"The guy in the hard hat had just spent the better part of an hour on a panel discussing the dark side of game development," began Adorkable Games creative director Ashley Zeldin in her talk on celebrating failure and redefining success at Game Connect Asia Pacific (GCAP). "[He was] unafraid to let tears show in front of a packed group, like this, so I went up and gave him a hug."
That guy was Matt Gilgenbach, the creator of Retro/Grade (a critical success but financial disaster) and Neverending Nightmares (a rather more successful effort that came directly from the previous failure). For Zeldin, he hit a nerve with his 2012 PAX panel. Zeldin had co-founded Adorkable Games in February 2012 with her partner John Nesky (the guy who made the camera system in thatgamecompany's Journey), planning to create a Tetris and match-three mashup for iOS in their spare time.
It took the pair two years to turn a prototype made over a weekend into a released game called Two-Faced, which received just one (positive) press review and utterly failed financially.
Zeldin, who also sits on the board of the LA chapter of the International Game Developers Association, is bothered by the industry's focus on successes. She believes that the media narrative of game development doesn't match with the reality. At least, not for those who fail. She identified the problem as a survivor bias compounded by a bandwagon effect: we celebrate successful games and tell stories of triumph over adversity, but failure is stigmatized. And so newcomers have unrealistic expectations, with most never getting to learn and benefit from the failure like Gilgenbach.
"Survivor bias is no more evident than in the coverage of indie games. When all we see are other people's successes, it's hard to feel good about our failures"
Zeldin remembers the excitement of her early work on Two-Faced, but also her frustration when development inevitably stagnated. She and her partner argued, and he had work problems. He'd left thatgamecompany shortly after finishing Journey to join a startup that ended up struggling and later fizzled out, sending him back to thatgamecompany in September 2012. In the meantime, his morale dropped, tension between them increased, and she tried inadvisably to deflect to new projects, halting development on Two-Faced.
"Motivation is infectious, and it turns out demotivation is too," Zeldin noted. When he lost interest in the game, so did she. And their perfectionist streaks conflicted with her impatience to progress to something new. But the pair eventually picked development back up and finished Two-Faced, just barely getting to market before a rival team that had stolen the idea after seeing it at GDC in 2012.
Two-Faced's financial failure struck Zeldin by surprise. They'd made a good game, but nobody seemed to care, and only one journalist she contacted bothered to write back. "Survivor bias is no more evident than in the coverage of indie games," she said. But aside from a few exceptions you don't hear about failure. "When all we see are other people's successes, it's hard to feel good about our failures."
The lesson for her was that developers should redefine success and embrace failures, as "failure not so gently lets us know what not to do next time" and perseverance pays off. And she points out that there's already a model for doing so: Hay Day and Clash of Clans developer Supercell celebrates failure with champagne. Angry Birds creator Rovio was on the verge of bankruptcy, after scores of failures over eight years, when it struck on a hit. "While it isn't always possible to compete with them, because they have all these resources to create free-to-play games, we can still look to them and remember that success can actually be failure."