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Happiness in Game Development: Obligation

Game development isn't quite as fun as we thought it would be when we were kids. One of the reasons is obligation - once we're extrinsically motivated to do something, we lose sight of the intrinsic motivators, of the inherent play in our job.

It took me a while to get myself to sit down and write a second real post in this column or series I imagined myself writing on happiness in game development. Of the many things I could write about next, I didn’t know which to pick, for one thing. But I realized there was something else going on there. Now that I’ve said to myself (and on the blog), “I’m going to do this,” it changed. It became an obligation.


I’ve blogged for years and years because it was fun. I’ve never really tried to monetize or to improve my SEO - sometimes I’ll post several times in a week and sometimes I’ll go months without posting anything. I just would get the urge to let some of my thoughts out through the keyboard and make it public.


But now I’ve promised to blog. And this shadow fell over me. When I had some free time, I’d think to myself, I should blog. The stern parent in me nagging the little kid in me. Is it any surprise the little kid in me says, “Screw that, I’m going to read a comic book instead”?


Jesse Schell, in The Art of Game Design, defined ‘fun’ as stuff you do that you don’t have to do. How true that is. When we can’t pull ourselves away from a game, when we say to ourselves “Just one more turn”, there’s often no logical reason for it. We just wanna.


This ties in with studies about intrinsic and extrinsic motivators. We’ve all heard about the study where a bunch of kids were asked to draw - some of them were then paid and others weren’t. The kids who got paid eventually lost interest in drawing, and would only do it for money. You can take something fun and turn it into a chore.


These ideas about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation are obvious and scary at the same time. Obvious because when I’m reading a comic book, I know I’m having fun, I know I’m doing it for the pure intrinsic enjoyment of reading the comic book, because I’m not getting paid, because nobody is nagging me, there’s no reason I have to read the book. What if I was paid to read comic books? Before I quit as creative director on Spider-Man 3 I took it upon myself to read an absolute crapload of Spider-Man comics. That was not fun. 99% of those old silver age Spider-Man comics were crap. Not just because they came from an era when Marvel churned out issue after issue to make money, but also because of my perception - I’m not reading this because it’s good; I’m reading this because I ought to.


And scary because most of those things we game designers like to do to keep people interested in our game, to keep them playing, fall into the ‘extrinsic motivator’ category. The play of Energy Hook is intrinsically motivating - it’s inherently fun to make your avatar swing from a building, sail through the air, spin and flip and run along a wall - but I can’t resist also putting in all the traditional mechanisms for ‘replay value’ - you get points, you unlock levels and powers, there are leaderboards and achievements. The players who start playing for those other motivators are no longer playing just for fun. Hopefully it won't ruin the game for them, but the possibility scares the crap out of me.


It’s also scary for our careers. When we were kids we made videogames for fun. Writing those early computer programs or building something with Arcade Machine or Pinball Construction Kit, making a new level or mod for a game we liked - we did that for the pure joy of creating and building. We didn’t expect to get paid. When we started getting paid the bit got flipped. Now we’re obliged to do it. Now it can be hard to sit down at the computer and fix the next bug. I watch my daughter, who couldn’t wait to sit down at her computer and work on her RPGMaker game some more, and wish I could get back to that place where making a game is just pure intrinsic joy.


So. That’s one of the reasons it’s hard to stay happy as a game developer. I’ll share some of the things I do to fight this tendency (I did manage to finally sit down and write this article, after all) in the next post.


Until then - what do you do about it? How do you get back to that place where making a game is fun, even when it’s your job?

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