When I was six years old, I played Super Mario Brothers on the Nintendo Entertainment System for the first time. I had seen arcade games and Atari games before but had never gotten to play.
And now that I’d played? I was hooked.
But I wasn’t hooked on playing the game; I was hooked on the magic. How did it work? There was a whole world inside of the TV that somebody had created, the same way an author writes entire worlds into existence. With video games, I could experience that world on my own terms. Even in their infancy, games had so much to offer: whole new worlds, secret areas and high scores.
However, I didn’t own a Nintendo. Or a Super Nintendo. Or a SEGA. In fact, I wouldn’t own any game console for another 20 years, when I bought an Xbox360 to compete in a video game development competition. So while I didn’t get to experience the world of video games often as a kid, I could still create my own worlds. I used the tools I had—pencils and paper—to create platform levels that my character (who was totally not Mario) had to navigate through. I spent hours designing games and world maps on paper and trying to imagine how they would work on a computer or console.
For me, building games is about telling stories. I love technology and spend plenty of time learning the art of software development. But my real passion is simply creating. I never really wanted a job in the entertainment industry. I don’t build games as a source of income; I build games because I love to create things, and video games are the most challenging blend of art, music, technology and storytelling that humankind has invented to date.
Now, some 30 years after discovering my own passion for creating interactive experiences, I get to share that passion with my kids. I do my best to pass on that desire to be a creator and not simply a consumer; to enjoy the experiences other artists have created and use that to fuel your own. This is why I build games. But how do you sustain that?
For every game I’ve actually “shipped” in some form (approximately five), I’ve worked on at least 20 more that never saw the light of day. Some were just not feasible ideas; others were tech demos, proofs of concept or plans that were way too big for an individual or small team to finish. I’ve failed, burnt out and given up a hundred times, only to come back with another idea that needs explored. Along the way, I’ve learned important lessons about running projects successfully, managing scope and expectations and how to manufacture creativity and inspiration.
I started my current game, Masteroid, after building 3 complete games in 3 (non-consecutive) months. I learned that, while finishing projects quickly is hard, the process leaves me feeling energized and full of ideas instead of burnt out. I poured almost two years into my last “big” game, and it became a miserable taskmaster. It never made it into the hands of a gamer, let alone a real fan. Masteroid, on the other hand, is an experiment. Masteroid is about finishing things.
With Masteroid, I didn’t want to make an innovative, successful or even popular game. Instead, I wanted to work on a project that I looked forward to all the time. I wanted to invest in a project that, unlike most, stayed “fun” and didn’t turn into work. I wanted to work on a project that I finished a lot of times. In creating the game, here are some of the things I set out to accomplish:
- The game would get to “market” quickly; no more than two months
- The game would have bite-sized milestones that could be “finished” regularly
- I could do every part myself: the art, the programming and the game design
This list of accomplishments impacted every single facet of the project. The art had to be a style that was visually interesting but rapid to create. The game design had to start as a simple foundation that could have features steadily built onto it. The programming had to balance both the long-term vision and getting things done in the now. Basically, the game needed to solve every challenge I’ve run into both my professional and hobby projects.
Two months after the first line of code was written, Masteroid launched to approximately 100 beta signups. Since launch, Masteroid has released a version every month that’s added significant features over the previous version. As of this post, 1,300 people have played the game for almost 200 hours. Among the most active players are my own boys!
Whether five or five thousand people play the game, it is successful every single month because it’s finished and I have fun: The goal a six-year old boy reached for in 1987 when he sketched his first level in a notebook.
by Justin Johnson