Someone once told me, "When your hobby becomes your work, it's time to find a new hobby." This couldn't be more right. And I couldn't have been more wrong to ignore it.
I encounter many people who want to develop games but have not yet made the plunge for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they ask, “What is it like?” Usually, they ask for advice on how they can get started. Out of everything I could say, the concept of how making games fundamentally change someone’s enjoyment of them is the most difficult to express. It’s also the most difficult for them to hear – and the most important. The reason I am writing about this now is because I just had a fresh reminder playing Destiny, which launched worldwide this week.
This issue is not limited just to game developers. Game journalists, critics, and others face it as well. Here is the core question:
"Do you love games so much you are willing to sacrifice your enjoyment of them on the altar of Career?"
However, before I continue, I first need to define what a hobby actually is and why hobbies are so incredibly important to everyday life.
A hobby is something enjoyable we do to rest and recharge our soul. I write "soul" because it goes beyond just resting physically, mentally, or emotionally. It’s about reconnecting to some ethereal essence of who we are. At the end of a day of stressful toil (be it school, childcare, work, or something else), I feel spent. Not just tired (food and sleep will address that), but like I have given something of myself and now I am somehow emptier. Perhaps figuratively, I only have ten units of "me" (total) and I'm now down to eight. A hobby is how we recharge those "me units.”
When we feel pressured, we turn to a hobby to feel relief.
When we feel harried, we turn to a hobby for peace.
When we feel discouraged, we turn to a hobby to succeed.
When we feel empty, we turn to a hobby to reach fulfillment.
When we can't stop thinking about it, we turn to a hobby to forget.
People enjoy a whole variety of hobbies. This is what makes the world such a varied and wonderful place to live. Maybe you like gardening. (I like reading fiction.) Maybe she likes boxing, and he likes Sudoku. But if you are reading this we share one hobby in common: games.
This is perhaps a first-world problem, but it’s hard to deny that we lead stressful lives in North America. This means our hobbies should be protected and cherished.
When your hobby is your work
I am not unfamiliar with stress. Right now, I am writing this under a tight deadline. :-) My career as an entrepreneur has had many stresses: when to expand the business and when to contract? Is this candidate the right employee in the long term? Will these customers close this month—and if not, what can I do to convince them now instead of later? Will we have enough for payroll next week? Will they get over their issues, or will they quit? Are we even going to be in business next quarter?
Many times these problems span not moments but days or weeks. During these times, my hobbies—specifically playing games—help me pull through in a very healthy way. I'll give you two specific examples:
First, I enjoy painting 25mm miniatures like Warhammer, Reaper, and Battletech. (I will never be mistaken for an artist, though!) My best miniatures are just “okay.” But something about the very quiet act of laying color down on an impossibly small robe or missile launcher is oddly restorative. It nourishes my soul.
Secondly, I enjoy writing D&D campaigns. I get more enjoyment out of creating the world and adventure than running it at the table. With this background, perhaps now you will see where the problem begins in my next life choice.
I opened my tabletop gaming store in 2006, thinking ‘this will be the greatest thing EVER!’ I longed for looking at, working with, and talking about games all day long. And yes, it is true that it IS more enjoyable to look at, talk about, and stock a Fantasy Flight board game instead of a case of Tide.
So, exhausted and spent after a day of hard work, I would turn to my brushes and miniatures after dinner for some peace and restoration. But the moment I picked up that miniature, whatever levees of work/play separation I had constructed in my mind were suddenly busted wide open . . . and the thoughts and stresses of Work came flooding in.
Did I contact that supplier?
When is the ship date for that new release?
Are we out of stock on those space marines? I'll need to check that.
Oh, I forgot to call so and so about his special order!
My hobby now reminded me about work. I killed my hobby and didn't even realize it! And all the king's horses and all the king's men could not bring it back again.
I have had to sacrifice my love of tabletop gaming in order to own a tabletop gaming store. So I did what I could: retreated into my other passion—video games.
And now, Video Games
I have always enjoyed PC and console games. The tabletop games were always a unique outlet of creativity. So as my tabletop time went down, my video gaming went up.
Two years ago I decided to make video games full-time. Now I am no longer playing games purely for enjoyment. Always, in the back of my mind, the eye of the critic is scanning, dissecting, and logging:
Oh that's a good mechanic.
Good set piece there; this game has good level design.
I wonder how they did THAT?
This combo system is broken. I would have so and so instead....
So at the end of a day of programming and fighting with a particular game mechanic, do you think I can fire up the PS4 and kick back for some soul nourishing enjoyment?
Let me tell you what happened this Tuesday. Like most human beings with a love for games, I was pretty excited about Destiny. I have only the highest respect for Bungie. Even attended a midnight launch to pick up my copy.
Destiny is pure awesomeness; I was having the time of my life. Then, about 10 minutes into the campaign, I walked up a ridge and saw this:
My brain immediately started thinking in a way I did not approve. At all.
"Hey, this is just like that Gamasutra article you read on level composition and player feelings."
No! No! No! Shut up!
"Hey, that focal point of the tower is exactly what the author was talking about for center of interest."
Shut up! I don't care! I just want to enjoy the moment!
"Oh yeah, and how the raised elevation is making me feel small and the focal point towers over me."
Please? Can you just leave me alone!?
This is the hidden personal cost of working in games: It killed my hobby. If you had told me three years ago, I wouldn't have believed it. It wouldn't have dissuaded me—not in the least. I write what I write for those who are wiser and better listeners than me.
Beware of making games for a living if all you care about in life is playing games. Once the genie is out of the bottle, there is no stuffing it back in!