The other day, I was chatting with my dear friend and Send More People co-founder, Derek, about our next videogame venture. We ended up talking about some of the lessons I had learned from spending the last 1+ years “trying to start a business” and failing. I wanted to bring it up to apologize to my business partner but also to set us off on the right (or righter) path for our next year. The talk of entrepreneurship and business got my adrenaline going, however, and with that my animal brain seemed to win out over my logical brain. Forgetting all the lessons I had just stated, I began to feel very impatient with Derek’s nonchalance towards business goals and calm focus on “making a great game.” How dare he want to make a great game! We’re trying to start a business, damn it!
I spent a good part of the rest of the day wondering how I was going to broach the subject with him. I felt like I had a pretty solid case for why we should focus on business goals, especially as a startup. Indeed, I still believe that those goals should not be cast aside completely. I also had a grave concern that I would end up contributing more on the “starting a business” front and if we were successful, I’d resent him for only having to focus on the “fun part.” In my arrogance and paranoia, I came very close to making a total ass out of myself and falling into the same trap of emotional decision making that had plagued the prior year.
Fortunately, after reading The Guide to the Good Life, my rational brain broke through the surface and woke me up to the fact that, once more, I was being reactionary. I began to break down my thoughts and discover their emotional origins. Fear was the greatest culprit here. But in my sober early-morning thoughts, I realized that good entrepreneurs are the ones who cared more about bringing something of value into the world, not those out to make a quick buck. Sure, having an awesome game studio where you get to work and play with your friends all day is an awesome dream, and you may very well be as miserable with your current 40 hour workweek as I am, but the former is a luxury and the latter is a problem in need of a short-term solution, which a startup is not.
In The Guide to the Good Life, there’s a section on intrinsic goals versus extrinsic goals. He mentions a tennis match in which there is one player who has external goals, to win the match, and the other who has internal goals, to try her best. The first player will try her best in order to win, but if it’s looking like the other player is winning she might very well get thrown off her game. The second player, however, will always try her best no matter how likely victory seems. Being that ‘trying your best’ is a key factor for winning a tennis match, it’d be better to place your bets on the second player with the intrinsic goals.
It is the same thing for a videogame startup. If you’re focused on the extrinsic goals of “opening up a studio” or “making a living off of videogames” or “making the next Minecraft” then you are going to be thrown off your path by every sign that no one cares about your game, every technical hurdle that takes longer than expected, and every hour you’re not able to spend working on your game. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who’d argue that worrying over such things will help you achieve those external goals. You’ll find stress but not success.
Now, think for a moment that your goal is just to “make as great of a game as you can.” Sure, there will be your bummer days where the game just isn’t fun or where you’ve lost passion, but as long as you’re trying your hardest, you’re no further from your goal. By focusing on the process of making a great game, rather than the consequences of making a great game, you’ll be more likely to actually make a great game, find a broad audience, make money, open a studio, etc. Try to find value in every hour spent solving a programming challenge, creating art assets, or tweaking your game design.
According to the lore, Todd Howard, the leading genius behind the great Elder Scrolls games, marched into the shareholders’ meeting and said, essentially, “Go double down on your investment, and we’ll make you a great game.” The investors did, and the team made Morrowind, which helped save the company from bankruptcy and set it off on the path that would lead to Skyrim. Morrowind was not a small game and some would say that it had more love put into every corner of that world than did the later games. Why did the team spend timing adding those details with such tight deadlines and everyone’s hope riding on them? Shouldn’t they have been focusing on finishing the game and getting it out there as soon as possible so it could start generating income? No, because the team’s motivation was not to make a quick buck. They wanted to make a great game despite knowing it would take many hard-working years and had no guarantee of success. Howard saw a fleeting opportunity to make an amazing game and he seized it.
Our lives are fleeting opportunities to make amazing things, whether they’re videogames, businesses, children, or something else. If we’re too focused on the ends, we’ll neglect the means to those ends. It is only by focusing on the means that we’ll even begin to approach the possibility of that desired end. Derek is not wrong for focusing on making a great game. In fact, he’s doing the most practical course of action if we want to reach profitability and open a studio. On the flipside, there I was trying to put the cart before the horse, getting miserable and desperate and impatiently flitting from one project that seemed doomed to a long development cycle to the next, testing everyone’s patience including my own. What I need to remember is that successful game studios are built upon great games, not the other way around. I want my dream of Send More People HQ to come true, I really do, so I need to stop worrying and get to work on making a great game.
In other words, on to the fun part!