The Developer Who Made 100 Games in Five Years

James Cox wanted a way to find out if he'd be any good at making games, so he came up with a ridiculous challenge.
Image courtesy of James Cox

Five years ago, James Cox discovered the joy of coding. Suddenly, he was able to bring his ideas to life without relying on anyone else, and turned to another passion: games. In less than a year, he’d made 11 games, but like most early creations, they weren’t good. Cox wanted to figure out whether games were a career path, and came up with an ambitious goal, one that sounds ludicrous in retrospect: 100 games in five years.

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“The challenge acted as a litmus test for game development,” he told me recently. “It also was the best idea 2012 me had.”

Ludicrous or not, the James Cox of 2017, a full five years later, has made 100 games. Though a big mountain to climb, there’s a reason Cox made the goal last half a decade.

“There's at least three years of wiggle room to push off projects,” he said.

Landers was his first game, wherein players become the invader in the classic arcade game Space Invaders. It took him a week to put together, and players achieve “victory” if they reach the bottom, avoiding shots along the way. If they pull it off, ensuring a successful invasion of Earth, a memorial is constructed in their memory.

Many of Cox’s games were simple, silly, strange. Another early game, Cat Licker, is exactly what the title describes: “a point racking game where the goal is to lick as many cats as possible before time runs out.” The visuals are crass, the mechanics are slim, but it’s one more game on the pile, one more in the grinding path to 100. (It was game five.)

You can scroll through Cox’s entire library, from 2012 to 2017, on his website.

Cox was inspired by couple of things, including the 10,000 hour rule popularized by pop psychologist Malcolm Gladwell, which proposed anyone could master a field if they invested 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice.” (That “rule” has since been discredited.) He was was also attracted to designers like Cactus, now known for games like Hotline Miami, who engaged in rapid fire development, resulting in extreme highs and lows.

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One of the hardest parts of any creative field, whether it’s game design or anything else, is finding your “voice" There’s no guarantee you’ll even find one, but when aspiring writers ask me for advice on this topic, my response is the same: keep writing.

That’s what Cox did, too.

“If you make games, you need ideas,” he said. “Betting on a single concept is a terrible gamble. Sure, there are a few lucky developers around, but the majority of us making games won't have the golden ticket. You need a slew of concepts to crank out when the time is right.”

Most ideas are bad, but you come up with the bad ones is to find the good ones.

Because of the sheer volume of games Cox was trying to make, and the limited time, energy, and resources of a single person, some were text-based. Ironically, these were often the games that received the most amount of attention from others, such as You Must be 18 or Older to Enter, a game about watching porn for the first time.

Writing for Paste Magazine, game critic Garrett Martin relayed his anxious reaction:

“As the game’s halting text increased the tension of my character’s investigation, and as the muffled sounds of cars and doors regularly signaled the potential return of my digital parents, the fear of being caught became overwhelming. It was one of the most horrifying games I’ve ever played, burning me right back down to the age of 13, trying to wrap my head around just what in the hell was going on with my body and my brain that made me want to search out something so disgusting and so wrong but also so indescribably thrilling.”

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“I try to use text to amplify the experience,” said Cox, “but generally avoid it when I can. In terms of expediency, making games without text is usually faster.”

The early years of Cox’s journey were easier because making games was a hobby in-between his college courses. After graduating, Cox was accepted into the University of Southern California’s game design graduate program, which meant his class time would now be spent making games that had nothing to do with the challenge.

“It was too much,” he said. “For a good year, my productivity just dropped. I was still making games, just extremely slowly and not on track to complete the challenge.”

One of the last games, Hot Cup, is his “least favorite,” even though “my friends always want to play Hot Cup.” Hot Cup is a real world game—or, in his words, a “cooperative boredom folk game”—wherein players alternate hands over a lit candle at a restaurant and work together to make the flame go out.

“Do not play Hot Cup,” he told me.

(It looks fun, and I’ve definitely played a teenage variant that mostly involved one person almost burning their hand..)

The final game in the 100-game challenge was Bundle Kitt, about a strange cat (I think?) wrapped in a blanket who has trouble accomplishing simple tasks. While approaching their food, Bundle Kitt becomes too tired to eat. When Bundle Kitt makes another attempt, Bundle Kitt is still too tired to eat, and falls asleep next to the bowl.

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It’s a suitably weird end to a suitably weird experiment, but one Cox considers a success, even if he doesn’t really recommend others to replicate what he’s done.

“After mulling the journey around,” he said, “letting the 100 game dust settle a bit, I think 20 short games is perfectly fine. An important factor to keep in mind is that this challenge wasn't painful for me. I loved making games and still do. The majority of the challenge was rewarding and enjoyable, so beyond ‘make 20 short games,’ I'd say: find a creative outlet you enjoy and pursue it. Suffering isn't mandatory.”

Follow Patrick on Twitter. If you have a tip or a story idea, drop him an email: patrick.klepek@vice.com.

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