Archive for October, 2013

On Creation, and Calling Yourself a Thing

Monday, October 14th, 2013

So, let’s take a previous thought and expand on it a bit.


There is a common “saying”. It pops up again and again in books and discussions of “how to be a (whatever)”. I have seen it most commonly in discussions of “how to be a game designer” and “how to be a writer”. The saying is usually something like this:

“If you want to be a writer, then just start writing. Now you can call yourself a writer.”

So that’s the context. Shows up all over the place. It is not something I’m creating as a strawman, or what have you. The caveat is that the second part is important, because it’s the second part that’s wrong.

The first part is fine – if you want to be a writer, you MUST start writing. If you want to be a game designer, then you MUST start designing games. For both of these, there are theoretically no prerequisites – you can just start doing them.

You’ll just start doing them really badly, and make a lot of stupid mistakes if you don’t do a lot of homework first. If you want to write, read. If you want to design games, play games. But you can’t just do those things casually – you can’t do them as a consumer of media. You have to do them analytically. What do you like? Why do you like it? Do you read things that you don’t like? Do you power through the parts that you don’t like to try to figure out what *someone* saw in this thing?

If you want to create something, you’re not creating things in a vacuum. You’re creating them in the context of everyone else who’s making stuff. And sure, that can be intimidating. But if this is your passion, you’re probably already doing this. Just make sure that you’re putting effort into your consumption, because that’s how you’re going to learn.

The next step, of course, is to do the thing. The magic about writing, or designing games (which is mostly writing unless you’re also a programmer or artist), is that you can just do it. Got a pencil & paper? Great, that’s all you need. Now just start.

But don’t you fucking dare call yourself a writer or a game designer yet.

You’re learning. That’s great. You’re making progress towards your goal. You’re a student. You’re exploring. You may “do” some game design, or you may write a bit. This is essential progress. If you feel like it’s too harsh to say that you can’t call yourself the thing that you want to call yourself, then *fuck you*.

Because you don’t know anything yet.

I can write until my fingers bleed. I can design a thousand games in spec form. I can do this ad infinitum for years on end. And in doing so, I can waste ten thousand hours and not improve at *all*.

There’s another saying, “Practice makes perfect.” It’s nice, right. Put in the time, and you’ll work your way toward perfection. Except it’s total bullshit, and not true even in the slightest.

“Practice makes permament.” I wish I could take credit for that, but I can’t. But this is the right saying. If you practice, and you repeatedly do the same thing over and over, what you’re doing is making it easier and easier for you to continue to do the same thing over and over. So if you’re making mistakes repeatedly, congratulations! You’ve just improved at making those *same mistakes*.

Let’s try a different phrase: “Focused practice with feedback improves your skills.”

First, fuck perfection, nothing’s perfect. Second, you need feedback on your work to make progress. YOU can’t see what you’re doing because YOU’re too invested in it. You know how much work you put in. You know what you were trying to accomplish. You have context and understanding of your work that *no one else has*.

So practice through repetition without feedback is a waste of time. Get feedback. You don’t have to finish your thing to do that. You barely have to start. But seek feedback. Get input. Even if it’s *mortifyingly embarrassing*. I wrote two attempts at a novel via NaNoWriMo (a highly, highly recommended experience to everyone who’s reading this – it completely changed my outlook on creative pursuits, and my *life* as a whole). I managed to finish twice (more on this later), but more than that, I got a few other people to read them and give feedback. This is a *horrifying* process, because I *know* they’re awful “novels”. That’s the nature of NaNoWriMo. You write. You don’t slave over each word, or hand-craft each sentence, because if you do, you won’t finish in time. So you write 50K words, and pray that you’re able to finish.

And when I was done, I showed the result to a few people. And it was, like I said, horrifying. I *know* there are things in there that are embarrassingly awful. I know there are things in there that a 3rd grader wouldn’t write if they spent 5 minutes thinking about it. I didn’t spend 5 minutes thinking about it – I just *wrote*, because that was the nature of the project.

But I got feedback. And that feedback taught me a lot.

I write specs for game designs all the time. I get tons of feedback on them. Sometimes on the content, sometimes on the clarity of the communication itself. Every time I strive to do better. You need that input to improve anything you do. Practice in a vacuum is a waste.

Second, you *must* finish. Let me be clear. I don’t mean you have to sell your novel/game. I don’t mean you have to be a professional. I don’t mean it has to be good. I don’t mean it has to be the epitome of what you were trying to accomplish. I don’t (in this case) even mean that anyone else has played it but you. But *you* have to consider it done.


Because it is absolutely, absolutely trivial to “design a game” via handwaving and grossly wrong assumptions about how things actually work. You can have what you think is an absolutely genius, pristine spec, and the moment someone tries to implement it you find it’s full of contradictions and nonsense. But you don’t find that out *until* someone tries to implement it. You can make paper prototypes, and learn a lot, but you won’t learn what the game will be like when it’s done. You can implement a prototype, and get a “feel” for whether what you’re doing is successful or not, but that’s all it is – a feel.

Your game real until you finish it. Until you finish it, all your assumptions are good. All your thoughts about how things will be are awesome. All your beliefs about how a player will react are spectacular. They’re also almost all wrong.

Put the game into a player’s hands – even your own, though playing your own game isn’t terribly useful (see feedback, above) – and then you’ll start to understand all the ways in which your assumptions don’t work. You’ll understand how players see your game. How they get lost in the UI. How you’re not telling them about what they should be aspiring to. How the controls are confusing. How the things that you thought would be motivating factors don’t motivate them at all. How you thought that green would be distinguishable from the other green over there. How a player doesn’t value the 5 minutes of fun that you’re giving them more than the 5 minutes of fun they’d get staring at a wall.

This is where you learn. This is the feedback. You *only* get this in the most meaningful ways when you’ve said, “Here is the complete experience that I intended to create,” and you get stabbed through the heart. Or you see people understand your vision. Or you create something someone loves.

Or you first get stabbed through the heart, then pick yourself up off the ground, and fix the problems until people understand your vision, then give it the love and craft and attention to detail and devotion and creative spark that turns it into something that someone loves.

Congratulations. You’ve made something. Now you get to give yourself the label.

If you don’t complete your game, you haven’t learned all the important lessons about how to make something that has value to someone. You haven’t learned how to iterate. You haven’t learned where your assumptions have betrayed you. You haven’t learned about how what people want is different than what you thought they wanted. You haven’t learned what it is like to design a game. Or write a novel. Or create anything.

So yes, take that first step. Write. Design games. Be terrible at it. Because first you must jump in and start.

But if you want to call yourself a game designer, or if you want to call yourself a writer, or if you want to call yourself a creator of any kind – finish something. Fight through the hard part. Work though the pain of being wrong, or creating something terrible. But work at it, beat your head against it, drag this thing that you want to make kicking and screaming out of nothing and bend it to your will. Then show it to someone, and take that feedback like a punch to the gut and *get back up* and get back to fucking work until you’ve made the thing that you’re proud of.

Now stamp that label on your bloody chest, and wear it like you fucking earned it.

Not one goddamn second before.