Sam is a co-founder of Butterscotch Shenanigans, the studio behind upcoming crafting RPG Crashlands
Great game design intersects meaningfully with how to live a good life, and how to handle adversity. In this short talk I outline the core idea of Process, the art of breaking things down into manageable pieces, and how its execution in games can be grafted onto one's life to help gain control and solve any problem. If you're needing some motivation or inspiration for getting things done, check it out.
In the case that you prefer reading over listening, here's the transcribed draft that I practiced with. Note that it's a bit different from the actual presentation, but the idea is roughly the same.
My name is Sam and I make video games for a living.
I cannot touch my toes. My handwriting remains frozen somewhere between 3rd and 4th grade, and I still regularly burn my breakfast pancakes.
I’ve failed at everything I’ve ever found success in, including game development. The first game I launched commercially took half of the bank account with it and never gave it back.
In observing all the things I’ve failed to accomplish, I’ve noticed that there’s a thread between what I do as a game designer and what it takes to actually achieve something. And that thread is
The dictionary definition is simple: a series of actions taken in order to achieve a particular end.
PROCESS let’s you line up tasks like little dominos and knock them over without much effort until finally you reach the last one, the fall of which makes you achieve your end goal. With a properly honed process, completing that final task takes the same amount of effort as did completing the others. A simple, poke.
The core of game design revolves around setting players up with a compelling End Goal, like the destruction of an epic villain, and then carefully breaking down the actions into easy to tick Dominos that get the player from booting up the game to standing delivering the final blow.
Humans love achievement, and that’s what game design manufactures. If it’s constructed well, players get swept up in the process and can’t help but tick those dominos down and stand victorious at the end of it all.
As it turns out, achieving an End Goal is actually a quest to complete dozens, sometimes hundreds of tiny goals. Think of any large achievement you’ve had - landing a job, losing a chunk of weight, or growing an herb garden. That successful outcome was built on a sturdy foundation of mini achievements, like updating a resume, getting a workout buddy, or hitting up home depot for a sack of fertile dirt.
The strange thing is that these End Goals themselves are not completable things. They are the result of doing a thousand tiny things - an outcome atop an iceberg of achievement.
The power of Process and great game design are on grand display in a game called Diablo. Diablo is a hack-n-slash adventure that sends you over three continents and eventually to hell where you confront Diablo, a stand-in for the Devil and the Lord of Terror, and beat his face into the ground.
While players know that their End Goal, their entire purpose in playing through this game, is to kill Diablo, the first task they get is quite mundane. In Diablo the first, and only, thing players can do is is to walk down a path. That’s a domino.
Taking a birds-eye view, the vast majority of the tasks in Diablo share one striking thing in common with that first one.
THEY ARE NEVER ABOUT KILLING DIABLO.
In fact, they’re about killing everything but Diablo. Finally getting to that final boss takes around 5,000 monster kills. Think about each one of those monsters as one domino the player has to poke down.
Now, imagine if, upon booting up this game and entering the world for the first time a single huge objective flashed onto the screen : KILL DIABLO. No matter what you did, where you wandered, this huge End Goal was never properly broken up, never properly processed.
Most people wouldn’t kill Diablo - the process from walking that first path to stabbing the equivalent of the Devil is too unclear. It’s a heavy fog that’s easy to get lost in.
And this is EXACTLY what happens in the real world, because the real world is not intentionally designed. Many people make daring declarations like “I’M GOING TO OWN MY OWN BUSINESS” or “I’M GOING TO BE A GAME DEVELOPER” or, even, “I’M GOING TO EAT FEWER HOT POCKETS.”
But either they do not or cannot define the series of small steps, the Process, by which they can reach those goals. And so the fog, that terrifying cloud that sits between where we are and where we want to be, paralyzes them.
Two Novembers ago I experienced this on a whole ‘nother level. Following weeks of mysterious exhaustion I was diagnosed with Stage 4b Diffuse Large B-Cell Lymphoma. Cancer. For those unfamiliar, there is no Stage 5. There isn’t even a Stage 4c.
The week following my diagnosis, before treatment began, was the most terrifying week of my life. Not because I was adjusting to the news, but because I couldn’t see through the fog. I was standing on the path and the only objective that flashed on my screen was KILL CANCER.
I met with a doctor. She helped cut the fog, to line up the dominos I could poke down. She changed my objective from KILL CANCER to GET LAB WORK DONE. From DON'T DIE to GET FIRST CHEMO.
After four months I received the 8th and final chemo easier than any of the others. And as I walked out of the hospital that night I took hold of the bell stationed in the chemo ward, the one you only get to ring when you complete treatment - and with a final slam I plunged my dagger into the heart of my own cancerous Diablo. As the sound rang out across the empty hospital I gasped at how simple this last task felt. It was just another domino.
There are three games in the Diablo series. Each game requires the player to kill Diablo, and yet, always slippery, the Lord of Terror manages to sneak some shard of his soul into something else. So the cycle goes on.
Unfortunately, the story is the same for me, as much as it is for you. Reaching an End Goal doesn’t mean we’re done. It simply means we get to begin a new process, with a new End Goal in site.
I was rediagnosed in February. Just three weeks ago I finished a stemcell transplant. I’ve got one more transplant, from a donor, in August. And I cannot wait to complete that final drive home from the hospital, to poke that final Domino.
To process something is to break it down into a series of actionable tasks. It’s a simple, powerful idea that can carry you from Earth, to hell, and back again.
What can it do for you?