RIP Mismatch – The Fear of Being Unoriginal
Back in 2009, when I was still at Media Molecule, I started putting an eye towards mobile games. Each day on my train ride to and from Guildford, I’d work on a codebase that Luke and I had thrown together. The codebase was called FTG which either stood for Free Time Games or Fuck That Guy depending our our mood towards the world at any given point in time. We were writing random code for random experiments–mostly poker related experiments. Somewhere in that code graveyards is probably still a ridiculously fast poker hand simulator. Anyway, at some point, I started working on a game I called Mismatch. At first it was for PC and Mac (since I used a PC and Luke used a Mac), but was soon primarily developed for my iOS.
I still have fond memories of the birth of Mismatch. I’d had moved to London a little over than 2 years before and was living in Lewisham. When I moved from LA, all anyone ever said to me was that I should prepare for the extreme cold, which I had yet to experience. However, this morning, when I woke stepped outside of my flat, there was a layer of snow a foot thick on the floor. Having lived in LA all my life, that was a lot of snow. Obviously by any reasonable standard, it was a light sprinkling. Anyway, by London transport standards, it was a catastrophe. All trains were heavily delayed or cancelled and I had an hour and a half journey on a good day. Being the workaholic that I was, though, I really couldn’t fathom what I would do if I didn’t go to work. So I set off on my journey and got stranded at Canary Wharf when my girlfriend called me to say Siobhan had emailed everyone to say stay home. I went back home and was at a loss for what to do. Without a PS3 devkit, I was pretty much useless to Media Molecule. I decided to play SET with my girlfriend and watch news about the snow–such an exciting live I lead. It wasn’t long before something struck me. SET (http://http://setgame.com/) would make an amazing rule set for a puzzle game. Match 3 games were all the rage at the time and I thought why not make a MIS-match 3 game. So that day, in about 4 hours, I coded up the first version of Mismatch.
It was a push-pull puzzle game inspired by SET and Money Puzzle Exchanger where you tried to rearrange the board such that 3 tiles in a row were either all the same or all different for each attribute (color and shape) like the rules in SET. In the end the SET rules were an interesting differentiator, but as I knew from playing SET with many different people, some people are just magic at it (Jake Sones) and some people constantly need it explained to them why something is not a set. The part that I got really obsessed with was the push-pull mechanic. I worked in an arcade called Nickel! Nickel! for the last two years of high school and my favorite game by far was Money Puzzle Exchanger on the Neo Geo machine. I was so used to the dropping tiles of Tetris or the swapping tiles of Bejeweled that push-pull felt like a magical balance between the two. Dropping tiles makes making major changes easy but leaves you at the whim of the random number generator while swapping tiles makes the board feel like a set of tools but makes it near difficult to make any substantial change. Push-pull is an amazing mechanic because it leverages the board as a tool set, but still enables fast and massive changes.
I kept plugging along on Mismatch for my 34 minute train journeys from Waterloo to Guildford and from Guildford to Waterloo every day and worked on polishing mechanics, adding combos, improving the touch controls, and so on and so forth, until one day, when I just stopped working on it to never touch the code again. This isn’t an uncommon occurrence. We didn’t finish any of our poker experiments. Side projects get dropped all the time. Something new and shiny comes up or live gets in the way. It’s just how it goes with doing things in your spare time (or even sometimes in your professional life). However, there was a very particular reason that I stopped working on Mismatch and I don’t know if this happens to everyone or if it just happens to me all the time. The reason was Critter Crunch by Capybara. I saw a trailer for Critter Crunch on PSN and my jaw dropped. It was absolutely gorgeous and playful and all sorts of other wonderful things. When I obsessively searched the internet for anything I could find about Biggs and friends, I discovered that there was an iOS version that had come out many moons ago. I download it immediately and was blown away. It played just as amazingly as it looked, if not better. I felt like I wasn’t ever going to make Mismatch anything that could ever compare to Critter Crunch. I’d be serving the world better if I just released what I had, but when you tapped the start button a message would pop up saying, “If you thought you were going to like this, you should go buy Critter Crunch.”
This happens to me all the time. I was really excited about making a reverse tower defense game until I played Anomaly. It even happens to me when I’m considering blogging something or even just tweeting something. I think to myself, “Do I know enough about the subject matter to produce something that would justify the amount of time it would take someone to read it?” And more often then not, I come back with the answer no. I often see people putting stuff out there and think “Really? Why did you bother?” And then I realize what an idiot I’m being. People bother because those who don’t try never win. Those who just stand on the sidelines and silently judge may be so lucky to earn themselves delusions of superiority, but at the end of the day, the world is changed by people who do things.
I started writing this blog post because I started playing Hero Academy today. It has a lot of similarities with the game I’m currently working on. I know it’s not the first and I know it won’t be the last, but it’s the one that that made me wonder if I could make something worthy of competing. I refuse to walk away from it this time, though. If you run into me and I’m no longer working on a multiplayer turn-based strategy game, it better be because I made it and it was terrible rather than I gave up because I played something I oughtn’t bother. That’s the whole point of working in a creative industry. We are here because we don’t want to be doing the same thing every day. We want to be constantly challenged and inspired.
Obviously, creative integrity is extremely important to me–too much so in fact. We live in a world where some people don’t think twice before brutally and shamelessly cloning the last big thing. And while it’s frustrating to operate along side such creatively and morally bankrupt people, we cannot throw the baby out with the bathwater. We can’t let our fear of being unoriginal prevent us from moving forward. We’ve got to point a keen eye forward without being ashamed of where we’ve come from. We cannot underestimate the power of iteration and incremental progress. We cannot ignore the value of something new no matter how much baggage it comes along with. If everyone was afraid of taking the smaller steps, we never would have made it from Pong to Pac-Man, Mario to Metroid, or Sam & Max to Sworcery.