I find myself doing a lot of different things these days. Making games requires many different activities, from design, to playtesting, to balancing, to managing art and graphic design, to writing rules, to promotion, fund raising, and sales. And I’m not just making games–I’m also writing articles, running an online store, and always looking for new opportunities. Since I’m doing a lot of this myself, I have to structure my own time, and it’s not always easy to balance everything.
Today, I’m going to discuss some strategies I use to make sure I’m always making progress on important projects. There are two important concepts that help me structure my time: motivation and prioritization. I’ll cover each of them in detail below.
Designing games, you’ll become very familiar with what motivates people, and not just your players. Understanding your own motivation is an important part of making sure you’re making progress.
I think it’s important to break motivation down into two parts: big picture motivation, and day to day motivation.
Big picture motivation is what makes you do what you do over the long term. Our society wants your big picture motivation to be acquiring money, but if that’s your motivation, making tabletop games is probably not for you.
My big picture motivation is to create games. I love the creative expression, I love the craft and the way it challenges you in so many ways, and I love seeing people laugh and have ah-ha moments when they enjoy my games. Even if I weren’t doing it full time, I would almost certainly be designing games for fun; I’m just compelled to do it. Having long term motivation like that is important when each project takes years to complete.
Note that I didn’t dive into Nothing Sacred Games with a vague idea that I wanted to be a game designer. While I’d never taken a tabletop game to market, I’d released multiple digital games (Arachnophilia and As I Lay Dying!). Having gone through the whole process, I knew I could do it, and knew I enjoyed doing it. Even if you think you really want to be a game designer, I strongly recommend trying it (as soon as possible!) to make sure you still have the long term motivation in the face of never-ending to-do lists and frustrating obstacles.
Day to day motivation is what keeps you working every morning, instead of falling into the gaping void that is the internet. You may really want to make games, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be excited to tackle every task that needs to be done. So how do you motivate yourself to do the less-than-fun parts?
The best method I’ve discovered is deadlines. When you’re in school or working for someone else, deadlines can feel arbitrary and unnecessary. But not only are many deadlines actually important (rent, for example), they play a key psychological role. You know how many students avoid working on their projects and papers until the night before they’re due? The limitation causes stress, and the stress causes people to get their butts in gear and stop procrastinating.
I try to set myself deadlines all the time. I set myself long term deadlines (release this game before Christmas), and then short term deadlines (test the written rules this weekend). That said, I try not to wait until the last minute to work on any tasks… I’ve found iteration is the key to quality, and I really value high quality, so I try to give myself multiple deadlines to make sure everything has time to be tested and revised before the final, actual deadline.
If you have trouble keeping your own arbitrary deadlines, try attaching social obligations. That could mean aiming for specific conventions or contests, or it could simply mean getting a prototype ready for playtesting at your local game night. Whatever it is, tell people you will do something, and stick to your word. Disappointing yourself isn’t too bad; disappointing your peers can feel awful.
So you know you want to do something… what should you do? This is a hard question, and has multiple answers.
Prioritizing projects. Designers often start with one big project idea they’re really excited about, and just dive head first into it. I don’t actually think that’s a good approach. Things will often end up a lot better if you have many different ideas, and pick one that is most appropriate.
So how do you decide what’s most appropriate? There are lots of important things to consider… do you care about market feasibility (i.e. money)? Do you have the resources and skills to complete a project? How much time do you have to dedicate to it?
Of the many important considerations, I think scope is most important. One of the biggest dangers in picking a project is biting off more than you can chew. If your idea is too big or will take too long, there’s a good chance you’ll burn out, and little will demoralize like seeing a project you were once excited about turn into a chore, stall out, and die. Pick a project that’s interesting, that will challenge you, that excites you, but most importantly, pick something you can actually accomplish.
Prioritizing tasks. Every project involves many, many different components. This is especially true for games. When you wake up, how do you know what tasks to work on that day?
The obvious thing is to do what needs to be done first. Some tasks require others to be completed before you start them… do the first ones first! But it’s not always easy to know the proper order, and sometimes there isn’t a linear progression of tasks.
My general strategy is to think of a project like a sculpture. You don’t want to start by focusing on the details of one small thing. Instead, you want to start by forming a general, rough shape. This means you’ll have something to show for every part of your project, even if it’s ugly. That way, you can get a holistic view of the project to better identify which parts to focus on. It also ensures that the project, and you, stay flexible and don’t get attached to parts before they’re ready.
Once you have a rough view of the whole project, you can start refining important parts, especially those that show they need help or aren’t working. Again, don’t get too bogged down by making small things perfect. You don’t want to spend a lot of time working on something only to discover the project would be better without it.
You’ll iterate on the whole project repeatedly, improving every part at least a little every time you do. By the end you’ll be worrying about polish and finish, but not a moment before you need to. This also makes sure you don’t neglect any particular aspect of the project, another danger that comes from perfecting small things early.
Always be testing. Another way to think about prioritizing tasks is to always make sure you’re ready to test your project. Often times, it’s playtesting that limits forward momentum, so you want to make sure you’re able to take advantage of any opportunities that come up.
In practice, this means always fix problems that will prevent you from “running” your project. For you developers out there, this is the equivalent to making sure your project always builds. If there’s something broken, fix it.
Next, prioritize what needs to be tested. If a previous test showed that one particular part of the game isn’t working, make sure you spend time updating it to see if a tweak or major overhaul will work better.
But whatever you do, make sure your game is fully ready to test, and focus on the things you need to test early. You need to test the core system, individual mechanics, graphic design, and balance. Focus on those things before you worry about art and the like.
Prioritize the unfun stuff. It’s really easy to always put off the tasks that you don’t enjoy. For me, that’s a lot of the businessy and marketing stuff. But you need to do those tasks, so make a special effort to make sure you’re not ignoring them. Try rewarding yourself with a fun task only after you complete an unfun one. Or make dealing with the unfun stuff a daily activity to make sure you don’t let it build up and feel overwhelmed by it.
Prioritize the fun stuff. One of the most surprising things about working on my own projects is that I sometimes feel guilty when I work on the tasks I enjoy the most, like exploring new core game systems and brainstorming mechanics. Those are my favorite parts of game design, and when I do them, I always feel like I’m not working, like I’m putting off other more urgent tasks I should be doing.
But you need to make sure you do what you enjoy! For one thing, those tasks need to be completed just like any others. But more importantly, you need to always be able to find joy in your work! Why else would you be working for yourself?
I could probably spend a million words discussing how to structure your own time. I’m sure there are some tricks that I do that I don’t even realize. But ultimately, I think it comes down to knowing yourself and making sure you’re putting yourself into situations where you’re likely to want to work and succeed. Otherwise, you’re setting yourself for failure and burnout.
Whatever you do, make sure you’re making progress on something you can hope to achieve! Every day, get a little closer to releasing something you can be proud of. At the same time, take a moment to look back on your accomplishments and remember how hard you worked for them. And then look forward and wonder what is yet to come.
I would like to thank my generous supporters on Patreon for the inspiration and encouragement to make this this article possible.