One of the things I absolutely love about game design is that I’m learning all the time. In this article, I’m going to talk a little about what ‘baby steps’ really mean and how you can go about learning new game dev skills — or anything else — to become a better game designer, GM, or whatever.
Think about it; what do ‘baby steps’ actually mean? First of all, they’re small and slow. Baby’s don’t take steps until they’ve first managed to support the weight of their own head, roll around, push themselves up, crawl, and then pull themselves up and stand. That’s a whole lot of learning that’s happening in a brain that’s a giant information sponge — and we haven’t even taken a ‘baby step’ yet.
When babies start walking, they get everywhere, exploring the world around them and enjoying the new freedom afforded to them by their little legs. It’s fun, and the risk of falling doesn’t hold them back much.
If there’s a new skill you want to learn — and this doesn’t just apply to learning new game dev skills — then you need to be like a baby:
In a recent interview, with Kenny from Oh! Sheep, I talked about following your passion. Passion certainly fuels motivation, but things can quickly start to look more like work than play when the lines between your job and hobby blur. You have to keep things fun, and that often comes down to finding the fun.
If you can’t find ways to keep things fun for yourself and you’re creating games, writing for entertainment, or trying to bring joy to others, then that’s something worth investigating for yourself. Ultimately, I think it comes down to a sense of play or having a puzzle to solve. A lot of the time work throws puzzles at you, and trying to crack them can be a lot of fun.
I once asked my dad why I’d never seen the train set he had as a boy laid out before. He told me that, as an engineer and property developer, he was doing that sort of thing every day, only on a much bigger scale. His job was full of puzzles, and there was a sense of play to his work. It has kept him motivated, even after suffering a debilitating stroke.
Compete with Yourself
Unlike most of us, babies are never comparing themselves to other babies and putting themselves down for what they can’t do.
It seems even more difficult to avoid comparing ourselves these days, thanks to social media. When was the last time you came away from social media feeling good about yourself? If Twitter or Facebook left you feeling down or angry the last time you visited, what types of posts affected you and how did they make you feel, personally? Did you feel like you weren’t achieving enough? I often get that feeling when browsing social media.
The thing is to compete with yourself, not with the world. It’s far better to get better each day than to be like someone else, and it’s far less draining.
That’s the motivation mostly out of the way. Let’s get practical for a moment.
Breaking It Down into the Basics
I picked up skateboarding again two months ago. I’m… not very good, but I see a lot of things more clearly now than I did when I was a kid, inspired by Rodney Mullen and Tony Hawk and trying to learn to ride for the first time.
For one thing, we’re incredibly lucky to have the Internet and sites like YouTube that make learning more accessible. That doesn’t mean that all of the content is good, accurate, or useful, but we can easily skim through basic information in a couple of minutes, assimilate and process it, then apply it.
Most YouTube videos (and posts like this one) tend to provide the surface information, and you have to dig deeper to gain true mastery. That’s true of many books too, but we have to be aware that we’re only scratching the surface.
As an example, something that doesn’t come up much in videos on skateboarding is how important it is to get the basics right. Yes, many videos talk about where to put your feet for a trick, but few people are talking about getting comfortable on your board, riding in different stances, riding backwards, getting comfortable turning, stopping, and generally mastering the basics. Nobody thinks these basics are cool. Maybe they’re just seen as the gateway to becoming a real skater. Even though these skills are fundamental to being able to skateboard and the best skateboarders have mastered these skills.
In Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else, Geoff Colvin talks about deliberate practice, and a part of that is getting the right practice for your needs. This, I think, also means not getting too far ahead of yourself.
I recently read an article about a martial artist that spent lockdown practicing footwork, the “literal foundation” of martial arts. He listed three goals he had:
1. Be comfortable with either foot leading.
2. Be able to stop instantly without losing balance.
3. Maintain a good posture throughout his movement.
By focusing on these basics he was able to improve a vital element of his martial arts skill, train using his limited resources, and overcome bad habits.
In short, you have to look for the pillars of whatever skill you’re learning, then seek to master them.
In coding, this might be understanding the logic of if else statements and other general coding principles before trying to master the whole of Java.
In writing, knowing how to write good, grammatically sound sentences has made it far easier for me to deal with the complexities of storytelling and composing larger pieces.
When I first started skateboarding, I was pushing mongo, which is generally considered the worst way to push a skateboard around. It never felt comfortable and it caused all sorts of other issues. Since starting again, I’ve focused on the basics and seen much better growth. Skateboarding now feels like something that’s possible, rather than an impossible pipe dream.
Not saying I’ve cracked the code or anything, but it certainly seems there’s a lot of worth in having a good base to any skill you want to master.
#RPGCon is Wrapping Up
The Rising Phoenix Games dude.
Rodney is a writer and editor of tabletop RPGs and a painter of Orks. He is worryingly fond of mill decks in Magic: the Gathering and a self-confessed Japanophile.