4 Ways Out of Creative Limbo

I met an aspiring game designer a few days ago, and he asked me one of the toughest and most common questions that you can ask someone about getting started in a creative endeavor. This time, it took the form of:

“I’m in this weird limbo where I’m afraid to share my ideas, but I also want those ideas made. What do I do?”

Most creative pros I know sympathize with this early state, and unfortunately there aren’t any great answers to this query.[1] The most on-point answer is, of course, put yourself out there. (Or just fucking do it, if you dig your koans having profanity.) That’s exactly what you have to do, but there aren’t great answers for how to do that, because we all stumble around until we find some solid ground by what feels like happenstance.

Still, here are four things I can tell folks to do that aren’t so damn nebulous for getting out of this creative limbo.

Play All the Games

Play games you like. Play games you don’t like. Play games you’re not familiar with. Play tabletop games. Play mobile games. Play games on Steam. Play games with people you know. Play games with strangers.

Every game you play holds in it some lesson, whether it’s about that game’s mechanics, presentation, theme, pacing, etc.—which expresses itself in the game’s materials, the game’s effect on you, and the game’s effect on the social dynamic between everyone playing (when not a solo game).

In short: play everything.

Get to Know People

If all you want to do is mess around with some rules for your friends or play with Unity some, cool. For those who want to make a game and share it, you’ve got to do a lot more than make the game: you’ve got to make friends and connections.

Follow creators you respect online. Find communities or forums with people messing with the sorts of games you want to do (and hope they aren’t hives of scum). Go to meetups and conventions. Spend time with people at afterparties. The more time you put into people, the better off you’ll be.

That said, don’t try to impress people with your Great New Idea. Don’t front. You’d be very surprised how far you’ll get by treating other people like they’re humans and don’t make your interactions an exhausting contest or an exhausting request for approval.

Be Unafraid of Failure

Your first game is going to suck. Your first attempt at being in a community is going to be fraught. But that’s cool! That’s true for all of us, and we can empathize with you. It’s through the crucible of failure that we because totally fucking metal!

Instead of belaboring the point, I’ll just link to something I wrote earlier this month on this very topic. I’m especially digging the quote from the video I link there: “Cool, you failed. What’s next?”

The only way to get out of limbo is to try things. Thinking about what to try isn’t just a form of being in limbo, it’s also cerebral masturbation.

Stop Guarding Your Ideas

The ideas that folks have before they start writing stories, making games, whatever are rarely as great as we think they are. It’s not because they inherently suck, but we haven’t yet learned how to develop those ideas. We don’t gain that skill by failing, and we can only put ourselves to the test by sharing those ideas with others and letting them be challenged.

Along with that, every creator I know has more ideas than they can do anything with, and they’re always churning on some idea that has them on fire. Even if your idea sets them on fire as well, they’ve got enough stuff going on that they’re not going to touch yours.

I’m not saying to throw your ideas on a forum where no one knows you. Folks who would challenge your ideas in a helpful way won’t take the time, and there are always unscrupulous fucks who steal and look for people to exploit. No, this is where getting to know people comes in—find people, and when they’re interested in you as a person, let your idea out. See what happens.

This Shit Ain’t Easy

Here’s where I’m gonna be a downer. Recently when I said the following to a different aspiring creator, he asked me to stop talking. “This is getting too real.”

This blog post’s title isn’t “4 Simple-Ass Ways Out of Creative Limbo” or “4 Super-Trivial Ways Out of Creative Limbo.” Really, it’s “4 Really Long, Fairly Hard Ways to do a Thing Thousands of People Think They Want to Do (But Most Probably Don’t),” but that’s shit for a title.

There are people who want to make games, and there are people who want to have made a game. The former wants to get into the work and the culture and see what ticks. The latter wants to end result of a creative endeavor—the novel, the game, the painting—without all the blood, sweat, tears, anxiety, impostor syndrome, bullshit politics, contracts, financial concerns, public blowups, and everything that can come with the act of creating in public.

And the work with all this never really ends. Notoriety does not come free, and its price is never done being paid unless you leave it behind.

So limbo isn’t actually all that horrible a place.[2] And while it’s hard to leave, it’s even harder to endure public creation once you’ve left the safety of limbo. That said, the advice above is still good to get a handle on, even if you never actually go forward to make games—you might at least enjoy playing games as a hobby a little more. Plus, it’ll prepare you for if you want to make the leap out of limbo.

– Ryan

[1] Which leads many replies to this sort of query to be snarky as fuck, or simple but vapid as a way to move the conversation onto something that can be addressed in a more tangible fashion.

[2] Which I recognize is easy as hell to say from my position of having left limbo and having left behind a full-time game career.