Fran Tufro

How to stay motivated as a Video Game Developer

🗓 2019-10-246m.

Passion projects are hard to finish.

No matter what you do: writing books, blogging, music, visual arts, you name it. It's oh so easier to gravitate towards a path of least resistance. “We are kept from our goal not by obstacles but by a clear path to a lesser goal.” — Robert Brault

What happens when that passion project is at the same time, one of the hardest art forms: video games?

If recording an album, finishing a book or a paint is difficult, imagine making all those at the same time, plus adding interactivity and fun to the mix. It's nuts, but it's our day to day life as game developers.

No wonder why we're usually suffering from lack of motivation.

If passion projects are hard, video-game passion projects are at least 10x harder.

In the past I've released music albums and finished writing books. But nothing came close to finishing a game. It'll test your nerves. Especially if you're a solo dev.

So, what can we do as game developers to keep ourselves motivated?

There is the first and almost obvious advise: don’t have 0% days. Always do something, even if it’s little. This is good advise, but doesn’t fix the issue, just builds a little momentum and that’s it.

As Benjamin P. Hardy suggests in his book Willpower Doesn't Work, you can't rely on willpower to deal with lack of motivation. The decision fatigue will always make you chose the option that consumes less energy, like watching Netflix or scrolling on social media.

The only solution is to remove options and build an environment that forces you to act towards your goal of finishing the game.

There is one strategy I found works well.

Increasing accountability

What I mean by this is making sure that there are enough external factors waiting for you, so that you trigger fear as a motivator.

Seems radical? Not so much. We have cognitive biases, they screw things up all the time. Why don't we use them in our favor?

Let's see…

Social Accountability

We're social creatures, no matter how introvert we are. We can travel long distances for love and friendship. Most of us anyways.

Talking about your game with as many people as you can is key. Especially if those people are potential customers.

If you're a solo dev partnering with someone to work together on the game might be a good solution too. Just be sure that person is high-energy and will bring value to the mix.

Relying on the fear of disappointing other people, we can find motivation to finish the damn thing.

Also getting feedback from people regarding your project is great for this. But you have to be prepared, this can be a double-edged sword. Feedback is always subjective and never personal. So don't put yourself in a stressful situation that you don't need, always keep this in mind.

One more suggestion is that you find an accountability partner. This is a person you're in touch every single morning to say what you did (or didn't do) the day before and what are your plans for the day. Next morning, same thing. Again, the fear of letting down your partner works wonders. This principle is used by people in sports and athletes a lot. They hire coaches, which also leads us to the next technique.

Economic Accountability

Investing money in your project is another great way of generating accountability. Why is this? Because of the sunken cost fallacy: because you spent money in something, you think is more valuable and thus, you will stick to it.

As an example: I wanted to finish and release a game before GDC, so I bought a $1000 ticket to San Francisco on March 14th, so that I'm forced to do so.

If you don't have that money it's ok, you can spend $80 in getting neat promo art on Fiverr, or whatever you can think about.

The more you spend, the higher the stress of not delivering, because of that you'll be likely trumping your procrastination. What if all that fails?

I'm sorry, but that's where my advise ends. I'd definitely not suggest the lock-in method, but there is people for everything, right?

I think that trying out strategies to increase accountability beyond those two forms may lead to benefits. Do you have any further suggestions?

My situation on this topic

I've struggled with procrastination my whole life. I've only recently learned some of these techniques and they're working wonders.

I've been working on a book series on 2d shader development. The second book was stuck for a while, until I had to finish it to give a workshop about its contents (social accountability!). Then same thing happened with the third one, so I increased the bet. I created a Patreon, not to get money, but to build accountability. I didnt't have many patreons, but those I had were the reason why I released the book. Spending money for a sunken cost trigger is one thing, but having other people spend money for it is 10xing the whole deal.

I also mentioned how I spent $1000 on a plane ticket to GDC, for an Argentinian this is A lot of money. And I'm super commited to releasing as many games as I can to that point.

I even went ahead an proposed my old team Nastycloud to publish Nubarron with me, so I could get that game out there and practice releasing a game now. The responsibility of releasing the game they worked so hard to finish is triggering a lot of anxiety, I don't want to fail them, but is also moving me towards my goals in a fast way.

I must say that I owe Benjamin P. Hardy a lot of the clarity on these topics and most of the ideas behind this post come straight from Willpower doesn't work, which I strongly suggest you read.

Let me know if you have any questions or comments on the topic, I'd love to hear other experiences about dealing with motivation.