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Total freedom can mean total failure for anyone starting down the path of becoming an independent developer. This article is an appended recollection of Dylan Fitterer's talk at GDC '09 entitled 'Embracing Constraints' and finding the perfect mix between ambition and scope and what is realistically possible.

Posted by stenchy on Apr 11th, 2009

Sometime during the Independent Games Summit of GDC '09, Audiosurf creator and apparently freshly-minted millionaire Dylan Fitterer gave a talk entitled 'Embracing Constraints'. He discussed how total freedom can mean total failure for anyone starting down the path of being an independent developer. Naturally, this got me thinking about modders, some of the ambitious projects that we see pop up and the overall failure rate for mods. I've compiled some information I've gleaned from Fitterer's talk and added some of my own tidbits to pass on. Both modders and indies alike can benefit by exercising restraint and setting hard limits for their own projects.

Audiosurf didn't come about out because of the blue sky freedom Dylan had. For many years, he spun his wheels trying to make the 'perfect' game. He found himself actually enjoying his contract work more just because there was set parameters around which he had to make his creativity work. Too much freedom was actually suffocating his creativity. After all, if you look back at history's great artists and their works of art, you can see that the restraint of the mediums they used – or imposed on themselves – informed their creativity.

Shakespeare made his plays and sonnets all work within iambic pentameter. Picasso's cubism is all formed with geometric hard angles. Macgyver saves lives with nothing more than a paperclip. Even looking back at childhood toys, you can see how their simplicity spurred creativity. Lego is a great example: whatever you create with them would inevitably be blocky and crude but it was a challenge to find ways around Lego's limits to create what you wanted. The Etch-a-sketch was a crude drawing toy, but then again no one expected anyone to create works of art with it. These constraints, whether imposed or just inherent to the medium, encourage creativity and experimentation. Furthermore, especially in the case of toys, you aren't expected to succeed. No one comes across a bucket of Legos and expects to create art. You play, and in play you are free to fail. There's no pressure on yourself to deliver something great.

So back to Dylan's dilemma; he's having trouble just even starting down the path of building his best game ever. So what does he do? He launches a site and forces himself to build quick, 7-day prototypes to release to the public. He introduces constraints, constraints where he is expected to fail. And in that he stopped thinking about making his ultimate game and just concentrated on pumping out those prototypes every so often. Eventually he made Tune Racer, Audiosurf's predecessor that used your MP3 library to let you ride your music. While it wasn't the most popular game on his site, it was Dylan's favorite game that he wanted to keep playing.

Even in development, introducing new constraints helped shape Audiosurf's design. Since Dylan wasn't an advanced 3d artist, he decided at first to forego any textures or complicated 3d models. What was originally vehicle traffic was substituted out for just simple cubes. Without textures, he had to develop a shader system that was unique enough to not need the use of textures. The final version of Audiosurf does actually use some textures but without constraints he imposed on the game, he may have not arrived at the same look that we see today.

Originally, Audiosurf was developed with 20 different characters to unlock and play with. But by choosing to pare it down to 11 (a number he just picked at random), Dylan ended up combining character attributes and incorporating others as special abilities. This worked even better in the end, serving to strengthen the game and forcing him to cull the bad ideas while exercise his creativity to include all the good ones in some form. Even in choosing achievements, Fitterer admitted to just stealing achievements from other games and making them work for his game. Other times he would just sample the icon art and think up an achievement based on it.

So where have we seen this in mods? Many projects seek to put themselves out there in comparison to retail AAA products, utilizing every facet of technology that engine X can afford them plus more. Many modders are set to make their “best game ever” on their first go, and as a result their project takes a nosedive after a tumultuous development period or proceeds down the long road of development that rivals the incubation period for the fabled Duke Nukem Forever. While some of these projects do see the light of day, the vast majority do not. However, there have been a few mod developers that have had the foresight to introduce constraints in order to not only make life easier for themselves, but to laser-focus their creativity to a few aspects instead of trying to create “the ultimate game”:

The Ball has followed a fairly regular release schedule in step with the succession of phases for the MSU contest. The first two chapters have focused solely on physics-based puzzle interactions and the variety of applications for it. With their upcoming third release, they are just beginning to introduce actual combat. With a simple yet iterative structure and schedule, The Ball is able to focus their attention on the level design and physics-based interactions. The results are nothing short of amazing, taking into account the relatively short turnaround times.

Perfect Stride Continuum limits itself to a game that is all about the economy of movement. Hearkening back to the days of skill jumps and stunt runs in games like Quake and Unreal Tournament, Perfect Stride forces you to be fast and precise in order to maintain momentum and collect all the goodies. Put that together with an 8-bit palette and chiptunes and you have a nice little nostalgic morsel of a mod.

Flipside was a student project put together by Nordic students in 1 month. Considering the unique mechanic behind the mod and the original visual styling, time was a massive constraint that forced these mod developers to cull away everything not essential to the kernel of the mod. The end result speaks for itself and is an amazing achievement for a mod team - student or otherwise.

Minerva and Portal Prelude are both mods that focused on level design at their core. Although they took care in crafting the all other elements to complete the feel of an original story, they used as many props and other resources sourced from their respective games to keep their creative efforts focused on what they wanted to do. In both cases, many of the maps were developed before an actual story tied everything together.

Duke Theft Auto is a standout project to me that hasn't forgotten how creative you can still be with the limits of old tech. Not everything needs to be upgraded with a coat of shiny realistic graphics in order to make it appealing. In this case, the Duke 3D engine seems like a perfect fit for the GTA games of old.

Of course, these are just a few examples and ModDB is full of many others. Yet the amount of dead or dying projects still dwarf those that show any potential. So how many of you are putting together your "ultimate project"? It may be time to introduce some constraints to help you get started and save time.

Post comment Comments
myles Apr 11 2009 says:

Nice article, a lot of developers should really take this into consideration.

+4 votes     reply to comment
DuckSauce Apr 11 2009 says:

Very nice,
maybe this is why FragOut worked better for me then my previous project... it has the constraint of only allowing grenade weaponry(not even mines, melee or anything like that, just grenades!).

+6 votes     reply to comment
SAHChandler Apr 11 2009 replied:

You could always make a grenade that throws punches in all directions.

+2 votes     reply to comment
DuckSauce Apr 12 2009 replied:

that would still be a grenade and a not head on attack :P

+1 vote     reply to comment
SinKing Apr 11 2009 says:

Audiosurf was a smart idea. It usually takes a while to have one of those and you can hardly plan upon having one. However, I do think smart ideas are what mods should be about, because that's the thing commercial games don't have very often

+7 votes     reply to comment
Wiweeyum Apr 12 2009 replied:


+5 votes     reply to comment
Armageddon104 Apr 11 2009 says:

Minerva was epic. And I love this article. I really needed it.

+3 votes     reply to comment
awesomepossum Apr 11 2009 says:

neat article

+5 votes     reply to comment
Maaack Apr 11 2009 says:

I hold the same philosophy with photography. I rely on prime lenses (cannot zoom) and force myself to compose a picture within their constraints. In the end I'm happier with my photos because I don't worry about if I framed it too big or too small by a focal length of a millimeter. I didn't have an option in the matter and the photograph becomes perfect the way it is.

Creating 'the ultimate game' is a hole that I believe many young developers seem to stumble into, especially when they are first introduced to a new language, new tools, or a new engine. Everything seems possible to do, and suddenly everything has to be done. But when the sky is the limit, you are only setting yourself up for a bigger fall. Creativity thrives on restraints and if you can't create something under certain limitations, you'll fair no better when those limitations are removed.

+7 votes     reply to comment
Daystranger Apr 12 2009 says:

Very interesting reading.

+3 votes     reply to comment
blackmodeler Apr 12 2009 says:

i think this article is going to open eyes of some developers. imo, this is an excellent point, on the other hand sometimes there are those, who have such a strong will, and undying courage, combined with skill/talent, by which limitless, is a paradise of creativity and freedom, and they know how to make a good use of it. personally, i love simple ideas. I rather play games unique, simple games, rather then the ones where you can do everything and anything.

Once again this article is great.

+4 votes     reply to comment
∆DeltaStride∆ Apr 12 2009 says:

Very true...

+2 votes     reply to comment
formerlyknownasMrCP Apr 12 2009 says:

I'll admit that I've fallen victim to the 7-day release schedule before. In honesty I'm growing very tired of working at a AAA standard and perhaps I should just stop and go back to what I was doing before and concentrate on my indie studio rather than the countless other projects I'm working on right now. I happen to agree that this is becoming a serious problem and we've got to come up with less picky game designs else we'll keep falling victim to this over and over.

I'm starting to realize that perhaps going indie is a better alternative to what I'm doing now.. the desire to produce my own IP is getting too great to the point where I just want to cancel all of my mods and concentrate on my studio. I don't think I feel enough attachment to my projects but the one my indie studio could easily start with. I think I'm doing this for the wrong reasons right now.. back when I was in the industry it was ok.. but now that its become a serious problem for me, I don't think I can keep doing it anymore.

+2 votes     reply to comment
WhiteBear Apr 12 2009 says:

In My case I always keep my self notebook and pen along so I can write down anything that comes into my mind... When I need Ideas for what ever I just dig my note book and look if there is anything I can refine for the current project. When I am on computer I can write down the stuff in notepad and throw the *.txt file in my quite fat folder called "idea bucket"

+2 votes     reply to comment
The_Commander Apr 12 2009 says:

lol, I didn't even know my mod was in this article untill some one told me. Thanks.

+4 votes     reply to comment
sigvatr Apr 12 2009 says:

This articel is true to the very last word.

+4 votes     reply to comment
Killer_man_1996 Apr 13 2009 replied:


Get the freedom is so hard because you auto-limitate but i think that We without so much experience we can do somethings really epics or awesome...

+1 vote     reply to comment
Nemesisurvivorleon Apr 13 2009 says:

Freedom is hard, limits are easy. Those who lack the greatest of skills need guidelines to save them. Ambitious mods fail because the modders are simply awful at making games then they become professional developers and avoid freedom just because it's hard. Stop giving up on things just because they're hard, the highest skill gives you infinite freedom!

+1 vote     reply to comment
BigBird Apr 14 2009 says:

Great article, really covers a lot of the trials and tribulations of game development in general, but really shines the light on smaller budget indie and mod developments.

+2 votes     reply to comment
zombieOnion Apr 14 2009 says:

This is a very good article.
Made me think.

+2 votes     reply to comment
Rigelblast Apr 14 2009 says:

This is a nice article. It really brings forward the importance of constraints and restraints in development.

+2 votes     reply to comment
Assaultman67 Apr 15 2009 says:

Hmm, makes sense ... alot of creativity is the result of running into problems or obstacles in which you have to get around ... no obstacles = less creativity ...

So people set up self imposed obstacles ...

+2 votes     reply to comment
stonecold23 Apr 17 2009 says:

if you don't have any constraints things instantly get blown out of a workable proportion because you think of a new thing to add every 5 minutes. which you then try and create and suddenly your 3 level map pack for hl2 is now a huge battle against a new alien race with 50 new weapons including outrageous boss fights and a total conversion of the engine to suit your new found needs

+1 vote     reply to comment
frosty-theaussie May 3 2009 says:

duke theft auto is ******* plagiarism

+1 vote     reply to comment
Mythos_Ruler May 11 2009 says:

The theme of this article also applies to other areas of artistic achievement, as noted in the article. Has anyone looked at Peter Jackson's "King Kong" and said to themselves, "Now this is a director with too much freedom"? Same with the Star Wars prequel trilogy and George Lucas. The constraints in the older days of film making *forced* filmmakers to be creative in both effects and storytelling. Today CGI removes all kinds of constraints that filmmakers did not have before, but does this make for better storytelling? Arguably, no, it does not. When directors (and game developers by extension) embrace limitations and work to overcome them, their final product is all the better for it. On the flip side a truly wise developer (or movie director), when given complete creative control and unlimited resources, learns how to use those resources to develop a product that is not overwhelmed by them (obviously a lesson not yet learned by the likes of Peter Jackson and George Lucas).

+1 vote     reply to comment
NessDan May 17 2009 says:

I don't know if this will ever be read but this article inspired me. I've been wasting my days, one by one and I've finally said I'm putting a stop to this. I just posted like a 2-page Facebook note on it but thanks to this article I am going to go for 1 week and stick to creative constraints!

Thank You Dylan Fitterer!

+1 vote     reply to comment
DELTΔ Jun 1 2009 says:

this is a great article and one thing it didn't touch on was that theres no way a modding team can beat a commercial development group for content but we get to use there content which means we can focus on making good story lines and innovation and g-mod is a perfect example of that as at first it was purely HL2 content that evolved by the community adding all of there own content meaning that now if you want a game type model or even ai programmed character its all the some where you just need a few Google searches and it will pop up i seconds

+1 vote     reply to comment
Salsa_Shark Dec 20 2009 says:

Good article, I wish I new about it before I tried making the "ultimate game"

I guess if you can improvise and adapt to the limits of an engine and to the technology available then you can overcome anything, and in the end it will make you stronger.

+1 vote     reply to comment
Foose_knight Jul 8 2010 says:


+1 vote     reply to comment
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