The Motivatron 6000

There exists in game development a question we all see being discussed constantly, that I myself am asked directly fairly often, and whose resolution seems to continually elude us. That question is “How in the name of the Greek god Hades can I stay motivated?” Wording and religious context may differ, but it’s an Alundra-esque conundrum with which nearly all of us struggle. Game development is one of the most involved and protracted creative processes out there. It’s especially daunting for tiny independent devs, who are generally tasked with such a huge amount of work it makes constructing the Death Star seem feasible.

Motivation is a fleeting thing on a good day, and as you might’ve guessed by now, there isn’t really a specific catch-all answer. But there are some methods that work for me, my teammates, and others, and hopefully will for you too.

Keep to-do lists of small goals and track your progress

This is so important and effective that I do it for virtually everything. Not just for game development, but for my other projects, at my day job, for this blog, and even in my personal life. Finished that attacking animation? Cross it off. Finish editing a tough paragraph in your novel? Cross it off. Drop some sick beats? Cross that off too. Take down the 13th Colossus? You bet cross that off.

The trick is to put down a ton of very small goals. Fill a whole page of your notebook or sketchpad with things that aren’t going to take you very long. Don’t put “Create weapon system” because that’s going to take you fucking forever. Put “Sprite short sword icon”, “Sprite short sword”, “Animate quick swing”, “Animate standard swing”, “Create swing effect”, “Create impact sparks”, “Create blood effect”, etc. Every task should take as little as just a few minutes and not more than an hour or two. Cross them off as you go, or like I do, all at once when you’ve got five or six done so you feel awesome and super productive. Then give yourself a pat on the back and go play Diablo III or have a burrito or some sex. Or all three of those things.

Hell, now that I’ve started this article, I get to cross that off my to-do list for today. Getting through it’ll be another pat on the back, and editing/publishing’s a third. Yay, me! Now where’s that sex burrito…

Avoid feature creep

Sometimes a project just gets too massively overwhelming, and even when you do want to work on it, you just don’t know where to start. You might find yourself thinking, “This was supposed to be a mini top-down adventure. When did it turn into Final Fantasy 7?” While feature creep (also scope crawl: continually adding new features to a game until focus is lost and the project is overcomplicated) won’t cause you to lose your motivation directly, it’s one of the biggest reasons youngling developers end up quitting a game. We all want to make sweeping, epic RPGs, but there’s a good reason very few indie developers complete them: they’re sweeping and epic. There’s a limit to what we can realistically do, even if we love to pretend there isn’t. Feature creep often spells doom for projects that were intended to be short and sweet, as we excited devs get carried away adding things because they’d be wicked awesome.

One of the best ways to avoid this problem is to remain focused on having a completed project at all times. If you’re making an action platformer, before attempting to add an intricate weapon upgrade system based on harvesting materials and grinding rare loot drops, try this: simply make a character with one weapon, make one enemy, one level, and one boss. Add a title screen, a game over screen, and a win screen. Now you’ve effectively created a finished product and completed a game. Exciting! Now you can relax, go back, and add two more enemies and another weapon. Then another level and a boss. Maybe now a collectible for a special attack. And so on. If you do eventually get to that overly complicated upgrading system, great! That’s +10 production value points to your masterpiece. But the important thing is that you never lost focus, and broadened the scope of the game only to your ability. Don’t worry, some day down the line you’ll get to do that giant RPG.

Separate your project from your day job

If you’re like most of us, you’ve got bills to pay. And, if you’re like most of us, game dev isn’t quite paying them yet. A particular problem for those with the skill set necessary to create games is that we usually end up trying to use these skills to bring home the bacon. This is especially true for programmers, who, from my experience, nearly always work in IT and software development jobs during the day. When you’re staring at code all day, why in the world would you elect not to drink beer on the couch and watch old Next Generation episodes, but to continue looking at it at home?

Well, easy. Because you want to make games. So there are a few things you can do. If you’re a programmer, try to keep yourself interested by coding in a different language. Try learning a new language just for a new project, and broadening your skill set. Set up problems and challenges for yourself that have nothing to do with the types of tasks you’re assigned at work. One thing David, Wyv and Keep’s programmer, particularly enjoys is taking a break from coding the game and building new tools for us in order to ease development in the future.

If you’re an artist during the day, even creating assets for games, the same process can be applied. If you make high resolution 2D characters for mobile apps, try doing some low res sprite work or 3D modeling for your own project. If you don’t know how to 3D model, make it a goal for yourself to learn. Try experimenting with visual styles that interest you and that you don’t get to try at work. Do something weird, like hand painting your characters in watercolor, or photographing backgrounds and rotoscoping in sepia. The possibilities are endless. You just have to find something that keeps your attention, and more importantly makes you forget about that (probably shitty) day job.

Surround yourself with your favorite games

To get a quick motivational power-up, give yourself some visual and aural inspiration. I grew up in the 90s (or how we 90s kids refer to it, the Golden Age of Gaming), so for me simply hearing the Lost Painting theme or watching a Super Metroid speed run can instantly take me out of a funk and put me in the mood to work. Try throwing on a video of one of your favorites when you’re not in the mood, and a few minutes later you may find yourself opening up Photoshop or your dev tools without even thinking about it. Posters, pictures, and desktops of awesome games can help create an atmosphere promotive of work too, because subconsciously your brain will be thinking things like “that game is so freaking awesome, I want to make something that awesome”.

Work with a self-motivated partner

Not all of us have problems with motivation. There is that one percent, or possibly tiny fraction of one percent, who seem to work tirelessly day and night, never letting personal problems get in the way or lazy stoned RedLetterMedia watching distract them from the task at hand. My friend Beau has always been this way. In our earlier days, while I’d start a project and abandon it weeks later, he was finishing game after game. Now he’s got more than you can count on ten fingers under his belt, while I’m still working on my first hand. Er.. yeah.

Point is, his work ethic has always inspired me. He never yelled at me for being lazy, or pushed me so much that I became irritated and pushed back. He simply did his work, and allowed me to indirectly observe a really self-motivated person. It’s taken me a decade to try to match his work ethic myself, but I’m finally just about there. And now we’re both about to add another finger.

If you notice that someone you work with makes you want to work harder—doesn’t actually push you themselves, but inspires you indirectly—then that could be someone you should keep by your side.

Love your project

This might seem obvious, but it’s something people overlook surprisingly often, and may ultimately be the most important motivator out there.

Love what you’re working on, and have a genuine interest in it. 

Make sure that, whatever your project, it’s something that you have a solid personal investment in. Something that you truly care about. Don’t do a game you’re not sure about just because your friend asked you to, or it’s something that you can help out on because you have free time, or you might make some money out of it. Do it because the idea’s amazing to you. Do a project because you feel that that project is so good that it has to be made.

Don’t half-ass your work. If you’re an artist or animator, take your time and put it the effort to make sure you’re doing your very best. Make sure you love looking at your work. Put an extra hour or three into that walking animation so that you can’t wait just to walk your character around in your world. That goes for programming too. If you’re always forcing yourself to work with your own sloppy code, it’s going to get tiresome. Make sure it’s streamlined and intuitive and impresses you. Make sure your character’s jump is perfect, and looks totally sweet with your animator’s full-assed animation.

If there are things that bug you about your project, fix them now. Don’t procrastinate, and don’t let them go. If you find yourself saying “Meh, good enough”, stop advancing. Instead, put off adding new content until you’re completely happy with what you have. Even the smallest of faults can spell doom for a slippery motivation.

Most importantly, figure out what works for you. These are just a few tips, but there are loads more out there, because it’s a problem everyone has.

After all, the Emperor may have managed to build the Death Star in like 20 years, but he’s hardly indie.


5 thoughts on “The Motivatron 6000

  1. Excellent!

    From my experience I have found invaluable to think ahead on what are the key elements of my game, and have a rough idea on how to develop all of them. If no rough idea rises, I do some small research and conduct some test to see if it’s feasible. If everything goes ok I can be sure that I won’t get stuck half way along the road, which is pretty re-assuring :)

    Saying you’ll ” Think about it later ” on a main feature is a setup for failure. On any other feature it just means you are going to axe it :P

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