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“How do you stay motivated?”

September 2, 2009

I found this question in my email tonight:

“How do you stay motivated?”

Next month, it’ll be 28 years for me in the game industry. I started on the Apple ][ working on the Wizardry series at Sir-tech Software on October 6th, and I still remember the great wonder I felt at seeing color on a computer screen for the very first time. I remember creating a secure, locked place in the office for a new IBM prototype machine, and going to shows where I’d see Richard Garriott again and again, he with Ultima and me with Wizardry. Before that, I taught myself to program on a VIC 20, and re-wrote the movement rules to a paper-based game because the encumbrance rules bothered me. I ended up re-writing the whole system.

So, my first answer in reading this question was another:

How do you stay in love?

In an industry where people burn out and the passion wanes, I still feel as in love with games as I ever have. Maybe more so. It may be perspective or age or an awareness of my history and what matters to me. It may be that I am looking at something I’ve known all along with brand new eyes. It may be a deep understanding of what brings me true joy.

This is how I stay motivated.

I found something I loved deeply.

For me, games aren’t my job. I breathe them. I think it’s astounding that I’m paid to make games and to talk about having made games. As is apparent with Train, Siochan Leat and The New World, I make games whether I am paid to or not. I can spend all my time in the space of games and never run out of things to do, to say or to explore.

There is an important distinction here, though. I love to make games as much as I love to play them. It is not a one-way gig. I have made games all my life and the process, the thinking, as you undoubtedly know, is so much different. So many people come through the industry’s doors with visions of Hollywood hoping to meet their favorite star, but the play isn’t the design, and it’s not the same thing. If you are thinking about being a game designer, you should already be one. I was making games before I knew it was what I wanted to do. If you’re not making games, start now. Just go. Screw it up. Make something terrible, but make it. You’ll get better with time, with mistakes, with experience.

I surrendered.

In 1989 when I finished college, I stood in Atlanta, GA facing a certain, stable future with IBM after a very successful interview arranged by my alma mater. This future, this path, was what I was supposed to do.  It was the path I thought I was genuinely on. When I got home, I talked to Rob Sirotek and said I wanted to stay. I still remember my words word-for-word: “I just want to keep making games.” For me, acknowledging the importance of these things in my life and giving into my obvious passion for them – despite what the future held – remains the most important decision I have ever made. There was a tried and true path, sure, but there was also an alternate path that I had evidently been preparing for all along. I chose the one I loved, because I knew that it was where I was supposed to be. I have never regretted that decision. Not once.

I find new things to fascinate me.

Think of games as a person for a moment. Where do you start with them? How many layers is your fascination?

There is still so little I know and so much I want to learn. There are years that I wasn’t there to consume what was released, and whole genres I don’t grok. There is a world to be explored, topics I’ve never even touched, and conventions that I probably still hold dear that could be broken for the new. And, AND, aaaand, as I delight in trying to learn what is before me, games are all the while making and revealing more. I think of all the things that are being written and shared about games on a daily basis. I will die before I exhaust my fascination. I show up, stay current, interested and engaged.

I play.

I said tonight that I am generally a ridiculously happy person. I like to laugh and enjoy exploration. With games, I get in there and mess it up. I let myself and my ideas go. What if? Break the mechanics and try something new. Be inspired by the work of others, and be comfortable in taking chances and pushing it some. Have fun and be positive about it, even the stuff that seems like it’s going wrong. My strongest lessons have come from my biggest mistakes. Make fun of your own work loudly and mean it. Praise yourself, and surround yourself with people who share your passion. Motivation is a reflection sometimes, and you will see it in the passion of others around you. Game designers need other game designers. I think this is the single most important thing you can do.

I stay motivated because I love games. And, AND, aaaand, it is no work, no work at all.

27 Comments leave one →
  1. September 3, 2009 2:09 am

    Exactly how I feel too.

    I’ve been working professional since about 1989, but I started making games around about 1982 on the ZX-81. Time flies!

    Games are still absolutely fascinating to me.

  2. September 3, 2009 2:33 am

    Great post!

  3. September 3, 2009 2:46 am


  4. September 3, 2009 5:19 am

    pretty… inspiring…

  5. September 3, 2009 5:42 am

    Q: How do you stay motivated?
    A: How do you stay in love?

  6. wolfpack permalink
    September 3, 2009 5:50 am

    What a passion, you have my respect

  7. September 3, 2009 7:00 am

    This post is inspiring beyond its focus on games. I believe that there isn’t a much loftier goal than finding something that you feel passionate about and making a living at it. Funny you should write this now as I just posted its mirror image on my own site last night.

    Personally I feel that way about writing. However I tried to create some false enthusiasm for game development recently. Predictably, much like a hollow love affair it quickly grew tiresome and now I think I will return to my creative roots.

  8. September 3, 2009 7:03 am

    This made my morning, day, week… Thanks for sharing. Wonderful insight and very inspiring.

  9. September 3, 2009 8:31 am

    Such a “good morning” blog 😀 😀 😀

    Thank you for this!

  10. Dan permalink
    September 3, 2009 9:06 am

    This is a great post. It is going on my cube wall!

  11. September 3, 2009 9:23 am

    As per usual Brenda you have hit the nail right on the head! Really great post. Made my morning!

  12. September 3, 2009 9:45 am

    I wanna be you… 🙂 At the very least, I’m glad you’re on our team!

  13. Josh permalink
    September 3, 2009 10:13 am

    Very inspiring! I lost my way for a while and the points you mentioned are exactly what I needed to remind myself of in order to keep it together.

  14. September 3, 2009 10:16 am

    Yes, YES and yeeeesss! I agree with the others: this is a very inspiring post. It’s funny how so many of us feel that “You mean I get paid for this?!?” feeling about our work.

    To me, that is the crux of the Are Games Art debate. That people like us can feel that way about making games MEANS that they are, by definition, an art form.

    Andy A

  15. September 3, 2009 10:28 am

    This expresses the same exact way I feel about games. It’s great to see that this passion is shared.

    However, what I pose to you is how do you let your passion exist in environments which stifle creativity and passion?

  16. September 3, 2009 1:14 pm

    Hey Brenda,

    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. Many designers feel exactly this way I think.
    I know I do.

  17. Andy Wright permalink
    September 3, 2009 5:57 pm

    Awesome post! It reinforces how I feel about my own path, and how I have been happiest when I focused on what I truly am passionate about, down deep, regardless of what I think (or anyone else thinks) I “should” be doing with my life!

  18. Miles (@inches) permalink
    September 3, 2009 7:21 pm


    When I hear things from other people that line up with my own ways of thinking it really brings them into focus for me.

    Thanks for allowing me to realize that my passion of the industry is something that is special, and that there really ARE people as crazy for game design as me.

  19. September 6, 2009 8:53 am

    That was an eloquent response, Brenda. To me, the question is like asking Yo-yo-ma what he needs to do to motivate himself to play the cello. For most designers, their favorite game is the game of designing games. Like you I have been designing games since I was a child, though I have never worked other than as a freelancer in the game industry. I was born too early, and lived in the wrong places.

    However, a teacher cannot say to students that game designers are born game designers, doing it from childhood. If he’s believed, he’ll crush their aspirations unnecessarily, because a great many of the students will be people who think game design is cool, but haven’t actually done it enough to say so. “Unnecessarily” because, though it is usually true that game designers have done it all their lives, it isn’t *always* true. Some people are naturally very good at something but just aren’t exposed to it, or not required to try it, until well into adulthood.

    I’ve often thought that most novelists write because they *must*, not because they wanted to make money. Yet there are novelists who come to the craft later in life, and are very good at it. For example, as far as I know Dave Duncan (many fantasy novels, excellent work) was not a writer when young. He worked in the oil industry for 31 years, then became a published writer at age 51. I’m sure there are other examples. And I think there are game designers who similarly came to it at a later age. Mike Gray, who used to be chief game designer at Hasbro and is now their Senior Acquisitions person, did not design games until after college, when (1978) he was lucky enough to see a Milton Bradley job ad for game designer!

    So while “almost all” game designers and writers have been doing it since childhood, there are exceptions.

    I wonder how many published game designers don’t really like game design. There might be a few. There have been a few famous basketball players (e.g., Bobby Jones of UNC and the NBA) who didn’t really like to play basketball, but were so good at it that they could make LOTS of money, and so they kept at it. It happens in most walks of life, people who are really good at something but don’t particularly like it.

  20. Jacek Wesołowski permalink
    September 6, 2009 12:03 pm

    One of our recent candidates for a level design job said something that I think sums the matter up quite nicely. Namely, he said the two foundations of a designer’s craft are passion and communication, which I guess could be rephrased as “staying motivated and motivating others”.

    So, how do you help your colleagues stay motivated? How does one translate their own passion into team activity?

  21. September 8, 2009 1:52 am

    This reminded me immediately of Pollock’s, “How do you know when you’re finished making love?” on being asked when he knew his paintings were finished. That’s why you put the picture of Krasner there, right?

  22. September 8, 2009 6:26 pm

    yes exactly … if you are not passionate about what you do.. chances are you burn out easily. Very inspiring.

  23. September 10, 2009 1:26 am

    Hehe yes the discoveries are fun though there always some repetitive things that could held you back if you forgot there are more beautiful things up there 🙂 .

    I’m used to draw, make role play, replicate some games, write stories since little so I think the bliss came to me quiet early. It just that I wasn’t know the opportunity that these what-so-called-hobbies can make a living, neither I got enough encouragements to continue these. They stay as just hobbies for a long time, something I don’t really bother to improve. Until like two three years ago a friend motivate me and show me there is career ways out there for my hobbies. I start to work on my writing hobby and got satisfying job at a magazine. An economy problem ends the job but open me to a new possible world: game development.

    So here I am, as indie developer, making everything I once call hobbies, to be something I want to proud of financial and reputation wise. I write, draw, and code my own games and I love it. 🙂

  24. Lima Junior permalink
    September 23, 2009 4:25 pm

    I have a great passion for games, and I just realized that I can made that passion be more than I thought, it can be my profession! I was a student of architecture who changed all for that passion. Now I´m near finish my graduate school of Social Comunication bachelor in Publicity and preparing myself for a post-graduate or a MFA in Gamedesign or something relative.
    Meet people like you does realy inspires me.

  25. October 11, 2009 4:41 pm

    The final sentence says it all. When it’s not work, it’s fun. As soon as it becomes something you only do for the money, it’s hard to stay motivated.

  26. June 19, 2010 12:08 pm

    You’ve just inspired me to get my notepad out and design a game. I haven’t done that in a couple of years — thanks 🙂

  27. September 19, 2011 8:45 am

    I think the bliss came to me quiet early. It just that I wasn’t know the opportunity that these what-so-called-hobbies can make a living, neither I got enough encouragements to continue these.

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