How to 10X Your Game Design Abilities

This past weekend at PAX Unplugged, I gave a talk on Making Games that Last, with principles I’ve learned over the last decade of making Ascension. At the end, people could ask questions about their own projects. Several questions revolved around getting a game from start to finish. Today, I want to go over one of the most impactful concepts that helps me and my team get our games completed by deadline: Habit Formation.

The single most important force that determines the quality of your life are the habits you adopt and the way they compound. For example, going to the gym once, no matter how hard you workout, will have little effect on your body, but going regularly, even for just 15 minutes a day will dramatically improve your health and fitness. 

When you have healthy habits that support your goals and values, leveling up your life becomes nearly automatic. Just like driving a car, at first, the task is hard and requires effort, but after a while, it becomes so automatic, you can drive for miles without even realizing it! This is because it’s impossible to bring full focus and attention to everything we do, all the time. Focus takes a lot of energy. Our brains don’t like to waste energy on repetitive tasks. Instead, they want to put those tasks on autopilot. We call this neural autopilot a habit. Habits can either support or sabotage your goals. The trick to adopting healthy habits is the same as learning a new skill in a video game, like Super Mario Bros:
Trigger: Goomba shows up on the screen.
Action: Jump on the Goomba.
Reward: Points, plus a smooshed Goomba.
Repeat: Throw more Goombas on the screen.

To use this skill in real life, first, you’ll need a notebook or a print out calendar (physical tracking has been proven to work better than digital). Then, you’ll need to choose a habit you’d like to form. Then, follow this habit-forming sequence:Create a consistent trigger, like setting an alarm at a specific time.Perform the action you chose, like filling out your habit page in the morning.Reward the behavior, like checking off a habit and seeing the chain of marks grow.Repeat this sequence every day. It’ll take time (about a month of consistent practice), but eventually, you’ll have a new habit. Consistency is key. If game design is a goal for you, then one of your habits (you can choose a few) should be in regards to game design. Maybe it’s as simple as “twenty minutes a day jotting down ideas for my game.” If that’s too much, try dropping down to “five minutes a day working on my game.”

Five minutes a day may sound silly, but this is a trick game designers have been using for decades. Teach something small (like jumping on a Goomba). Then, after a player has mastered that skill, give them the next step (like double jumping on multiple Goombas in a row for a bigger reward). So you start with five minutes and once you’re doing that regularly, see if you can increase the time to ten or fifteen minutes. In all cases, the goal is to get that checkmark down every day, so the habit forms and game design becomes part of your everyday routine. 

Feel free to comment below with the habits you plan on forming, often times knowing that someone else is aware of what you’re attempting can keep you motivated enough to continue the journey. Plus, I’d love to hear how it goes!

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