Starting Over

May 02, 2016

Originally posted on Medium

The hardest thing about starting over isn’t just getting started, at least not in my experience. It’s fighting the voice in your head that asks, over and over, ‘Why will this be different to last time?’ That voice makes you stop, makes you wonder, makes you stop again, and then makes you start something new. More than ever, it seems impossible to make anything stick.

About 18 months ago, Particulars launched to a pretty lukewarm reception. We had some positive reviews, and some absolutely adored the game, but it simply didn’t find its audience. While it made some money, it wasn’t enough to justify keeping SeeThrough Studios open as a full time gig. All the developers went our separate ways, and an era of my life ended.

In the last year and a half, I’ve spent a lot of time trying out new forms and ideas. I’m glad I did this: after a big project like Particulars, I needed time to decompress, to make things that didn’t have to become something, to learn. I needed to test whether games was really the medium for me, what relationship my works should have with science, and what having a full-time job meant when it came to creating.

Over that year, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about why Particulars didn’t ‘succeed’ (I really hate that word, as what we did was in many ways a great success, and the boiling down of success into ‘did you sell all the copies’ is a plague upon game developers, but I don’t really have a better word), and I’ve spent a lot of time looking at new potential projects through that lens. Board game design, while close to my heart, is yet another crowded market where differentiation is difficult, but with the added bonuses of a steep learning curve to manufacture and publish the simplest of games. I worked out a solid business case for Houston, we have a #?^%, with a clear target market and value proposition (something Particulars lacked). I even briefly toyed with the idea of running large-scale real-world games in a more professional capacity.

In many of these cases, that voice asking ‘Why is this better? How are you learning from your mistakes?’ was a real boon. But at some point, you have to stop and actually finish something, and you need your work to build in a meaningful way. And this is where that voice becomes a real pain. It attacks from two fronts. On one hand, it makes it hard to make something small and new, because it’s not bigger or better than last time. On the other, it makes you question and throw out anything that might have any scale to it, unless you’ve got all the hypothetical, drunk and invisible ducks in a row.

So you swap and change and thrash and change your website a few dozen times and keep feeling like you’ve brought yourself back to square 1. And then, if you’re lucky, one of the projects you’ve been working on, the experiments*, hits something deep inside you. It might not be exactly what you want to do, but it’s a damned clear direction, and you can work with that. The uncertainty might still be there, but now that you’ve got something to go towards, it’s easier to deal with.

And then you realise “Damn, it’s been forever since I wrote anything and so much of my ability to do that seems to be slipping away, and also it’s time for some goddamned catharsis!”. So you write a blog post.

* For those wondering what this magical direction is, it’s working on artistic representations of science. Which is super broad (and includes games/‘interactive stuff’), but it nicely unifies the works I’ve had the most passion for (and broad is kinda the point). I’ll post more specific stuff about the directions I’m going further down the line.

** “But of course that’s what you’re passionate about! I could’ve told you that years ago!”. Yeah, whoops.

*** If you were looking for a salient, useful take-away from this post, sorry. The best I’ve got is ‘hang in there, other people deal with this too’. Also, sometimes the voices in your head have a point, and sometimes they’re full of shit. Life is complicated like that.