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Indie acclaim is "like a drug"

What Framed designer Joshua Boggs learned from his self-destructive pursuit of critical praise, and how he hopes to avoid repeating those mistakes

Loveshack's Joshua Boggs gave two talks at the Game Developers Conference last month. The first, "Framed: A Recipe for Critical Success," was a guide to how developers could adjust the entire development of their game explicitly with the goal of winning festival awards and critical acclaim. The second, "The Unsatisfied Mind," explained why that could be a terrible idea.

In the latter talk, Boggs described his pursuit of critical acclaim as a personal shortcoming, a vanity-driven need "to be the next big thing." And while that pursuit saw him achieve his stated goals (Loveshack's mobile puzzle game Framed was nominated for dozens of awards, winning categories at Indiecade, IGF China, and Freeplay, among others), he said it also sparked a year-long downward spiral of self-destruction, anger denial, resentment, regret, and drinking. Along the way, he'd neglected relationships and compromised who he thought himself to be in the name of achieving those goals, only to find them ultimately unfulfilling.

"You get that hit of attention and it makes you feel good, then you come back down. Then you build up a tolerance for it, so you need it just to feel normal..."

"It's really hard to talk about because it sounds like successful people whining about success, and people will be like, 'Whatever, it's just whining,'" Boggs told "But the issue is it's more like a drug. You get that hit of attention and it makes you feel good, then you come back down. Then you build up a tolerance for it, so you need it just to feel normal, like if you have too much caffeine or something."

Indie development in particular can be a breeding ground for this behavior, Boggs said.

"I think a major issue is particularly in the independent scene, it's always names and faces. The success of your game is often tied to you as a person, so what we end up doing is putting all our self-worth in it," Boggs said.

Many indie games are deeply personal in nature, and one of the biggest marketing tools creators have at their disposal is themselves. If people associate the game with a charismatic personality or an inspiring story, they're more likely to remember it, to spread the word about it, and to buy it. As a result, Boggs said, there's always a tension for creators between selling their games and selling themselves.

This has also been exacerbated a bit by the notion of game development auteurs. Boggs was inspired by developers like Hideo Kojima and Ken Levine, individuals who serve as a figurehead for their games and are widely celebrated for their work. Having aspired to that sort of status and seen where it led him, Boggs said he's now a bit more skeptical of the game development auteur model, but isn't about to discard it entirely.

"It kind of enriches the medium itself, because you have these figureheads," Boggs said. "And if they can help propel the art form forward--and that's something we all love--in that case maybe it's a necessary evil. Maybe some people do need to take that on."

When asked what he'd say to a young developer who viewed him the same way he viewed Kojima, Boggs replied, "It's fine to hold the artwork up as inspiration, or maybe the idea of who Joshua Boggs is. But remember that it's just a symbol. It's not real. And that's the same for all auteurs everywhere."

There are other downsides to development auteurs; one person becoming synonymous with a studio or a game leaves little room for others to receive deserved recognition. For example, Boggs had three other core team members on Framed: Adrian Moore, Ollie Browne, and Stuart Lloyd.

"It's not 'I need to receive validation,' or 'I need to be awarded whatever.' It's more like I'm now trying to be a creator that has strong values."

"Sometimes I do worry that the team maybe resents me or thinks I'm trying to take too much glory, or whatever," Boggs said. "We've had discussions about things like that, and they seem to be more fears I have rather than things that are actually true... Every now and then there will be issues that you'd have with any close-knit partnership with people. But luckily, we've been able to sit down and work through them all the time and come back together as a team. And every time we do, we come back a little bit stronger."

Boggs said that core team is still working together, but he's changing a few things going forward in the hopes of avoiding a repeat of his behavior the last time around. He noted that with Framed, his goals were all achievable win states, things that could be ticked off a list as accomplished. Going forward, he wants to focus more on fuzzier targets that are more like ongoing processes than discrete achievements. Of course there are still goals like "finish the game" and "pay the bills," but he's focusing less on goals that can be too easily tied into his self-worth.

"It's not 'I need to receive validation,' or 'I need to be awarded whatever.' It's more like I'm now trying to be a creator that has strong values," Boggs said. "I want to be someone who tries to push things forward or who does interesting things, but isn't too concerned with public opinion."

Of course, with Framed having long since launched and Loveshack's next game not yet announced, this is about as easy a time as there is for Boggs to avoid falling into the same self-destructive patterns in search of critical acclaim. The real question is what happens with the next game, and whether Loveshack will design it to win awards or even put it through the festival circuit.

"It's going to be really tough and interesting once we do that again, or if we are going to do that again and go down that route," Boggs said. "You know how sometimes people get really bad illnesses or something terrible happens to them, but then they come out the other side and they have a bit of perspective on how they'd deal with those problems in the future? It's kind of all I'm hoping for, that by going through this--and I'm not the only one who's gone through this--I'll be much stronger and wiser and have that insight into things when I notice things start going wrong. That I'll be able to recognize that's happening and be like, 'No, I need to step back.'"

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Brendan Sinclair avatar
Brendan Sinclair: Brendan joined in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot.
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