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How we made the best game ever

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Success can mean many different things

My name is Jason Stark. Four years ago, my wife and I left our games development jobs to found our own games-making business working with our second daughter. Our studio is called Disparity. We work out of our kitchen. You’ve almost certainly never heard of us, so it comes as some surprise to learn that we have made the best game ever.

We were pretty surprised as well.

How did this happen?

The game in question is called Ninja Pizza Girl, which is probably not what you’re expecting the greatest game of all time to be called.

It’s loosely based on my eldest daughter’s experiences delivering pizzas. At the time, she’d also been learning Kung Fu — hence "Ninja Pizza Girl." Over the course of development, my daughter’s real-life experiences at high school and the rough times she’d had with other kids influenced the game in unexpected ways. It became a little less cliché and a lot more unique. It stood out.

The first few months after releasing Ninja Pizza Girl onto the Steam store was a weird time. On one hand, my then-17-year-old daughter had her art featured on the front page of the Steam store. On the other hand, we couldn’t get enough reviews for an official metacritic rating. Sales were a lot lower than we were hoping, and it was hard to know whether we were succeeding or failing.

During this time we received an email from one of our players. He thanked us profusely for making Ninja Pizza Girl and told us in no uncertain terms it was his favourite game of all time.

The games industry is relatively young but "of all time" covers a significant period. He was not a young man. He’d played video games for decades. And somehow, out of all the amazing video games developed during those years, Ninja Pizza Girl was his pick for Best Game Ever.

This is a pretty overwhelming email to receive. It made us completely re-evaluate the success of Ninja Pizza Girl. How can you put a figure on making the best game of all time, even if it was just for one person?

He wasn’t the last person to heap praise upon us. We have a small but precious collection of emails and reviews from people touched by our little game. At first we assumed they were being just kind or even a bit hyperbolic, but over time their sincerity convinced us. Checking their Steam history showed they’d each spent 100 hours or more playing Ninja Pizza Girl.

The game takes 4 hours to complete.

I honestly can’t describe how much it means to hear someone’s personal stories about how our game touched their lives. Sales and review scores are useful tools but ultimately just numbers. An email from a fan who loves your work is often the difference between a developer giving up or soldiering on. I know this because the story of Ninja Pizza Girl isn’t unique. Talk to any game developer long enough and you’ll eventually hear similar.

These messages have the power to change how creators look at their own creations; if you get nothing else from this story but the idea that you can change a creative person’s day or even career with a nice note? I’ll be pretty happy with that.

Years ago the very first proper video game I ever worked on was a surfing game. Although the budget was small it quite possibly the most authentic surfing ever made. We had a surfing champion as part of the team overseeing every animation and every control in the game. It was released on PC and Dreamcast to no particular success. Years later we received a written letter from a keen South African surfer. He’d been playing the game since it released trying to get the maximum possible score and wanted some advice. He heaped praise upon our little surfing title, proclaiming it the best game ever.

These stories seem to go against a built-in assumption most of us have — that great things are great and bad things are bad. Great things inevitably amass a following, make their way into the media we consume and are brought to our attention. But if this was true, either Ninja Pizza Girl should be a smash hit or our biggest fans are all disturbing anomalies.

Call me biased here, but I’m super fond of our biggest fans. A more nuanced explanation is obviously required.

You have to redefine success

I like to explain it by thinking of games as ticking a series of boxes. If you tick the boxes most gamers want ticked, you’ll be successful. Ninja Pizza Girl and the surfing game from all those years ago obviously didn’t tick enough boxes — or didn’t tick the right ones — to amass a popular following. What they did do, however, was to tick a particular combination of boxes that no one had ever ticked before. Which meant that if you’re the type of person looking for those particular boxes then you have suddenly found a game like no other — a game seemingly made especially for you.

From the emails we’ve received and from personal experience, I know that finding your perfect game is a powerful moment. It might even change your life.

My youngest daughter is 7 years old. She can’t remember a time when we weren’t making Ninja Pizza Girl. Although she’s tested a lot of half-finished levels over the years, the first time she sat down to play it from the beginning was only a week ago.

It was a mesmerizing moment watching her finally play the game we’ve spent half her life developing. It was very hard not to bawl like a baby when she sat up after half an hour of playing to proclaim with all the authority of a 7-year-old, "This is a good game. You did good work, parents."

But I don’t want this to be about us. I want to talk about you. All of this means one thing — that you can’t wait around for your personal best game ever to find its way to you. You’re going to have to leave the comfortable embrace of mainstream gaming and set off into the uncharted wilderness of games that you’ve never heard of. And you can’t always listen to other people.

This isn’t an easy journey. There are more games being made today than ever before. Which is great, right? I mean, with all these games being made there’s bound to be a perfect game for everyone. And you know what? I believe there is. But choice is a weird thing. After a certain point overwhelming options just becomes noise — a great big pile of stuff that takes significant effort to sort through. More games mean more missed connections.

Finding a good game in the midst of all this choice can be a grind with no guaranteed payoff. It’s pretty easy to lay back and stick with what’s tried and true. Why bother searching through unknown titles when I can fire up Dark Souls 3 and have fun right now?

It was a mesmerizing moment watching her finally play the game we’ve spent half her life developing

Except I didn’t have fun with the Souls series straight away.

As my wife is fond of reminding me, it took hours and hours and HOURS of frustration before I was good enough to actually relax and enjoy myself. Dark Souls isn’t alone in this respect. We don’t sit down to our triple-A franchises and have crazy fun every minute. Every game has skills that need to be learned or levels to grind or boring side-quests to complete or large open areas that need to be walked across. If we’re going to spend significant amounts of time being bored or annoyed anyway, why not spend that time searching for something even better? Why not dive in and look for that one transformative game made especially for you?

I’ll admit, when you take a chance on a game and it turns out to be not that good — it’s a terrible feeling. You feel angry. You feel cheated or stupid or all of the above. But you shouldn’t. Whenever you step away from the mainstream — every time you take a chance on a game you’ve never heard of — you should feel like an explorer.

Not every rocky hill climb is going to end with an amazing view of El Dorado. Most of the time it’s going to end with a view of more rocky hills. But whatever lies at the top, you should feel proud of making the climb. If Steam or any other service is your favorite restaurant, it’s important to make sure you really explore the menu. And hey, Steam offers refunds now anyway.

If Steam is the only restaurant you go to? Maybe it’s time to change the menu entirely.

Even if you never find that perfect game, by going off the beaten path you’re reclaiming some power as a gamer. You don’t have to sit back and complain about what’s missing in games — you can go out and find games with the things you want. We can’t complain about publishers being risk-averse if we’re risk-averse.

the starks

Even if you never find that one perfect game, you’re at the very least supporting games with the themes or protagonists or game mechanics you like. You’re increasing the odds of someone coming along, building on what’s already there and one day making that game you’re looking for.

Chasing the perfect game isn’t easy. It’s probably not something you should do every day. When you’re tired or hurting, maybe the best place to be is in the warm embrace of the triple-A franchise all your friends are playing. But when you feel the call to adventure — when everything in your Steam library starts looking the same — maybe it’s time to dive into the chaotic pile of undiscovered games.

You might find something great. You’ll certainly find something different. And maybe, just maybe, you’ll find the best game ever.

Jason Stark is a 20-year veteran of the games industry and a 23-year veteran of raising children. He has one games studio, four daughters, not much hair and even less time. His studio, Disparity Games, consists of him, his wife and whatever daughters happen to be available at the time. They have spent the last year releasing Ninja Pizza Girl and still aren’t done yet.