Cuphead Devs' Pain Being Put First


#1

GamesRadar is clearly limited to the 140 characters, but still. Damn. That’s how you want to frame this? Other replies to the tweet echo my reaction, which I’m thankful for, at least.

It’s a little troubling–no, it’s scary to me that these big, potentially devastating life choices can be framed as “relentless passion”. And I know from other people I’ve talked to in the industry that pretty much every dev has a similar story about something they’ve had to give up to proceed with making a game.

It’s fun to make games. There had to be some reason we keep going through this, right? But these sacrifices don’t feel like they’re being made accompanied by a romantic string swell at the cusp of a climax in a documentary, if you know what I mean. It feels unfair that this occupation has to continue to be such a struggle, and that those from outside and inside of dev will acknowledge and applaud it as such. Not only that, but if you fuck up real bad, everyone will get at you with that 20/20 hindsight.

“LOL why did you remortgage your house to support THIS piece of junk”
“failed because $30 on Steam, shouldn’t have gone broke making it you lazy devs”
“What if someone with financial skills had been on this team? I’d love to see that game”
“Maybe if you listened to the community you wouldn’t have had to delay and redesign”

Troubled indie cycles in particular are not amazing stories of passion. They are a sign of a larger problem–that the people expecting something from indie devs, whether that be publishers, consumers or platforms, do not have the proper patience and respect for their work-life balance and well-being, or in Cuphead’s case, the need to re-scope due to massive feedback during development. I swear, if an indie game isn’t out two years after it’s announced, it suddenly becomes a “when’s THAT coming out” joke. It also happens with the indefinitely delayed BELOW, another Xbox One-first indie, as well.

I get that impatience a little more when it’s AAA. A little, because some of those big companies have stockholders. Some of their games are tentpole releases that HAVE to come out on whatever date. Indies are in a dangerous position where they’re expected to have the same hustle as a larger company if their game is hotly awaited, but they don’t HAVE that hustle and they’ll sometimes nearly kill themselves to achieve it, seeing no future beyond release but just doing whatever it takes to get there.

I don’t know if I have a conversation to start here. Just pouring out my gut feelings a bit, and this honestly feels more like an article that would be on the site than a topic in these forums. Whether you’re a dev yourself or a player, I’d love to hear how you feel about the like, fetishization of indie sacrifice, yo.


#2

The Underdog story is a pretty good hook, but it’s also a really dangerous proposition because it can backfire in the worst ways. Same happened with No Man’s Sky. Small 12 man team beating the odds not just got them coverage in the gaming media. It went massively mainstream. Appearances on Late Night With Stephen Colbert, BBC interviews, global recognition for their pain. This indie team who bet it all on a risky proposition, practically pitched the game on Geoff Keighley’s awards show working their bones off. And then when copies got in peoples hands and the game wasn’t what was promised. Suddenly this narrative of the scrappy underdog team who’s game was so interesting and unique that a big 1st party picked them up and pushed them as a console seller just imploded.

Outrage, trolling, Death threats (Why does there always have to be death threats?). No empathy at all. Everyone joining in the circlejerk of dunking on them (Even though the “Jurassic Park” video was funny. It was a guilty laugh when you realised 3 years of peoples lives crunching has been reduced to a joke). And the thing is the underdog dev who staked everything on that one game will always be a compelling story, but it has a danger of imploding back and hurting people when they don’t hit the mark. Granted, that’s just the press in general. There’s always a risk of blowback from anything at all these days, no matter how innocuous it seems. But I think that hurts indies more than anything. Even a modest bit of hype or saying the wrong thing, it’s just blowback. And when social media platforms and even steam are becoming vectors to hurl abuse directly to the developers over the slightest mistake. And when you add in the personal pain. That just gives the trolls more ammo. Sean Murray straight up let people into his life when making NMS, gamers went personal when the game failed to deliver for them and it’s no surprise he took a break from twitter. The abuse was just too much. And it’s a huge issue with fetishizing the suffering artist in this day and age in that it can be incredibly personal and even more painful if things go wrong.


#3

In the U.S. at least, we have a long history of fetishizing risky business endeavors in all industries. Our obsession with the power of small businesses leads to glorification of the brutally long hours that many restaurant owners and the like have to work to keep their business afloat and make a living. Our lack of a universal healthcare system and a less developed social safety net in general compared to many other countries makes being an entrepreneur of any sort incredibly perilous.

I don’t know if these sorts of problems related to indie development are unique to the profession. Anyone who decides to take a chance and create something on their own terms is unfortunately in danger under an economic system that values fierce independence and ambition but offers no compassion or assistance for people who don’t profit enormously every time. The more these outlets focus on the “relentless passion angle” the less they focus on the root causes of why development takes such a devastating toll on people.


#4

I agree and understand. I was focusing mostly on indie dev because it’s my self-centered profession and the one most relevant to the forum–but I agree that this extends to all those with potential to be seen as a “starving artist” and those who are pursuing any profession that could be seen as “pulling themselves up by their bootstraps”.

A follower on Twitter replied to me with this comparison to how construction projects go, actually.


#5

It bugs me a whole hell of a lot, as a game dev who desperately wishes he could go indie without a 100% chance of ruining his life, that people glorify this sort of thing. Especially when, as already brought up, failures get immensely criticized. Or, possibly worse, ignored. So many people fail without ever existing in the public eye, and have to return to the doldrums of whatever profession they use to actually live. Ehhh. EHHHHHHHHHHHH.

At least I like my job, unlike probably most people who want to go indie. I got lucky there, I guess. ):


#6

To me, these stories feel like a kind of twist on how we talk about crunch. Just as Kunzelman argued in his Waypoint piece on crunch, it’s never about the individual choice, that “relentless passion”, but about the systemic organisation, whether of studio or independent game development. The sacrifices people are compelled to undergo, whether just as part of their jobs or in pursuit of finishing their game, are rarely treated with the seriousness they deserve.

I feel like it’s easy to wax positive about these stories, and another thing entirely to think about the testimony some developers give about not being able to recover from the crunch they had to inflict to themselves for their livelihood.

Maybe this whole comparison is facile. But I can’t disassociate them myself.


#7

This occurred to me after writing this–we just had that crunch conversation again recently, and here is another form of it! In this case, it’s about all the sacrifices people making games might be put in a position to make overall, whereas crunch is specifically a sacrifice of living time and health. They’re absolutely related, though, especially with the take that “crunch is good, actually” being very similar to the glorification of these dangerous sacrifices as simply “passion”. If I found out a friend of mine was being this “passionate” for their creative project, I would tell them to stop.

I wouldn’t be surprised at all if we see a similar pattern of early death in game industry workers that we are seeing now in Japanese manga artists due to overwork and the peer pressure to work as much as possible and not sleep. Wow, that’s depressing.


#8

If we, as in Americans, continue to glorify the Crunch as proof of being authentically passionate about one’s creative work, then I can totally see a pattern mirroring the tragic early deaths of Japanese manga artists, as you describe.

It is depressing! Praising to the point of, as you and others have called it, fetishizing exhaustive, mentally, emotionally, and physically taxing labor as the normal and expected standard, and at the expense of all other human endeavor, is pervasive in America.

I wonder, is that partially influenced by a Protestant work ethic, since Evangelical Protestantism is the dominant form of religion in America? Corporate ideology has had a powerful impact, too. But there seems to be a popular belief that if you labor hard and long enough, your soul is cleansed. Your conscience is clear. But you mustn’t shirk from pushing yourself, because you must earn the right to “comfort.” Universal healthcare? You can only have that after you’ve put in 60+ years of labor. Yes, I’ve heard arguments against healthcare being an innate human right because, apparently, if we all had coverage, we would become too lazy and comfortable. As if healthcare were about comfort, and not life or death.

Sometimes, when people talk about self-improvement, making lifestyle changes is called “doing the work.” I don’t want to sound like I’m anti-ambition or against continuously striving to do better in life. But many rants about millennials could be summed up as “they” (whoever they are; seriously, it seems like so-called millennials have been college students for the last 20 years) just don’t like putting in a hard day’s work and desire easy goals. So, are the options unemployment or worship the Crunch?

I don’t know. The myth of American individualism is a factor, too. I’m just spitballing because it’s common for us to describe our worth, our personal “value,” in terms of the products of our labor alone, and the time spent laboring. Regardless of the quality of the work and time put in, and at what cost.


#9

I’m in an odd position, because I greatly value work and “doing the work”. By my own choice (very important distinction) I gave up a lot of the social experience of high school and college and focused on music instead. I never took shortcuts in music, and when opportunity FINALLY came, I was ready. So I’m commonly going to tell aspiring creative people that they actually need to do the work. Spend less time building concepts and ideas, more time looking at textbooks, doing tutorials. Making smaller goals. Coming away with small victories. Spending less time consuming media and more time working on it (a delicate balance).

At the same time, I immediately sniff out when people are using the same adages about hard work in order to get young workers to work harder, keep them thinking that they can’t stop or they will be replaceable. Burning them out and replacing them with the next hopeful college graduate or whatever.

So basically, you are going to need to work hard if you want to get anywhere, but if you get to the point where your work-life balance is off and you’re asking yourself often if you’re being worked too hard, you probably are.


#10

Yeah, exactly. We have these shibboleths about working, but they can extend to romanticizing awful things. “We quit our jobs, remortgaged our houses” becomes a Wow, the passion! success story. Asking if “relentless passion” is coding for worshiping Crunch culture and why we ought to believe it’s inevitable and good, when there are other ways to be successful, can be greeted with “you just don’t value doing the work.” Of course, this isn’t about fear of moving beyond planning and achieving the goals one has set. The problem of the, as you said, framing is celebrating exploitative labor practices. One that, we all definitely agree on, isn’t helped by poisonous gamer culture.


#11

Doing the work isn’t the problem.

It’s being forced sacrifice your social safety nets to be able to do the work. Or, well, just being forced to overwork because of crunch culture.

Nobody’s saying you shouldn’t work hard to achieve your goals. But what does “work hard” mean? I guess I can’t speak for everyone, but if the definition of “work hard” is risk ruining your life, well, humans fucked up somewhere along the line. Life should be getting better. We should be past that. We can be past that.


#12

“Work hard” for me, for creative people, means:

  • Learn the rules before you break them.
  • Practice consistently, every day.
  • Be constantly making things for yourself, even if no one is hiring you to do so.

That’s hard work! It’s not long, physically draining days of work, it’s a long period of your life spent doing small works that are just actually hard to mentally commit to.

And my definition of working hard can absolutely be fulfilled without necessitating something like the 40-hour work week. The problem is that the phrase “work hard” has gotten caught up with what I feel like the people making money off us ACTUALLY want us to do, which is work ourselves to death. Work hard until we don’t realize that we shouldn’t have to work hard anymore. Work so hard that it seems normal.

I made another thread about not working for free a while ago. It had a lot about how you can do some creative work for yourself, take it easy and not end up toiling away for someone else. This is starting to link with that. All my threads might be connected? Aaahhh!


#13

Sorry, I misunderstood and thought you were sorta backing off and middle-roading this whole thing! That’s my bad!!! Now that I’m not reading it wrong, I basically agree with you on all points. :stuck_out_tongue:

Semi-related, I wish I could make things for myself but any games I’d work on in my freetime are owned by my employer, as per contract. Industry standard and all that. But that’s a whole separate issue. Although it sorta wraps back around to the issue of employers wanting us to devote our entire lives to them.


#14

Oh gosh, that kind of stinks, and I hear it so seldomly that I forget it’s a thing. I know some companies only want first dibs on their employees’ side projects. (There’s a better phrase than ‘first dibs’ but I don’t have it with me right now)

I’m in indie, and my employer believes that the impressive things we do as solo members outside of work just make the team look stronger, so as long as I’m not late on any of my tasks and keep it to the weekends, it’s okay to take some side work or do my own things.


#15

Yeah, I think it’s like, the bigger the company the more likely they are to say no. The biggest ones just say no flat out to personal projects. I’ve experienced several degrees of it at this point, but my current sitch is the most restrictive. Technically I’m allowed to make things in my free time, but they are wholly owned by my employer. Even, like, game jam stuff…

To a degree it makes sense. Bigger companies have to worry more about image, and some faceless employee making stuff on the side could come back to bite them, if it’s like a porn game or something, as an extreme example. Or maybe something politically charged.

But eh. It’s just a symptom of capitalism I guess. :pensive:


#16

What are some good indie titles that sold well that didn’t have devs coming out saying “Yeah, put my life in a real pickle”?


#17

Not everyone really shares, and I don’t want to get too much into talking about people’s actual lives, but even titles that look really successful on the surface might not earn a dev enough to think about jumping right into another game. So, I’m not sure if there are any really inspiring stories. The guy who made Stardew Valley seems like a responsible worker who took his time. But if you’ve watched Indie Game: The Movie, you’ve seen how the makers of some of the most popular and successful indie games we know were pretty much staking their entire livelihoods on their games succeeding. No matter how good your game does, you can lose something in the stress of making a game that you never get back.

I actually did want to update this thread to say that Cuphead is doing well! Close to 200K units sold on its first week, which is pretty good for an indie game and absolutely incredible for a 2017 indie game. So it seems like they’ll be able to pay off those debts at least.


#18

Even Stardew Valley had a really intensive development process:

For four years, he says, he worked an average of ten hours a day, seven days a week, on Stardew Valley. Luckily, he was living with his girlfriend, a graduate student in, appropriately, plant biology, and to help stay afloat he worked part-time as an usher at Seattle’s Paramount Theatre.

Source:
http://www.vulture.com/2016/03/first-time-developer-made-stardew-valley.html


#19

Oh my god. OK, there’s no way to do this we’re all gonna die.

But yeah, a supportive significant other or spouse is actually the ingredient in quite a few game dev teams. Sometimes more directly supportive than this situation. Bless them, seriously, that’s incredible dedication. I would not be able to ask that of someone, I don’t think.

That feels like a whole other thread, “being the significant other of a person working in the creative industry”


#20

Capitalism is Bad, Actually, and stories that fetishize it (“this young boy paid for college by recycling cans”) are also bad. Somebody having to take such a tremendous gamble on their entire livelihood for the sake of creation is fucked up.