In 2008, I interviewed a game developer for the first time. N+ creators Mare Sheppard and Raigan Burns didn’t ask about my age when I spoke to them, but I would have lied to them if they had. I was 16.
Sheppard and Burns were brimming with energy and optimism back then. They’d become two of the first ever indie developers to launch a game on Xbox Live Arcade, and they had plans for another game, called Robotology. The indie games scene barely existed at this point, but Sheppard and Burns knew they were on the forefront of something big. They’d been working full-time on N since 2004, and were ready to do something bigger with Robotology, which they described to me as being “another 2D platformer like N, but with robots and grappling hooks” and “even more dynamic and interesting physics and collision.” 16-year-old me was stoked, and so were they.
Six years later, things haven’t gone exactly the way Sheppard and Burns hoped they would. A full 10 years after they first began working on N, they’re now finishing up work on N++, which they swear will be the final iteration. Robotology turned out to be “sort of aimless as a game,” so they killed it, then came to the conclusion that N wasn’t yet perfect, but could be. N++ is coming to PlayStation 4 later this year, and finally N’s journey will have come to an end.
Thus, Sheppard and Burns haven’t left the track they were on when we spoke in 2008, and neither have I – here I am, still interviewing developers and writing about videogames in 2014, although now I don’t have to lie about my age. For both of us, though, the end is in sight. Soon Sheppard and Burns will have to move on to a different game, and so will I.
I’ve spent the last six years working my way up through the games media. After spending months at an unpaid gig, I wrote for a mobile games blog that paid $25 per article and my experience there (and my continued lying about my age) helped me land a job with GamePro when I was 18. I stayed there until the magazine closed. Afterwards, I landed a contract to write a book about iPhone games, and began to get my pitches accepted by magazines like Edge and Wired. I felt like I’d ‘made it’ (although almost nobody ever really ‘makes it’ as a writer, least of all when they think they have).
I’ve been incredibly blessed in my efforts to write about games for big audiences, but I’ve recently accepted a job offer that will prevent me from writing about games for pay. So, like Burns and Sheppard, I know how it feels to reach the end of a road – to come to the natural conclusion of a path that I’ve stayed on comfortably for a long time. The sweet sorrow of parting feels worth it, though, because you know you’ve taken something of value from the trip.
“I think we’re a bit more humble these days,” Burns says. Sheppard agrees: “Even though times have been rough,” she says, “and we’ve lost some idealism, we haven’t lost our ambition or ideas, or lost sight of the value of our team.”
There’s a new game mechanic in N++ where dozens of deadly clones of your character — evil ninjas, they’re called — are generated as you progress through a level. They all spawn from the start point, and move exactly as you did. Touch them and you get splattered. Game Over.
The neat thing about the mechanic is that it forces you to think about how your actions in the present might come back to haunt you in the future. Jump early on in a level, and on your way back through you’ll have to duck under that copied version of yourself. Sheppard calls the evil ninjas “the literal embodiment of your actions in your past — you need to accept them as they are and find a way through them in order to succeed.”
“Maybe making games is like playing N,” says Sheppard. “You need to understand that even with the best plan, you’re probably going to screw up and will need to come up with a different solution right in the thick of it. And sometimes it doesn’t work, and that’s okay. You just have to get right back up and try again, maybe from the other side. Maybe we need to go with our guts and not over-think it, to adapt on the fly, and most of all, to not be afraid of failure.”
I think there’s another lesson to be taken from the ten-year tale of N, N+, and N++: sometimes it’s okay to call something a success, and move on to something new.