Game-making’s sense of loss

Following the last, wheezy gasps of 2018, I’ve been thinking about endings. Fewer players seem to ‘finish’ titles than ever before. There’s a growing expectation that all games should be updated with new content after release. Pete Hines promised Fallout 76 would run forever. There was a sigh of relief when Obsidian promised The Outer Worlds wouldn’t be that big.

Developers have issues with endings. Designers, I’m learning, are the most doomed of the lot of us, cursed by an unkind god to see only the flaws in their games, no matter how rapturously the title is received. But all devs find it difficult to let go: making games is such a life-consuming delight that when it’s over we don’t know what to do with ourselves. I wonder if that’s – partly – why there’s such a fear of committing to release dates, aside from lacking confidence in your production estimates. When your game’s out, it’s finished – isn’t it? The whole disastrous affair? And then you move on and do it all again?

As anyone who’s launched a game before knows, this isn’t how it works. You have this gigantic hopeful bubble which pops and, well, sometimes you have a buzz for a week because everybody loves it and you’re suddenly seeing a huge spike in sales and a burst of positive reviews. But even that isn’t the end – it often takes months to receive your first payment from distributors, and by then the glow of launch week has worn to a duller patina of user reviews, support tickets, bug fixes, and the sense I imagine new parents feel when they step outside the hospital with their baby and just, well, go home?

A wise gentleman I used to work with once gave me a pep talk about post-launch blues, that gloom which descends on developers in the aftermath of release. He said: ‘I spend years working on a game, and then marketing comes in and turns it into something else. They turn it this way and that so it catches the light. And then people respond to it in ways I didn’t intend, and people have opinions, and form personal experiences that have nothing to do with me. Something that was mine has gone out into the world, and it isn’t mine anymore.’

This is the closest I think developers get to an ending. A game after launch is a consumable, eaten by a thousand mouths. Developers eventually stop developing, but their game slots into storefronts for people to play. It’s likely that never before has that game had so many people playing it, which is its raison d’être.

This is a wonderful thing. There’s a sense of loss in game-making, but your loss is a player’s gain, and it all balances out in a vast, impersonal ecosystem. At this chilly time of the year, when one calendar makes way for another, take solace in this. Toast yourself, the games that aren’t yours anymore, and the games you’ll lose in the future. It’s a bittersweet, but marvellous, destiny.

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