On Motivation

I've been thinking a lot recently about motivation. Specifically, what was my motivation for wanting to get into the game industry? What was it that drew me towards it despite horror stories of crunch, burnout, and under-appreciation? I decided to get into the game industry despite all of that, but why?

I know for many, the answer is simple: they love games. Others love the community of game developers.

I got into the game industry for a different reason. Sure I loved games. Sure I loved the community of game developers, but I wanted more.

In his recent retirement letter, J Allard talks about his initial decision to work at Microsoft:

During every interview, I'd challenge, "'A computer on every desk and in every home' is quaint, but why stop there?" and the typical response would be along the lines of, "That's just our ante." I liked that... +1 Microsoft.

I couldn't believe it, but it was impossible to dismiss the similarity and authenticity I felt in every conversation. On the flight home, I contemplated these discussions, the passion and IQ of the people I had encountered and their invitation to create my own space to drive a bigger agenda alongside them. It clicked. The "computer on every desk..." rhetoric was a ruse, the real purpose and ambition of these people was much, much broader:

"Make the world a better place through technology."

Like every idealistic college hire, this was the unicorn I was looking for. I wanted to do something bigger than me – "change the world!" – with a bunch of people who respected and could augment my superpowers. I had visited the Justice League of Geeks and they had invited me in and had shown me the secret handshake.

When I wanted to join the game industry, I had a similar thought process. I wanted to make the world a better place through games. That bears repeating.

I wanted to make the world a better place through games.

I think my problem now is that I was also very specific on how I wanted to do this. Certainly, there are ways to make the world better through educational games, games for health, or so called "serious games," but this wasn't particularly what I was thinking.

Growing up enjoying adventure games (specifically Sierra adventure games, many of which had more serious tones than other games in the genre) as well as many really good books, I wanted to see games reach a level of literary expression that rivaled our best works of literature. I wanted to see games deal with more mature themes, not in terms of sex and violence, but in terms of how we, as people, interact. I wanted games to take a hard look at subjects like ethics, racism, political freedoms, war, peace, trust, and betrayal among others. I felt games were in a unique place to do this because, if they allowed you to make hard decisions and see the impacts of those decisions, the lessons would necessarily be more poignant. And I believed it was all possible through story, given enough talent and enough thought.

Interestingly, for my first 7 years of GDC, every GDC only made me more convinced that this was possible, and that there were others out there thinking the same things. I would leave every year more invigorated at the possibilities of our medium, and that it was only a matter of time before we started seeing really good literary quality games.

2010 was year 8, and I came out of it a little less hopeful, for a few reasons.

First, I've realized GDC is a self-selecting group of individuals who want to discuss the "hard problems" of making games. These are the types of people that, even if they don't want the same things I do from games, they do want to discuss it. They are excited by the possibilities, even if they don't believe it to be interesting or possible. And with that said, there were fewer people talking about the hard problems this year. It's hard to explain, but GDC this year (for me at least) felt like the industry had exhaled, so to speak. Some of the spark was gone.

Second, I haven't seen games moving toward that direction in a long time. Investigations into actual ethics in games, and real consequential action I think hit its peek with Ultima 4, and with the exception of a few bright spots here and there (Ultima 6, Deus Ex), it hasn't resurfaced. And I feel both the game industry and the gaming culture moving away from such games.

Third, even if I was able to write such a game, I don't think the audience is there for it. Not enough people would buy the game for anyone to justify the effort needed to make it happen. Such a game doesn't work as a small, simple game, or in bite-size chunks. It's an undertaking that seems to provide very little reward. Generally, I think this is true for culture across the board, not just for games. Our media consumption is leaning towards pop-fiction in all forms. Don't-make-me-think media, or (more likely) tell-me-what-to-think media.

Lastly, even if the market were there, I cannot point to a company who shares this ideal. I can point to people (some indie developers, some of the art game crowd, some IF writers), but no groups. There are no Microsoft's. Even Microsoft isn't Microsoft anymore, in the game industry or out of the game industry.

I wanted to make the world a better place through games.

So my question is, given that I've found that my original motivation for entering the industry fading, how do I keep myself motivated? I don't want to leave the industry, but without this initial motivating factor being made manifest….. perhaps there are better ways to make the world a better place? Through technology? Through other ways?

I know this whole blog post sounds ridiculously whiney and / or pompous. And I'd like to be clear that I'm not leaving the industry any time soon, but I still feel my old motivations hanging over me. Maybe I'm getting older, and getting excited over little steps isn't cutting it for me anymore. Now, I'm sure someone can point out games or movements that I'm missing, but from where I'm sitting, I feel like real innovation and evolution, especially in the story department of games, is hard to come by, which is making it hard for me to see a place where I'd be comfortable. Maybe I'm just wearing blinders and ignoring signs that this is taking place? Here's hoping.

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4 Responses to On Motivation

  1. Dave Weinstein says:

    Look for something that excites, interests, and challenges you. If it’s still games, have fun. If it isn’t, go do that.

    Life is too short to be trapped be decade-old decisions.

  2. Dave Weinstein says:

    By even. No edit feature, bah!

  3. I totally agree with you on the culture of the game industry right now. That sort of gentrification is getting thicker and tougher with bigger hardware pipelines to fill. People keep churning out Unreal engine junk that hardly motivates and challenges anyone.

    It’s been great to see some exceptional products and companies break the mold like Valve’s Portal or Doublefine’s Brutal Legend but I feel like it’s getting more and more rare.

    I’ve taken some things to heart lately. Granted they’re both anecdotal, but they really resonated with me. The first is Google scheduling time for employees to work on “personal” projects, and the second is an old blog post from Joel Spolsky on his cross-country bike ride sabbatical.

    There were quite a few talks at TED (and others) that talked about how working for money or rewards often stifles creative discovery and work (e.g. the candle and box of tacks study). Maybe it’s time to take up a project on the side?

    I keep a analog sketchbook of all the game ideas I have. I try to at least crack the cover once and week and scribble down something. Anything really. The idea is not to censor anything. Just the exercise is extremely cathartic.

    (Been following for a while, thanks for the quality posts)

  4. Chris March says:

    Some GDC presenters might represent a vocal minority that wants to push the boundaries of games. Isn’t a vocal minority enough? I wouldn’t count on big budget titles, which by necessity must be widely appealing, to push people out of their passive media consumption comfort zones. Why can’t a smaller scope title give players the ethical decisions you find interesting? I can imagine a number of themes from life that a smaller title could focus on to create highly charged situations and dilemmas.

    The epic ethics game you’ve been waiting for may not appear in the next few years. That sounds like fantastic motivation to form a small team, and distill what you are looking for into an elegantly scoped game. I know there is a hunger, that has grown over the last few years, for games that push us to feel something, at least out there among developers and players of independent games.