The F-Word: James Lantz
And now, for something quite different. For this month’s installment of The F-Word, I sat down with indie game designer James Lantz to talk about his experiences with failure. Why different, you might ask? Because James is my fiancé, putting an interesting spin on the process of sitting down to talk about what are now well-tread topics for me in the process of putting together this interview series. James and I talked about what the process of becoming good at playing games taught him about failure, the types of failures we find hardest to grapple with, and how his strong sense of moral obligation helps him maintain failure resiliency. Here’s my conversation with James.
HOW DO YOU DEFINE FAILURE?
A failure is when you have a goal and you have the means to achieve it, but you fall short for reasons that are within your control. Usually. I mean if you don't achieve the goal that you set out to achieve for reasons outside of your control, you could call it a failure too I guess. But I would say the failures that people think about are when there was something achievable but through the decisions they made or the effort they put in, they fell short of that.
I think that what's interesting to me is that failure is a word and a concept that is entirely defined by the individual which means that a failure to one person might be huge success to someone else. So it really does depend. There’s no obvious failures. Except the very extremes. But besides those, I think it really just boils down to what you as an individual set out to achieve.
WHO DO YOU THINK OF AS YOUR TOUGHEST CRITICS?
Probably the indie game developers who I respect and who make stuff that's in line with what I want to make. Michael Brough and Keith Burgun are both great examples. When I get criticism from people who understand what I’m trying to accomplish with my games, I have a lot to learn from the feedback they give me because we both believe in the same system. It’s like we're both working in non-Euclidean geometry together. And so when they criticize my work or give me feedback, they are much more critical, in a really good way, because they get it instantly. They understand what I'm trying to do and can say how it's not working and why it’s not working.
And I single out these indie developers specifically because I think our idea of what makes a great game is rare in the industry. I would say like 95 percent of the industry is interested in pushing this other boundary…which is totally worth pushing, it’s just not as interesting to me.
AND WHAT’S THAT 95% BOUNDARY ABOUT?
Well, they’re often focused on crafting a story, on having more emotional resonance in their games. Games that tell stories about real life and are almost like books in that they try to put you in the heads of people. Those games tend to be very cinematic and emphasize emotionally resonant stories.
AND HOW IS WHAT YOU’RE TRYING TO DO DIFFERENT THAN THAT?
I'm trying to push elegant rules to their absolute limit. I’m trying to take a set of rules you think are simple, but once you start to explore them, you realize they’re super complex and weird and cause you to learn things, or think about the world differently. To me, those kinds of games are so much more complicated than anyone can understand, including the person making it. You put something out there that has a certain set of rules, but even as the creator you actually have no idea where it's going to go and what people are going to do with it.
And I feel like that idea as a designer of being open to not knowing where the players will take the game is actually a pretty small subset of the people who are making games. Most people are more interested in controlling a game they’re designing, making sure play stays within the boundaries and making it the best it can be within those boundaries. But they don't want to just let it go everywhere because they’ve defined their game by a story they’ve set up, which doesn’t provide the players with much room for exploration.
CLEARLY, GAMES ARE YOUR PASSION. HOW DID YOU BECOME SO INTERESTED IN GAMES AND GAME DESIGN?
Growing up, my dad was a game designer. He came to that through acting and art. So he's always been at the very interesting cross-section of nerdiness and hipness. He got me into games super early, so I’ve basically wanted to make good games my entire life; I never really thought about doing anything else. We talk all the time about how when I was a kid, I was always trying to impress him with how well I could analyze games and by trying to make card games and stuff like that. I was trying to get into stuff that he would think is cool and find areas where I could get to a point where I knew more about a specific type of game or area of games than him.
I started getting really into Starcraft and other competitive games really early, back when you had to stream those games from South Korea. Basically, you had to grab re-streams off the internet and put them into a VLC media player and you’d be watching some Korean language broadcast of Starcraft live at 3am here in North America. So I got super into watching Starcraft and around the same time, I fell in love with the idea of improving at games. Starcraft is a game that’s notoriously hard to get better at, so I’d put in probably close to six or seven hours a day of just sitting there practicing this one APM (actions per minute) map for a month, maybe. And I found that while most people weren't willing to do that, I was for some reason.
What’s interesting is that kind of thing makes sense for sports. When you’re trying to improve at basketball, you do dribbling practice, or shoot 3-pointers over and over again. But often with video games, most people don’t treat practicing the same way. I did. So I’d practice one specific thing for a whole summer. Eventually, I got good enough at Starcraft that it became a piece of my identity so then I got wrapped up in a combination of trying to make great games and impress my dad and continue improving at playing games I liked.
IN THE PROCESS OF GETTING GOOD AT STARCRAFT, YOU MUST’VE DEALT WITH FAILURES ALL THE TIME. HOW WAS THAT PROCESS?
I failed a lot but then I kept going and kept failing at higher levels as I continued pushing myself to get better. But I knew my goal and so the failures were just something I knew I had to get through if I was going to improve. It’s interesting because playing competitive games, you never really succeed, not really. There's really only one person in the world who's succeeding and even for that one person they’re probably frustrated that they aren’t doing better. So there's no real success. I'm sure professional athletes feel that way, too.
AND HOW ABOUT YOUR CHILDHOOD OUTSIDE OF GAMES? HOW WAS YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH FAILURE IN OTHER AREAS OF YOUR LIFE?
Well as a kid, I was terrible at school because I thought it was dumb and I didn’t see the point in it. And at the time, that was a real source of anxiety for me. I never had my homework done and never got good grades and it created a real source of tension between me and my parents. But even that, it wasn’t so bad. I think they sort of understood it that I was smart that I was going to do my best in the long run.
SO WHAT DID YOU FIGHT ABOUT? WHAT WERE THEY DISAPPOINTED BY?
I think the main thing we ended up fighting over was around making sure I was willing to put in the minimum amount of effort. They didn't care if I got straight A’s; they just didn’t want me flunking out. And so I just did barely good enough to get into the high school I wanted to get into and then I did barely good enough to get into a college period and then I just did barely good enough in college to graduate. And that was a lot of fighting with my parents, to get me to the point where I was doing barely good enough because if I had my druthers, I probably would have just not done anything, school-wise.
AND HOW DID YOU FEEL IN THOSE FAILURE SITUATIONS? DID YOU INTERNALIZE THE FAILURE OR FEEL BAD ABOUT LETTING DOWN YOUR PARENTS?
Oh both of them for sure. I internalized letting down my parents a lot. I still don't feel good about that. I’m also still frustrated to this day with my inability to self-motivate for tasks I don’t want to do but which are necessary in order to achieve a result I care about.
The irony in my childhood at least is that ultimately, not doing work at school ended up taking more effort than if I’d just done the work in the first place. If I had just done the work in the first place, it would've been so much easier. But the reality is I had all these projects I had to make up at the very end of a semester, tests I’d have to study to ace in order to just get myself a passing grade. So I’d save maybe 20 minutes every day and in exchange I had to deal with weeks of misery at the end of every term.
But I wouldn't say I ever felt bad about myself. I never felt like I was stupid just because I couldn’t do the work. I didn’t really feel like failing at school meant anything, or at least I was sure that it meant a whole lot less than everyone around me kept saying it did. So I guess on that level, I didn't see it as a huge failure. I was most frustrated with my sort of meta-level failure at not being able to just power through things that I thought were dumb but that made logical sense to do.
KNOWING YOU AS WELL AS I DO, I’M REMINDED OF THIS ONE PARTICULAR STORY ABOUT YOUR AP MATH CLASS, WHERE YOU USED YOUR INGENUITY AND APTITUDE FOR FINDING UNIQUE SOLUTIONS TO PROBLEMS TO ARGUE YOUR WAY INTO A PASSING GRADE. CAN YOU TELL US MORE ABOUT THAT?
Sure. So I was in an advanced placement Calculus class during high school. I was really good at math, but I never turned in my homework so I was in danger of failing the class. I convinced our teacher Ms. Couturiere, who was an amazing math teacher but who was also kind of a grump, I convinced her that if I could get a five (which is the highest score you can get on the AP test that you take at the end of the semester) that she’d agree to give me an A in the class retroactively. Going into the test, I was probably pulling a C- at best. And so she agreed.
Then sometime between her agreeing and taking the AP test, there was a quiz in her class. It’s important to remember that I had basically done no homework ever. She knew that I wasn’t paying attention in class. But I knew that I could pick up the material quickly in prep for the test so I’d started studying. So she gave us this quiz and I aced it. And on the corner of my graded test, she wrote something which is a very good summation of my journey through high school. She’d just written “10/10. There is no justice in the world.”
Which I think is true. It's like, why am I good at math? These hard-working kids right next to me, who actually deserve to be good at math, often ended up with lower scores than me when it came time to take tests. It isn’t fair. She’s right.
I JUST LOVE THAT IT’S SUCH A GREAT EXAMPLE OF HOW ONCE YOU PUT YOUR MIND TO SOMETHING, YOU CAN BE INCREDIBLY SINGULAR IN YOUR FOCUS TO ACHIEVE IT.
Oh yeah for sure. That's something I realized more later in life. We’re taught that practice and work ethic are always connected to success and that’s not necessarily the case. You know it's weird because in movies and TV shows, it’s usually the person who's hard-working and diligent that ultimately succeeds, the protagonist. There are always these other characters who are talented but lazy but they’re often relegated to be either the villains or side characters who you shouldn’t want to emulate. It's true in the way we’re taught to see the world too. We’re taught that hard work is the ultimate virtue because it's something you can control and talent is a shortcut that is great if you have it, but you still have to put in hard work to succeed.
DO YOU DISAGREE WITH THAT SENTIMENT?
I do and I don’t. It is true in real life that you kind of need both. But the thing I've noticed more and more as I grow older is that it seems like hard work and the ability to work diligently is partially your upbringing, but also some people are just better at working diligently. So ironically, the ability to work hard is kind of in and of itself a talent.
I think you need to do your best. I also think that working hard is probably the thing that will make you succeed more than anything else, but it's definitely easy to get down on yourself if you feel like your work ethic is below average because society treats it almost as the one important virtue and everything else is worthless if you don’t have that. But you should still feel good about the things you're good at, the things you are interested in, the things you like, and pay extra attention to the things in life that you succeed at even when you work less hard at it than other people. You shouldn’t feel horrible about that. It’s a really useful skill if you leverage it, knowing your strengths.
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU HAVE FOR PEOPLE WHO ARE STILL STRUGGLING TO CULTIVATE FAILURE RESILIENCY, THE ABILITY TO PICK THEMSELVES BACK UP AFTER A FAILURE, DUST THEMSELVES OFF, AND KEEP GOING?
I don't know. I think of myself as having bad resiliency.
I guess I think of resiliency in my mind as a defense. And I basically have no defense; I have no way of shielding myself from the pain of handling a failure. I feel horrible about it. But what I do have is offense. I have enough offense, which is a combination of willpower and self-frustration, to get me where I need to go eventually. Above all, I have a very clear goal about where I want to be and am quite ambitious and unrelenting when it comes to getting there. So I guess that's my resiliency. I don't not feel bad about failure, but I feel so strongly that I want to get where I want to get in the end that my ambition carries me through. That keeps me pushing forward. On top of that, I also have a sort of moral obligation.
WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY MORAL OBLIGATION?
I have no idea if it's common or not. I’ve never talked about this much. Overall, I'm doing very well and society has given me a whole lot as a birthright. I was born into American society as middle class. I've consumed tons of resources and tons of services and goods, time, and energy just for the express purpose of making me happy and hopefully making me a better, smarter person.
So given that, I see it as my duty to set ambitious goals for myself that will hopefully in turn positively affect others and then I also need to follow through on achieving those goals. I honestly feel like if I can't accomplish that, then there's no real point in doing anything. I’ve never been the kind of person who can have their goal be just to make myself happy as a soul. That can be a welcome side effect, sure, but to me the obligation is to give back in some way. That could be literally, through something like charity, or it could be something more figurative. But ultimately, I see being productive and paying it forward as an obligation.
HOW DOES YOUR SENSE OF MORAL OBLIGATION FACTOR INTO YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH FAILURE?
I still feel horrible when I fail. I hate failing and I do it all the time. I get in huge ruts…but I never feel like I'm completely down and out. I always feel like I’m going to get there eventually, because it's everything I believe in. So to give up on that and decide I’m just never going to be able to give back and that I’ll just do my best and focus on my own happiness as my end goal isn’t even an option for me. Coming up against regular failures could cause me to update or pivot my goal’s terms. Maybe I'll become a writer and I’ll write books or maybe I'll switch to using another medium as my method for producing change. But ultimately there has to be something I'm doing that's productive and gives back to society and allows me to use the skills that society has helped me develop. That’s what drives me to keep going.
So I mean I don't know if I have failure resiliency. That sense of moral obligation is definitely what gives me my resilience to failure, but it doesn’t protect me against it. I think that’s an important distinction to make.
HOW DO YOU LEARN FROM YOUR FAILURES?
Failures are so hard. I guess that’s the point of why it’s important to talk about this more. The thing that is really hard is developing a mental model for how the world works. And that's really important I think, in learning from failures.
Think of it this way. Say you decide you’ll just treat responding to failure like a machine. You say that every time you fail, you just won’t do that thing again. I think that's really underselling the complexity of the world and the way things work and it will ultimately lead to bad results; it might not be horrible results, but it seems pretty clear that it’s certainly not the optimal way to improve and to learn. With that mental model in place, you can use failures to tweak your model. But you need a strong stable mental model in place if you want to really learn from your failures so you can know what to change for next time.
That's how I see it anyway. I see a lot of people getting suckered in by both sides of the fallacy. Without a mental model, you might think that people who succeeded did everything right and/or that people who failed did something wrong or did everything wrong and both of those interpretations will lead you astray if you worry about them too much so I think it's all about having a Bayesian model in your head where you put different weights on each component of your projects so that you know what to tweak and by how much when failures come up. It’s important that you make sure you’re never discarding it entirely, though.
Or sometimes, a project fails but you decide that it was all good. If you have your mental model in place, you can decide that maybe it was just bad timing or whatever weird social dynamics led to the first attempt failing and you just try it again without changing much.
DO YOU HAVE AN EXAMPLE OF THIS IDEA OF A PROJECT BEING MADE BASICALLY THE SAME WAY AGAIN AND SUCCEEDING THE SECOND TIME?
I do, actually. There’s a game studio Psyonix that released a game called Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars like ten years ago, which kind of tanked. No one wanted to play it because it was super, super niche. But the studio was just like ‘Fuck it. This thing was a great idea. Nothing was wrong with it. Let's just make it a little better this time with all the stuff we learned and released it again,’ which they did. And when they released Rocket League a few years ago, it was basically the same game but this time it was an absolutely huge hit.
AS SOMEONE WHO HAS MADE GAMES SOLO AND WITH TEAMS, HOW DOES FAILURE AND SUCCESS FEEL DIFFERENT IN THOSE DIFFERENT DYNAMICS?
As we talked about earlier, nothing's a true failure or a success. It’s all your personal perception. I’ve found that working on a team, there's sort of a hive mind that develops that it’s easy to get sucked into without even thinking about it. It’s really positive in some ways, because it takes a lot of what's good about everyone collaborating and allows the work to become much more than the sum of its parts. But it’s also this dangerous pitfall because you start to see successes and failures through the lens of internal culture that you’ve developed as a team. All of a sudden, you all start to agree that not really a success unless it does xyz. That can really start to limit your personal vision for what is a success.
WHY IS THAT DANGEROUS?
I see it as so important, as a designer and a creative person, to maintain my particular brand of what I see as success and failure. Like the most straightforward type of success is that a game gets great reviews, has lots of fans, and makes a lot of money—which is often the goal at games studios for obvious reasons—but I personally want to make games that are great in a specific way. For a lot of big games studios, it’s only a success if it makes a ton of money. And I think the culture of working on a game in that context really runs the risk of softening your individual creative edge, as a designer. If you're at a studio of 200+ people and everyone around you is getting excited about all of the great reviews a game is getting, it’s easy to get swept up in that and think that you and your team fucking succeeded, succeeded beyond your wildest dreams. Business success becomes your main metric.
But as a creative person I think it's important to wield your taste and your personal sensibilities as a weapon of sorts. If you were looking at someone else's game, would you consider it a success just because it had great scores in a magazine? Or would you consider it a success because it made a lot of money or has a lot of players? Maybe, but then again maybe not. I think it's important when you're knee deep in a studio environment to maintain some element of always asking yourself ‘What am I really looking to make? How do I define success?’
I think that's what I noticed the most, within a studio context vs. working on projects by myself like I’m doing now, how easy it was to slip into whatever the culture was. For me when I was working at Klei, my last studio, I tended to get wrapped up in their definitions of success and failure. On the one hand, I strongly defined the culture on the teams I found myself on because I tended to be a loud voice there. I found I was able to push games I worked on towards systems and mechanics that I believed in. But it was a mishmash. I ultimately found myself thinking of things as successes and failures based on what my boss said and what my team said and how other people were talking about it within the company and within the greater games industry in general.
Ultimately, I found myself thinking ‘If we make a game that people really enjoy and I feel proud of it, that’ll be a success.’ Which I didn’t fully realize until I got some space from it. But I’d like to think that my personal brand of success and failure is a little more nuanced than that. At the next place I go to work, I'm going to try to maintain some part of me that works to execute my personal vision of success.
WOULDN’T YOU ARGUE THOUGH THAT IT’S IMPORTANT TO HAVE THAT SHARED VISION, THAT SHARED GOAL, WHEN WORKING WITH A TEAM ON A PROJECT?
I think some of it's useful, but it’s also useful to maintain some level of personal criteria as well. It’s all just a compromise. You have to maintain some level of personal criteria within the greater project. Everyone within the project should be doing that. If you really want to push the boundaries creatively and to make stuff that hasn't been made before, then I think you have to keep your edge while you're working on a team, but you do have to soften it a bit in order to work with people. You can’t be all edges when you're collaborating, but you also can't go complete soft, either. You have to maintain some of the sharpness of your personal vision based on what makes you unique and interesting as a creative person. I think finding that balance is really important. I look at people like the Flaming Lips or Kanye West, people who never settled for success and greatness. People who found their personal edge and even though they succeeded in this one area, they decided to keep pushing themselves to try new things because that's what keeps them creative, keeps them innovating. Even if it means failing on every metric, it's what I believe in.
WHY DON’T WE TALK ABOUT FAILURE?
I actually think that it's almost entirely unintentional. I think we don't find failure interesting for some reason. We don’t talk about our personal failures that often because you learn pretty quickly that when you start talking about failing, people get bored…but then when you start talking about your successes, people are like ‘Oh yeah, I want to hear more.’ So that makes it really easy to define yourself by your successes. And I think everyone does that. No one thinks of Elon Musk as the guy behind some garbage company in the 90’s that no one remembers. No, he’s Elon Musk who founded Tesla, runs SpaceX and he's one of the co-founders of PayPal.
Most people want to hear about the successes and then there’s a niche audience who want to hear about the failure right before the success. No one wants to hear about only the failure without a happy ending, when you make a thing and no one liked it or wanted to have anything to do with it and you weren’t able to pull a valuable lesson out of it.
AND WHY DO YOU THINK THAT IS?
Well I mean there's no story there, right? There’s nothing interesting. No one wants to hear about some random thing that you failed at earlier in life that you can’t directly tie back to who you are now, or what you did next that ended up being successful. Because the truth is, all of our lives we’re just failing all over the place right. And ironically that's the most important kind of failure to talk about more because that’s the kind of failure we experience all the time and that’s the kind of failure that really hits us hard, because we don’t know what we’re supposed to learn from it. But it’s also the stuff that nobody cares about because there isn’t a story there.
And so in turn, you start to worry that you’re the only person who's failing all the time because you’re not hearing about the everyday failures in conversation with others. Conversations about mental health and depression help with that, because then you can reframe it around something that we attach meaning to, something that affects a lot of people.
It’s so important to remember that everyone is failing all the time it at so many random things and often times those failures aren’t directly leading anywhere, they’re just small failures. And that’s important because I think what makes people feel really bad is when their failures just feel like dead ends. Because failures that teach you hard but important lessons. But that’s just not most failures. Most failures are smaller and it’s impossible to tell if you failed because you actually did something wrong or just because you were unlucky or had bad timing; they happen all the time and just make you feel bad if you let them.
WHEN YOU EXPERIENCE A FAILURE THAT DOESN’T OBVIOUSLY INDICATE TO YOU WHAT NEXT STEPS YOU SHOULD TAKE, HOW DO YOU GET YOURSELF OUT OF THE PIT?
It’s so important that you cultivate techniques and habits that make you feel mentally healthy that you can lean on in those moments. That’s probably the biggest thing I've learned from failing all the time. What’s helped me the most is things like learning how to meditate and paying attention to diet and exercise to get me back on track. Mental health techniques give you the buffer you need to come out on the other side of a rough result.
I mean it’s basically coming back around to that idea of failure resiliency. These techniques won't help you succeed. And it definitely won’t teach you lessons about your failure. But it's what makes it easier to forget about the negative emotions you tie to your failure and allow you to move on so your failures just exist in your history. That's what I have learn the most from my failures, the importance of staying mentally healthy so you can keep moving forward.
It’s hard to believe we’re at this point already, but we’re nearing the end of our F Word interview series. Next month, I’ll be sharing some of my thoughts on failure and takeaways from almost a year of chatting with entrepreneurs about failure. Stay tuned!