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Happiness in Game Development: Obligation
by Jamie Fristrom on 01/05/14 04:21:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


It took me a while to get myself to sit down and write a second real post in this column or series I imagined myself writing on happiness in game development. Of the many things I could write about next, I didn’t know which to pick, for one thing. But I realized there was something else going on there. Now that I’ve said to myself (and on the blog), “I’m going to do this,” it changed. It became an obligation.


I’ve blogged for years and years because it was fun. I’ve never really tried to monetize or to improve my SEO - sometimes I’ll post several times in a week and sometimes I’ll go months without posting anything. I just would get the urge to let some of my thoughts out through the keyboard and make it public.


But now I’ve promised to blog. And this shadow fell over me. When I had some free time, I’d think to myself, I should blog. The stern parent in me nagging the little kid in me. Is it any surprise the little kid in me says, “Screw that, I’m going to read a comic book instead”?


Jesse Schell, in The Art of Game Design, defined ‘fun’ as stuff you do that you don’t have to do. How true that is. When we can’t pull ourselves away from a game, when we say to ourselves “Just one more turn”, there’s often no logical reason for it. We just wanna.


This ties in with studies about intrinsic and extrinsic motivators. We’ve all heard about the study where a bunch of kids were asked to draw - some of them were then paid and others weren’t. The kids who got paid eventually lost interest in drawing, and would only do it for money. You can take something fun and turn it into a chore.


These ideas about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation are obvious and scary at the same time. Obvious because when I’m reading a comic book, I know I’m having fun, I know I’m doing it for the pure intrinsic enjoyment of reading the comic book, because I’m not getting paid, because nobody is nagging me, there’s no reason I have to read the book. What if I was paid to read comic books? Before I quit as creative director on Spider-Man 3 I took it upon myself to read an absolute crapload of Spider-Man comics. That was not fun. 99% of those old silver age Spider-Man comics were crap. Not just because they came from an era when Marvel churned out issue after issue to make money, but also because of my perception - I’m not reading this because it’s good; I’m reading this because I ought to.


And scary because most of those things we game designers like to do to keep people interested in our game, to keep them playing, fall into the ‘extrinsic motivator’ category. The play of Energy Hook is intrinsically motivating - it’s inherently fun to make your avatar swing from a building, sail through the air, spin and flip and run along a wall - but I can’t resist also putting in all the traditional mechanisms for ‘replay value’ - you get points, you unlock levels and powers, there are leaderboards and achievements. The players who start playing for those other motivators are no longer playing just for fun. Hopefully it won't ruin the game for them, but the possibility scares the crap out of me.


It’s also scary for our careers. When we were kids we made videogames for fun. Writing those early computer programs or building something with Arcade Machine or Pinball Construction Kit, making a new level or mod for a game we liked - we did that for the pure joy of creating and building. We didn’t expect to get paid. When we started getting paid the bit got flipped. Now we’re obliged to do it. Now it can be hard to sit down at the computer and fix the next bug. I watch my daughter, who couldn’t wait to sit down at her computer and work on her RPGMaker game some more, and wish I could get back to that place where making a game is just pure intrinsic joy.


So. That’s one of the reasons it’s hard to stay happy as a game developer. I’ll share some of the things I do to fight this tendency (I did manage to finally sit down and write this article, after all) in the next post.


Until then - what do you do about it? How do you get back to that place where making a game is fun, even when it’s your job?

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Ian Richard
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Honestly, the best advice I can give for being happy is to step away from it occasionally. Take some time off to read a book, watch some movies, take a class and play some games purely for enjoyment. Heck... I take some time every week for small personal development projects just to explore new things.

When you devote everything you have to a project without any regard for your health or sanity... it becomes nearly impossible to "see the fun" in what we are doing. We develop a tunnel vision of "This needs to be done" rather than "Holy crap, look what I just did!".

Admittedly, I'm not sure how much any of this means to professional dev's because I'm no longer part of the core industry. That said, these day's I accomplish exponentially more in a fraction of the time.

Igor Queiroz
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Hi Jamie, thanks to this awesome and entertaining reading. I am an eternal enthusiast of the art of game development, and it was a pleasure to see that even doing what you love, sometimes it could get boring. I am a programmer, but never worked as a game programmer, and to tell the truth, I never wished to work in that area of game industry. First because I no longer have that spark of joy in making code that I did have years before, and second because I see myself much more as a Game Designer than just a programmer.

Anyway, I just wish you luck in finding always joy in making games, for that I'm pretty sure that the best games are made with high levels of enthusiasm. :D

ps: Sorry for the poor grammar, I'm a brazilian and still have lots to learn about the english language.

Dan Porter
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I find it helps to not do it 24/7, because work problems tend to follow you home. When that happens, it no longer feels like something fun you can pick up and put down; it becomes an albatross to bear. I find the best way to clear the air is to pick up other creative hobbies like art, music, writing, etc.

When I get into a game design funk, doing those things helps me un-funk my creative juices. By focusing on other challenges, your brain can let go of the work problems for a few hours. Then the next day you pick them up fresh again, and it doesn't feel like you carried them home with you.

Andy Gainey
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The difference between intrinsic and extrinsic rewards reminded me of post-purchase rationalization: Paying for something biases people toward feeling justified in the purchase; surely there must have been a reason for paying!

When the reason is obvious, as with extrinsic rewards, especially financial compensation, then the mind doesn't have to get creative with its justification. But perhaps intrinsic rewards get some assistance from this psychological phenomenon, because the mind has to be more inventive to justify the costly decision. (For games, the cost is generally time and mental investment.) Maybe this even contributes to the fact that "fun" and related feelings are so hard to define: They might not entirely make logical sense, but are to a degree the mind's way of tricking you into thinking something was worth it.

If any of this is relevant, then perhaps some of the fun can be returned to obligation by temporarily managing to forget the obligation. Not that that's an easy task. Getting in a flow state seems to be a good way to accomplish that, if achievable. Or if the extrinsic rewards are perceived as optional (e.g., if one is getting paid, but that person is already financially secure), that probably helps temporarily mask the rewards and make the brain subconsciously color one's perception of motivation.

Perhaps we should just be very careful to avoid the habit of dwelling on our extrinsic motivators. For example, budgeting carefully is important, no doubt. But if we can keep our budgeting confined to the few hours a week or month where we focus on it, and successfully block in from our thoughts at other times, it might avoid the problem where we're perpetually aware of our obligation to make and sell a product.

John Byrd
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I believe Mark Twain beat Jesse Schell to that definition by about 120 years. "Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do. Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do."

Ara Shirinian
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Ironically, when I don't 'feel like' doing some enterprise that the more executive part of my brain decides is important for me to do, I will get into 'social contracts' with people, and that seems to motivate me, first extrinsically, but then often intrinsically after I get into a groove about it.

In other words, I talk to people about what I want to do or am doing and with enough of this I feel like people are counting on me to accomplish the things I say I will, and I find my chances of success usually relate to how strongly I am socially contracting with others about it.

So I am basically artifically creating obligations, and it works, but maybe there is something bad about this process since it is in a way creating negative stressors instead of it just arising from sheer joy of wanting to do it. On the other hand, since I'm also aware that I'm creating my own obligations (instead of the obligation coming 100% externally), maybe that is enough to extinguish the 'you have to do it only because you are obliged' factor.

Joseph Caddell
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I agree with most of these comments. How I manage is just to pick up a game and play for a while, play my guitar, and practice a little piano. I used to be happy experimenting with new things but now I see it as an obligation to do so, because the industry is constantly changing and I need to compete to get a new job. That makes it less interesting.

I try to think of it, well I want to do this awesome piece for fun but I'm limited in certain areas in my abilities. Like i'm unsure how to make this material or Shader, or I can't get this amount of mood in lighting. That seems to help steer away the obligation and learning new things for pure joy and exploration.

Hadar Silverman
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when I design architecture for fun, i can use sky hooks ( you know, those magical chains that support our buildings from the sky), but when i design buildings for my job, economy comes into play, so my buildings actually have to abide by the laws of physics, politics matter, and time is money. as a hobbyist game developer, i'm not really bound to economy, and thus game development is always pretty fun. when i want to actually commit to an idea and finish a game, it becomes a bit of a chore at times thanks to our old friend economy.

ironically (or coincidentally) enough, i learned the meaning of economy in game development while testing Spiderman 2. i changed night-shift roles from a tester to a database manager and watched this game evolve by reading bugs rather than extensive game-play testing (i loved the mechanics in this game by the way - cheers to you and your team). the database work taught me that behind every mechanic or asset developed for a game, there is a cost implication weighed against that mystic world of 'commercial viability' or 'market expectations'.

once we strip away that layer of reality called economy and expectation, creative freedom has full reign - but it's harder to put food on the table.

Justin Henry
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I find it interesting that one of the biggest fears of game designers is extrinsic motivation. I always believed indie developers didn't have to worry about appealing to the common denominator and more about a fun game. I always assumed the biggest cause of stress and sadness would be the large work load and the worry of a failed product.