Trapped between Eye Candy and Motivation

There’s this really big problem when it comes to working on games (or really any sort of project that lies at the intersection of engineering and design). It has nothing to do with programming or design or testing or art or sound or anything else like that.

The problem is staying motivated. This is especially bad when you are working alone, but it can even happen in groups of 2 or 3 people. Beyond that, you can always find motivation in the stuff that other people are doing, because it comes from outside of your personal drive and creativity. But in small groups or solo projects, the game becomes your baby, and then you get tired of your baby.

Sometimes this happens when you work so long on one subset of features that they sort of blur together and become the totality of the project to you. You quickly get tired of this smaller sub-problem (especially tweaking and tweaking and tweaking), then get tired of the game without realizing there is other interesting work to be done.

Or maybe you realize that there is a lot of stuff to do on the project, but you’ve been working on it so long without much visible or marked improvement that you begin to despair. Maybe the project will never flower, you think. Maybe your efforts will never be used to the full extent they were designed for.

Wherever this loss of motivation comes from, there is one piece of advice I heard that really helps me. It boils down to this: if you keep wishing your game was awesome, make it awesome. Add in that feature you keep thinking about, but keep putting off because there is more important framework-laying to do. Or take some time off and mess around with that one technical gimmick (shader, hardware stuff, multi-threading, proc-gen, or what have you). When you feel yourself losing motivation, give yourself permission to go off and get it back. Don’t soldier on, because your project will inevitably end up on the dump heap with all the other projects you abandoned.

The only problem is, everyone (including myself) always says that adding eye-candy and little trinkets to your project prematurely is a Bad Idea. If you make your game cool by adding eye-candy, the wisdom goes, then your game is no longer cool because of the gameplay (you know, the point of a game). Arguments about whether gameplay is important not-withstanding, if adding a few bits of visual indulgence saves your game from succumbing to ennui, then by all means, add the cool things!

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Execution vs Conception

I love having ideas. Ideas are fun, manipulable, infinitely complex or simple. They don’t take any work to think about, expand in breadth and depth. It doesn’t take effort to plan execution. Much like calculus, the manipulation of abstract possibilities is fun and easy. Once it gets to the actual computation and execution, though, the process becomes less fun.

This is why I experiment with so many engines and SDKs, and why I draw and write much more than I model and map. It is enough to know that I have the skills to do (or figure out how to do) what I want to do. If carrying through and actual doing the boring grunt work isn’t fun, why should I do it? That said, having a final product is the most satisfying thing in the world. When an external motivator hits the project, like money or responsibility or grades, I am motivated to work through the grunt work. Then I get to stand on the other side and beam at my beautiful realization of an idea.

Carrying this through to its logical extreme, I feel like the best way to force myself to produce a final product in the real world is to throw myself headfirst into the deep waters. If I make game creation my livelihood (and preferably a few other persons’s too), a final product will emerge in due time. If I keep it as my hobby, my ideas will never get off the ground floor — at most I will get some proof of concepts, or a half-completed level.

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