About a year ago I went to the adoption shelter and happily brought home a happy little two month old black labrador mix puppy. I'd like to say that I rescued him from a harsh existence chained to someone's back porch, but the truth is that he's never known a hard day in his life. But as a first time dog owner, I confess I had very little idea on how to properly train this new barely-tamed animal I'd caged up in my home. He was militaristic about having fun. He saw everything as either eatable chewable or biteable. He was stubborn enough to start a stubble farm, and I didn't know how to handle it. As such, I turned to America's favorite crutch to educate myself in the proper raising and training of my furry little ball of biting: Television.
Anybody who has an affection for dogs has heard of the self-proclaimed "Dog Whisperer" who appears weekly on the National Geographic channel, claiming to be not a dog trainer but a dog "psychologist." His ways are odd and often awkward, but he gets results pretty quickly. But what I grew to like about Cesar wasn't what he taught me about how to deal with my high-energy dog, but rather what he taught me about how to deal with people, and how to approach situations. After a while I found myself applying these things not just to dogs but to life in general, including my game development practices.
Rules, Boundaries, Limitations
Every dog needs rules, boundaries, and limitations. Many people who call Cesar find they have troubles that stem from the dog having a free license to do whatever it wants. For fear of hurting or abusing the dog, or perhaps just out of love, they never tell the dog "no." The dog then becomes the master of the house, the insatiable monster who knocks over chairs and tears open the garbage. After all, nobody told it not to. According to Cesar, a dog needs rules boundaries and limitations. It needs to know its place as a mutt and not as the resident sock-eater.
Humans also need rules boundaries and limitations. Without a constraint to work inside, you can lose focus. If you're given the opportunity to go in all ways at once, you'll end up going nowhere. A good game design, especially one for a small game like indie developers typically produce, typically involves finding one or two novel elements and iterating on them. Even I find myself biting off more than I can chew even though I try so hard to keep the scope down. Sometimes I don't even realize I'm doing it, and it takes others chastising me to realize how much more ambitious I am than I have to be.
Continue Trying Until Something Works
When Cesar is working with a particularly difficult case, you can see a look of concentration across his face. He focuses totally in on this dog. Many times his first technique to help the dog doesn't work, but one thing I came to admire about him was how quickly he would decide that his current technique wasn't working, abandon it, and move on to another one. He would continue this until he found something that the dog would respond to. He unrelentingly tries one technique after another, switching between them so fast and with such confidence that often you don't notice that the whole thing is really just a series of attempts to get a response. He usually doesn't have to try more than two or three things to get the response he wants, but this process demonstrates that the problem isn't really with the dog. The real problem is, how much time are you willing to devote to helping this dog? With enough of a time investment, any problem is solvable.
Now dogs are quite different from games in that they're living things and you have a responsibility to help them if they need it. With games though, there's about a million and a half things to do and definitely not enough time to do all of them. But of the many difficult design problems I have to solve on a daily basis as a game designer I have to remind myself that all of them have good solutions. If I'm too attached to my current implementation then I might blind myself to a better one, but that better solution is out there and eventually I'll find it if I work on it long enough. We'll see if that happens before or after the deadline.
Exercise and Discipline
Cesar Millan thinks all dogs need exercise and discipline. It's 2pm and I haven't gone on my daily run. I usually try to go before noon but today I've been extra busy. What happens when I don't run? First I get ancy. I feel like I have too much energy that I haven't been able to get out. After a few days of not running, I start to feel a bit burned out. I get somewhat depressed and my motivation for working decreases. This causes me to want to run even less and it becomes a vicious cycle. Not running makes me depressed and being depressed makes me not want to run.
But when I go on my daily runs it's a different story. I find that the small amount of time I take each day exercising is more than made up by the extra productivity I gain. I come back from each run with a new burst of energy and drive to get work done. The next day I feel great and I run further than I did on the last day. Then I get back to my desk and do more great work. It's a positive reinforcement cycle that can last for weeks.
I think I'll go on that run now.