What We Learn From Failure

General / 25 February 2019

Hello! My name is Riley Morrissey, and I am a third year at Champlain College studying Game Art & Animation. Games have always been a passion of mine, and I am so humbled and so gracious to be able to go to a school designed to teach me the skills I need and foster creativity as well as excellence. I’ve had an amazing time at Champlain so far, but that has not come without its hardships. In the many successes I’ve had, there has also been failure. A whole LOT of it. Today, I’d like to talk about that failure — what it means to me, what it’s taught me, and how overcoming it has helped shaped me into who I am as an artist.


At my school, we have classes that are called “Game Production”. Production is meant to model production in the gams industry as accurately as possible, and helps students not only improve as individuals but as a team. Communication and teamwork is as crucial in Production as anything else. In the first year they have it, teams are assigned by professors - in the second, you have the option to choose who you work with. I came in to Production 2 with a ragtag group of individuals who all decided to work together while we were abroad - some of them I knew well, some of them acquaintances, and some I had never really spoken to in my life until this year. We started with just five of us — Emmett Friedrichs, a systems and level designer, Karl Lewis, a systems and audio designer, Josh Grazda, a gameplay and systems programmer, and Austin Roorda as our producer & team mom. We were really excited to all be working together! We had a few meetings before the semester to come up with random ideas, and when we got to class we were brighteyed and bushy-tailed and ready to make some killer games.

Or so we thought.




For our class, we were required to present three prototypes over the course of three weeks and then select one to develop further. The game chosen at the end would be presented in front of all of our peers across four classes, and afterwards we would deliberate about which games would go through and continue to be developed and which would get cut. For the first week, we decided to make a squad-based RTS that played sort of like X-COMM but with permadeath like Darkest Dungeon. We weren’t really given a ton of direction about what we’re supposed to really present, or how, and so we made a 2D prototype of the game. I ended up making temporary art assets for... some reason? And didn’t really have any concept art by the end. I decided to do it the way I was used to from Production 1 and everything would be fine.

When we got to class the day the prototype and presentation was due, we presented and it was... not well received. At all. People didn’t really understand what was going on or what the context of the game was, they got confused about our prototype, and overall we just didn’t make a very good impression. Part of that was the way we presented it, part of it was we ourselves didn’t really know what the game was.  Moreover, everyone was so confused and communication was so weird that no one was really excited about the game. 

It was fine - it was only our first prototype and we had two more weeks to make a good game. We were a little bummed that it didn’t seem like anyone was stoked about our game, but it wasn’t the end of the world. We’d try again and try harder next week, and take the feedback we got and not make the same mistakes.




For our second sprint, we all met up after class and talked about what sort of game we wanted to make. We all agreed that the second week would be the best time to take a risk, that way if it didn’t pay off we could do something simpler next week or if it did we would have more time to really flesh it out and think about it. Part of the problem the first week was we had systems and mechanics, but the context for our game wasn’t really there. We needed more story. We came up with a few mechanics and then met the next day to discuss how we could take those and give them more heart and more narrative. Our programmer, Josh, came in with an idea that I thought was absolutely amazing - a couch co-op puzzle game where you  play as siblings who have experienced a traumatic event and are running away from home. As they go, because the siblings are children, they are playing pretend to help cope with their journey - pirates on a ship at sea, robbers in a high speed chase, farmers on a quaint ranch in the fields - and while the puzzles were going it would swap between worlds. The players would start in the pretend worlds, and slowly realize that it’s just children’s imagination and there was something more to the story than originally presented, and have a really powerful, shared experience. It sounded really cool. Like, really, really cool. It was something none of us had ever really seen before. We had a discussion for over an hour about the game, talking about what it was, how it would work, what we wanted to do with it, because while the idea was really cool not everyone was sure it could work. But we thought it was worth a try and seeing what we discovered on the way. I made some pretty cool art for the concepts, and we had some really interesting prototypes to test out different perspectives and art direction. I was really, really excited about it, and I was excited to see what the class thought.

Needless to say, they tore us to pieces.

We didn’t really explain enough of the mechanics for people to really understand what the game was. People picked apart absolutely everything. The game, the prototypes, the context, the font on our presentation slides and what size they were, not one thing about our game was done right it seemed. It was brutal. I’m not stranger to harsh critique, but man... that was something else. It really hit hard. We had a meeting at night and we talked for a bit about how we weren’t gonna let this shake us. We talked about what went wrong, why it went wrong, and how we were gonna do better.




I was reassured a bit after our meeting, but man, making two bad prototypes two weeks in a row really sucked. I was pretty demoralized. We met the day after class to discuss what our final game would be, and how we were going to make absolutely sure we did not have the same reactions our last two games got. We had to knock this one out of the park. Our first two games were (supposed to be) pretty serious - it was time to make something stupid.

Emmett presented us with an idea where you play as a slice of bread, and you jump on ingredients to stack them up and build sandwiches. You play against four other players and whoever has the most points wins. It was very, very simple. And really, really ridiculous. It seemed like a fun idea, and while it didn’t have some big grand story it seemed like something we not only would enjoy working in but people would like. I really threw myself into it this week - I made more concept art of silly looking breads with noodle arms and legs, Emmett, Josh and Karl worked their asses off on the prototype, and Austin put together a bangin’ presentation. I was nervous after our first two blunders that things would pan out the same, but from everything we learned from the first two weeks we knew exactly what not to do, and how to better convey our gameplay and our intent. We finished the sprint with a lot more confidence, but I was still a big apprehensive when class rolled around and it was time to present and by random chance we were going first. I was tense. I didn’t know how people would react. We gave our presentation with a lot of gutso and energy, and then we were at the whim of our peers.

And... people loved it!

They loved the idea behind it and thought it was really fun. They liked the characters, the mechanics, they thought we presented our stuff way better. It was honestly a rush hearing that feedback, not just because it was good, but because it felt like after everything we went through it all paid off in the end. It was an obvious choice in the end what game we were going to keep developing, and we brought it before our classmates and people absolutely adored the game. In the end, our game was one of two in our class that made it through cuts. I’m so proud of the work myself and my teammates did, and I’m really happy we had something amazing to show off!


This entire Production cycle has been a rollercoaster of emotions. I went through a low of growth, and learned a lot, and failed a lot. And that’s okay. It’s so important, and could even be considered crucial to one's learning that we fail as many times as it takes in order to succeed. Failure is something that we are taught to be afraid of, rather than embrace, and yet it is absolutely necessary that we embrace it. In my first sprint, I learned the importance of context for games as well as to throw out prior expectations of what I thought Production 2 would be. In my second sprint, I learned how to take risks, and really put a lot of thought and research into creating a game experience none of us have seen before. I also learned the power of a good presentation, and how important it is that you convey the information your audience needs to know as concisely as possible. All of that was important skills and knowledge that lead to our team having a very successful third and fourth sprint. We wouldn't have gotten to where we were if we didn't fail.

Failure is an important part of both academia and the games industry. If you're not failing, you're either not taking risks or missing out on learning opportunities. When we fail, we know what not to do, or we're inspired to try to solve our problems differently. So you might as well fail spectacularly, and unashamed, and know that you've only truly failed when you let it stop you from achieving your goals.