Design However Makes You Happiest

February 28, 2011

I was really trying to stay out of the kerfuffle that Ben started on Anyway, partially because it seemed like the indie game design community’s annual excuse to talk about all the things that annoy us about the way other designers go about their business (or don’t).

But then Ron weighed in, bringing up the supposed “failure” of the community to properly support (or, maybe, according to Ron, stay out of the way of) the Ashcan Front. And that Game Chef has supposedly turned into something alien from its original, true purpose — when, frankly, Ron doesn’t get to decide what the purpose was since he’s never been part of it and, also frankly, has broken the rules he instituted for Game Chef (“only once a year at the Forge, to not be a distraction”) in order to run a design contest he named after himself. I mean, I love Ron, but really.

When it comes down to it, nobody else really knows how you should design games, because nobody else really knows why you are designing games in the first place. Maybe you don’t know either. Sometimes I’m not sure why I design games and lately I’ve tried to get better at, when I have those doubts, putting the game aside and doing something else. Other times, for specific projects, I know exactly why I’m doing it, and it isn’t to finish or publish a game; generally, it’s to realize an idea in words and diagrams and eventually play it with friends. Sometimes it takes me several fits-and-starts or years of slow progress to do that. I have other, more important things happening in my life! Sometimes it involves producing a lot of ideas that never go anywhere, just to see which ones stick and blossom. I sometimes feel guilty that a lot of promising ideas don’t turn into anything, but less and less, really. There are so many fun new things to think about! Why limit yourself to old ideas?

Some of Ben’s comments — and some of the other stuff coming out of this brew — seem to stem from this idea that finishing or publishing games is still the ultimate ideal. And that getting social status from “being a game designer” and infinitely being in the process of “working on a game” is usurping that goal. Maybe. But the Forge “publish or perish” model of social status had a ton of problems too. Maybe taking the emphasis off of publishing and allowing folks to just design without any sort of fixed outcome in mind is okay. Maybe we need that. I know I certainly needed that and I have been much happier and more productive in both my design and play since I gave up the idea that I had to publish a game in order to get respect and attention. But now, choosing to do a bunch of casual design work without a serious intent to publish is pandering for social status? Give me a break. Apparently one designer’s attempt to escape social status games is another’s descent into status posturing.

If I have any wisdom to share with other designers — anything that’s universal and not particular to my own situation — it’s design however makes you happiest.

For me, it’s often putting together one-shot experiments or hacking existing games to play with folks at indie meetups like JiffyCon and GoPlay NW. That kind of design work is never going to accomplish anything big, but it’s what’s giving me the most pleasure right now, even though I only get to see the fruits of that design once or twice a year. But hacking and scenario/campaign design is still design work, just a different kind that gets less attention and status. I’m also enjoying just playing games that I like a lot — allow me to recommend Apocalypse World and Castle Ravenloft — and doing some minor hacking of them. Why should I care about finishing a game when there are so many fun ones out there? Mine is fun too, but I’ll get to it eventually, even if it takes me another 5 years. Is this lazy design? Sure. But it’s fun, makes me happy, and lets me ignore a lot of bullshit in the indie community because it has nothing to do with what I’m doing or what I want.

When I see people complaining about the nature of relations or social status games in the community, I can only assume that they’re in a place where they’re really unhappy with something. Honestly, in my mind, yeah there are annoyances (I get annoyed about grad school too!), but there are also plenty of great, smart, open, giving people that you can talk, design, and play with both on the internet and in person. And I’d rather focus on interacting with them and on all the design and play that excites me and makes me happy rather than the negative stuff that I can’t control. What are other people even doing, design-wise? I’m not sure I could tell you except for the folks who submit to Game Chef (which is a fair number), the folks I follow locally (Sage, Harper, Jackson, etc.), and the games that I’ve played recently. So I don’t feel like I’m in a position to tell other folks what to do.

Even if I was! I mean, I read Sage’s twitter posts about being worried that his games aren’t good enough and I see myself a few years back when I felt guilty about Geiger Counter not being done and how I was secretly a failure and everybody was disappointed in me for not living up to my true potential as ground-breaking indie game designer. But that’s just me projecting! I don’t know, really, why Sage is designing games or what kind of approach or relationship to design (as a hobby) is going to make him happy. Maybe he would be horribly frustrated by the approach that is currently making me happiest. If he’s ultimately going to feel good about himself as a designer — or whatever type, with whatever publications — he’s going to have to get there himself, just like I’ll have to eventually get there myself (really, where I’m at now is better, but not quite there). I will be as supportive as possible, of course, and I hope other folks will support me when I’m feeling terrible about things, but I can’t really figure out what’s making other designers unhappy and help them get to a better place.

In any event, that’s the hedonistic approach to design that I’m advocating right now, mostly because design was making me really unhappy during certain periods before, even after I left the Forge. It’s not always a moment-to-moment hedonism, looking for a quick fix, since sometimes you have to put your chin down and work hard in order to get a better result later. But it involves paying attention to the interactions and practices that are actively making me unhappy and trying to avoid or change them, relieving stress and making sure that I have a healthy relationship with something that’s supposed to be an enjoyable hobby, not just a separate set of social responsibilities to drag me down.

P.S. How old were Ron and Vincent when they published their first games? Yeah, I’m not there yet and still feel like I’m learning how to do this. There’s plenty of time left.

7 Responses to “Design However Makes You Happiest”


  1. Thanks for writing this, it aligns pretty closely with my own sentiment in many ways.

  2. Kit Says:

    Lovely post. Thanks.

    I’m trying to make three games (with some friends) and blog about it and treat it as Serious Business, and however stressful I’m finding it, I’m also finding it enormously gratifying and fun. But it’s important to remember that fun is the only reason I do this, and when it becomes something else, I should not feel bound to it by a chain of obligation.

  3. Gregor Vuga Says:

    Yep, yep, yep and yep.

    I often find it hard to disagree with you, Jonathan. On this account, too.

  4. Eddy Says:

    I’ll be honest: It’s those kinds of blow-ups that caused me to pull away from the day-to-day discussion in the Forge (and Forge-forked) communities. There’s as much “design” as “art” in these things, and everyone comes to it in their own way, and finds their own success.


  5. I feel you. And IME, publishing a game doesn’t change any of this at all. It was only after publishing Beast Hunters that I realized that I really didn’t want to approach all of this from a business perspective. Having deadlines, worrying about revenue, doing marketing and promotion (which I loathe), forcing myself to work on one project at a time to get it finished… I almost burned out on it all. The fun was gone.

    I since switched my approach. I don’t do deadlines. I jump among projects. I haven’t finished anything in 4 years (though Anima Prime is close). I do this as my hobby again, not a small business. I have rediscovered the joy of creative sparks irrespective of whether anything results from it. Like you said, I design the way that makes me happy.

    And whether or not you “publish” Geiger Counter won’t change the fact that I’ve had several fun sessions with your drafts and will have more in the future. So thanks for sharing. 🙂

  6. John Harper Says:

    Great post, Jonathan.

    Christian: I went through the same thing after Agon. We are post-publishing brothers.

  7. jenskot Says:

    Even if Geiger Counter is never “officially” published, that won’t take away the great time I’ve had playing it.

    Happiness is highly subjective but I think that’s your point… it’s subjective.

    Regarding RPG design, lots of people focus on Jared’s 3 questions…

    1. What is your game about?
    2. How is your game about that?
    3. How does your game encourage that behavior?

    I love these questions but we need to take a further step back…

    1. What problem are you solving?
    2. Whose problem?
    3. What do you get out of it?
    4. When is it no longer worth it?

    Answer these questions and you may realize that a “game” isn’t even what you want to make.

    Sometimes we don’t know what we want till we try. No problem! If you don’t know, just do anything and then when you’re feeling reflective take a break and ask yourself these questions again.

    My smartest friends say knowing when to quit is as important as knowing when to start. Quitting is neither good or bad. Quitting is just a tool. It either serves or doesn’t serve your goals. And no one gets to tell you what you want.


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