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Tending the Manifold Garden

William Chyr explains why after five years in development, his first game may also be his last

William Chyr is in the home stretch of development on his first game, Manifold Garden. After five years of development, he thinks it should be ready to launch in early 2018.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. The Chicago-based artist started working on the game expecting to do something small, just to get his head around game development. He bashed together a prototype of an Escher-inspired world in Unity over a long weekend, and called it Relativity. Speaking with last week, Chyr said he couldn't pinpoint any single moment when he realized exactly how big the project he was making actually was.

"It just sort of happened gradually," Chyr said. "You start off thinking the game will take three months, and then you think with a bit more time, it will be a bit better. And then that happens again and again, and before you know it, you're three years in and you're doing all this complicated tech."

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It's a far cry from Chyr's previous work. From 2009 to 2012, he produced dozens of works, including numerous art installations, short films, and even a few interactive exhibits. But Manifold Garden has essentially been a consuming task with a scope unlike anything he's worked on previously. He said he'd enjoyed being able to focus on one project for such a sustained stretch of time, but it had its drawbacks.

"If you're doing small things with fast turn-arounds, sometimes it's great, sometimes it isn't. If it works out well, then it's great. And if it doesn't work out well, you only spent a few weeks or months on it. And that's not too bad; you can learn from that and move on to the next thing. But with something like Manifold Garden, my day of reckoning is yet to come. With it being five years [in the works], the stakes are a lot higher. I don't know it's a good or bad thing, but it's very stressful...

"At the same time, it was nice to be able to dive super deeply into something and take the time to do a deep dive. I feel like I'll really come out of this with a very clear idea of how games are made and what the industry's like, and how all aspects of the game are made."

One of Chyr's art installations on display in Chicago's Millennium Park. Photo by Jasmine Kwong

One might think that understanding would serve Chyr well as he begins his second game, but it turns out there may not be a follow-up at all.

"I don't know," Chyr admitted. "Right now I'm thinking of leaving games after this. It's not necessarily a bad thing. There's a lot of stuff I want to do. For me, this game was never about having a career in the industry. There are people in games you'll meet that have always wanted to make games since they were a kid, and as adults, they can't imagine themselves doing anything but making games. That's not exactly true for me. If I wanted to continue with a career in games, then it becomes thinking a lot about the business side of things and the market, which is not particularly stuff I'm interested in. And if it comes to that, which I think it has to if one wants to be sustainable in the long term...

"I'll probably do fine with Manifold Garden. And even if I don't, I'll be a broke 30-year-old. Which sucks, but it's not the worst place. But I cannot afford to, and I don't want to, take the same amount of risk and stress. If you're thinking about sustainability and running a business, for me, I would just rather do something else. There's other work that is maybe creative or fulfilling, but doesn't deal with some of the downsides of the games industry."

If Manifold Garden is to be Chyr's only game, it would be nice if it were at least a successful one. On a personal level, he has one clear metric by which he'll judge that success.

"If I ship it. Once I ship it, then I'm happy," Chyr said. "I'd like it to be well reviewed and sell a lot of copies, but those are things I think in a lot of ways are beyond my control. And at the end of the day, I wanted to make a game. I had no experience or knowledge in it, but I set out and I did it and it's on a console. Already the game's much better in terms of gameplay, tech, and visuals than I expected it to be."

As far as financial success goes, Chyr set a target of about 40,000 units, which would leave him with $40,000 and $50,000 for each year he spent making the game.

"It might seem like a lot of money all at once, but I could have made more just as a programmer at a company," Chyr said. "A junior developer salary might be about $50,000, and in five years at a company you'd expect raises. But for me, if the game generates that much in revenue and allows me to pay me back that much, that's the number where it would financially not be a total disaster."

Chyr chalked up part of the prolonged development to the game's nature, suggesting it was realistically a project big enough to command a team of three developers. Of course, when he started, he still thought it was just going to take a few months to finish the project. By the time he realized the scope of the project, it seemed too late to bring on partners.

"The further along you are in a project, especially if you don't have a lot of resources money-wise, it gets harder to bring people on full-time," Chyr said. "After four or five years, it's hard to bring in someone and have them be as committed as you are. That's not to say anything about the other person, it's just a difficult situation to ask someone to commit to."

"It's hard because it's one of those things where the more you know, the less you feel you know."

Chyr has brought on other developers to help with certain tasks, but he's mostly embraced it as a learning experience, even when those lessons came the hard way.

"If I had some experience working at a studio or with an organized code base with other people, [avoiding] some of the mistakes I made probably could have saved me a year or two of dev time," Chyr said. "But at the end of the day, that's how I learned."

No doubt there are lessons developers can learn from Chyr's experience with Manifold Garden; just don't expect him to spell them out.

"I don't give general advice anymore," Chyr said. "The more I know, it really depends on what their situation is, their experience, and what they want. Probably the advice would be to not pay too much attention to general advice.

"It's hard because it's one of those things where the more you know, the less you feel you know. And I want to say like, 'start small,' but then you see games like Cuphead doing incredibly well. So I don't know. I don't have a shipped game, so I don't feel like I'm in a position to give advice."

Manifold Garden is expected to ship early next year. If Chyr's still in games after that, we'll follow up to see if he has any advice to share.

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Brendan Sinclair avatar

Brendan Sinclair

Managing Editor

Brendan joined in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot in the US.