5 Things I Didn't Get About Making Video Games (Until I Did It)

Five Things I Didn't Get About Making Video Games (Until I Did It)

Before I joined Gearbox Software, I worked at Destructoid as a features editor. I worked there from 2006 to 2010, and specialised in highlighting indie games and spewing vitriol at big-budget games I didn't like. It turns out there were a shitload of things I didn't know about games development.

Back in the day, I wouldn't hesitate to call a game like Assassin's Creed "a piece of fucking shit," or to paint its developers as "a bunch of idiots who don't understand game design." These are not hypotheticals — I, like, said that shit. In a video. With my face in it.

I said this kinda stuff all the time, and why wouldn't I? I played their games, I found them wanting, and I felt like I had a pretty good idea of where and why things had gone wrong. I may not have ever made a game myself (apart, that is, from a 2D artgame best described as "Passage meets Battletoads" and oh my god was it as bad as it sounds), but I basically knew what game development was about, right?

Wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

1. Making games is a thousand times harder than I thought

I was an atrocious blogger so I'm probably just speaking more to my personal ignorance during that time than anything else, but jeez is everything about game development more complicated and difficult than I thought.

Let's say you want to make a new player character. Before I got hired, I thought, well, it can't be that complicated from the art side, right? You concept up a character in a week or so, then model the thing. Done.



To make a new NPC, you need to concept the character (which can take weeks), then do a high-poly model. And man, do the high-poly models look great; they look perfect, in fact, except for the fact that they actually, uh, won't be anywhere in the game. Because you actually need to make a low-poly model based on the high-poly model, which takes more time. But hey; at least you're done now, right? Just put him in the game and let him animate. Except, oh, wait, right. You need to make the animations. But before that, you actually have to rig the character so it can animate at all — before rigging, it's just a static model, no more animated than a 3D rock.

Five Things I Didn't Get About Making Video Games (Until I Did It)

And that's just for the third-person model. Since this is a playable character and, assuming you're making a first-person game, you're going to be seeing through their eyes, they also need new models for their first-person hands (you can't just take the actual hands from the model), and those models need new animations, and oh by the way, now the character has a new ability where they do something weird with their hands so you'll also need to make new first person and third person animations for that ability, and, and, and…

And I haven't even mentioned design or code, or how memory concerns can suddenly remove an entire enemy type that your story relied on that you now have to rewrite, but you can't rewrite too much because the localisation (global translation) deadlines are so tight that the Japanese localisation team can't get their Claptrap actor in for very long because he's actually a big celebrity over there and is doing lots of other work, and you need to hurry because the game needs to be on store shelves in six months, which is actually only three months as far as you're concerned because the publisher needs three months to manufacture the discs, and and and and and...

Everything — everything in game development was more difficult and complex than I thought. So now, when I play a third-person action game and a character's model occasionally clips through things, I let that shit slide.

2. Games look like complete arse for 90% of their production

In Borderlands 2, we created a downloadable, playable character named Krieg the psycho.

This is what that dude looked like for the vast majority of his development:

He didn't have his own model or animations, and instead was cobbled together from parts of other characters. His third-person model was a headless Axton (the soldier class in Borderlands 2), and when you went into his special Buzzaxe Rampage mode he used Gaige's (the Mechromancer class) hands with a non-animating pizza cutter glued to the tip of her pointer finger.

Obviously, he looks ridiculous. Nothing like what we eventually shipped. But that's important to note not just because it's funny (though it obviously is), but because it speaks to one of the great difficulties of game development that I never knew about: how do you judge the quality of something that isn't even close to looking complete?

Audiovisual feedback is one of the most important things to making a game feel good (this interview about Vlambeer and game feel is a must read), but often times it's also the thing that comes online latest in development. When a new mechanic feels bad, is it because the mechanic itself is wrong, or because the feedback isn't in yet to make it feel good?

Several Borderlands 1 devs have told me that Fight For Your Life Mode was nearly cut a few times during BL1's development. If you're not familiar with the mechanic, Fight For Your Life gives the player a second chance to avoid death. If an enemy drops your health to zero, you go into a sort of bleedout mode. If you can kill just one more enemy while in this mode, you'll get back on your feet and be back in the fight.

Problem is — at least at the beginning of development — people found it too confusing, and not fun. Why was it confusing and not fun? Because there was no visual feedback to tell you (A) what the hell you needed to do, (B) if you'd successfully done it, or (C) the result of your doing it successfully.

Obviously, Fight For Your Life is one of the coolest things about the Borderlands combat loop, but it's really hard to understand what's going to be awesome versus what's inherently problematic when you don't have the bells and whistles that give you the full picture.

When I play games with mechanics that don't feel good, I'm no longer as quick to throw up my hands and go, "Guh! This is so obviously shitty and un-fun and dumb! Why didn't they cut this way earlier in production?" Well, maybe because they had faith it'd turn into something cool, like all the other, better mechanics did. (Mechanics that I probably assumed were just fantastic the first time anybody prototyped them.)

3. When devs use the word "excited" they're not blowing smoke up your arse

I always found it irritating when press releases or developers overused the word "exciting." We're really excited for this upcoming partnership! We're excited to show you this new feature! Surely, I thought, this is all manufactured passion; these guys make games all day, every day. How "exciting" can it be to show journalists a new section of the game, or talk to them about the story, or share a new trailer?

As it turns out, creating stuff actually is exciting. Being able to share the fruits of your labour with people honestly gets your blood pumping. I remember getting up really early the day we first announced Borderlands 2 so that I could tweet, with great pride, "I'm writing for this game." That single sentence was more gratifying, momentous, and, yes, exciting than any of the vitriolic takedowns I'd written of other people's work.

Now, granted, this isn't to say that every single press release and dev interview is full of 100% genuine enthusiasm. I have a hard time envisioning a world in which Konami was truly excited to put AXE Body Spray in Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, for example. Still, though, devs weren't anywhere near as dishonest about their jubilance than I thought they'd been.

4. Game devs actually read a lot of critical writing on their work

Man, I was such a dick. I took such glee — such heinous glee — in talking about how shitty my least favourite games were and how stupid their development teams were. (Again, I literally called the Assassin's Creed development team "a bunch of idiots." Which, don't get me wrong, I still really dislike Assassin's Creed, but "idiots"? Seriously?). And in the back of my mind, I thought, "feh — it's no big deal. Those guys are so busy, there's no way they read anything I've written on their game."

I obviously can't speak for anyone else, but that certainly wasn't true for me. I've read every single review of Borderlands 2 and its DLCs. It's hard to spend years — literal years — working on one thing and not be interested in what other people think about it.

I'll be honest: when Borderlands 2 came out and got very good, but not astronomical reviews, I had a weeklong bout of what I can only describe as Diet Postpartum Depression. Half of that was due to the fact that a thing I'd just spent nearly three years working on had finally come out and hadn't resulted in my becoming immortal and having a four-hour long orgasm, and half was because we didn't break 90 on Metacritic*. I bring this up not to engender pity — "boo hoo, poor game dev only got an 89 on Metacritic, your life must be so hard" — but to point out that a lot of us do actually read what's said about our games, and it does have an effect.

(*Not because it would result in some sort of payout bonus or anything, but because pride, you know? Maybe it's just me, but I look at a 90 game with a much different sense of that game's quality than when I look at an 89 game.)

I mean, I still don't like any of those games I negatively reviewed when I was a blogger, but I'm far less likely to be a hostile arsehole about them. Don't get me wrong: I still believe that negative reviews are absolutely important to the medium, but I no longer take joy in ripping apart a game I didn't like just to prove that I'm smarter than its creators in some way. Criticism is generally more about your readers than the creators — when I gave Twilight Princess a 4/10 for Destructoid, I was trying to warn people from spending their money on it more than I was trying to stick it to Nintendo. But it can be easy, in that relationship, to miss the fact that when you shit on a developer, you're shitting on actual human beings. Human beings with lives, feelings, passions and (if they're anything like me) significant self-esteem problems. It probably, in other words, wouldn't have killed me to be a little goddamn nicer.

Now, I'm not trying to say that all critics are dickheads and all creators infallible — nothing of the sort. Criticism is goddamned necessary, and developers make mistakes.

But the gulf between what I thought I knew as a blogger and the truth of game development was so huge, so unimaginably vast, that I sometimes wanna go back in time and shake my early-twenties self by the shoulders.

5. If you think something sucks, that's not really news to the dev team

"What were the devs thinking?!" Many were the times I yelled that phrase at my screen when playing a game I didn't like. Why is that level so crap? Why is that plot point so underdeveloped? Why is that ending so abrupt? Maybe, I thought, the developers are justdumb. How could they have not seen these problems coming?

As it turns out? They quite possibly did. Game devs are not a bunch of oblivious monkeys who smash their keyboards with crosseyed indifference — they often know what works and what doesn't, and why. When particular aspects of a game end up being less than stellar, it's likely not because the developers are dumb, it's because time and money constraints forced them to make tough choices.

As a for-instance: why are most video game endings kind of disappointing? Is it because the developers are stupid and don't know how to bring closure? Or is it because, on average, only a small percentage of the people who buy your game will see its ending and every moment you spend polishing it is one you haven't spent on other parts of the game? Parts that a way bigger chunk of your players will actually interact with?

If you had to choose, which would you rather put time into: the beginning of the game, which will hopefully ease players into your world and make them interested enough to continue playing and see all the cool stuff you have in store for them? Or the ending?

Five Things I Didn't Get About Making Video Games (Until I Did It)

In a sense, this is why I consider the downloadable expansion Tiny Tina's Assault on Dragon Keep to be the "true" ending of Borderlands 2. Now, I'm pretty happy with the ending of BL2 — we wrapped up the main plot and had an epic boss fight — but we didn't really get a lot of time to just hang out with the main characters and decompress. The story ended, but we didn't have an epilogue.

Flash forward to Dragon Keep's development. We not only had the time and budget we needed to wrap up the story completely, but we knew full well that anyone who grabbed the DLC would (thanks to its comparatively less insane running time) be more likely get through the entire experience and get the whole story.

Five Things I Didn't Get About Making Video Games (Until I Did It)

Ultimately, I now realise I knew next-to-nothing about the actual process of making games. When I blogged for Destructoid, I was full of legitimate complaints that were, unfortunately, couched in mean-spirited vitriol and uninformed logical leaps. I still hate a lot of games, but being in the trenches of actual game development — watching as features or scenes I loved changed or died thanks to the realities of production; seeing characters and enemies transform from unfun wastes of memory into wonderful additions to the game; hearing how good voice actors can save less-than-stellar dialog — has made me a lot less likely to get angry at the developers themselves.

Pictures: Sam Woolley, CGArena

Anthony Burch is a writer. He worked at Gearbox Software for five years, where he was lead writer of Borderlands 2 and all of its DLC. He currently works at RocketJump and will punch you in the throat if you mention Borderlands having too many internet memes.


    My wife is studying ghame development and has really become obsessed with all the little features in a game. Every time she learns something new, she becomes obsessed with how other devs incorporate it into their game. Things like how a texture on a ground or object looks, how things like grass pop in at certain ranges. things that as a player I notice but don't give a great amount of attention to.

    I think as a result she also feels a lot more sympathy for devs. If something is broken or doesn't work right or whatever (we've been palying a lot of Destiny which has drawn a lot of complaints in spite of it's popularity) and I guess every time she sees or hears someone complaining about this or that, she wonders "is that the kind of response a game I make might get one day"?

      Depends. If it gets a lot of attention, yes. If the only place it ever turns up is Desura or Idiegogo, then... well. Still probably 'yes', but maybe it'll be couched in nicer criticism, because the patrons of those sites are generally more sympathetic to indie development?


          Ooooooh. *sucks through teeth* Soooo I might be wrong there.

            Never underestimate any game journalists' tendency to be a brutal and ignorant ass

      Thing is though, even some bad games still have fans... And that reason can be so miniscule and 'irrelevant' to the vast majority that you would never even consider it.

      I've been playing AC4: Black Flag a lot lately, and while most would say it's definitely not a bad game by any means... Of my whole experience with the game thus far the thing that surprised me as being an absolute high point was a single ambient music track that plays in the background in certain towns.

      I'd focus on the idea that regardless of how bad some people might say your game is, there's probably a couple out there in the ocean of hate that actually mention they enjoyed it and have been simply drowned out.

      From a business stand point of course you want the majority to like it, but for the sake of your own sanity as a developer I'd say chalk it up as a win if even only a few like what you've created.

    I think every critic needs this kinda dose of reality

      I think most gamers do, more so than the critics....

        Nah, General public has the right to be ignorant jerks. Paid professionals, & those aiming to be, should behave.

          Jerks is an understatement. Go to the forums of most games these days. There are hate posts regarding game bugs/fixes/patches that make #GamerGate look like a playground.

            Ah, commenters don't necessarily represent the entire spectrum of the gamer rainbow though

              No, absolutely not. Thank god for that too! I just wished people were able to combine the anonymity of the net with being nice for a change. Instead of using a few peripherals and an IP address to be total wankers....

        As someone who is a gamer and in IT I very much understand these battles and would applaud just about anyone to see the amount of work and the sheer coding that makes their (game) engines tick.

        But in fairness there are a lot of game engines out there that do sooo much of the work for you - think RPG maker, the game engine and coding is there but much simpler on a 2D scale and all you have to do is create the scene and write the dialogue. This is how smaller (indie) game makers would operate as it is very difficult and expensive going into the AAA game making style.

    Nice article. Reading reviews is stupidly tough. I alternate on whether or not I think it's a good idea. On the one hand, you might learn something and be able to improve your next product. On the other... man, they're brutal. You're generally well aware of all the problems in the game, but you're also aware of all the limitations that created them. The lack of time, the lack of people. Sometimes even the fact that players are simply not playing it "the right way".

    I've sometimes thought it would be interesting to do a "this is why the game sucked" article/video on something I've worked on. But ultimately, the customer really shouldn't have to be aware of development issues or limitations. They've invested time and money into our product, and we shouldn't be wasting their lives (or our own) on anything less than a quality experience.

      They've invested time and money into our product, and we shouldn't be wasting their lives (or our own) on anything less than a quality experience.

      That's a really good attitude, mate. I hope your future career brings you much happiness and success.

      However, rather than making a "This is why the game sucked" video, find a way for your players to give you feedback or ask questions. This way, if they really want that information, or are not playing the game the right way, you can help them.

        Yeah, it's not a bad suggestion. Although it is an ongoing time/money investment to respond to feedback.

        With respect to the "this is why it sucked" comment, I was actually thinking of a specific game I worked on while employed by a large publisher. It's unquestionably a bad game (< 50% Metacritic, for what that's worth) but, as with every game, every bad decision or poorly implemented feature has a story or reason for it to be the way it is.

        I'm honestly not sure it would be all that interesting to anyone else, though.

          Well, throw it up on Kickstarter, and let the world tell you whether it would be interesting! I for one would find it really insightful, having a 10m~ video segment a week talking to devs from a studio that once made a lacklustre game and hearing their take. 'Course, wouldn't be about new/recent games for obvious reasons, but it could be cool.

    It also makes you appreciate things like DLC more. When you've seen how long it takes to make the simplest asset and you know what it's like to spend weeks on trying to fix bugs only for brand new ones to appear out of nowhere the week before you're trying to release, suddenly it doesn't seem so crazy for games like Mass Effect to try and get a little bit more for their 100-200 man teams and all the hours they must have spent (although I'm sure the executives/company are still making a mint).

    Consumers expect games to look and play so ridiculously well and still stick to super-short development cycles (<3 years is too short for brand new engines) or the same price and come out on a deadline without any flaws, but stuff happens and they can't fix it in the time they've got.

    Never liked Destructoid during its halcyon days (we're edgy, independent and we'll rip your face off!) but enjoyed the Hey Ash series for Burch's work.

    Throaty bellowing about something negative or unproven in a video game, whether it's via ALL CAPS on a blog or through a cam, is rarely that emotive - it's part of a personality that's assumed, put on.

    Personality-driven media (think maybe, Sandilands) is about as far from what video games are as you can get, surely.

    This article bears that out.

    Sports media regularly shows ex-participants in presenting and analysis roles, and is better for it. An element of experience exists. Funny how games media/dev works in the opposite direction.

    This is a great article, and Burch's humility is very refreshing.

    To make a new NPC, you need to concept the character (which can take weeks), then do a high-poly model. And man, do the high-poly models look great; they look perfect, in fact, except for the fact that they actually, uh, won’t be anywhere in the game. Because you actually need to make a low-poly model based on the high-poly model, which takes more time. But hey; at least you’re done now, right? Just put him in the game and let him animate. Except, oh, wait, right. You need to make the animations. But before that, you actually have to rig the character so it can animate at all — before rigging, it’s just a static model, no more animated than a 3D rock.

    Really? I'm pretty sure expert animators on reddit told me that you can make a character in an evening; a weekend at worst, which is why Ubisoft is the devil.

      I'm an animator/modeller. I could get something basic into game over a weekend, but it' sure as hell won't be polished and tested enough to ship. There are lots of factors that could shorten or lengthen this scenario, but in general a polished NPC for a game like AC, modelled/textured/sculpted, with complete animation set is weeks to months of work.

        As a project manager, my comment was actually just snark at the armchair experts and completely blinkered self-declared 'experts' (animators) who claimed that Ubi's 'we didn't have time' excuse was bullshit, for not having female playable co-op characters.

        There are two major arguments around that. 1) It should've been budgeted for. This, I agree with. 2) it's fast and easy to add a playable character, especially if you recycle assets. THAT, I have major, irreconcilable issues with.

        Concept, art direction meetings, costuming, modelling, rigging, animation, sound effects, scripting, UI incorporation, QA, and repeat. A 'weekend's work' is an outright ludicrous claim, but because these claims were coming from folks willing to put their name and job titles to it, it got raised as the rallying card.

        Especially since AC5 was the first game with a new engine, launched well before it was ready with widely-reported extensive bugs and major optimization patches in close proximity to launch, in what Ubi has very publicly stated is something they hope to have as an annual franchise - ergo, tight deadlines. It obviously needed more time it didn't have, and yet there were people trying to claim that it would've been easy to slip in an additional feature.

        The real argument should've been, "Yes, it's a relatively low pay-off result for a huge amount of work, but it should have been prioritized over the companion-app integration, which not only didn't work as it should have, but was poorly-received and ultimately less worthy."

        As someone whose projects have been fucked over by the utterly ignorant cry of, "Surely you could just add..." as if it wasn't a big deal, I get very, very angry when I hear people try to make out like someone is lying when they say it IS a big deal that they can't budget the time for.

        Last edited 24/02/15 1:06 pm

        As a student, it'd take me three days minimum. D=

        Last edited 25/02/15 3:45 pm

    Great article! Unfortunately these are lessons only real experience can impart. For most people, the Dunning Kruger effect is in the driver's seat.

    it really isn't easy, i've been studying it

    Last edited 24/02/15 12:42 pm

    Loved reading this. Over the past 5 or so years I've worked in software development (Financial sector, not gaming) but also have had the pleasure of meeting a good number of developers and other gaming types. Based on that I am super careful about how I judge less than perfect games because of all of the above reasons.

    Being a bit forgiving and a little understanding will also let you enjoy games a whole lot more.

      Finance, ey? Is the company in Melbourne, does its name start with an 'I'?

      There's a particular company I'm thinking of that seems to have a whole lot of former game programmers wash up on its shores.

      Then they cobble together any raft they can and paddle away as quickly as possible.

    There are some amazingly ignorant comments popping up on the US version of this article, something along the lines of "devs are just lazy, if you can't do a good enough job then stop whining and quit".

    Glad to see we're trying to keep it classy over here on this side of the fence.

      thats because the US site is a more wretched hive of scum and villany than the mos eisley cantina on tatooine

    Armchair "experts" sometimes believe game development is pretty easy, much like playing the game on potato easy mode.

    It's not. It's difficult and complicated. I wish some critics would walk a mile in game dev shoes and see if they're just as merciless.

    Fantastic article. Definitely highlights the challenges that can be taken for granted when looking at the end product.


    That's insane, it's one of the best games ever made! I don't even understand how you could not like that game.

      I think he was intentionally try to be a counterpoint against the other positive reviews, or at least being sarcastic to some degree. Review hipsterism! I do the same thing with movies. Braveheart? Yeah 1/5 stars, rubbish and has Mel Gibson in it.

      Its Anthony Burch. He has very weird tastes.

    I was reading a piece here a while ago about the code for Doom 3 being really neat and easy to follow. It talked about how people working at ID during that time had a format that code needed to follow, and that some of them were retrained in coding so that their programming was standardised across the company.
    Hearing, or reading, programmers talk about joining projects halfway through and being unable to decipher existing code... or when stories come about about the source code for a game being an unwieldy mess that works through sheer force of miracle (Red Dead Redemption)

    That continues to blow my mind.

    The only coding I've done was learning to write a website in html about 16 years ago.
    The concept that game code isn't standardised is just inconceivable to me.
    With some games having several hundred people (or Ubi games having thousands) you would think that code would have to be the same... if only so the next guy could read and fix it.

    EDIT: Here's the Doom article if anyone wants a read: http://www.kotaku.com.au/2013/01/the-exceptional-beauty-of-doom-3s-source-code/

    Last edited 24/02/15 6:56 pm

    Good read, and I totally agree (except for the 4/10 for Twilight Princess... but I won't get started on that). I studied computer game development for a couple of years back in the mid-noughties, and it really did give me a renewed admiration for the games that are done well, as well as a more sympathetic view on those that aim high but for whatever reason don't quite hit their mark.

    I didn't end up pursuing a career in the industry (turns out I enjoy playing games a lot more than I enjoy making them), but I learned enough to appreciate the effort that goes into a great, polished title. I'm one of those gamers who will just dick around in a game at a snail's pace to check out every little detail, because I think a lot of hard work often gets glanced over without a second look.

    Ergo, one of my pet peeves is people who complain that an extra playable character on a roster or a couple more dungeons "couldn't be that much more work". Dude, it is. It seriously is.

    I kind of like knowing how one can make the jump from Internet vitriolic critic to lead writer of content for a AAA game.

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