Jeff Wofford On “The Rise and Fall of the Lone Game Developer”


First, in case you just wondered — aloud or in your thoughts — who Jeff Wofford is, he worked at Origin Systems for a number of years, in the Ultima Online era:

When I started my career twelve years ago I worked for Origin Systems, developer of Ultima Online. Origin’s slogan boldly asserted, “We Create Worlds.” We loved that slogan; it captures the power and allure of making games. In a very real way, game makers fashion worlds like little gods would.

The word “game”—with its offhand, childish overtones—fails to capture what games really are: virtual worlds. Game designers create vivid, living places. You can visit them, explore them, even live in them. Not long after we released Ultima Online in 1997, we discovered that many players spent upwards of 12 hours a day, every day, inside the game world. We heard of divorces caused by players’ gaming addictions. We had created a world that appealed to many players more than the real world did.

The above was written in 2007, by the way…subtract accordingly.

Anyhow, he recently wrote a thought-provoking post about…well, just what the title says: The Rise and Fall of the Lone Game Developer.

In the early 80s, all it took to make a game was a computer, some graph paper, and a lot of determination.

Games were created by brilliant individuals.

Of course, by the time he entered the industry, that had…changed:

The days of the solitary, brilliant, auteur developer had passed like rain on the mountain.

Now games were made by massive teams with massive schedules and massive budgets.

But I didn’t make games. I made little pieces of games.

And then, after leaving the gaming industry, he started dabbling in Flash:

With Flash you could create art and code in the same space. The games were small and focused. You could make a pretty good game by yourself. And Flash was everywhere, so you could publish your work to the world.

And then mobile games happened:

Then the dream got even better. It turned out my little games could make a little money.

Then came the iPhone, and suddenly you could make a lot of money.

I don’t want to excerpt too much more; it is at about this point that his post becomes something more serious and sobering, so do go and read the whole thing. What follows the remark above is a damning examination of the current state of mobile game development practices, game monetization, and…all the things us old-school types love to hate about the games we and others play on those little pocket-dwelling computers masquerading as phones.

I always wondered what it would look like when…the need for developers dwindled, and programming stopped paying the bills.

Now I know.

For the lone game programmer that day has already arrived.


It’s when I read things like this, I find, that I feel my respect for folks like Kevin Fishburne (Sanctimonia/Sylph), Slashing Dragon (Ananias Roguelike), and Goldenflame Dragon (The Dark Unknown) — and a whole host of others who have, over the years, written Ultima-inspired games of varying complexity all by themselves — increase markedly.

1 Response

  1. Sanctimonia Sanctimonia says:

    That was a good, if depressing, read. Eventually all forms of artistic expression are commoditized. All artists, whether working alone or in well-funded teams, are forced to some degree to address their own works as such. Creators, whether limited by their unique talents or an unshakable belief in the purity of their vision, still share with their fellow man much of what defines us as human. That in itself drives us to create works that by the virtue of empathy are at least intended to be understood, if not enjoyed, by others. Poe and Lovecraft, though destitute and unknown in their time, still imagined someone somewhere might read their words and for a moment know their minds and understand what they were trying to say. It wasn’t until many years after their deaths that they found any appreciation in popular culture; they never knew how loved they’d eventually become.

    In today’s culture, where genius is born, duplicated, sold, iterated and imitated, resold and forgotten faster than a wink over fiber, the expectation of immortality, fame, respect or even appreciation is absurd. Ralph Baer died and no one gave a single shit. He’s a footnote in the incessant blogs on Gamasutra, having less comments than the latest feminist flamebait “article”. Richard Garriott, the father of the CRPG, raised only a handful of millions for what is to be his final stab at creating the ultimate RPG, while Chris Roberts raked in tenfold.

    It’s not what drives us as artists that delivers success, recognition, fame or an entry on Wikipedia. It’s what sells. The job of a corporation is to determine what sells and exploit its viability as a product until as consumers it hurts to even think about it. As much as a thawing snake can’t be blamed for biting the farmer that rescued it from the cold, we can’t really blame the corporations for not exploiting our pet projects, or for the lucky few whose projects are selected for exploitation. It’s their nature.

    Something I’ve reluctantly come to realize, much as our troubled hero in Don Quixote, is that the giants and their spoils exist only in our fantasies. The best we can hope for is to make enough to pay the bills, and often our best expectations are naive. As much as I love what I do and cling to the possibility that it’ll someday save me, I’m beginning to think I’ve made a terrible, terrible mistake.