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Growth and Regrowth (2-Year Dev Retro)

Two years ago I started making a videogame.

Before starting my 7th semester of college, I prepared to talk with my professor about a free-form project for CIS 690 – a tech elective where you pitch, perform, and reflect on whatever you want. It was about 1 hour before I walked out of my neighboring apartment onto the campus to talk with him that I deemed the moment salient to choose what the subject of my project would be. I had some ideas written down, picked one for a few good reasons, and continue to this day working on that project at a healthy and generous pace.

The game – now called Disharmony – has changed a lot since then, as I would imagine most do from inception to production. But through planning, prototyping, reading, painting, playing, thinking, and doing nothing at all, it has taken on a different meaning entirely while retaining the shape I thought of on that day. It’s these forces of change and holding onto the central shape that I want to talk about, even only partway through this journey, since the act of finding what’s worth keeping in an oddly-growing game is the never-ending challenge of the craft.

(featured painting is Premonition by Remedios Varo)


Making a videogame involves a lot of planning, which I seem to like doing.

I went to Dr. Hsu with “I will make a game about weird mechs deforesting”, and a plan to prototype it that semester.

I planned to work on it after that prototype until it was done.

I planned to experiment with the coolest system – the procedural forest – as my senior project, making the most of my limited time.

I planned to go part-time at my developer job to work sustainably on the game for 2 days a week, to dodge the evening-weekends schedule that plagues so many peers.

I graduated, planned phases for the game, and continue to plan the next few hours of work as fluidly as I finish them.

Planning – or “””production””” – is like shaping the time to shape your game. It’s a job performed by Producers in capitalist game-developing enterprises, meeting dollar-measured work-hours with (people’s) vision to create a successful commodity. Whether those meet gracefully or not is the central determiner of a game fulfilling its potential.

I understand the appeal of making games without plan: to make a game exploratively, as a hobby, an experiment, or without a time constraint from upper management. But I feel that the editorial focus of production – getting a good game done faster – is important to me. I want to get better at making games and do a few before I die. And it’s not just *planning*, importantly, it’s re-planning. The fluidity of re-synthesizing myself and my project, combining 2-years-ago-me ideas with me-ideas. So what is this like? How have I been doing it?

I suppose part of my enjoyment in planning is that over-cognitive, optimizing part of my brain I share with other computer scientists (a bug best applied in limitation), but there really is an art to it. I’ve always thought of making games like some abstract form of weaving – something scalable from intimate to mechanical, but a process of tool-using and selective attention capable of deep coordination for expressive ends. Many disciplines, many assets, many threads must come together, bind together, and join together still in broader shape through time to make a fuller tapestry.

Many games have well-established production practices, but (in this case) a good systemic game – something dynamic and inter-connected – is going to be improvisational. Threads will come and go, join at strange angles. You will have to cut them to keep the shape correct. It’s necessary to have a good idea of how the game at the end will make you feel – how it will play and what that will say – but many threads must be found along the way. Some visuals, some AI behaviors, some player actions must be summoned mid-way, built up, and inter-woven. You will make something, find out it *almost* works, and change a neighboring thread to bring out contrast. ((A painting metaphor would work too haha))

Sometimes you will plan to make a game about ‘Nature’, grow as a person and change everything you know about our relationship with the non-human world, then reframe your game to fit that… continually. You’ll change focus from “deforestation vibes” to systems of exploitation. You’ll shift presence of the existence of technology to the utilization of it. You’ll strive to make a non-human game that isn’t anti-human, but the best kind of humanistic, sensitive to our reciprocation between the land and its inhabitants – and which relationships cause Disharmony.

Periodic re-planning is more than re-invention, it’s like rebirth. It’s important. Doing it feels like there’s a clarity to my future – the time becomes tighter, more meaningful.

From anxiety within, I feel often that if my game finished with the design I made [before the last big reinvention] then it wouldn’t be good, but I feel a steady power in its growth. Something new is not born in Rebirth, but the same – reconstructed, with progress. Regrowth gets me closer and closer to a truth: the honesty within myself when I started making the game, but given the love and thought that it needs to be mature and true to the world.

Practically speaking, a systemic game about deforestation always required a lot of re-planning. It’s fluid. I wrote 8 general work phases for the finished game, completed two, and re-wrote 8 new ones with only the first being complete. Each bullet point (“tree models”, “weather system”) can be an hour to weeks of work. Some change so much from month to month that none of the points are the same as they started. I find beginnings and endings are easiest to change – the literal framing of the game – to make minimal re-work and maximal thematic difference. But I still change the center.

For example, player abilities and death and AI efficiency can be re-thought and re-parameterized, as I haven’t worked on them yet. I focus time on the foundational systems, grow the AI, their infrastructure, the forest, and cut errant ideas in the game when I realize it needs to be something else. I try also to cut on paper, saving me work to plan new things to replace them.

Regrettably, this puts some of the fun stuff off for a while. Because the AI is central to the experience – their forms and functions have been re-written the most – they still look like white boxes skating across the ground. I can’t shape how they look until their behaviors are complete. My beloved forest too suffers from how much it changes, where blocky gray placeholder models fill my world until I can’t guarantee they’ll change anymore.

And yet, with each change, the relationships of the mechs and the trees and the player is generally the same. They will be enriched, embellished, polished, and painted, but this set of relationships is my game, illustrated most by my willingness to change things around and not by my refusal.

The principles of growth and regrowth are ecology in abstract; chaotic processes consume energy, destabilize, then free energy. Trees die in old forests and young trees sprout up. Prairie fires bathe plains in eternal succession. But the metaphor for weaving is pleasurable to me: here I am with my little machines. As I continue to cut and bind and thread the game through, I can take comfort in the process I found by embracing the same principles that keeps our ecosystems alive. It is intelligent, precise, and tender. I’ll finish that tapestry.

By Steven Zwahl

I'm a part-time software developer at Thunderhead Engineering and part-time indie game developer.

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