Indie Game Dev Tip #6 – Fail Faster
Today, I want to talk about something that I really adapted from the startup world into game development because I think it’s so relevant to the way that we make games. I see a lot of people that are terrified of failing. The only real failure is quitting.
The only way to really fail at something and never get anywhere is to stop doing it. What a lot of people don’t realize is that, what they consider as failures aren’t really failures. Because the only way to really fail is quitting. When people talk about failure, they usually mean, for example, putting a game out and not doing so well, or building a mechanic and the mechanic doesn’t work, or trying to create a game that’s not quite there yet.
If those are failures, then I think that the mindset that they should adapt is to FAIL FASTER. When I started out in game development, one of the things that I always wanted to avoid was failure. No matter what, I didn’t want to fail. I didn’t want to be able to not create something that I wanted to create, I didn’t want to put out something that no one liked, I didn’t want to create a mechanic that just didn’t work in my game. I ended up not doing a lot of the stuff that I wanted to do because I was scared to fail.
Especially in a public setting like when you release your game and you have people on a forum or in a Facebook group or whatever. There are people out there that are going to be seeing this stuff and it’s really embarrassing to fail in public. It can seem terrifying especially to an introvert like me. The last thing I want is for people to look at me and say, “AHA! He’s a failure.”
However, I realized that a lot of those fears were completely unfounded. I realized that for me to be successful at what I wanted to do, I had to fail faster. I learned this in the startup world when I was working on my company and when I was networking with a lot of startup companies, with a lot of really cool people.
I had an office down in Santa Monica that was a couple blocks from the beach. It was a shared office space, which means there were literally hundreds of companies in these little blocks all over. There was an open workspace area where people could just come in and rent the whole space for a couple of hundred bucks a month. They would have access to different offices and workspaces and Wi-Fi and all that stuff.
It was the coolest thing ever because there were all these great companies. There were so many people to network with—right down the hall from me was the co-founder of Activision and that dude’s a billionaire! He was just in an office sitting there, chilling. There were so many cool people that I was able to meet and I started getting involved in this whole-startup-culture and the Lean Startup idea and the philosophy behind it. A lot of these guys that build these major tech companies adapt this concept of failing faster rather than avoiding failure and being terrified of it.
Whatever you’re going to do wrong, try and do it as fast as you can, then learn from it. Because the number one thing that you get from those experiences of not being able to create something or making something that doesn’t work, is you learn what doesn’t work.
There’s an old quote from Thomas Edison about how he hadn’t failed a thousand times in building the light bulb, he only found a thousand ways that didn’t work. So he got closer to finding the one that did. That’s how this stuff works. Every time you fail there’s something that you can learn from that failure.
So if you want to accelerate your learning, you have to fail faster, You have to make more shit, you have to push it out constantly over and over—-constantly build stuff, constantly iterate and see what works and what doesn’t. This concept is overlooked in game development. I have read so many blog posts, so many personal things from developers, so many tweets where they’re either completely afraid to fail or they look at their game as a failure.
The whole concept of a post mortem is when people post things like, “Oh, these are all things we did wrong.” and they just look at themselves as failures. No, you’ve learned all these things like, don’t frame it that way.
Share the things that you’ve learned and really learn from them. It’s such a great opportunity to go through something that doesn’t work. It teaches you so much. I had a mentor who was the VP of the company I worked for for a long time. This company was in total chaos. I didn’t really work for them. I was an outside contractor but I would come into the office to work with them on their marketing and stuff. The thing that I’ve learned so much from that chaotic company. He would always bring me aside and say: “Tim, this isn’t how a real company works.”
These people were just crazy and I loved that so much. It fascinated me to watch all these people do things incorrectly. How they talked to their clients was wrong, they made promises that they couldn’t keep. Watching these people do all this crazy shit taught me more than doing the right thing ever did. What did I learn? I learned that that’s not how I want to run a business, that’s not how I should talk to people, that’s not how I want to live my life. And failure can teach you that faster than anything else can.
The great thing about failure is the bigger the failure, the bigger the lesson. Some of my core concepts that really dictate how I run my life have come from some of my biggest failures. There was a point in time where I was nearly homeless and I had to choose between feeding myself or my dog. The decisions that got me there taught me so much about how to make future decisions and how to do things. That specific situation taught me a ton about finance.
That’s when I started reading a lot about personal finance, having a security fund, and all this stuff. Failure teaches you more than success ever can. So many successful game developers that are on top are the dudes that have made a series of shitty games. The developers of Angry Birds, Rovio, made about 40 to 50 games before they made Angry Birds. Angry Birds is a billion-dollar franchise now. No one knows what other games they made. No one knows or can name any of those other games because they’re probably all failures.
Having that consistent process of learning from each one can help you so much in life. That’s why I really believe in the concept of failing faster. The faster you fail, the faster you learn. It takes the pressure off you too. Like, “Oh my god, I have to do this thing and it has to succeed.” Your brain gets so fixated on success that pressure becomes too much. The anxiety causes you to forget things and do things incorrectly. It’s the wrong way to go.
If this is just a side job and you don’t really have to worry about the pressure of making money for the rent off of this game, you have the luxury of being able to fail a lot and failing quickly and you can learn so much from that. If you’re in that position obviously you made the decisions to get there, so maybe there are other lessons there. But I think you can always pull off everything you want to pull off.
Every time I failed in life, I realized that there was always a lesson to be learned. Once I learned that lesson, I make sure that I don’t make the same mistakes because I don’t want to be in the same position again. It’s helped me many times in game development especially because there are so many things that you learn– the intricacies of design or user experience, all that stuff.
I’ll never forget this one time when I had someone play my game on Twitch. It was the first time anybody besides me played the game. He couldn’t even figure out how to play the game. Live on Twitch Stream, in front of a hundred people, I learned my lesson.
I learned my lesson and I will never let that happen again. I will definitely figure out all the UX and user experience issues before anyone plays my game live for an audience. There are so many things that seem so simple in hindsight, but you don’t learn until you fail. The harder you fail, as when I failed in front of hundreds of people live on Twitch, that lesson was so much more ingrained in my brain than if my humiliation had been less public.
I hope the basic concept of fail faster got through to you and I hope you can apply it to your games and in your life. I hope it will help you get further in what you want to do in game development.
If you guys have any comments or you want to share your story about how you failed and learned, I’d love to hear from you. Leave it in the comments below.