If you haven’t heard of it, there is a fantastic little simulation game called Game Dev Tycoon.
You start off as the stereotypical solo game developer in a basement in the 1980s. You develop a small indie game and release it. And then you do it again, and again, chasing the big hit that catapults you to the next level: your own office.
With each game, you try to get the right balance between different elements such as dialogue, level design, and AI. You create your own custom game engines and research new features like AI companions and in-world economies. And you keep creating, chasing the most delicious reward of all (at least for me): the coveted 10/10 from game reviewers, and watching your fan numbers hit the stratosphere (and enough money so you don’t go bankrupt or starve to death).
Game Dev Tycoon covers 35 years of history, tracking console releases such as the PlayStation, X Box, Wii, and the iPhone and iPad (and using hilarious replacement names for copyright reasons). You can unlock more levels, nicer offices, more staff members, and R&D options depending on how you play the game and how much money you’re making. And it’s a lot of fun. But for me, what really struck home was the little box in the corner telling you the time.
I wasn’t kidding when I said the game takes you through 35 years. Each week lasts about 5 seconds. There’s a little box in the top right corner that shows the weeks and months and years ticking by. And they go by fast. Before you know it, you’re on Year 17 of your career, creating your 28th game and trying not to sink into debt. And I’m pretty sure about 75% of you just clutched your chest and winced as your anxiety kicked in when you read that sentence. I know mine did. If so, maybe don’t click the play button on the video below.
Time goes by so fast, but it also somehow feels real because of all the simulated work you’re doing. You level up and get better. You might take some contract work or some publishing deals to grow your audience. You can pay for marketing and hire and train new staff. But at the end of the day, the core of Game Dev Tycoon remains the same. Choose an audience, choose a topic, choose a genre, choose a platform, develop a game. Choose an audience, choose a topic, choose a genre, choose a platform, develop a game. For 35 years. That’s your bread and butter. Everything else – the marketing, the research and training – it’s all built around that. That’s how you get more fans. That’s how you progress. That’s how you don’t go bankrupt and starve in your basement. Over and over again, until at the end of your 35 years, you get to humbly accept an award for a lifetime’s dedication to the game industry.
I’ve never felt the sheer weight of time like this. I’ve never been able to wrap my head around what my life in 35 years might look like. But this game has shown me the passage of time and how important it is for me to dedicate my time to what I love. I’ve only got a book of short stories and a novella under my belt at the moment (I’m not going to talk about the mountains of unfinished drafts on my hard drive, because they don’t count). I know I want more. And Game Dev Tycoon has shown me in the compressed space of a few hours what I need to do. Choose an audience. Choose a story. Write. Choose an audience. Choose a story. Write.
Now I know it’s just a simulation and it doesn’t cover a ton of other things you have to deal with as a creative, such as admin, marketing yourself, and writer’s/artist’s block. But it did show the sheer grind of creating that it takes to be a professional. By the time I was done, I’d created over 40 games. It was frankly scary. But also somehow comforting. There’s a promise there that if you dedicate the time and keep going, you’ll get there someday. That while most games/stories/art may not be hits, they may still find an audience who love them, and be another step you have to take on your journey.
So thank you, Greenheart Games. Thanks for a fun game that’s a joy to play and that made me think. Now I’m going to plan my next story.