On Competition in the Game Dev Space

Why are you competing? This is art, not a competition for survival.

I often read how your design/art/code/game needs to be better than the other guys’ or you’ll just get put into obscurity and irrelevance. “Do your best, then do better than that! Look at all these other people who killed themselves making their game. They are the example. You’ll have to go bigger now.”

Working in the industry for over a decade, I’ve heard from upper management saying something similar like, “We need to beat Call of Duty and Gears of War!” Directives such as this are ultimately stupid and even dangerous.

Because of the rise of the independent gaming movement, I’ve feel that game development isn’t a zero-sum game or survival-of-the-fittest. It’s not Last Man Standing. The concerns you have with marketing and selling your game shouldn’t be like the concerns for selling and marketing standard, off-the-shelf consumer products like bleach and soda. If it were, products like Starbound, Minecraft, and Nidhogg would be crushed by AAA titans like CoD, Uncharted, Gears, AC, etc etc.. But, for some reason, we live in a world where all of these titles can be enjoyed equally by masses of people despite their obvious differences. Why aren’t people rejecting Nidhogg for Assassin’s Creed? Minecraft for Uncharted?

Right now you’re thinking these are silly comparisons, and you’d be right. Therein lies my point:

Games are art. They’re not consumer products.

When is the last time you heard “I hate Picasso. Rembrant is better?” Or, “DaVinci is boring. Hopper is a way better artist?” You won’t because these comparisons are nonsense in the same manner in which I compared Assassin’s Creed to Minecraft. Both the traditional artists and game developers sought to explore an idea, illustrate an emotion, or immerse the viewer to feel something or think differently. I sincerely doubt Monet felt compelled to compete with Matisse and his work. I also don’t think Pearl Jam sought to “beat” Soundgarden, or U2 wanted to bury The Sex Pistols..

You’re an artist in that you’re trying to create that emotional connection between your work and the player. Some people are better equipped to do that, yes, but you are not competing with them because players have shown they’re willing to try all kinds of different things because that’s what they crave. Music, literature, artwork, and games. Creative expression. This is why you always have a chance.

And yes, I get it; you have bills to pay. You won’t get to paying those bills any faster by losing sleep, eating poorly, increasing your blood pressure, and a demotivating game dev slog.

Find balance in your work. When I watched Indie Game: The Movie and the disturbing talk by Jonathan Bruce of Antichamber, I couldn’t help but wonder if subconsciously they were all preoccupied with this concept of, “If I can’t compete, I will fail.” And as a result, they, especially Jonathan, struggled mentally in development.

TL;DR: If you’re preoccupied with being able to compete in the marketplace of games, you’re going to struggle. Games and game development are art, not the Olympics.