I’ve known Zac Pierce casually for a few years now, and I gotta say, I really like the guy. I can’t say we’re friends, because we don’t hang out and do things together, and I don’t really know him all that well. But I do have an impression of him that’s been forming over the past several years since I met him, and it’s been consistent and continually reinforced every step of the way.
We first met at a meetup of the Cleveland Game Developers, and I remember him demoing an early version of his game Bombfest, now released. Even several years ahead of its eventual release, the game was really fun, and showed a ton of promise. The animation and motion were smooth and felt very, very good. The gameplay was a lot of fun, and the graphics were splendid and cute.
The game was like playing with action figures and toys that had come to life and had the ability to hurl bombs at one another. It was something like Bomberman meets Dodgeball, with realistic physics, destructible terrain, and these sweet little digital models of toy building blocks and figurines, the sort you might have played with when you were maybe 4 or 5 years old. The goal to be the last man made it an outstanding multiplayer game, and I could tell that this game would be great at parties.
Zac delivered a talk at GDEX 2019 entitled Failing to Succeed, which was a look back at four years of developing Bombfest, which he had come to regard a failure.
I’ve never enjoyed a talk so well that I disagreed with so much. Zac is a great storyteller, and he shared his story, turning it into a masochistic confessional where he beat himself up for all the things that went wrong over the course of four years that he spent pouring his heart and soul into bringing Bombfest into the world. It was entertaining, funny, and full of valuable insights. But damn if it wasn’t hard to watch a young guy who I’ve come to admire shit-talk his accomplishments so thoroughly, just because the sales performance was underwhelming.
For certain, Zac didn’t do everything perfectly. And if a few things had been different, maybe he’d have been rewarded for his hard work more like what he deserved. But I don’t think of his story as one of failure. The Making of Bombfest story had far more success in it than failure, and far more than he gave himself credit for.
Bottom line, the game didn’t end up the hit that it deserved to be, and didn’t make him all the money he hoped it would, or needed it to. And bottom line realities are important, and they are harsh. But, despite commercial success eluding him so far, Bombfest was and is a great game, and the fact is that Zac Pierce is destined for greatness.
He’s questioning it right now, and it’s only natural, when you work as hard as he did at something for as long as he did, and it doesn’t accomplish what you hoped it would, of course you question it.
But I’m certain. While I listened to Zac tear himself down for 45 minutes, I heard him rattle off success after success, and immediately dismiss each one.
- He succeeded at educating and training himself in the skills and tools of game creation.
- He succeeded at coming up with a really fun game prototype with excellent core mechanics and a very polished visual style.
- He succeeded at raising funds to continue development through Kickstarter.
- He succeeded at completing the project and released the game.
- He made a lot of mistakes along the way… and he learned from all of them.
- He succeeded not in just releasing the game, but getting it published and ported to the Nintendo Switch.
- He did all of this during a period the industry has come to call Indiepocalypse, when even established independent game development studios struggled and went out of business and even bigger studios had a hard time staying afloat. And he did it with his first real project.
Zac Pierce put a game on the Nintendo Switch in his first at bat. Who else can say that, but Zac Fucking Pierce?
Zac, each morning when you wake up, you ought to go to the bathroom, splash some cold water on your face, look at yourself in the mirror, and loudly proclaim:
The bad news, sales were disappointing.
OK, so there’s that. So despite all the litany of success, that makes Bombfest a failure? I don’t think so.
The sales didn’t meet expectations. But the game is good. Of course sales do matter. You can’t put your life into something for four years and not have it pay off, and feel great about it.
But that’s a shame, because there’s so much about the Bombfest story that Zac deserves to feel great about.
Whether he finds success and fortune in game development or in some other area, he has a bright future, thanks to his talents as a programmer, designer, and artist, his vision, and his energy.
The fact is, the biz is brutal. Indies have it harder than anyone. And there’s a glut of product. You can do everything, or nearly everything, right, and still not end up with a hit game. For his first time out, Zac Pierce did way better with his project than a lot of people do. Maybe he didn’t succeed at the biz side of bringing Bombfest to market, but he absolutely nailed the design and development of the game, and demonstrated dedication to a project that went on for four years.
Bombfest has made Zac about $30,000 so far. It needed to be more. $60,000… $100,000… $300,000… what level of revenue would be enough to tell you that you’ve made it? Enough to be on par with an entry level salary in some “real world” job that you could have taken instead of choosing to challenge yourself? Enough to put you on firm footing to produce your next project the way you want it to be without having to worry about whether it’s a hit or not? Enough to never need to work again unless you want to?
Really, people have strange ideas of what success is, what it means, and what looks like. We think of success as someone standing in a spotlight in a packed arena playing a guitar solo and then going home to a mansion and swimming in money. We think of success as something that happens suddenly, overnight, with little apparent effort, because “when you’re good, it just comes naturally.” We think that way because we don’t see successful people being successful until their success has been at work for so long that it has made them famous enough for us to be unable to fail to notice them.
But success looks a lot different from the inside. What it looks like, most of the time, is a lot like Zac Pierce’s talk on Failing to Succeed: a long story, with hard work, struggle, mistakes, goals met, challenges overcome, and a continuing battle with crippling self doubt and anxiety.
There’s two ways to read that title, as Zac pointed out himself: One, “failing to succeed” meaning literally that success was something did not happen. The other, “failing [in order to] succeed” — the things one must do on the path to success, in order to figure it out and get there. It’s pretty clear that Zac’s story is true in both senses. But in the long run, the second meaning will eclipse the first.