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Opinion: Everything I know about game development I learned from the '80s

In this reprinted #altdevblogaday opinion piece, Vigil Games' senior designer Mike Birkhead imparts some advice for game developers that he's picked up from '80s action films and their soundtracks.
[In this reprinted #altdevblogaday opinion piece, Vigil Games' senior designer Mike Birkhead imparts some advice for game developers that he's picked up from '80s action films and their soundtracks.] I'm here to tell you that if you ain't down with '80s films, particularly action films, then you ain't down with me. It's as simple as that. Behind the goofy dialogue, sweet-ass roundhouse kicks, mysterious teachers, cruel dojo masters, muscle-bound heroes, and beautiful dames beats the thunderous heart of pure awesome; a heart that will guide you, mold you, and train you — if only you would listen. Thankfully, you have me, and I'm here to impart the great wisdom that I have learned — in between sessions of breaking bricks over my face and climbing trees to karate chop coconuts. Read on and, for maximum effect, do read each section with the accompanying video. Taking a chance, risking it all

[Youtube] Rad – Thunder In Your Heart

A lot of what we do is about taking a chance. We take chances on a feature, take chances on a puzzle, but most of all, we take chances on ourselves. Little known fact: when I first started out as a designer, I thought I was pretty terrible. So terrible, in fact, that at one point during God of War: Chains of Olympus, I took my lead aside and told him that I was thinking of giving it all up. I was going to throw in the towel. I was taking my ball and going home, which for me meant going back to being a programmer – shock! awe! Look: meetings with talented, smart people are incredibly intimidating. Ideas are popping, and when you finally work up the courage to contribute, your ideas can be ripped apart in mere seconds; it's sorta like that scene in Jurassic Park, when they feed the velociraptors. Except, ya know, in a conference room. Don't get discouraged!

Don't lose that feeling Don't ever stop believing There's one more moment of truth and you're gonna face it
No one ever got where they are being 100 percent right all the time, and I am so thankful to my lead for giving me the courage to suck it up, stick it out, and learn from my mistakes. In the end, I realized that they weren't ripping my ideas apart through any kind of malice, but because they respected me enough to teach me the things I needed to know. And I can assure you, once you get that taste of the glory, you won't ever be turning back. You need to have that thunder in your heart. I've worked hard every night and day

[Youtube] Stan Bush – Fight to survive (Bloodsport)


I worked hard every night and day, so I can plan to make my way. Mind and body are the perfect team, now is my chance to live my dream.
If you wanna be the best, then you gotta work hard. What free time I have is spent on tempering myself into the best game designer I can be. I say temper, because that's what it takes: the heat of passion pounded against the anvil of determination. There is so much wisdom out there, and most of it is not trapped inside a game console. But you know what? I've seen a lot of talk about how game design is all about "like, game design is everything man – go and live your life." This bothers me. Here's the thing: I too, at one time, gave advice like this, and while on the surface it seems like good advice, it now rings as fluffy and directionless to me. Directionless, because advice like this doesn't actually point you to anything that really teaches. Put yourself into the shoes of a young game designer. All you want to know is how to be the best that you can be. But is the phrase, "just, live your life man" going to honestly tell you anything of value? It might get you out from behind your controller (a good thing), but it also doesn't point you anywhere. Living life, to me, is less about being on a path to knowledge, and more about being a key to the subconscious. Pick up any book on writing, and you will see advice on how to crack through writers block. These books will almost always include advice about going for a walk; of stepping away from your work, and just letting your mind wander. This is good advice, but it only works when your subconscious is packed full of win. First, before anything, you gotta stuff that mind to the brim with all sorts of great knowledge, so that when you do access the vault of your subconscious, you find it overflowing with a bounty of precious gems.

[Youtube] Willie Hutch – The Glow (The Last Dragon)

My great fear is that designers out there are reading directionless advice like this and feeling that it frees them from the responsibility of doing their research, so let's fix that right now. You need to be reading books on economics, and books on psychology, and books on story writing, and books on cinematography, and books on architecture — oh god, so many books! In order to get the most out of just "living life," you would do well to seriously consider and digest the following books:
  • Design of Everyday Things
  • Universal Principles of Design
  • Elements of Style
  • Paradox of Choice
  • Predictably Irrational
  • Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us
  • Architecture: Form, Space and Order
  • Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games
  • Film Directing Shot by Shot
  • Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting
And hey, don't stop there. I cataloged this list from looking to my left and picking the books that were literally on my desk at work. That doesn't even count the ones I keep at home. You gotta train that brain, if you wanna step into the ring. Because nows your chance to live your dream. The best of the best

[Youtube] Best Of The Best – To YOU I am Coach


You can work. You can sweat. You can train. You can dream, and never be better than good. But when the right people come together at the right moment they can become… the best of the best.
Guess what? Games are made by people. Sometimes a lot of people. In all probability, a shit-ton of people. Even if you have the heart of a lion, and even if you are pushing it to the limit, going the distance, or reaching your upper limit, if you don't support those around you (and they you), then you are never going to be better than good. You must support your team. When something goes wrong — it will — don't let the first words out of your mouth be, "well, that's not my problem." Get lost. The best of the best don't give a shit about whose problem it is, was, or should be. The best of the best stick out that hand and help their buddy back up when his face hits the mat. Every conflict on a game should be resolved in the beefiest, manliest, helping handshake in the history of man kind. Sorta like this, but with more explosions.

[Youtube] Push (Too Many Pencils) to the Limit

A team is not a team if you don't give a damn about one other. When was the last time you went and thanked someone for the work they did? When was the last time you went out of your way to find some extra reference material for that concept artist? When was the last time you put the extra effort into that feature list? You'll be surprised how imparting a modicum of respect to your fellow man will be returned in spades. If you want to be the best of the best, then you gotta work together. Never surrender. Never say die.

[Youtube] Kickboxer – Never Surrender

Making games is hard stuff, but if '80s films have taught me anything, it's that if you want to beat up that 8-foot tall guy who kicks like a mule, then you can't give up. And before you even say it, I'm not even talking about Crunch. As much as I love making games for a living, the daily grind of looking and thinking about the same problems day in and day out is not as pleasant as it seems. It's draining. It's frustrating. And something that I continually struggle with is the amount of effort it takes to bring something from 90 percent complete to its ultimate conclusion. It sounds so easy… Mike, it's just a measly ten percent. How hard can it be? Incredibly, my friend. And man, it is so easy to give up. SO easy. I know this, because I've done it numerous times; but, thankfully, I had the good fortune to work with people who don't give up. People that pushed me to take it further, to make it cleaner, to push it over the wire.

[Youtube] Hold on to the vision (No retreat no surrender)

You have to hold onto that vision in your eye — not that vision of the product, but that vision of yourself. That's the trick to I had to teach myself. When the going gets tough, I ask myself why I'm doing this, and I say, "I'm doing this for me." For this kid that I used to be, who wanted nothing more than to get his grubby little hands on the next best game. To tear into it with that gleeful abandon that I no longer remember. You hold onto that vision as hard as you can, because damnit you don't retreat, and you don't surrender. And when someone asks the phrase, "Who's going to notice something like that" – "Who cares about this" – "Why do you care." Damnit, you look them straight in the eye and you say, "I care." You care, my friend, because you're the best… and nothing's ever gunna keep you down.

[Youtube] Karate Kid Montage – You're the Best

[This piece was reprinted from #AltDevBlogADay, a shared blog initiative started by @mike_acton devoted to giving game developers of all disciplines a place to motivate each other to write regularly about their personal game development passions.]

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