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Ex-Irrational and Slipgate veteran shares the secret to game dev survival

Apathy will kill your game, so work on something you believe in, says indie developer Gwen Frey

As someone who endured two studio closures in the past ten years, indie developer Gwen Frey believes there is one secret to surviving in the games industry: work on projects you believe in.

While she admits that it might sound "obvious and corny", and isn't guaranteed way to succeed, she speaks from experience when she says without it, failure is almost a foregone conclusion.

Speaking during a Rezzed session at EGX recently, Frey told stories of the studio closures she'd been through, and the people working on mad-hat projects that seemed to be going nowhere, who ultimately succeeded.

Frey started out her career working ten years ago at Slipgate Ironworks, a studio operated by the now defunct Gazillion Entertainment. Back then, Slipgate Ironworks had a bright future ahead; the studio was working on an MMO at the time, with industry legend John Romero at the helm.

Gwen Frey

This was during the heydey of MMOs, with World of Warcraft doing incredible numbers. As Frey says, in Silicon Valley "money was raining down on MMO companies" as everyone scrambled to make the WoW Killer.

Ultimately, due to a combination of unfortunate factors, the studio folded. It was primarily an issue with the tech, Frey explains, but it was also more complicated than that, as each time the leadership changed, they built their own in-house tech around the engine.

"We had this kind of Frankenstein technology with a bunch of different pieces of code bolted together to make this thing work... we all knew this," she says. "In the studio we knew that the tech wasn't very solid."

Tommy Krul, who was brought in as the director of technology, told Slipgate they had a lot of tech debt and outlined what was required to fix the game; within a week, the studio was closed.

"The truth is, he inherited a pile of shit," says Frey. "He was a true champion. The closure of Slipgate Ironworks was the end of the Slipgate story, but only the beginning of his."

"If your developers don't feel like they have to time to do something right, they won't feel accountable when they do something wrong"

Krul moved on to develop a mobile engine, and began working in the mobile esports space, something which many people at the time thought was a fairly outlandish direction to move. Mobile esports are now colossal, and Krul was a part of that, founding Super Evil Megacorp and launching mobile MOBA Vainglory.

Frey highlights another similar story of a surefire success turning to dust in the wind, while a leftfield idea driven by passionate people takes centre stage.

After Gazillion, she moved to Irrational Games where she worked on Bioshock Infinite. Due to still being under NDA, Frey was unable to share any insight as to what happened, but knows that Bioshock Infinite was a success.

"I don't know the numbers that Bioshock Infinite did, but it's obvious that we did just fine," she says. "We were successful, not just financially, but we had the respect of our peers and that felt good. In fact, we were so successful we started hiring."

Irrational was looking for an FX Artists, and approached Morgan Snight, a brother of one of the devs at Irrational. At the time, he was working on a sequel to a failed racing sports game that looked like it was never going to ship, but he turned down the offer to join one of the top studios in the industry. That weird game turned out to be Rocket League, and six months later it launched to astounding success; six months after that, Irrational was closed.

When Irrational shuttered, founder Ken Levine offered the opportunity for a few people to join him on his new project; John Abercrombie was one of those people, but turned down the offer, and went to join Epic Games instead, to work on Fortnite. Back then, Fortnite was in beta and not picking up any traction. Frey says she spoke with Abercrombie at GDC two years ago and "thought he was crazy" for sticking on the project; he's now a senior programmer working on one of the biggest games in the industry.

"What I fear when I look at a studio isn't people who are loud or shy or smell bad; what I fear is people who are apathetic or hopeless"

After Irrational, Frey went on to co-found indie studio The Molasses Flood and subsequently release her passion project, Flame in the Flood. Following that success, she now works part-time at the studio while undertaking her new solo project: Kine.

This brings us back to the things Frey learned from having watched studios fold before her while former colleagues went on to work on strange but ultimately successful projects

"No matter what you do in this industry you'll most likely fail; your career will be turbulent no matter what you do," says Frey. "But if the people working on a game aren't excited about what they're making, then you will definitely fail.

"Over the years I've met many developers; some are calm and easy to work with; some are difficult and opinionated, but none of that really concerns me. In my experience a game is in trouble when people are quietly unhappy... Trouble starts when developers hate what they are doing but they can't bring it up, they don't feel like they can bring it up because they don't feel like it matters. To me, that's the worst sign."

Frey says that if a team isn't behind the tech or the art style, if they don't believe their work can ever be impressive as a result, they won't be able to make it impressive.

"If your developers don't feel like they have to time to do something right, they won't feel accountable when they do something wrong," she says. "If your developers don't believe the game they are making will ship, they don't think anyone will see what they are making, then they won't make something worth seeing.

"I hear stories like this all the time in this industry. There are so many examples of it, and I will say what I fear when I look at a studio isn't people who are loud or shy or smell bad; what I fear is people who are apathetic or hopeless. Games are made by people and people do their best work when they believe in what they are doing. I know that sounds obvious, but it's surprisingly easy to forget.

"So the secret to surviving the industry is to work on things you love and believe in, even if it doesn't make sense to your brother, or your peers. Even if it goes against the marketing data and dogma, I honestly truly believe that your best work will be the work you passionately believe in."

Frey's talk can be watched in-full here.

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Ivy Taylor avatar
Ivy Taylor: Ivy joined in 2017 having previously worked as a regional journalist, and a political campaigns manager before that. They are also one of the UK's foremost Sonic the Hedgehog apologists.
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