Monday, January 23, 2012

Lowering Expectations

"Hello. My name is Doug, and I am a motivational speaker."

At least, that's the role I'll be filling today.

There’s quite a serious desire, especially as a beginner, to make a big mark on the game industry.  No matter how rational and level-headed you are, it’s easy to envision yourself as the developer of the next Portal, Angry Birds, or Minecraft.  And yes, there’s the remote possibility that you could be that person.  However, chances are also pretty good that if you get into the game industry at all, you’ll spend much of your career working on rehashes of old concepts, film- and TV-licensed games, and overall generic, unremarkable titles.  If you think about it that way, you can easily start getting concerned.  “I need to make something special right now while I still have the chance.”

So that’s exactly what you try to do.  You put all of your knowledge and skills to the test.  You come up with crazy new concepts and attempt to find ways to execute them.  You attempt to make game engines do things they weren’t designed for.  You work under the guise of “Boy, if I can make this work, I would just be the most awesome person ever!”  You look at your creation as something that no one will be able to ignore.  In a good way.  Not in a Mystery Science Theater 3000 kind of way.

Then again, maybe that’s just me.  Which reminds me…

The recommendations in this blog post are not intended to apply to everyone.  This is not general advice.  Everyone has a unique way of working, getting motivated, and making things happen.  If your brain works in a certain way, the information you are about to see may be completely wrong.

What, then, is my target demographic?  Who is this advice designed for?  It’s designed for those who are inspired by the big picture, but who need something else to gain the motivation to learn something new.  It’s for anyone whose delusions of grandeur have overpowered the ability to expand and grow.  It’s for those who have forgotten about the virtues of patience.  And, on a more pathetic note, it’s for people like me who have worked under established guidelines all their lives, and have now realized that they can’t establish guidelines of their own.  In short, it’s for people who need motivation to keep learning.

As we grow up, we’re told to reach for the stars.  There’s nothing we can’t do.  We are awesome.  While this may be true, this line of thinking has a particular, glaring flaw.  When one “reaches for the stars,” there is an implication that the goals we strive for are far away.  In response, we establish short-term goals that can help to lead us to this final step.  Our conscious minds are more capable of interpreting and dealing with these shorter-term goals, delegating our ultimate goal to the back of the mind to be dealt with later.  In a few years, maybe.  Thus, we move incrementally up a path we’ve established, making that unreachable goal seem much more attainable.

As we move closer and closer to our ultimate goal, however, it becomes harder and harder to follow the established path.  While the steps to reach the end become smaller and smaller, the desire to follow those steps diminishes.  When the end is in sight, it comes back into focus and blocks out everything else.  “This is what I’ve sought for years, and it’s about to happen.  My dream is becoming a reality right in front of me.”  We’re so close to the stars now that we can almost reach out and touch them.

“Almost” being the operative word.

Einstein’s theories state that as one moves closer and closer to the speed of light, it requires the expulsion of exponentially greater amounts of energy.  If you’re traveling at 99 percent the speed of light, basic thought would seem to suggest that expending that last percentage point worth of energy would get you there.  In reality, (at least according to the now-aging theory), that extra percentage point would take you to more like 99.00001 percent of light speed.  “Okay, then…light speed is right there.  I’ll just double my energy output and that should put me well over the top.”  So you double your energy output.  You’re now traveling at 99.1 percent of light speed.  So on and so forth.

Reaching for a major goal feels similar to this concept.  In the beginning, it seems outrageous and practically unattainable.  As you move forward and apply yourself to the problem incrementally, you move closer and closer to your goal.  Eventually, you reach that elusive 99 percent.  Only a few simple steps will help you to break that barrier and achieve your dream.  On the other hand, with your dream staring you right in the face, another possibility becomes more and more appealing: you’ll take what you’ve achieved, all you’ve learned, and press forward with it.  You’ll consolidate your 99 percent, make it more efficient, and hope that it can push you the rest of the way.  In the end, though, no matter how much you spruce up your 99 percent, it can still only take you 99 percent of the way.

What’s the point of all this nonsense about percentages?  The gap between knowing MOST of what you need to know about making games and knowing ALL you need to know about making games is bigger than it seems.  More accurately, “knowing all you need to know about making games” doesn’t exist.  There is no 100 percent.  While this is true of anything that demands the accrual of experience, it’s especially true in a field as consistently shifting as gaming.  New technologies, new processes, and new ways of thinking are always entering into play.  There’s always something new to learn.

So let’s take a completely random, out-of-the-blue, entirely hypothetical situation.  Let’s say you graduated from a Bachelor’s program in game design some, I don’t know…32 months ago.  You learned a lot there and built up a pretty sizable skill set.  You know how to market yourself fairly well, and you’ve been trying to use that skill set to net yourself a job in the industry.  Good.  For some reason or reasons unknown, however, you’re just not making a mark with your prospective employers.  Maybe you complain a lot about the requirement for 2 years of experience on so-called “entry-level” jobs.  Maybe you’ve thought about trying to go independent.

Over the course of all this, you’ve been trying to work on some projects to build up your portfolio, and you’ve run into a few snags.  Primarily, you seem to have a lack of fully-completed, fully-playable games available to show to the world.  Now comes the time to ask a question: “Why don’t I have any fully-completed games here?  Is it the fact that I can’t get my [artist / programmer / designer] friends to help [make me some assets / make this thing work / make this thing “work”]?  I know it’s not me because I can do anything.  People have been saying that all my life.  I can do anything, just…not everything all at once.”

Stop right there.  I’m here to crush your spirits.  I’m going to destroy all of your hopes and dreams.

It’s your fault.  You don’t know as much as you think.  You are not worthy.

There.  Now what do we do when people break our spirits?  No, no, stop crying.  It’s okay.

If you find yourself struggling to find motivation, if your eye has been dead-set on the end goal, and if you find yourself struggling to complete your heroic quest, consider that your wakeup call.  What I meant to say is, “You are not worthy…


  All that means is that there’s still more to learn.

Of course, the idea that there would ever NOT be more to learn is ridiculous.  What I’m talking about here is taking a step back, going back to your roots, and re-learning the basics.  Whether that means going through old tutorials and training programs for the basics of Unity, something as major as reexamining what makes a game a game, or something as minor as reevaluating the basic language of a C++ sequence you set up at the beginning of a project, going back to basics can remind you of what you need to do to complete your ultimate task.  Treat yourself like a rookie.  At the very least, it will make you feel smart to learn about the things you already know.

But the true goal here is something bigger.  Lowering expectations isn’t so much about making yourself feel more qualified to do what you do.  Really, it’s about reigniting that spark to learn something new.  By going back to the beginning, you get introduced to new avenues you may not have explored before.  New information resources turn up.  New chains of thought are set into motion. 

Perhaps most importantly, you can present yourself with the opportunity to stop trying to solve a specific problem you might be facing.  If you’re building a game from a preexisting engine, it’s easy to get caught up in the frustration of, “I guess the engine just isn’t designed for this.”  Maybe Unreal just isn’t designed to allow two rockets fired from opposite directions to hit each other in midair and explode.  (I’ll admit…I haven’t actually tried this.)  When you go back to the basics of the engine, though, and re-teach yourself about collisions, weapon mechanics, and the basic functionality of code blocks, you can likely discover that all of the elements you need are there.  You may even look at elements you never considered to be part of the solution before.  The more you learn about those basic elements, the easier it becomes to see how they can all be connected to create the desired effect.

Essentially, treating yourself as a rookie gives you the opportunity to stop looking at problems for what they are and start looking at their component parts a bit more.  By doing so, you get a new opportunity to evaluate your problem and tackle it once and for all.

And after that’s done, I’ve got some more work for you.

If you find yourself stuck and you have the luxury of some extra time, step away from the problem and go back to the beginning.  Revisit what you thought you knew, and then, go further.  Before long, you’ll be able to take what you’ve learned and apply it to the problem you’ve been facing.

Theoretically, anyway.  I don’t offer guarantees.

Thank you.  That is all.