Ambition is the Enemy of Good & Done

You may have heard adages like “perfect is the enemy of good” and “perfect is the enemy of done.” But where does the drive to be “perfect” come from? I don’t think those sayings are particularly useful unless you think about the motivations behind them.

Enter ambition, stage left.

Neophyte game designers often have ambition to make some sort of mark in the community or industry. They see folks who have made marks they remember, and see the good side of what that nerdfame has afforded. So they work on their game for far, far too long, trying to make the perfect execution of a vision they believe will garner respect.

The problem with this sort of ambition: it doesn’t allow you to fail, which means it doesn’t allow you to fail forward.

I can’t tell you how many people have said to me “I’ve been working on my game for several years,” which they say with pride because they hope it communicates some sense of impending perfection. If I don’t feel like engaging, I smile and say “cool, good luck.” If I am in a mood where I feel like I can engage honestly, I’ll talk about how that’s a warning flag to every designer I know, that it means they’re making a game that’s likely lose its chance to hit the gaming zeitgeist, and in constantly retooling a single game they don’t explore other design paths. Perhaps they’re entirely siloed, in that they don’t play newer games because they put all their energy into this one.

Which they don’t allow to potentially fail in the public space. They’re consumed by what they want to get out of publishing the game—community status, critical and fan accolades, award nominations, maybe actual money—that they don’t actually, you know, publish the game.

If you’re like simultaneously cursed and blessed with past critical success, you have a different sort of ambition: to up yourself, to show your talent continues to rise. To not be relegated as a “has-been.”

The stakes are different. The neophyte designer may not get the attention they want. You’ll get some attention, but that comes with the fear that the attention is a giant ol’ “meh.” Your work doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and you know that.

The problem with this sort of ambition: it doesn’t allow you to fail, which means it doesn’t allow you to fail forward. (Yeah, cut and paste is convenient here.)

The longer you spend on the work, the more sunk cost fallacy hits. The more it feels like it needs to be better because of the time investment, or at least because of the passage of time—if you’re, say, crippled with anxiety and find it hard to work on the game. It becomes harder to pull the trigger when people are aware of how long the work has taken at this point and you have fear it’s not “good enough.”

If you sit on your game forever because you game to be something more than just a game, your game will never actually achieve those goals.

If you endlessly tinker on your game, is actually tends to become worse because it grows filled with second-guessing.

If you don’t publish your game, you don’t give your next game a fucking chance to be better from the lessons you learn.

No game is perfect. Perfection is a lie we tell ourselves to hide under the safety space of not-actually-publishing.

A little ambition is good. It’s sometimes why we publish games in the first place. But at some point you need to let go of that, to release your idea and let whatever happens happens. After all, you don’t have control over whether people praise it, it gets awards, all that.

Have ambition to get the work done, not to get the work “perfect.” Let the world react as is will, and maybe have ambition to start on the next thing.