Making games is not an easy career path -- whatever you do and however you do it, you are going to fail repeatedly. The trick is anticipate it and not let it discourage you. The development of Sound Shapes began with many prototypes that Jon Mak showed at a Hand Eye Society social in Toronto. Each prototype was a distinct, intriguing grain of an idea that could grow into a game in its own right, and the only qualities they all shared were a unique mix of action and music-making and a failure to capture the magic Jon was looking for.
He could've given up and succumbed to the idea that he would never get it right, but he continued to search for a game that matched his vision by learning from the mistakes of each failed prototype. Failure makes it very difficult to stay motivated and persevere, but if you can recognize when a project just isn't working and shift your focus to developing your skills and experimenting, odds are good that you'll eventually create something wonderful.
What if no one likes my game?
Rarely does anyone get anything in games right on the first try. The important part is to keep honing and refining your ideas and execution. Surrounding yourself with other people who are interested in making games definitely helps, since you can share knowledge with experienced peers and provide feedback on each other's games to iterate and improve your games. Plus, you'll need a strong support network that'll champion your efforts and help you through those rough patches.
Maybe your game isn't as great as you thought, and you're disappointed. Use that disappointment to inspire yourself to iterate and improve upon your game idea. If you're not getting players or press interested in your game, it probably needs more work. Get feedback from players, listen to it, and keep building and distilling until everyone can see what you find so compelling. To survive the gauntlet of emotional trauma that is game development (or really, any creative endeavor), you need determination, flexibility, humility, curiosity, and most of all, love for what you're doing. If you don't like your game, you probably won't be motivated enough to finish it.
What if I never make a game that sells a million copies?
Selling millions copies of a game is an exceedingly rare event. Moreover, huge sales numbers are only one way to measure success, and they aren't always the best or most accurate way. Braid, arguably one of the most successful indie games, has sold "only" 450,000 copies on XBLA, but to call it a failure because it didn't sell a million-plus copies does it a disservice: Braid's real worth comes from its innovative and uniquely compelling brainbending gameplay mechanics and lasting impression on its players.
For most games, the number of sales is just a number; the best measure of success is your own personal standard. If success for you equates to "spending my life learning and doing what I love," it's much easier to attain than "being rich and famous" (and is likely to be much more gratifying, too).
What if I start to hate what I'm working on?
You need to be able to give your project, and yourself, the freedom to be something else. Flexibility in general is one of the most important skills you can have. You may become aware that something you're working on is more or less fun than expected but feel that changing it is daunting since so much work/time/money has been spent on it. We initially wanted the game N to be a slow-paced stealth game, until we discovered how fun it was to run and jump around the level at top speed -- a huge divergence from our plans. Having the courage to change gears and maximize or minimize new discoveries can lead to some wonderfully unconventional outcomes and a better game. The history of games tells many such stories, everywhere from the triple-A to indie games, from Space Invaders to Sound Shapes to Grand Theft Auto. That concurrence illuminates the fundamental goal of game developers: We are trying to make great games.
That's what I believe should ultimately unite each person working in the game industry: We care about making games, and we're genuinely concerned with their content. Good games are fun, exciting, engaging, and intriguing, and are often the result of a combination of careful contemplation, planning, and happy accidents -- but they are incredibly hard to create. When you make games because you believe in them and want to play more of them, and because you enjoy exploring creative ideas, then regardless of critical or commercial results, this can be the most enjoyable and satisfying work you could ever do. The payoff is immense: You get to watch your ideas come to life in surprising and dynamic ways, and you get to play an awesome game when you're done.
If you take away only one thing from this article, make it this: Your focus should be on making great games, or making games great. Make something that you care about and believe in. This industry really needs more creative and passionate individuals who are ambitious and enthusiastic and love what they do -- those are the most important qualifications you could have. If that's you, then welcome! I can't wait to see you get started, and am very much looking forward to playing your games. It will be a difficult journey, but you can do it.
Mare Sheppard is one half of Metanet Software Inc., an indie game developer based in Toronto, and is a founding member of the Hand Eye Society, a Torontobased coalition relating to video games. Mare fills her days doing half of everything at Metanet, and in her spare time enjoys creating Metanet's merchandise, playing video games, chilling with Toronto indies and encouraging more people to make and play games.