While I released the ∞ Android version of Taming Dreams ∞
a while ago, I'm uncertain, conflicted, and unmotivated about where to go from here, though I'm making progress with all of those things, which I'd like to write about here. I'll also address some of the things people mentioned in comments on my ∞ previous post ∞
. Mostly, I want to talk about the creative process, the effect that judgement has on it, and various aspects of Taming Dreams that I feel could have been done better based on the feedback I've got so far, particularly in regards to storytelling and character depictions. I'll also touch on the common suggestion that I should be developing for Steam instead.
Of those four options...
I wrote last time of four possible game ideas I could explore, including Taming Dreams. I've spent days thinking about them and at least doing a bit of planning or work on all of them, and here's what I've discovered and decided on so far.
I'm not likely to be working on the AFC mobile version any time soon. While it's something I might return to one day, it's just too unclear at the moment and I don't have any good ideas for monetising it (I have plenty of ideas, just no good
I like the idea of Yden still. I returned to the old version, and playing it just for a couple of hours reminded me of how addictive it can be. However, when attempting to work on the mobile version, progress was sluggish because I wasn't driven by the same frantic obsession that possessed me with the original. I'll work at it a bit at a time, when the mood takes me, but I won't make it my primary focus.
I played Taming Dreams a bit again, and realised that I've done a lot of good work so far with that. So I'm definitely not giving it up (though I never planned to; I only meant to postpone it, at worst). However, the feedback and recent thoughts have made me aware of many issues with it, which I wish I could address...
To that end, I might consider working on the six-episode story with the same engine, which will address the issues people had in direct ways I'll cover later in this gargantuan post.
The Creative Process & Critique
I've spent huge chunks of the last few days listening to music that I composed about a decade ago, when I was 16 to 18. I had no idea what I was doing at the time! I'd never been formally taught anything about music theory, and the only musical experience I had was playing the recorder back in primary school and having a handful of piano lessons when I was 16 (which is largely what spurred the desire to compose my own music). Though I wasn't technically competent, I was driven by the strong, passionate desire to express myself, to create for creation's sake, and I produced many pieces that - while dissonant and directionless or even harsh to my maturer ears - I still regard fondly as portals to a time of relative creative bliss.
Bliss and ignorance are intertwined. If you don't really know what you're doing, then there's less pressure to do it well or 'correctly'. If however you do know what you're 'supposed' to be doing, you know when you deviate from that proper path, and if you lack the skill to stay on it, then this causes stress which kills any joy you might otherwise have got from the creative process. What could be opportunities to learn or experiment become 'errors' that you should feel bad about. Rules are important to produce good work, but getting too concerned with following them kills creativity.
These days I rarely compose at all, because I know of the rules of music theory, but I also know how much I don't
know about them. All I see are the holes in my knowledge and skills, and those holes destroy my confidence and make me want to just study and practise for years before even attempting to create a finished piece. The same is true for drawing and, recently, writing too.
The motivation-killer here is the inner critic, but adding external critics of course exacerbates the effect. When you're no longer creating for your own pleasure, but instead find yourself constantly concerned about what others might think of your output, then your work becomes less about enjoyment and more about the desire to impress. And since preferences are subjective anyway, impressing everyone is impossible... But perfectionism leads to the desire to do just that anyway.
While the negative reviews of Taming Dreams are a minority, most so far are quite detailed in their tearing apart of my efforts. Many creative people refuse to read reviews of their work, and it's clear why; knowing that someone hated what you poured your heart into feels as if you've been stabbed through that heart.
And yet - in the eyes of probably the majority of people reading this, I assume - becoming blind to critique leads to stagnation. I don't necessarily agree with this - I know that I got better at music composition just by doing
it over and over, without being told where I was going 'wrong' - but I do understand that knowing what people dislike allows you to refine those faults and create a better piece of work, especially if the work is meant for public consumption.
Anyway. I've been very unmotivated about Taming Dreams recently because some people didn't like it, and told me why in harsh detail. Now all I can see when I look at it are these problems. However, the whole process has been a learning experience, and perhaps I'd be able to address these problems in some way.
Big Issues with Taming Dreams
The biggest issues people had with Taming Dreams were the following:
It's not MARDEK
On the one hand, using MARDEK as a foundation for Taming Dreams allows for the resurrection and eventual conclusion of an old work that many people are fond of. On the other hand, it's sacrilege because too much has changed.
#Lack of gameplay/sidequests#
As a 'social' gamer (according to ∞ Bartle gamer types ∞
), characters and their relationships are the most important part of a single-player game for me. As such, Taming Dreams focuses primarily on dialogue and story and neglects the things that 'killers' or 'achievers' would want from a game and as such is deemed 'boring' or 'without gameplay' (though the agitation system does at least provide something for them, it's apparently not enough). 'Explorers', too, seem put off by the lack of sidequests they can discover.
The characters are immature and caricatured
This is the biggest thing getting to me at the moment, and something I want to devote much of this post to, since the characters and story are supposed to be the most important part of the game. Some (presumably older) players have said that they feel they've moved beyond the issues the characters represent, and other people have said they can't relate to the characters because they're not 'realistic' enough, or they're so predictable that they're just dull.
#It's on mobile and/or might never be finished#
Many have taken issue with the platform I've decided on for the game, and insist I should publish on Steam/PC instead. Others expressed concerns that since the game will be so many episodes, it might never be finished and as such isn't worth investing in at all.
I'd like to talk about these issues as if I were remaking the game from scratch to address them.
It's not MARDEK
I can't imagine that there are all that many people in the world who fondly remember MARDEK and are awaiting a continuation of the series. Perhaps they've all already played Taming Dreams. A new audience wouldn't care whether it was like some old Flash game or not.
Even so, it's obvious that many of the old fans see MARDEK with rose-tinted nostalgia glasses, and compare Taming Dreams to fond memories rather than more objective criteria. A recent negative review criticised Taming Dreams for its immature characters and excessive lewd jokes... even though the original MARDEK had as much - or perhaps even more - sexual humour and its characters were written by an ignorant teenager and it shows.
If I were to start anew, I'd use a cast of original characters to avoid these comparisons. I just wish I'd done that in the first place... though maybe I'd still be criticised for making something other than MARDEK IV.
I've been meaning to write a proper post about why I didn't make MARDEK IV; I'll still probably do that someday relatively soon.
Lack of gameplay/sidequests
Taming Dreams is very much on rails. You're taken from one event to the other, and while you can chat with your allies or NPCs, neither produces any 'gameplay-related' rewards.
To remedy this, I'd structure the six-episode revision like this:
Each episode would include a small hub town and surrounding dungeon-like areas, and there'd be a number of NPCs spread around this small world. A few story scenes would occur to set the episode's themes and goals, but after that you'd be free to wander around and explore at your own pace.
For story-related reasons, you'd have the power to essentially enter into people's minds in order to tame their inner demons (as miasmon), and in doing so you'd rescue them from themselves. As such, every NPC you encountered would lead to agitation, and by 'winning', you'd help/cure them. Some might require you to do something (like fetch an item) before you can enter their mind, while others wouldn't. Once you'd saved a certain percentage of all the NPCs in that episode's world, you'd be able to challenge a more important 'boss' character by venturing into their mind and taming their inner monsters. This would move along the story and lead to the next episode (with some deviations from this formulaic structure to keep things interesting).
I like this because it combines all four of the Bartle type goals. Each NPC would have their own little story, and by going around and talking to them, you'd learn more about them, the world, and your own characters. You'd simultaneously 'conquer' and 'help' them, and of course it'd be possible to 'get 100%' by taming all NPCs rather than only as many as was necessary.
It may also lead to greater replay value and, well, it'd feel more like a game where the player has an active role. I only wish I'd decided to take this approach with Taming Dreams from the start.
The characters are immature and/or caricatured
I don't know How To Write. I'm not a Writer. As with all my skills, I'm a self-taught storyteller... and as such, those who know better can tut-tut at my efforts and tell me that my characters are either flat or exaggerated; sometimes both. I've been thinking a lot recently about how I write characters, and what I could or should have done instead. I've been reading about the standard structure and elements of stories, and I'll refer to what I've learned in my descriptions here.
I find a lot of characters in other media quite dull because I always want to know about their deeper psychology. I don't so much care what they do, and I don't want to hear silly jokes or 'badass' one-liners; I want to know about their tragic past, their personality type, their worries and insecurities. Things I - as a broken, lonely, anxious person - might be able to relate to. In my own characters, then, I exaggerate these facets and give them undue focus; they talk about their innermost issues 'all the time', and - while this to me made them seem remarkable and deep - to others it just seems awkward, inept and unrealistic.
'Unrealistic'. We're familiar with and accepting of stylised graphics that are used to represent - rather than accurately depict - reality. Characters who, for example, have exaggerated proportions - huge heads, eyes, expressions, etc - so then the parts that define them most are most visible. They become caricatures, and in my opinion this enhances appeal... But I know that some people seem to prefer only graphics that are dark, gritty and 'realistic'; where people scowl in greys and browns with proper proportions and all that. Realism = good, apparently, and the further you stray from realism, the worse your work becomes.
The same may be true of psychology, too. Much as I've given the characters big heads and eyes and bright, vibrant colours, I've similarly exaggerated their mental traits so then the most interesting (to me) parts are at the forefront much of the time.
Do you find cartoon characters physically attractive? It's an odd thing that we do, because they deviate so much from what real humans actually look like. Would you be drawn then to characters with similarly exaggerated mental traits? Though they're not 'realistic', is that necessarily a bad thing?
I honestly don't know. I wrote what I like, but it does bother me that others don't feel the same way.
What is it that grips people about some stories and not others? It seems that having a clear protagonist who serves as your avatar in the fictional world is one of the key parts of storytelling that I myself have often strangely neglected. In MARDEK and in Taming Dreams, Mardek is the character you start as and play as most often, but I never tried to tell the story from his eyes, as such; if anything, he's just sort of there, and the story focuses on multiple characters relatively equally. In Taming Dreams episode 2, it's more about Deugan and Meraeadyth than Mardek. The overall story would focus more on Rohoph than his host. And yet this leaves the work feeling empty, boring, perhaps; there's no clear hook for your consciousness to attach itself to...
If I were to start again, I'd make one key protagonist, as I said last time, and the story would be hers. It'd be about her, and her desires would drive the plot. Others would join her, but they'd be additions to her story rather than taking centre stage in their own right.
Desires. Apparently stories are all about a character wanting something, and striving to achieve it. While each character in Taming Dreams has that to some degree, Mardek - the supposed protagonist - is notable in that he deliberately doesn't
. Perhaps that too is a reason there's no clear gripping hook.
However, while all characters want
something, the difference between a two-dimensional character and a three-dimensional one - it seems - is the fact that 2D characters single-mindedly pursue that desire without changing, while 3D characters learn over the course of their story that what they want
and what they need
are not the same, and change within, conquer themselves. Taming Dreams is all about this kind of growth, which is why I personally felt that it was relatively deep, but I don't know; maybe people were just criticising for the sake of being critics.
I'd very much focus on this difference between wanting and needing in a revision, if there is going to be one. That was always meant as the whole point of the plot anyway.
However, often stories succeed or fail on the strength of their villain. Taming Dreams has no villains, as such; instead, it's meant to be that everyone is their own worst enemy. The revision would probably be similar, but perhaps I should rethink this and try to add some appealing antagonist for those who are drawn to darkness... The best antagonists represent something about the protagonist - their own worst traits - and I know exactly how I could explore that in the story I've already sketched out.
People have said that the characters in Taming Dreams are immature, that they themselves are beyond the issues they explore. I imagine a large part of this is because the characters start (sort of) as children. While I did that because MARDEK does that, and I did that in MARDEK because I really liked the idea of watching the characters grow up (and in doing so you'd grow up with them, in a sense), I'd probably use adult characters for the protagonists and would focus on more relatable issues that apply to everyone of any age. I do still feel that Longing, Identity and Judgement - those three False Ideals - apply to most people no matter where they are in life.
Steam & Mobile
I'd like to write a proper post about this soon, but here are some of the key points that led to the decisions I've made:
- I like how I can play on my mobile in bed! And I like how you can play it anywhere you'd read a book, rather than being stuck at your computer. While I understand the concerns like "I can't get immersed while playing for five minutes in a waiting room", isn't the same true of books? I've enjoyed playing long, in-depth RPGs on the (3)DS, and mobiles aren't too different from handheld consoles.
- Almost everyone has a mobile device, but far fewer people have Steam or play PC games. I've been told by professional game developers that the mobile market is the way to go, and that it's intimidating for those who target PC or consoles because mobile games (good ones, at least) make much more money and are easier to make and manage.
- It's easier to publish on mobiles than on Steam. I don't have to go through the greenlight process. I hoped that if my mobile games became successful, I'd rally up enough support to get a Steam version greenlit.
- I don't know how I'd handle the episodic format on Steam, both technically (I know of no way to integrate Steam's shop data with Adobe AIR) and conceptually (though I know episodic Steam games exist, I don't know how appreciated they are). I'd rather release a full game - as many have said I should - but it'd take years to get to that point with all 18 episodes of Taming Dreams.
So my plan would be to release episodes when they're done on mobiles so then I get money semi-regularly, rather than having to wait until the whole thing is done before I got anything. I'd also build up support and interest for the game over time. When all episodes are complete, I'd release an enhanced (based on ongoing feedback) combined version as a pay-to-buy game on Steam. Attempting a six-episode revision of Taming Dreams would probably work best for that, because I could very likely finish it before the end of this year, while Taming Dreams would take much longer.
I made mistakes when working on Taming Dreams, and I'd like to correct them by writing a six-episode game with the same general engine, but which allows for more 'gameplay' and less 'boring' linearity, in a way that appeals to all four types of gamer (or at least all except killers, who prefer more visceral experiences).
Rather than writing the whole first episode only to have it rejected, instead I'll write openly about my plans here and get feedback as I go along. That way, I can tweak my work and grow while creating, rather than working in a vacuum and crashing emotionally when it isn't beloved by all at the end.
To stress: I'm not abandoning Taming Dreams at all. If I do do a six-episode revision (and I don't mean to promise that I will; I might learn from attempting it that I like Taming Dreams more), I'll return to Taming Dreams once that's done. It's all about having some kind of 'safe base' to build upon at this point, and as of yet Taming Dreams isn't it.
(OR maybe I could just make a one/no-episode game instead of making the mistake of planning too big of a road ahead?? HMM...)