April 21, 2014

What Makes Me Different?


Background: For those who don't know me, my name is Cody Albert and I'm a 24 year old game programmer. I graduated from University of Maryland with a Computer Engineering degree in 2012, and have spent just over a year programming for a company that makes educational games and simulations primarily for the government. I have a mobile platformer that has been in and out of development for several years, which I view more as a learning tool than anything. Video games are my passion.

This year at Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, I had the misfortune of missing a talk by Alexander Bruce (of Antichamber fame) called "Antichamber - An Overnight Success, Seven Years In The Making". Luckily, it was posted today for free on the GDC Vault, and I highly suggest that anybody interested in game development checks it out. There was one phrase repeated throughout the entire talk, a phrase that captures the spirit of the talk far better than the title: "What makes me different?"

Throughout the talk, Bruce walks through the years and the trials that lead him from humble beginnings to joining the upper echelons of indie rockstars. He compares himself to his fellow students, past indie successes, his competition, and the games that fell off before they hit it big. I liked this approach, so I started from the beginning. What makes me different from Alexander Bruce?

A lot, as it turns out. In fact, I could only come up with two areas in which we're similar: an overwhelming passion for the video game industry, and a history of self doubt, anxiety, and mental/emotional breakdowns. That's a pretty grim list, to be sure. Rather than focus on all the areas in which I feel I'm not good enough to do something remarkable, I looked for strengths. What can I do better than all of these awesome people I follow on twitter, bump into at GDC, and genuinely aspire to be like? In the end, two interesting thoughts came to mind.

The first major revelation was that I'm passionate about video games, but not necessarily as passionate about programming. Don't get me wrong, I'm a pretty good coder and I enjoy being seen as that. I like solving problems, and my degree prepared me for the job I'm in today. However, it's the industry that I fell in love with, not the job. Perhaps I'm limiting myself too much by identifying with one specific role? Maybe there's things I'd love doing in other areas of game development? What about aspects of the game industry that don't even involve directly making games? There's a lot of people who are remarkable within the community, even though they aren't making games, such as educators, journalists, event planners, and more. Maybe it's time to get involved in other ways?

The second idea that came to mind was that there are some aspects of my personality that set me apart from these great developers. Just looking at my skill sets is very discouraging; there will always be better programmers, better designers, better developers. In fact, the biggest strength of every indie success story I've read is that these people just. won't. quit. I struggle with motivation when it comes to my own side projects, but I've come to realize that lack of motivation is usually a symptom, not a problem. I don't always have the drive to get up, go to work, come home, and make games all night. It can't be helped. But I think I do have something that makes me interesting; I bring people together.

In middle school, our class was given personality tests which identified various traits in which we excelled. My results had me pegged as some sort of leader, a designation I promptly dismissed. You have to understand, I was a nerdy introvert. I was meek, a wallflower that just wanted to get by and move on to the next task. However, the test did manage to pick up on something years before I would actually see it in action: I did what needed to be done when nobody else would. Fast forward to the middle of my college days, and I was heading up biweekly LAN parties that peaked around 35 attendees. I lead a ~100 member raiding guild in World of Warcraft for about a year. I became the go-to event planner for any convention that my group of friends was interested in. I could book hotels, find flights, create party plans, and build an itinerary flexible enough to allow for the ever-changing convention plans but detailed enough to ensure there was never a dull moment. I did all of these things because nobody else would. After a while, I did them because nobody else could.

So what's the point of all this? I'm definitely not saying that I plan to quit programming for a career as a travel agent, or that I'm not happy with where I am in life. The bigger takeaway for me is that the source of my anxiety is that I'm comparing myself to these people on their terms. I would love to have the programming genius of Renaud B├ędard, the tenacity of Alexander Bruce, the insight of Jonathan Blow, the charisma of Ichiro Lambe, and the following of Marcus Persson. But I do have something that is my own. I'm a fantastic leader, and I know how to bring people together. When people tell me I can't make everyone happy, I prove them wrong. When nobody wants the responsibility of making a decision, I take the risk. When plans don't work out, I take the blame. People follow me. Now I just need to figure out where that fits into the industry I'm proud to call myself a part of.

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