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Why having 'something to lose' helps you create better games

At a recent festival in Belgium, Adriaan de Jongh talked about the recent closure of his studio -- and how a stable, comfortable environment for dev teams may actually inhibit risky, experimental work.

The recently-announced closure of Dutch game studio Game Oven came as a surprise to many. The studio formed after the great success of finger-flirt game Fingle; the team went on to invest a great deal in developing innovative, touchable games like Friendstrap and Bamfu.

By the time Bounden was in development, there were 11 people working on the project, half of them full-time. Speaking at the recent Screenshake festival in Belgium, Game Oven's Adriaan de Jongh seemed to suggest that stability and decreased risk for employees also decreased motivation. 

"We already knew it wouldn't be another Fingle, but we already invested so much," de Jongh said. "The anticipation was big for Bounden. But Friendstrap made no money, Bamfu made just a bit, and Bounden just crossed the break-even line. It doesn't mean we shouldn't have made them, but it was really troubling." 

Though Game Oven was beloved by fans of its wild, intimate designs -- and of de Jongh as ineffable, quirky frontman -- tension between the high risk inherent in that kind of experimental work and the need to provide steady pay for staff made the company unsustainable. 

"The more people you work with, the bigger your costs and the lower the chance is you will have success," de Jongh says. "It sounds logical, but there's a lot of anticipation and difficult choices you have to go through when making your game, so it's still worth saying." 

Are investments in a project linear or exponential? "I found that almost nothing is linear, in that regard. And if you know that almost nothing is linear, then you better focus on the things that are going to be positively-linear for you."

 
"Allow yourself to kill your darlings. This confrontation will help you learn."

Of course one's productivity curve increases linearly when one is motivated, but de Jongh wanted to dig deeper into the qualities that realiably create drive. "You wake up with solutions, you forget to eat, you work every night, you experiment with your tools and processes, all because you are so motivated. And then there's a confrontation component -- that you're willing to confront reality, that you'll allow yourself to kill your darlings. This confrontation will help you learn." 

De Jongh believes that having "skin in the game" -- losing something of value to yourself -- can be the greatest motivational driver: "If you have something to lose, you will be inherently more motivated, and you will be able to reach that 10 percent extra that you need to create beautiful, awesome games." 

Some ways of putting "skin in the game" include compensation by revenue share, owning and selling the work oneself, investing one's own money, or fearing the loss of self-esteem, relationships with others, or respect. People with no skin in the game? People with salaries, and people giving you advice, from consultants to high-paid marketers, de Jongh believes. 

"If someone gives you advice but he has nothing to lose, maybe it's a good idea not to listen to him," de Jongh says. "People will do different things when they have something to lose." 

"This is why we decided to quit Game Oven: I wanted to go to some sort of idealistic thing, where everyone I'm going to work with will have something to lose. So that 10 percent extra motivation will be there. I'll try to keep costs super low so that I'm losing, but I'm not losing that much. Reflect on your 'curves', and work only on positive exponential curves."

"I'm only going to do the things that are potentially really big. What you saw with Fingle, that's what I'll continue to do."

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