Twitter has its moments. It can be a cacophonous smorgasbord, even at the best of times, but recently there was the hashtag #ims211, which started with a basic request:
On the surface, it was a joyful moment of gamedev camaraderie, with developers from all over the globe chiming in to say hi to a class of hopeful students. But below the surface, it was a challenge: if you could convey one message, one ideal, to a young, hopeful game developer, what would it be? If you could go back, what would you say to your younger self?
My answer is simple: Don’t Break the Chain.
I write this blog, I work on side projects, I go for afternoon runs, I read steampunk novels, I play and research new games, I watch (a shameful amount of) horror films, I maintain a full-time job as a game designer, and sometimes, though I often fail, I try to have a life. But look, I’m just as lethargic as the next guy. For the majority of my young, teen, and adult life I considered activities — ones not involving a game pad — as things to be put off. Everything was, to put it best, meh.
Though I love my job, I don’t love getting up, and to say otherwise would be a lie. Additionally, at the end of the day, I’m mentally exhausted, and though I love writing, all I want to do is stick my head in the comforting sand that is network television and turn off my brain. Maybe this sounds familiar.
Yet here I am: writing this thing, continuing some side project, and researching some new game. I do it, frankly, because I must. It has gone beyond the point of wants and desires. Every day I work on a side project, or every time I work on my writing, is a day that I mark on the calendar, and as the days pass it begins to form a link — one successful day to the next — in a long line back to when I started. I have gamed my own life, and I did it through our old friend and enemy: Escalating Commitment.
It works. That’s the scary thing about human psychology. Even when you know it exists, even when you think your knowledge makes you immune, it still works. Escalating Commitment (sometimes called Sunk Cost Fallacy) is, in short terms, the effect that once you have put time or money into something, you are strongly inclined to keep doing so, even if it is a bad investment.
Don’t believe that it exists? Check out a little test call the Dollar Auction. It sounds so dumb, but it works. In this context it makes Escalating Commitment seem like a bad thing, and most times that’s true. But, it can be turned to good, and I came across a perfect example in the latest Runner’s World. The man who wanted to run every day for an entire year.
Like a marathon, the task seemed too Herculean when contemplated in its entirety. If I was to succeed, I needed to change my mind-set. Just get through these first seven days. I put away my mileage log with its sheaf of blank pages waiting to be filled. Make it simple, I told myself. Roll out of bed. Don’t think. Just keep moving.
As year-end approached, I imagined what it would feel like to wake up and do nothing. Just the thought made me edgy. I’d worked so hard to build this streak, and now I was going to tear it asunder for a few hours in the sack? On New Year’s Day 2010, i was out the door by 9am.
Cohen, Adam Buckley. “The Streaker.” Runner’s World May 2011: 62.
Notice both his apprehension to begin and his reluctance to quit. He has committed so much time into running, that he cannot bear the thought of quitting. In our case, possibly, you lack a clear end point, so how do we focus? How can we drive home what was accomplished (and spent) in order to push us to keep going?
Don’t Break The Chain
This advice, believe it or not, comes from Jerry Seinfeld. (What’s the deal with game design? Har har). When asked how to become a great comic he said that the trick is to write better jokes, and the way to write better jokes is to write every day. Now, you can literally replace the word comic with designer, write with design, and jokes with game, and this is damn solid advice that stands on its own. But that’s not all! He goes on to say more. You can read the full article here, but I shall quote the juicy bit.
He told me to get a big wall calendar that has a whole year on one page and hang it on a prominent wall. The next step was to get a big red magic marker.
He said for each day that I do my task of writing, I get to put a big red X over that day. “After a few days you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain.”
“Don’t break the chain,” he said again for emphasis.
Oh to have read this advice years ago. It’s simple, it’s clean, and it’s effective. This is brilliant advice, and I make good use of it. Such as this Calendar I keep on my wall (sorry no giant Red X’s):
I started a new project in March, and you can see the chain growing slowly but surely. (The circles are days I go running, because I’m a lazy bum). But you don’t always need a calendar to make use of Escalating Commitment. I also make use of it in other ways. When I was working on my Game A Week challenge, I created and named a folder for each week (ex:2009-1-5), and I filled it with all of my notes. It was the eventual sight of so many folders, all in sequential order, that pushed me to keep designing. So it works, but why do we care? Why is it so important to not only make time for side projects, but also to follow through on them?
“While They Were Sleepin, I Was Creepin”
Let’s review the harsh truth about game development. This is a demand heavy and supply constrained marketplace. There are more people that want to work in the game industry than there are positions available. Them’s the brakes. And with every day, especially with video game curriculums becoming not only more popular, but also more valid, it is only going to get worse. This means standing out. This means going beyond. This means working on that side project even though you are tired of looking at it. This means taking an idea to completion. This means being someone who executes.
Game development is not about having ideas. No one gives two shits about your cool game. What they want to see is very simple, and it has nothing to do with ideas. They want to see you finish things. They want to see that you can stick it out when it’s 2am and your lead is breathing down your neck. They want to see that you are hungry.
It is not enough to simply be someone who went to school, did what was asked, and got good grades. It’s not. Look, I know it’s tough. It sucks unbelievable amounts of suck, and you repeat the following mantra to yourself, “I’m too busy right now, but after ____ I’ll have the time to tackle this side project…”
This. Is. Bullshit. I designed one game every week for an entire year, and I did it during one of the most god awful crunches I have ever experienced. They weren’t always great games, and lord knows they were not fleshed out, but I didn’t FIND the time I MADE the time to follow through. There is never going to be that magical free time. Deal with it.
Let me close with a short story. A friend at RAD once told me that when he got the art test to work there he worked hard, with little sleep, for several days. He worked every hour of every day, and when I asked, “Dude, that’s crazy, where did you find the energy?” He responded with the following:
“While they were sleepin, I was creepin. No one was going to take this job from me.”
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is your competition. Not the man who simply tries or does his best, but the man who creeps; slowly, steadily, and ever forward — incessantly. His long chain of successes stretched far behind him…