We all know the drill by now. When you tell someone you make games, they always say something along the lines of, “So you get to play games all day?!” We then have our token response that we scale appropriately based on whom we are talking to as to what it is we do exactly. Heck, at this point I usually just agree with them because they really don’t care to know the details. And while at first I would feel guilty about not trying to educate them to the reality of game development, I realized something. On my best days, they are actually right. I am playing a game, just not the one they think. Kind of like an astronaut.

Astronauts at play. Maybe only one of a few jobs cooler than ours.

Donald Pettit is an astronaut who spent some time on the International Space Station. As the story goes, during his free time he would conduct demonstrations he called “Saturday Morning Science.” It was his chance to just play around with a childlike curiosity in a zero gravity environment. One of his playtime experiments was to put salt, sugar and coffee grounds into a plastic bag. His plan then was to shake the bag and see what happened. The result was an answer to a question that had stumped the scientific community for decades. Essentially, he solved the riddle as to how planets were able to form from dust. Just playing around, he was able to come up with an answer that serious thought and study had been blanking on.

Some would call this dumb or blind luck. But I say it was neither dumb or blind. He was a chemical engineer on top of being an astronaut, so even though he was playing around, his toys were actually scientific tools in his trained hands. And because he was recording his fun, he was allowing the results to be seen and studied by countless scientists. So nothing about this luck was dumb or blind. He was playing with a purpose. And that play mentality freed him to really experiment with an energy and curiosity that can often times be restrained when we think about it too much.

My favorite moments when working on a game or animation at work tend to follow suit with this story. I’ve got a task at hand, but also the luxury of time or freedom to just take the tools I am trained to use, and play around with them. Yes, I have a final goal or purpose in mind, but the parts in the middle and the exact results aren’t set in stone. Those are the times when I just get to cut loose and have fun. In animation terms, this is called the straight ahead method and it can entirely be applied to game development.

One example of this was when I was working on Wolfenstein. I was tasked by design to quickly have the assassin character jump down from a walkway above and settle into his idle. The plan then was to have his AI take over to play one of his stab attacks on an NPC and disappear in a puff of smoke. An easy enough request, but I knew it was going to look bland at best and downright clunky at worst. Seeing the environment of the room, with cabinets, pipes, and pillars, I instantly saw a chance to do more. I requested the full day to block something out that would be a little more elaborate. If they didn’t like it, I could quickly cut off everything after the jump down and still give them what they needed, but I let them know I had a cooler idea in mind. I made sure my extended animation could still deliver the initial request and gave myself a goal to hit. Both play and purpose were in place.

I studied the environment for a bit, saw the elements I most wanted the assassin character to interact with, and just went to it. I didn’t think too much about what he was going to do once he got there, I just let my mind and hands play with my most favorite of tools. After a few hours, I had it all blocked out and everyone excitedly agreed this was the direction to go. I knew for sure I was on the right track when co-workers would stop by my desk because someone told them I was working on something cool. And I was reminded again when a trailer for the character highlighted the animation multiple times throughout. Sure, I didn’t solve a 40 year old scientific mystery with my purposeful play, but I did have a ton of fun. And I turned a run of the mill encounter into a showcase moment for the character.

Wolfenstein Assassin Animation

Just recently at work we were experimenting with different methods of movement for a character in our game. Instantly I remembered the fun I had moving the assassin through a random environment. So I created some blocks of random shapes and sizes in maya, and littered the space with them. I then set out with the goal of moving the character from the beginning to the end of this abstract obstacle course in the most fun method I could think of. Again, once I had people stopping by to see what cool thing I was up to, I knew I was onto something. I had found my own personal “Saturday Morning Science.”

Playing with purpose isn’t a new idea. Most of the best games we make center around this idea. Give the player the tools, the proper training to use them, a goal, and then let them figure out how to get there. When they do, not only will they have had fun, but they will feel a sense of accomplishment. Fun and a sense of accomplishment are two big reasons I got into games, and my guess is that is also same with a lot of you.

So the next time you tell someone you make games and they ask if that means you play them all day, smile and say yes. Because if you are doing it right, you will be having some of the most fun of your career I bet. And you will also be sharing the company of an astronaut. Sounds like the best thing ever if you ask me.