How Much Work Does It Take To Become A Great Game Developer?

Malcolm Gladwell, the author of best selling books such as Blink and The Tipping Point, recently released a book entitled Outliers. Gladwell’s books sell incredibly well, and I own two of them, but I have found that the premise and promise of his books is always better than the writing and delivery, which I find kind of dry and long winded. My personal opinion aside, a meme that came out of the Outliers book is the proposition that to get truly great at something takes 10,000 hours of hard work and practice, which at the full time rate of 2,080 working hours per year is five years.

I agree with Gladwell’s take on this. What? You mean it is going to take me FIVE YEARS to get good at making games? No, I’m saying it is going to take you five years to get good at what you do, but it may take much longer to really make it.

Of course, you can point to some products like iShoot, where the developer had never made a game before and is now quitting his day job due to his game’s success on the iPhone. Sure, there will be some lucky developers that break out and get a hit before they have put in their time, but those will not be the norm. Seth Godin has a good take on this, and argues that the 10,000 hours can vary depending upon the market, and smaller, newer markets are more likely to have lucky break out hits. He puts it really well with this statement:

But, ready for this? The Dip is much closer in niche areas, new areas, unexplored areas. You can get through the Dip in an online network or with a new kind of music because being seen as the best in that area is easier (at least for now). You can get through the Dip as a real estate broker in a new, growing town a lot quicker than someone in midtown Manhattan. The competition is thinner and probably less motivated.

So, even though there may be some niches in games that you can break into because they are over looked or just emerging, my take is that you don’t want to count on luck. Just buckle down and become really great at what you do. If you don’t want to work hard, there is somebody out there that is working hard at becoming great, and they will take your place. I have written a basic outline of how to spend those fives year in my Five Realistic Steps To Becoming A Game Developer article. If you love what you are doing, the time will fly by.

-Jeff Tunnell, Game Maker
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  • jgostylo

    Jeff, a Seth Godin reader? See, we do have a lot in common.

    It seems that the idea of being the best to command the market is becoming a popular theme. What are your thoughts in field specialization versus being well versed in many areas? For my part, I always wanted to do game design, and more than that want to specialize in designing game economics. I find that in order to see anything of mine put into practice (and have a demonstrable product) I spend most of my time working on things outside this specialization. Maybe that is not a bad thing as game companies, especially smaller ones, seem to want people (especially designers) that can wear many hats. It seems that other positions on the game team are given greater allowance to specialize but with a small enough team this becomes less true.

    • Jeff Tunnell

      Sometimes you have to take a circuitous route to get where you want to go. If you read the about section of this blog, it states that all I have ever wanted to do was make games, but to do that I have had to start companies, raise money, sell companies, etc. Just keep your eye on the target you want to reach and make sure you are always doing something to move toward that goal. You will get there. That said, designing game economics is a pretty tight specialization, in fact, I have never heard of it. Are you aiming toward keeping the economies running smoothly in MMO's?

      • jgostylo

        Keeping economies running smoothly in an MMO is definitely part of where I want to go. I want to create interfaces that allow people to exert complex control intuitively over an economy. I want games that I am involved in to make economic sense and not detract from the game with their arbitrariness. I am a person driven toward creating uniqueness so I would love to come up with a new economic paradigm for game use. I realize that I need to go through the motions with more classical systems because it is easier to solve problems and not try to create in a vacuum. And if I have enough exposure to the classical systems I would still probably be valuable to a game team even if I never do pull a John Nash.

        Maybe trying to specialize that much in games is more of a +1 type of endeavor. “I am an experienced game designer, oh and by the way I am also one of the top designers in the world at creating game economies” would not hurt your chances at landing a position. Possibly the niche for that kind of specialization is just as a contractor who comes in, evaluates, and refactors games for other companies.

  • Randy Dersham

    I completely agree. Years ago I attended a motivational seminar by Mark Victor Hansen and have since seen this theme repeated by most successful people. He comes across as get rich quick but that's the marketing spin. The meat of his message is “you can do it” and “it takes seven years to be a superstar”. A great idea, clear vision, and reasonable plan are important but there is nothing as important as hard work and persistence. I believe short cuts are accidents.

  • joshuadallman

    Great advice and so true. I've been trying to make it as an indie for 5 years now, I hadn't even realized I crossed that threshold until I was asked how long I've been doing this. As a struggling-to-succeed indie you definitely have spats of soul searching where you wonder if you're going to make it given that you've put in so much time and blood and sweat towards that end. It's painful to read about “quick success” stories like iShoot, and the effect is clear when talented and smart co-workers of mine, passionate about game development, read quick-buck stories like this and chase after them instead of just making the games they want to make, thinking they can do overnight what others have worked years for and failed to do. With stories like this in many markets, I end up second-guessing myself all the time — is X the emerging hot market I should get into, or is Y? Or is it Z, which I previously dismissed as being behind the curve and over-saturated — maybe I was wrong? All this second-guessing takes a back seat when you take the bird's eye view and see that success simply takes time (and hard work, but especially time). Given that I'm at the 5 year mark and have made less than $100 on sales from my games that I've spent years and tens of thousands of dollars on, I like Randy's “7 year” yardstick better than the “5 year” one :) 5 down, 2 to go… I wouldn't say that time has flown by, there have been too many struggles for that, but I would say that there is no other way I would have liked to have spent my time here on earth than making games, so success or not, the process is its own reward. Games are my joy.

    A last anecdote, when I was signing games for the GarageGames Game Store, I ran into a curious pattern. I'd often find a hot-shit game from an indie developer whose game got lots of great press in the indie game scene, and I'd play the game, and it would have that little pearl of brilliance that's at the center of truly great game design, and I would join the ranks in declaring the game brilliant. Oftentimes this would be among the first games a designer would make. Since we were trying to sign up a ton of indie games, I'd check the developer's other games that they made after the superstar one. They made one great game, so their others should be awesome too, right? Boy was I wrong. Time after time, the developers other games would SUCK. Ironically, due to the success of their first game, they'd have more budget to make subsequent games, but they'd all lack that pearl of brilliance that was in the first one. Why is this? Well, essentially the developer got LUCKY with a game mechanic or formula that just plain clicked with people. But because they were new, even though they stumbled upon this magic gameplay for this one game, they'd be unable to ever repeat the success, because they didn't understand gameplay on deep enough of a level to deconstruct and repeat it. I would rather skip the quick success and have a string of learning projects, so that I may one day CONSISTENTLY make successful games, as opposed to getting lucky with the quick one-off, not understanding my luck, then never being able to repeat it. I think the same can happen in film, too, when a first-time director makes a brilliant first film, with all subsequent films lacking. I have more respect for a PopCap that can consistently churn out quality addicting intriguing games than an indie who gets one hit followed by a string of lackluster follow-ups.

    • Jeff Tunnell

      Hey, your time at GG working with me flew by didn't it? Once you move to Flash, your stuff is going to take off !!! :) Awesome comment, and so true.

  • Logan Foster

    One thing that I have found very useful as someone who came from a “cousin” industry into games (coming from TV/Video production and Arch/Viz) was to diversify your gaming. Even if your goal is to make the best dammed FPS title ever with your secret design document you have been squirreling away for years, getting experiance in what makes other genres of games great is so very crucial IMHO.

    People that want to make games need to play every genre of game from AAA to Casual, from FPS to RTS to Puzzle and everything in between. What is also important IMHO is to go and play non-computer games too, games like Risk, Monopoly, Poker, Crib, Magic the Gatherin (or any other modern CCG) and Pen & Paper RPGs are very critial to understanding what makes something so dammed simple so very fun. Sadly I rarely see people diversifying into classic and non-computer gaming and I think that its a real disappointment that no one is slapping them upside the head and saying “hey dummy”.

    • Jeff Tunnell

      Great point, Logan. I would like to add that when you are playing games, make sure you are not just PLAYING them. Watch other people play them, ask why they like them, try to understand WHY a game is successful even if you don't like it, etc. Along these lines, I have always wanted to create many different kinds of games, so much so, that sometimes I feel I should have focused a little more. But, if I had done that, I would not have created some of my best games.

    • Steven Egan

      I know of one person who tries to do that in her blog, Brenda Brathwaite at Applied Game Design. She's actually working on some board games and blogs about those efforts from time to time.

    • joshuadallman

      Playing games — even non-video games — is definitely important to learning game design. However, I wouldn't stop at board games — ANY kind of play can help! Famously, Keita Takahashi (of Katamari Damacy fame) has gone on to design children's playgrounds, starting with one in Nottingham, UK! How cool is that.

  • Leroy Frederick

    Great post Jeff, I'm a fan of Seth Godin myself. Very wise words indeed! Experience is so invaluable, especially when it's learned from.

    Nice post too Joshua. I'm at the 5 year mark as an indie myself and although it is a bit jarring and a little demoralising to sometimes see some indies make it big with their first effort or in short time period, the long term experience / failures are invaluable and will make your (and hopefully mines too) pending critical and commercial success all the more sweeter and relevant! It will also insure success it handled wiser and not taking for granted as it can be for those that it comes all too easily/quickly for.

  • Steven Egan

    Some related content about the 10,000 hours concept can be found at the following two web pages. It's an interesting read and gives a more in-depth understanding of why it takes so long to become an expert.

    • Jeff Tunnell

      Great find.

  • Scott Hsu-Storaker

    A few of us have actually put this idea into practice over the past few years and report on our progress each week. I remember when I was taking a writing class many years ago, our teacher told us to think about a five year plan and I thought she was nuts for asking us to wait that long. Boy, how impatient (and wrong) I was! The educational part about accounting for progress is that I end up realizing just how much hard work it takes to get to my goal.

    • Jeff Tunnell

      Nice. I've been following GBGames on Twitter and his blog, but came in after the 1,000 hours post. I always thought it was about 1,000 of playing games from his Twitter snippets. I should have looked into it better. Thanks.

  • Eastbeast314

    Reading Outliers definitely validated a lot of parentally questionable computer time in high school for me.

    The more potent point for me, however, was that the big difference in outcomes between two equally capable people can be simple perseverance. The examples of the Asian math students gave me hope that the months I spent trying to figure out a hard crash bug instead of making any progress at all on my games were actually well spent _and_ part of being coming a competent developer. It seems plenty obvious now, but when things seem painfully unclear it can certainly be refreshing to remember the value of stubbornly hitting a problem over and over again.

    • Jeff Tunnell

      Being stubborn and just putting your head down is a big part of the success equation. The “10 year over night success” !

      • joshuadallman

        Here's two quotes from an article I really enjoyed:

        “If the activities that lead to greatness were easy and fun, then everyone would do them and no one could distinguish the best from the rest. The reality that deliberate practice is hard can even be seen as good news. It means that most people won't do it. So your willingness to do it will distinguish you all the more.”

        “What you want – really, deeply want – is fundamental because deliberate practice is an investment: The costs come now, the benefits later. The more you want something, the easier it will be for you to sustain the needed effort until the payoff starts to arrive. But if you're pursuing something that you don't truly want and are competing against others whose desire is deep, you can guess the outcome.”

        - Why Talent is Overrated, CNN

  • Jeremy Alessi

    This is a very interesting topic. I could talk at length about this but I think it's safe to say that luck does play a large part in making games. That is to say when preparation meets opportunity you can succeed. Ethan Nicholas worked for Sun Microsystems so he had the programming skills necessary to develop a game. He was prepared and then the iPhone's unique publishing model presented the proper opportunity.

    At the end of the day making games is a lot like surfing. Once you know the basics it's all about getting in the water at the right time. Anyone can catch a great wave. It stinks when you've been stalling in the sun all day only to see someone paddle out and instantly catch a great ride but that's the way it goes.

    Even when you look at the greats you don't see successive hit after hit. Alexey Pajotnov is one of my favorite case studies. He created what is arguably the greatest game ever in Tetris. Yet the only other game he ever made worth playing was Hexic, which let's face it isn't nearly the game that Tetris was relative to their respective contemporaries. That's the cool thing about game development though. It only takes one or two really good games to be considered successful. I don't think most developers envision themselves creating hit after hit. Rather, I think most hope to create a 1-hit-wonder like Worms and then live off that single IP for the rest of their lives. Even Shigeru Miyamoto (arguably the best designer) has really only created a fistful of great IP's.

    • Jeff Tunnell

      “All hits are flukes” is a famous saying in the movie business, and to a certain extent, I agree with it. What the phrase is referring to is the fact that we are in a “batting average” business. However, people with a lot of experience tend to have better averages or catch more waves as you would put it. Saying that Shigeru Miyamoto only has a handful of hits is like saying Mozart only created a few songs. It seems to miss the point a little. There is a difference between creating new IP's and being a great game developer. This article was not about creating IP's.

      • Jeremy Alessi

        What I was inferring is that Shigeru Miyamoto created a few good games and then subsequently updated those games with the hardware changes over the last 30 years. However, if you look at some of the newer IP's (the basis of all games as I see it) he's created they are not scoring as well as games that he didn't even produce (like Zelda Wind Waker or Super Mario Sunshine) but are simply part of the IP's he created way back when. Specifically, Pikmin and Wii Music are sub-par for Miyamoto.

        As it relates back to the actual article, I wouldn't necessarily agree that you get more likely to find financial success with experience. I think people have a certain pattern going on inside their brain and if they get lucky enough for that pattern to resonate at a certain point in time then so be it. Miyamoto had great patterns for the last 3 decades. Ethan Nicholas had a great pattern for our current time. I only hope to get lucky enough for my pattern to be desired sometime before I die.

        While I agree that you can get technically better at what you do it can only enhance your thought process. If you're thought process is not desirable to people then no amount of practice will help you. The only thing that can help you then is the alignment of exterior forces or the opportunity.

        As designers we are constructed of 3 parts. The first part is that innate ability we all have to construct what we consider to be fun situations in our own minds, the imagination. The second part is what we do to augment our imaginations, this is the technical know-how. Without this component we are merely crying babies trying to get an idea across with no means to communicate clearly what our intentions are. The third part of course is the opportunity. In life there are those rare occasions when everything goes just right like perhaps the first time you met your significant other. It's these moments that bring it all together. Your god-given body chemistry, life experiences, and then opportunity combine to form something wonderful. This is how a great game is made. Some people meet their soul mate when they're in high school and some are still single at 40. This is analogous to making games. Some people will do it on their first time out and some will have to plug away through many failures before they find success. Finally, as depressing as it may sound some people will toil away and never find true success although hopefully they will find related success through a tangent of some sort.

        • Jeff Tunnell

          Sounds to me like you are saying, you either have it or you don't, and even if you do have it, you have to be lucky. Or great artists are born, not made. I do believe that there are innate talents that people have, but I also think it takes a huge amount of work to polish those talents into skills. On the other hand, I believe that anybody can make it with hard work, and that there are enough differing skills and talents needed to make games that there is a place in this industry for people that work hard.

          • Ben Garney

            Mozart – a true genius – had innate ability. But there are a million guys who didn't have the genius he did and were successful and got rich and famous.

            I wanna be one of those million guys. I'd be OK succeeding as much as a hack like Britney Spears. Hopefully minus the tabloid coverage and weird family dynamics.

          • Jeremy Alessi

            What I'm saying is that you either have it or you don't for a certain period of time. If you don't keep working hard at what you love then you won't be prepared if the opportunity presents itself. The only caveat is that you must be willing to accept the fact that within your entire lifespan your mind might not ever be in sync with the world at large. Of course if you stop working or preparing then your mind is guaranteed to fail when the opportunity comes along.

            In short, I agree with you but I love a good conversation.

          • Jeff Tunnell

            Me, too, and your thoughts are much appreciated.

  • Face Poker

    I have looked over your blog a few times and I love it.