Five years

Five years ago today, I left my job at Facebook in order to try to build a career for myself as some sort of a game developer. It, uh, didn't really work out that way. Though it did work out! Kinda. But not how I'd hoped.

Shortly after I left the best job I'd ever had to go independent, I started to doubt myself, and I panicked. Out of fear, necessity, and curiosity, I started job hunting again after a few months.

After a couple of brief contract roles, I switched my "career path" up pretty substantially, and I somehow wound up becoming a software engineer. Which, like, was not easy. And it's something I was often convinced I'd never be "good enough" to do. But I figured it out. And if I wanted to be a software engineer — if that was my goal — I think I'd be feeling very satisfied and confident in myself right now.

But that's not where my heart's at. Never has been.

In my closet I have a pretty substantial stack of Moleskine notebooks. I've been collecting them for nearly a decade, and I write in them nearly every day. Believe me when I say that I have a veritable shit-ton of notes in these things. I leafed through them the other day and I realized that the one consistent theme throughout is this anxiety, or this drive, or whatever it is — this need to find a pathway into a life where I'm spending the majority of my energy on making creative things that have a meaningful impact on people's lives. It would be fair to say that I've been agonizing over how to get to a place where I'm creating games full-time for nearly my entire adult life. My greatest fear is dying without having gotten all of this _stuff_ out of my system and into the world in the form of some sort of interactive art. That probably sounds ludicrous to most people, but it's as close to the truth as anything.

These notebooks contain lots of journal entries of me trying to understand _why_ I want to spend my energy making games. I've written plenty of notes to myself over the years where I assess the financial reality of attempting to go part-time or full-time on games again, and whether it's all frivolous, and why I've never felt content in any of the challenging and rewarding jobs I've had at all of these illustrious tech companies, and is it wrong for me to feel so unsatisfied in those roles.

But the vast majority of their pages aren't filled with doubts or half-finished plans or frustrated scribblings. They're mostly full of ideas: story beats, mechanical and system designs, tonal and thematic explorations, dialogue snippets, interfaces, maps, tables and charts, and anything else that I could conceivably weave together into some sort of game. I literally can't not think of these things. It's just where my head's at, always.

Since leaving Facebook, I did work on a lot of games, and accordingly, I learned a lot. And I just released a game a couple weeks ago, so I am still making things. And I'm grateful I have the time, energy, health, and space to do so. But I'm sitting on a mountain of ideas, some of which I know are actually good, and many of which I'll never be able to build if I'm just relegating games to my nights and weekends — especially if I'm trying to do the whole have-a-social-life-and-maybe-settle-down-someday thing. Either way, I'm living with this intense passion that won't die, and it says I ought to throw myself fully into this work that I care so much about. But the longer I go without finding a way to make it work, the harder it is to go down that path, and the more I fear I have to lose.

Here's the thing: I think that most games are junk food. They're commodities designed to siphon creativity and iron out any eccentricities in order to appeal to as broad an audience as possible in order to maximize shareholder return. They're just like any other mass-media product in that sense. They're the garbage we compulsively fire up on our phones when we can't handle a quiet moment alone with our thoughts; they're the $60 big-budget blockbusters we buy year after year even though they never leave us feeling satisfied or moved by our time with them.

But that's most games. Underneath the surface, and away from the TV commercials, there are games being released every day that bring underrepresented viewpoints and truly novel ideas into the world. And because games are interactive, they require buy-in from the participant, which means there's great potential for a deep, empathetic connection between game author and player is. It's one thing to read a story about a life that's different from your own; it's another thing altogether to live it. This games scene is thriving, and the questions about what the limits of this medium are are only just beginning to get answered. I don't want to miss my chance to help contribute to this medium at such a pivotal time.

I just don't know how to get there yet.

I'm grateful to have come out the other end of this experience no worse for the wear and with a much stronger set of professional skills, because that in itself is a lot like winning the lottery. But I know now that this drive I possess is deep — like at the core of my being, or whatever — and it's never going to go away. I just hope I can eventually find a way to spend more of my days on bringing these things to life.

Game DevelopmentNick Cummings