Why Are You Making Games?

This is a written version of my 5-minute talk from the Indie Soapbox session at this year’s GDC.


Why are you making games? No, I don’t mean “why are you making games?”. Also, I don’t mean “why are you making games?”. And I certainly don’t mean “why (on earth) are you making games?”. I mean the question in the purest, most abstract sense. Just “why are you making games?”.

This was a key question for me last year, I spent a lot of time thinking about it, and I thought other people might benefit from asking themselves the same question. To see where I’m coming from, let’s do a quick flash back.

It’s late 2011. Miguel and I finished working on Casey’s Contraptions and my daughter was born. I took a couple months completely off from work (new dads will understand why), and then, right at the turn of the new year, I decided to start working again. The plan was to prototype a few of the juiciest ideas, pick one that really stood out, and make a new game in a few months. How hard could it be, right?

Right?

It turns out it was a lot harder than I ever imagined. I was confident in my list of hundreds of game ideas that I had been adding to over the years. I picked one idea, made a quick prototype in a day or two, and decided that I wasn’t as excited about that idea as I thought. So I picked another one, and another prototype that didn’t go anywhere. Then another, then another, and then another. This went on for months.

By the time I realized that my prototype icons weren’t fitting in a single page on my development iPad, I started worrying that something was wrong. Prototyping is great, it allows you to find the truly great ideas and all of that, but I wasn’t any closer to a game idea I wanted to make than when I started.

Prototypes

At this point, I even started prototyping game ideas I knew I was not going to make, just to remove any pressure on me, as well as to get it out of my system how much I hated those game genres. It was an interesting effort, but, as you can imagine, it didn’t lead to any shipped games.

I did, however, help me start figuring out what was going on. I realized that the prototypes I was creating were dissatisfying because my intentions were unclear. I wanted too many conflicting things out of this next game, and that was pulling the game in all kinds of opposite directions.

I wanted to make a unique a different game, yet at the same time I wanted it to reach a huge audience. I wanted to ride the wave of financially successful iOS games, but I didn’t want to sell my soul with freemium-based games, and instead, I was going to make a “good” freemium game. I wanted to make something innovative, but I wanted to do it in just 6-9 months. I wanted it all, and I wanted it yesterday. Bad combination.

That’s when I sat down and asked myself point blank “why am I making games?”. Or at least the more concrete version “why am I making my next game?”. That’s a surprisingly hard question to answer really honestly. I had to peel away a bunch of layers until I found the answers to my question.

My specific answers don’t matter because there isn’t a right and wrong answer. Any answer is good as long as it’s honest, from the bottom of your heart. There are as many valid answers as game developers out there. Some people make games because they want to be famous, others because they want to make money, others because it’s the only thing they know how to do, others because they want to win awards, others because they want to reach as many people as possible, others because they want to tell stories, etc, etc.

It’s actually amazing it took me this long to ask and confront this question. When you’re working on a game company things are different, and you don’t need to do that level of introspection. But once you go indie, it becomes really important. Even though I’ve now been indie for 6 years, I’ve been going in automatic pilot all this time, kind of skirting around this issue and winging it. I see a lot of indie developers out there doing the same thing, with greater or lesser success, but still conflicted internally about what they’re doing.

Once you have the answer to your question, you can use it to guide you in any big decisions related to game development, and even in life in general. Which projects to tackle, or even what features to add to your game, will often be easy to decide if you keep your goals in mind.

For me, within two weeks of answering the question, I had settled on not just one, but two different projects that I was super-excited about. Both projects are still moving along and I hope to start sharing information about them soon.

So I encourage anybody reading this to make some quiet time in the next few days, and pose yourself the question “why am I making games”. Once you find your answer, not only will it help you with future decisions, but it will make you more satisfied with them.

  • http://twitter.com/gottfired Gottfried Chen

    Now I’m curious: What was your personal answer and what consequences did you draw from it?

  • http://twitter.com/VoodooChief Sorcery Games

    I am also interested in your answers to this, especially as they seem to have done a great job of motivating you and directing your path.
    Myself, I want people to play my game, enjoy it and pass on the addiction to their friends, It is about my game being famous and millions of people enjoying my game more than me being famous. I have had success in the past while working for publishers etc, now I want it more personally.
    I will add that a successful game would hopefully give me enough renumeration to create more game for the masses to play.
    Now as for what I should be writing next… gah! The question of why do I make games makes it really hard to pick a design.
    Great Blog post, loved it.
    Da Voodoochief
    http://www.sorcerygames.com

  • http://twitter.com/CorbinSwagerty Corbin Swagerty

    I wish more software developers would ask these kind of questions. With only one life and skills with limitless possibilities, I don’t believe we can afford not to ask these questions.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1057807014 Javier Arevalo

    Great post. Note that even large game companies (and their leaders) need to ask that very same question in order to understand and focus their own projects. At that level, motivations may be less personal, but are no less important.

  • http://twitter.com/solkar Karlos Zafra

    Great post Noel. It’s really encouraging. I wanted my first published game to be the ultimate game (more or less what you described) but I finally went on for a more humble goal. I decided to concentrate in creating a game tailored to some friends of mine. Hopefully there’s more people who wil like it and this decision relieved a lot of pressure.

  • http://www-cs-students.stanford.edu/~amitp/gameprog.html amitp

    Great post! It made me think about why I was making games, and I think it comes down to: I want to understand how games work. To me the interesting part about writing games is figuring out the key algorithms. Looking back, that might explain why I focus on algorithms and not so much on game design or finishing games. :(

  • Ben Rosset

    Great post Noel. I’m a board game designer, never designed digital. I’m making games because 1) it’s a challenge 2) it allows me to exercise the analytical-mathematical part of my brain 3) it’s fun 4) I enjoy watching people enjoy something I created

  • Tom Razo

    After a brief moment of thought, I believe my motivation is the oh so cliche “I’m designing the game I want to play” … I can’t explain the motivation any other way.

    • llopis

      And just having that insight, even if it’s somewhat “cliche”, should help a lot with any decisions you have to make in the game. Good luck with it!