‘On the Progress of Progress’: probably my last Eurogamer column

Actually my title was ‘How Things End’, but I prefer their subhead. I’ve written about the way endings in games have changed in response to technology and biz, and where we might go in the future.

I’ve really enjoyed the Eurogamer columns! But my brain is full of dragons at the moment (yes, I’m allowed to say officially it’s a Dragon Age franchise project now), and I couldn’t spare the processing power. I’ll still be writing over at GamesIndustry.biz on a slightly more relaxed schedule, as long as part of my brain remains undragoned.

‘Everything is remembered somewhere’: Hugh Kennedy, 1974-1996

This is a post about depression and suicide, not about games. If you work in the games industry, you certainly know, or will know, someone who suffers seriously from stress and depression. That person may be you.

Today would be the forty-second birthday of my brother, Hugh, if he hadn’t killed himself when he was twenty-one years old. Hugh was, as the cliché has it, a brilliant and troubled youth. He left school with exceptional qualifications; took heroic quantities of hallucinogenics; became convinced he had a secret destiny and was being interfered with by malevolent spiritual entities; was committed to a secure institution; was released, increasingly rational but very depressed; unexpectedly killed himself half a year later, two days after Valentine’s Day.

The thing about the death of a young person, as many of you will know, is that their ghost comes to the door at unexpected times of day and night. You think: he’d be forty-two. I wonder how he’d get on with my kid? I wonder if he’d still like a smoke, or if he’d have given it up for his health? I wonder if he’d be looking back on his bonkers youth from the comfortable position of a real career, or if he’d be homeless and desperate and we’d still be worrying? I imagine him occupying a precarious, happy-ish position in the digital economy, doing bits of freelancing, meaning to get a pension, having occasional life crises, coming over to crash on my sofa for a week (to my delight) and then hanging around for a month (to my less delight) and using up all my shower gel. But maybe he’d be a biochemist. Maybe he’d be a primary school art teacher. Maybe he’d be an MP. He might be a game designer. He was a smart guy: one of those people whose talents branch in so many directions they don’t know what to do.

(He was also very small but very good-looking and quite a hit with both the ladies and the gentlemen and he did put himself about and he was never very careful. I wonder sometimes if I have a nephew or niece I’ll never meet. I suppose it’s worth saying: if you did have a thing with a charming bonkers little lad from Oxford and got pregnant on the back of it, get in touch. For that matter, any child he had would be at least twenty years old. So if you’re that child, get in touch.)

I want to indulge a couple more memories of Hugh, and then I want to say the meaningful thing.

The vicar at Hugh’s funeral (himself quite a character) said in his eulogy: “I remember when he asked me to exorcise his house on the Cowley Road, where he was concerned that he was troubled by spirits. I remember visiting him in what he called his ‘bender’, a desperate place on the banks of the Wolvercote Canal; and I remember visiting him in what I believe was known as the Runis Secure Unit, at least up until the time of his *second* escape.” It got a big laugh. It’s quite unusual to get that big a laugh about escaping from a mental institution, at a funeral.

Hugh was asked, at a mental health tribunal: ‘How do you think those people felt, when you jumped out of their wardrobe?’ ‘A bit surprised at first’, he said, ‘but then excited and happy’. Even when completely out of his tree, my brother meant well.

The meaningful thing is: please talk to people. The statistic I’ve heard is that on average, one person in a full double-decker bus is thinking about suicide. Often, especially in a culture like the UK, it can be excruciatingly hard to reach out to people who seem sad. WHAT IF YOU SAY THE WRONG THING WHAT IF YOU EMBARRASS YOURSELF. Well; maybe, but you’d be surprised how glad people feel, even to hear platitudes. Just knowing that someone gives a fuck can make the difference. And if you’re sad, or thinking about suicide, it can be even harder to reach out. WHAT IF THEY LAUGH WHAT IF THEY THINK I’M WEAK I DON’T WANT TO BE A BOTHER. It may well be that they’re over there thinking WHAT IF I SAY THE WRONG THING. Like the man said, ‘only connect…’

Not knowing what to say is less of an issue than many of us think. I used to volunteer with a support hotline, and the thing that consistently surprised me was how often someone, having described a life that made my eyes widen and my stomach lurch, would end the call by saying ‘I feel so much better for having talked’.

Ideas are seeds, not jewels

There’s not much point blogging during GDC – only like six people will ever read this – but it’s timely today and I keep meaning to blow the dust off this thing.

Failbetter, the company I founded and later tearfully sold, is concluding a very successful Kickstarter for their next project, Sunless Skies, a narrative game set in a mythic version of space where it’s possible to take a train between stars.

inkle[1], the company that I’ve heard described as having ‘a very friendly rivalry’ with Failbetter, have just announced their next project, Heaven’s Vault, a narrative game set in a mythic version of space where it’s possible to walk between moons.

So before I go any further, OBVIOUSLY NO-ONE HAS COPIED ANYONE ARE YOU KIDDING ME. But I’ve talked since yesterday to two people, one of whom’s been all ‘olol good thing Failbetter got theirs in first’ and the other who’s been all ‘omg Failbetter must be so gutted’. Well, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was at least one brief DOH! at each company when the other announced their project, but it isn’t a bad thing for either of them. I want to talk about why, because it ties into a thing I often hear from other indie devs.

The thing I hear is this: ‘oh *shit* we’ve been working on our survival game about [radioactive pasta eels] for [nine months] and now [Eel Leg Studios] has announced their survival game about [radioactive pasta eels] is coming out [next month] and we’ve been BEATEN TO THE PUNCH’. It’s something that at least one person would say at Failbetter, when we were working on SS and Zubmariner, every time anyone announced a sailing or a submarine game. And it is *very nearly always nothing to worry about*, for two reasons.

First, ideas are rarely the important bit. Every halfway successful game dev has more ideas than they can ever use. Most excellent games are the consequence of excellent execution. And it’s not just quality: it’s about *direction*. Ideas are seeds, not jewels. They aren’t unique things that one person will possess – they are promiscuous in their extent, and their roots and their branches will proceed in any number of different directions. Your crafting-focused survival game about [radioactive pasta eels] with its strong procedural puzzle mechanics will be very different from that other studio’s narrative-centric [radioactive pasta eels] game with its unique art style. There are a multiplicity of points of possible resemblance between ideas, and an infinity of possible differences.

(I recently got very worried that some of Cultist Simulator‘s mechanics resembled existing mechanics on a client project; I thought about pulling out. My better half convinced me I was being a paranoid idiot, pointed out that only another designer would really even notice the similarities, and the differences outnumbered it. If you’re an artist, you’ll worry that your art style is no longer unique; if you’re a writer, you’ll worry that your plot has been gazumped. Relax. There’s room.)

But second, it’s possibly *good* for you, if you’re an indie dev. I mean if Ubisoft announce Far Radioactive Eel Cry and Activision announce Call of Duty Radioactive Eel Warfare, probably someone is going to be very cross. But people at the indie level like me and, hypothetically, you, can always use a little more attention. If a journalist writes a piece contrasting your R-E-P game with someone else’s Eel Pasta Quest, then even if you grump at some of their conclusions, you’ve got press. If an outlet does a piece on the recent rush of R-E-P games and asks you for your opinion, great! If you find you’ve spawned a Steam tag, wonderful!

I have zero doubt that Sunless Skies and Heaven’s Vault will both be excellent games, and I imagine they will have a minority of features in common. But the same is true of gin and coffee, and the existence of one is not an existential threat to the other. It’s rare for an indie studio to gazump another, and if you’re working on a radioactive eel pasta game right now, it’s cool! let’s start an eel pasta mailing list.

[1] guys when you stylised it lower-case were you DELIBERATELY TROLLING everyone who ever starts a sentence with it