Hobby or Career: Is Video Game Development Viable as a Career Option?

A controller from the perspective of the player.

Video game development has been, for as long as I can remember, one of my greatest passions in computer science. In fact, my very first programming experience was developing a small series of (mind you, very bad) video games for the website Kongregate, a platform where indie flash developers can get a start by publishing their creations to a community of online gamers. I remember sitting at our old home computer, following YouTube tutorials for making my own games in Macromedia (now Adobe) Flash using ActionScript. Admittedly, I did not learn a lot of programming skill, but I did make functional games using what I had at my disposal.

My first video game was a simple game called Kongregate Chatting on the side. The goal of the game was to give you something mindless to do while chatting with your friends on the built-in site-wide chat service that is next to every game on the website. In the game, you killed a stick man by clicking on buttons with various modes of death, and a pitiful, sub-par animation would play in about four to ten frames depicting the death of the stick man (hereby referred to as Bob, which was his name). Bob had many sad, tragic ends, such as death by axes, overwhelming forces of gravity, implosions and explosions, and even a bomb. This game was, without denial, possibly the worst game that has ever disgraced the face of the Internet. I can say that now, but at the time, I was a very proud eleven-year-old developer in the making. The comment section also praised me for my hard work, with many inspirational lines of encouragement:

  • “Best game EVAH! And because being number 1 is the best.. I give you a 15! CONGRATS!”
  • “It is soo not a game and if it was it would be suckish like yo’ face!”
  • ”-sigh- One star.”
  • “FIRST”

…Okay, so maybe the comments were a little less forgiving than I remembered. But, surely, after I brushed up on my skills and developed a single-level maze game with a hand-drawn map consisting of a single path, the Internet rejoiced. Right? I mean, the reception for the grand debut of Maze Game couldn’t have been too bad…

  • “Yes..at least it works… 2”
  • “Um…needless to say, a one.”
  • “Only one level, to cheat with right-click is possible, poor graphics. 15
  • “best part is the loading screen”

Alright, so maybe I wasn’t the young, prodigy version of Markus Persson that I thought I was. But I wasn’t defeated, and I took some of the, err, advice that I had been given in some of these comments. After many hours of trawling through Google and trying to decipher what real coding solutions looked like, I figured out a way to eliminate the biggest glitch in my original game: the ability to right-click and skip to the ending. I made the sequel such that right-clicking resulted in an instant loss. I improved the graphics (by discovering the line tool for drawing paths. Woah!), and I even added an achievement for completing the game, as well as five levels with new mechanics such as keys unlocking doors and two-part goals. Since my last three games were bombs (yes I said three, and no, we do not talk about Easy Platformer), this was, for me at least, leaps and bounds of improvement. To give you a sense of time, Maze Game was released on April 25, 2009. The sequel, Maze Game 2, was released only two weeks later on May 9, 2009. In the span of only two weeks, I learned new game mechanics and techniques, improved my graphics, and uploaded a sequel to my second game ever. So, after coming back with a fresh game, almost immeasurably better than the previous, the responses had to improve. He said, like a liar.

  • “easy poor design keep them coming…”
  • “this is retarded….”
  • “not a maze”
  • “No offense, but these mazes are way too thin for anybody to have fun with. And after passing it, I don’t feel like the badge was worth earning. 25

Okay, to be fair to the people commenting, there were people who were nice to me on Maze Game 2, and there were… well, technically better responses too:

  • “Zac’s right, he cant do everything so stop hassling him as it is a good game. Also cheats make the game more interesting 45.”
  • “Yay 7th comment xD. Average game 35
  • “Ignore people complaining about cheating, if they don’t want to cheat, then they can simply refrain from doing so. I think your game is quite good but to short =) 35 from me since I love mouse maze games”

Notice something here, though: the first comment in the list of good comments above was a direct response to me. At the time, I began getting frustrated with the people who would constantly tell me how bad my game was and put me down. It was around this time that my development began to slow down. I made a really bad game called Build-A-Head, partially because I was uninspired, but mainly because I felt like my Maze Game series would never be good enough. In fact, I thought that I would never be good enough. After that catastrophe, my next game did not come out until a full year later. And since that last game that was released sometime in May 2010, to date, I have not since publicly released any video game that I have created.

But this post is not just about taking you all on a bad trip down memory lane with me. There is a theme, here. It is something that I, in the past decade since this experience, have never really had the opportunity to talk about: why I never will believe in my ability to produce video games professionally. I learned very early on that video game development, despite being one of my favorite hobbies, is an industry that chews up developers and spits them out like flavorless gum. While I recognize that my games were pretty bad, I stand by the fact that they were pretty good for an eleven-year-old. Not to mention that Maze Game 2 is actually kind of fun, albeit a bit difficult. And for every encouraging message I had, there was at least three that were significantly worse. And this problem isn’t just a “me” problem – this is a very real, very concerning issue for the game development industry, especially today.

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The above pictured tweet perfectly captures the frustration and pain every single developer who gains any sort of notoriety must face: rage, hate, vitriol, abuse. In this article by developer Morgan Jaffit, he perfectly describes the struggle that every developer must face when they make their creations public. Jaffit also identifies what I believe to be the exact problem with the culture surrounding game development:

Regardless of the circumstances, players have been conditioned to believe that vehement personal attacks are the right way to communicate with developers.

Any young adult or teenager who has spent any amount of time in gaming forums, chat rooms, video game lobbies, or even the comments section on their preferred video game platform can empathize (or, at least, sympathize) with this sentiment. Don’t listen to your fans enough? You get death threats. Change the balance of items/abilities/characters in a game? You get doxxed. Implement loot boxes in your multiplayer game in an attempt to increase revenue and therefore improve production? Uh oh, looks like your servers got paralyzed by a distributed denial of service (DDOS) attack. The rampant toxicity of many (the minority, sure, but still very many) gamers online today is just too egregious to ignore.

Frankly, I never want to deal with this kind of abuse. I never want to feel threatened over my artistic choices for the games that I produce. No part of me wants to endure unprecedented levels of hatred, regardless of whether or not I’m doing what I love to do, over something designed to bring joy and happiness to people. For now, I think I’ll stay in my lane and focus on developing a professional career in cyber security. At least then I’ll understand why people are trying to attack me.