This article originally appeared on dashjump.com.
Why should anybody care about your game? Ask the seasoned game designer this, and he’ll describe an enticing feature set, an innovative game mechanic or some other combination of reasons why players would be interested.
Playtesting the game in question, you find yourself lost to the point of asking for help. What doesn’t seem clear? he’ll ask. Was the ‘go this way’ arrow not big enough? Were you still fighting in this area and not ready to move on yet? What do you think the game is asking you to do? What are you thinking now?
Understanding motivation is a crucial skill in game design. Without a solid sense of why players act the way they do, you would have no way of creating systems to bring about interactions to meet a desired outcome (aka game design). Yet this skill is almost always outwardly focused – asking “How can we get the player to do X?” – and rarely focused inward.
“Surely there is some reason you are going through all the trouble of trying to design great games.” –Jesse Schell, The Art of Game Design
In Jesse Schell’s seminal book, The Art of Game Design, he emphasizes the need to understand your own motivation in making games.
Until we do this, Schell argues, our conscious and subconscious motivations may be acting independently of each other, leading us down conflicting paths and muddying our games, despite our best efforts to bring to life what we think is our grand, unified vision.
“To make sure you are working toward your one true purpose, ask yourself the only question that matters: why am I doing this?” –Jesse Schell, The Art of Game Design
When I recently finished Schell's book, I turned this question over in my mind, reaching back to when my love of games first formed: as a kid.
I remembered how much I hated the boredom of school, the terror of bullies, and the frustration of not being able to produce anything that the world would value. Games were an antidote of sorts – exploring Hyrule, Shadow Moses and countless other realms, I could contribute something of great value to the world. Boredom was eviscerated. Bullies were nowhere to be found.
Remembering this moment when the value of games became clear made my motivation for making them clear: to ease the pain of existence. And while that may come across as melodramatic (“So why are you making a physics-based puzzler?” “Why, to ease the pain of existence, my good man!”), it remains a personal truth for me.
"Until Junior High School, I was a lonely geeky kid growing up and video games kept me company. Now I'm paying back the favor and keeping other lonely geek kids company." –James Seetal, Playmatics
Your secret reason for making games can be anything – from deep and meaningful to lighthearted and unconventional – as long as it is something that you recognize as being fundamentally accurate about why you have chosen to make game development your life’s work.
“For the fan mail. If I ever build something that generated thousands of fan mail letters, saying I'd helped them, I'd be happy.” –Josh Whitkin
Great – So Who Cares?
So why does this matter? More than just crafting a pithy saying you can put up on a post-it and forget, understanding your reason for making games suddenly grants you an invaluable compass you can use in all of your game (and game career)-related decisions in three dimensions of escalating scale: internal, project and career.
“Game design is one of the most difficult challenges imaginable. It is frustrating, baffling, complex, and the most rewarding thing I have ever done.” –Josh Raab, Wind Catcher Games
Internal Reasons: You’ve answered the question. Great! On the other hand, maybe this was your initial motivation, long ago. Does this still hold true? Is there a stronger, more compelling motivation that’s since surpassed it?
Burnout is pretty common in game development, so if suddenly your reason for being here seems less like a truth and more like a cruel joke, recognizing that this is happening can act as an early warning system. If you find yourself becoming disillusioned, get yourself out of the trenches for a much-needed break before you damage (or ruin) your love of games.
“A. Because I can't see myself doing anything else B. It is the medium that I feel is the most capable of my personal expression. C. Because there are very few people like me and my crew making games.” –Shawn A. Allen, A New Challenger Awaits
Project Reasons: Does your current project align with your motivation for making games? If not, can the project be adjusted to incorporate both its original goal and your personal motivation? If this isn’t possible, it’s critical to realize this and make your next step consciously.
First, stop trying to force the project to be something that it’s not. Next, either wait for the project to end and try again with the next one, or start your own after-hours project that’s more in line with your personal motivation. Of course, if the next project has the same problem, it’s time to evaluate more long-term solutions.
"Freedom - freedom to discover, explore, solve, learn, engage."
–Andrew Grapsas, Sojo Studios
Career Reasons: Is your career on track to fulfilling your personal motivation? If your projects are consistently misaligned with it, perhaps it’s time to go indie? On the other hand, if you’re an indie and you’ve grown apart from your initial motivation, maybe it’s time for something else?
The big question here is: Is your current career trajectory moving you toward fulfilling your motivation – or away from it?
Iterative Soul Searching
Like prototyping and development, your personal motivation is an iterative process. People change and mature as they age; and far from a betrayal of your younger ideals, it’s something to be celebrated and handled with care.
Keeping tabs on your own reasons for doing this crazy thing – you get to make games, for god’s sake! – is paramount to staying enthused, creative, and productive while living a life that fulfills your deepest inner purpose.
Ben Serviss is a freelance game designer working in commercial, social, educational and indie games. Follow him on Twitter at @benserviss.