Hello! I'm Tom. I designed a game called Gunpoint, about rewiring things and punching people, and now I'm working on a new one called Heat Signature, about sneaking aboard randomly generated spaceships. Here's some more info on all the games I've worked on, here's the podcast I do, here are the videos I make on YouTube, here are some of the articles I wrote for PC Gamer, and here are two short stories I wrote for the Machine of Death collections.
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I’ve just got back from sixteen days of travelling: first to the Game Developers’ Conference in San Francisco, then to the indie game show Rezzed in London. I was showing Heat Signature to the press at GDC and to the public at Rezzed, but events like these are also huge meetups for a bunch of geographically separated friends – and people who are very likely to become that. So it’s been more pleasure than business, and the evenings have been as hectic as the days.
It’s been fantastic. GDC has been the highlight of my year in each of the three years I’ve been. This was my first Rezzed, but it was much like the brilliant EGX with better food, more people I knew, and no queues for the bathroom.
For most of the year I like my peaceful, productive life at home, but for these few weeks I love switching into the opposite mode, and getting all the benefits of that in rapid succession. That’s why I’ve been chaining these events together: preparing and organising is the only part I don’t like, so any time I can do two for the price of one is great.
That introvert/extrovert flip is also a big jolt to the system, combined with a massive influx of fresh perspectives from a diverse crowd of smart people, combined with a deluge of raw feedback and reactions to the current state of my game, combined with a big break from my usual working schedule, combined with lots of new sights and sounds and games and experiences and inspiration.
I might do a separate post about what I learned about Heat Signature from the reaction it got, but in this one I’ll just boil down two things this trip clarified about life and people and events like these.
The way confidence and success feed off each other is deeply unfair. “Have confidence!” “Believe in yourself!” and “Fake it till you make it!” are all bits of advice that can work for some people in some situations. But a lot of the time, you might as well be saying “Have gills!” “Believe you have gills!” “Fake having gills until you have gills!”
People say those things because confidence, unlike gills, can quickly lead to the kind of success or approval that gives you more. That’s the part I became familiar with on this trip: the more people heap disproportionate praise on Gunpoint, the easier it gets to talk to people – even the ones who aren’t praising it and have no idea what it is. That acceptance gives you one point of armour, and you can take that armour into any situation you like.
Once you get one point of acceptance-armour, it’s not that scary to talk to someone who might hit you with rejection. You know it doesn’t mean you’re worthless, because you have this piece of acceptance that says you’re not. And of course, most of the people you were scared of talking to actually have no intention of doing that, so they usually give you another point of acceptance-armour and then you can talk to basically anyone. But when you have zero, that fear is so much harder to shake.
I don’t have One Weird Trick for breaking out of that state, because I stumbled out of it largely by luck, and my brain is so self-defeating that it sometimes tries to crawl back in there if I go too long without even more of that luck. But I can tell you what I did try to maximise my chances of getting off the confidence floor.
Your brain is great at remembering criticism and great and forgetting praise, so I tried to reverse that bias. I wrote down anything nice anyone said about my work in a sort of Praise File, to refer back to when I was losing faith. I didn’t keep a file of criticisms, and as hard as it tries, the brain can’t remember those forever.
Getting ten positive internet comments about your thing is radically different to having ten different people come up to you and say they loved it. The first feels good, but the second is extraordinary – it’s the moment the most childish part of your brain is dreaming of while you’re fretting over all the little dilemmas and struggles you had making it.
“Maybe if I just get through this and do it right, there’ll be… like… some kind of party? And everyone will tell me how great I am? And there’s cake?” That’s dumb, that brain-part is an idiot. But if you’re lucky enough that your thing catches on, and you go to these events, that can actually happen.
I was going to say “except for the cake”, but then I remembered that on the last day of Rezzed someone actually did produce a giant box of cupcakes and gave me one. This is ridiculous.
Bear this in mind if you ever get a nice comment on the internet. Try to imagine someone coming up to you and saying it in real life, how nice that is, and how many more people must be feeling the same thing without explicitly saying it.
That’s it, thanks so much to everyone who made this a fantastic trip. Here are some more pics from it:
Laco: I interpreted that projector-adjustment photograph as some sort of VR-based co-op flying fox simulator.
Now I really want to play that.
Anonymous: As somebody who has been actively trying to cultivate confidence, this was exactly what I needed to read.
I've come to appreciate just how frustrating it can feel when you've yet to gain that "one point of armor." In my quest to overcome my social anxiety there were times when I felt like I simply wasn't making progress. I was confronted with this horrible Catch 22 where the sort of situations that would build up my self confidence were exactly the kind of social situations I was too terrified to pursue. This lead me to wondering, more than once, "Do I even understand what confidence is?" or "Is confidence really for me?"
Reading that you've struggled with this sort of stuff yourself is as reassuring as it is surprising. (I'd always imagined you as a sort of confidence guru.) It sucks that there's no easy fix, but it's a relief to know other people have gone through similar trials and come out fine.
Matt Francis: Not sure if you've tweeted about this (I haven't noticed if you did), but your talk at the GDC is now available to watch at their site. Saw it the other day; very interesting & seemed like the crowd really got something from it too.