Carmack ended up hacking on.
One of the crucial things that they missed is the fact that I touched on earlier, and that is the versatility of the tech built by Carmack, that just worked on almost anything, from your grandma’s toaster to new and shiny tower in your uncle Billys’ mancave. The second camp only focused on the proverbial high-end and if you look at the industry today this still rings true.
The message to the customers (“gamers”) is a resounding “Just upgrade!”, which of course is totally fine if your AA-ness is pretty high and you can afford losing sometimes a significant amount of sales and still break even, but it’s not so ideal if you are an indie where losing those sales might make a difference between staying afloat or going down the way of the dodo.
Yet another fatal mistake that many of the contenders in this second camp have done is the abandonment of all in-house development of games. Building any tech without using said tech in-house is a fatal mistake and any company that does so loses valuable insight, which simply cannot be replaced by feedback or insight coming from the outside.
Often times your customers do not know what they do not know, or even what they actually need and they look towards you for guidance. And you cannot possibly give any meaningful guidance if you aren’t using your own tech internally, it’s as simple as that.
In addition this also leads to simply “copy-ing” what the so called competition is doing, because the thinking is that if they are doing it: for one it must good and second that you’ll potentially miss out if you also do not have the so called elusive “killer” feature or features.
This line of thinking is the arch enemy of any sustainable business and leads only to bloat and the decay in quality as well as confidence in the tech; out of which the only people who end up winning will be the people at the top who most of the time have actually zero clue of what is actually going on or what are the real and tangible consequences of their strategy, while the people who do the work and many times might speak up and try to ring the alarm bells get nothing but a sour taste in their mouths and become filled with hopelessness and disillusionment.
All this to say that if you are an indie, your safest and best bet is still to roll your own tech, especially more so if you are building 2D games. Do not let anybody tell you otherwise and convince you that you are not capable, by using the age of lie that goes something like this: “build games, not engines”. It’s all a crock of shit and nothing more than ravings of underachiever mad-men who would do anything to feel even slightly better about themselves.
I am going to end it on a positive note with an albeit cringe, but very fitting and thematic dad joke!
Q: What did Valak say to Loraine?
A: It’s NUN of your business!
Sorry, I’ll see myself out now!