Why actions alone don't produce great results: What I learned from writer's block in game development

When I started out as a game developer, I had no idea what I was doing. Progress was erratic: on some days, I couldn’t even bring myself to open the IDE. On other days, I would pull off long sessions of productive coding and writing. However, no matter how many of those productive sessions happened, it didn’t feel like I was making any progress. In that limbo while creating something out of nothing, I have felt the most frustration and despair; my vision of the completed game seemed insurmountable.

In the end, it took me hundreds of hours of sweat equity to complete the development of my first game. But I did it, contrary to all the doubts that my past self had. In this article, I write down all that I would have told my past self, if I could go back in time, what exactly it took to get from nothing to something. At the core, it is the understanding that consistency, rather than action, is crucial to success.

Overnight successes are never created overnight

During my writer/coder’s blocks, to seek inspiration, I looked up several games known for being “overnight successes” in media. These might include Stardew Valley by Eric Barone, which made the creator a millionaire on launch day; Flappy Bird by Dong Nguyen, and many more.

I investigated deeper into many developers that made it big “overnight”. Without fail, I would find their old websites with dozens of games. Often, they had many past projects that would never make it big: prototypes, games that looked extremely low budget, and so on.

A pattern emerged: these “overnight successes” had always shipped several games already, such as Dong Nguyen, or in Eric Barone’s case, remade the same game over and over to improve it. While making Stardew Valley, he had completely redone the graphics, and rehauled the dialogue and mechanics countless times. Eric also worked 70-hour weeks on the game, for 4 years.

The key to “making it big” is simply consistency

In other words, these successful developers basically did one thing: they kept making games. I was only on my first “serious” game project, and was already feeling so discouraged… How could I hope to build a portfolio like theirs? But looking at the old, low-budget projects and prototypes of those developers, I felt a sense of relief. Because I was just making my first commercial game, I should allow myself to be imperfect, just like those prototypes. I just needed to keep going, code block by code block and scene by scene, because that’s what those successful developers did.

And so it became clear to me that simply consistently building and shipping is the key to making great games. However, to round up my research, I needed to be sure consistency is a repeatable way to achieve success. Many of those examples were extreme, such as literally becoming a millionaire overnight. I knew that for every one of those wild cases, there would be even more games that failed commercially. But, I had a feeling that there were also a good amount of successes that weren’t reported in media, that I could reliably emulate and achieve with consistency.

One relatable example of consistency and success is the developer ebi-hime, who has created an impressive portfolio of games over the years, with 19 visual novel games released on Steam at the time of writing. She has been nothing but consistent, even if her very old games were all released for free, not sold on Steam. She wrote 100,000s of words simply for free, and didn’t stop even when they didn’t get attention at the time, compared to her commercially successful releases nowadays.

From the spectrum of examples of game developer success, I came to this conclusion: I just need to consistently make games and not get distracted by other doubts. Recognition shouldn’t matter so much for my first game, since none of those people got famous for their very first iteration of their games. They simply were consistent, and built their games roster up for years. Then, when the time was right, they landed wildly successful releases.

Without consistency, action is useless

“Words lie. Actions can lie too. Consistency speaks the truth.” - Trent Shelton

Anything that seems impossible, such as those game developers’ accomplishments, is actually an accumulation of one single day or one single hour’s work, repeated again and again. We can do one hour of focused work, right? It follows that we, as “normal people”, can also add up those small, achievable units of effort and time into something incredible. But that’s only if we are consistent. Without consistency, actions don’t even have the chance to build up to something substantial.

To use the example of working out: results in endurance don’t come quickly, but if one is motivated to work out only when seeing results, and gives up when not seeing results immediately, the results will never come. Giving up because of the need for instant gratification is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Working out once or twice are actions; what yields results is consistently working out, not occasional actions.

Macro consistency, micro habits

We’ve talked about consistency on a macro level, which is that great results are achieved with consistent action, and not just actions here and there. Then, we’ve broken it down into an accumulation of smaller units of focused work, such as writing/coding/exercising, repeated many times a day, which is then repeated for many months. This leads us to examine consistency at the micro level. Doing something at a regular interval, in other words, is achieved by building habits.

Now, building habits isn’t easy! How many times have we said “I’m going to do [action] every [day/week]!” but that promise ends up fading away quickly and quietly? To allow for habits to be our framework for consistent action, we need to be accountable to ourselves; meaning that we take ownership of our actions, no matter what the circumstances are.

Accountability and habits: Don’t give yourself any way to hide

To elaborate, consistency can’t happen if the “circumstances” dictate what we end up doing. The game developers kept going, not just stopping because of bad days or bad months. In my case, after learning from those stumps and writer’s block, I took some time to regroup, then pushed past it, not allowing the circumstances to stop me from coding. On a day to day level, this means habits are not something you skip “just because”. They should not be optional.

The key to enforcing this, is to track your habits meticulously, regardless if you did it or not that day. You cannot give yourself any excuse to hide, such as not tracking habits selectively when you didn’t do it. I have unfortunately done that before, when I missed many days, and therefore let myself go and stopped tracking, then, the self-fulfilling prophecy would come true and the habit never stuck. Track habits even when you fail! This makes the world of a difference.

Personally, I use pen and paper for tracking, as mentioned in my daily journaling habit article. To give a summary: if I plan to do something daily, I have a section in the journal where I mark down if I did do it or not. This is how I tracked the pomodoros that I planned to do for game development.

For those that are already used to tracking something on their phone daily, digital tracking tools such as Way of life app could be useful. I ended up not using it since I would forget to open the app.

Without commitment to habits, consistency can’t be achieved

Previously I’ve mentioned that tracking regardless of success or not is great for accountability and taking ownership despite external circumstances. But how do we define “difficult circumstances”? What if “something comes up”, making us unable to carry out our “habits” that day? This brings us to the next common challenge of habit building: the lack of true commitment.

The reason I used quotation marks in “habits” in the above paragraph is, to be blunt, that actions don’t count as a habit if you don’t do it “because of a bad day”. That is literally not the definition of a habit. If you are coding only when you feel like it, that’s not a habit. If you skip the gym often because of “bad days”, that’s not a gym habit, but an occasional action of going to the gym. To reiterate: one-off actions are different from consistency and habits.

When the times are tough, that’s when commitment makes a huge difference. If one truly wants something, they are willing to commit and do it despite the circumstances. One is willing to sacrifice if they really are treating these habits as a priority. If I want to be a successful game developer, I have to be willing to pay the price - and that is commitment. Those successes don’t come for free and never will.

This is where some people struggle, for example in their attempts to build a data science portfolio, or prepare for interviews. They stop prematurely, thinking that because they’ve whipped something up really quickly, it’s enough. Unfortunately, whereas one can pass a final exam in school by cramming (short term action), real life isn’t like that. On the other hand, I have seen many great candidates that commit to being consistent, and their portfolios tend to stand out from the rest because they have accumulated a variety of projects.

Of course, I trust you understand that I don’t mean there are never any exceptions to accountability and commitment. The level of severity of what counts as “a bad day” I leave up to you. Trust me, you will know deep in your heart if it’s just an excuse or not, but for example even if you were super sick you’d probably still brush your teeth. Everyone is capable of building habits that are as uncompromisable as that, as long as they commit, and hold themselves accountable.

Summary

I wrote this article while reflecting on a mindset shift that helped me through periods of frustration on my game development journey. This was that successful developers weren’t just overnight successes, but rather had consistently been building games, which led them up to this point. They kept building, even before their games got recognition, and even after releasing games that were commercial failures. This led to me learning to focus on building what’s in front of me, ignoring doubts, and staying consistent.

But of course, it wouldn’t be me if I didn’t figure out a way to tie this into my daily habits: which really are the foundation to achieving consistency. So we walked through two core components of habit building, accountability (tracking), and commitment (not making excuses).

To sum up: great results come not from occasional action, but consistent action. Habits are a foundation of consistent action, and it is important to build habits that one does regardless of the circumstances. I hope this could help you, as I would have loved to go back in time to share this with my past self. Here’s to consistent building of something amazing!

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