The space of time from when I first tried to make poison a major part of a block to the release of the block that actually did it was fourteen years. Yes, my journey to bring poison back to Magic took more time than some Magic players have been alive and longer than most Magic players have been playing the game. How exactly did I manage to not give up hope and just abandon the idea? The answer is the topic to today's column: passion. I'm going to talk about why it's important and then give you some insights into how to make passion work for your creative endeavors.
Let me start with the most basic question: Why is passion important for design? (I'm not saying that it isn't also important for other things, but this is a design column so I'm staying on topic.) To answer this I'm going to flashback to a writing class I had in college. One day my writing teacher stood up and he said, "What's your theme?" The class was puzzled. The theme for what, exactly? we all asked. "Your writing," he said.
What piece of writing? we inquired. Each piece had a different theme. "No," he said, "They don't. When you boil down every writer's work you will find that there is a theme that drives their writing. There is some message that is so engrained into who they are as a person that it cannot help but filter into everything they write. The trick is for all of you to figure out what that theme is for your writing. It's there. Wouldn't it be a valuable thing to know?"
There are certain ideas that alter who you are once you hear them and that idea was one for me. People love to think that they are in complete control of who they are, but when you dig down deep you find that while people think that they control their life with their intellect, the truth is that people are much more victims of their impulses and emotions. As I was thinking all about this I made the big realization: what I just said, that was my theme.
As I examined my writing, this theme came through again and again. It was the most obvious in a play I had written and directed in college called Leggo My Ego. The premise of the play was that a boy named David was propositioned by a girl he'd been obsessed with for many years to have a one-night stand, but David was currently in a two and half year relationship with another woman. What was he to do? The entire play takes place in his head as his emotions fight it out. (The play was created many years before Herman's Head, a TV show with a similar theme.)
The theme even comes out through my nine years of "Making Magic" columns. I constantly talk about how you have to adapt your game to human nature rather than try and adapt human nature to your game. My entire creation of the psychographics was a quest to understand what made people play—not the reasons they gave, but the underlying emotional motivations.
Follow Your Passion
Why is passion important? Because passion will exist. People will be passionate. It's in our nature. It's part of being human. We have an emotional need to care deeply about things. (There is debate as to why we have passion; I belong to the camp that believes we crave it because it makes us feel alive.) The things we care deeply about are where our focus is going to go. Sure, we can try to focus on the things we don't care about but as I like to say, "When you fight human nature, you're fighting a losing battle."
So people will have passions and their focus will follow that passion. Why is this important for design? If the designer wants to do his best work he has to take this principle into account. If you are not passionate about what you are designing, you will not give it your all. To do great design you have to have your focus on your design and not pulled elsewhere.
Another way to think about this: While working in Hollywood, I had the chance to meet an animal trainer. He had worked on numerous movies and television shows. One day he was telling me about a movie he did that had spiders. I asked him how he wrangled the spiders. That seemed very hard. It was easy he said. He would just put sugar water where he wanted the spiders to crawl and they would follow the sugar water. He said with most animals you can't make them act. With few exceptions, an animal is just going to do what the animal wants to do. The trick was making what the animal wanted to do what the director needed for the scene.
Just replace "spider" with "human" and "sugar water" with "passion". A human will chase his passion. If you want your design to succeed you have to make it part of your passion. This, by the way, is really a corollary of a larger life lesson:
If You Want to Be Happy, then Make What You Do Something that Makes You Happy.
While this might sound simplistic, I believe one of the greatest causes of unhappiness is a lack of understanding of this life lesson. Many people are unhappy simply because they do not prioritize doing things that make them happy. They chase things they think can bring them happiness (money, fame, etc.) rather than focus on the actual things that make them happy.
When I first was offered the job at Wizards of the Coast, I had a hard decision to make. I had gone to Hollywood because it was my dream to create a television show. I knew I had a lot of creative expression that was dying to get out and television was my medium of passion. Once I got to Los Angeles, I learned some hard truths about "the industry". It paid exceedingly well but was kind of soul sucking. Work when you had it was great but it was unreliable as any project could disappear overnight. It had high highs and low lows. (One of these days I'll get around to writing my days in Hollywood column—well, the one where I'm not tracking down swordfish.)
Along comes a chance to work for Wizards in R&D making Magic. I hope this doesn't come as a crushing piece of information but game design does not pay quite as well as screenwriting. Working at Wizards would mean making less money than working in Hollywood, but, and this is an important "but", it was something I felt I could love doing. I'd been a gamer all of my life and in just a year I had become a hard-core Magic player. Making Magic felt like it could be a lot of fun. Yes, I'd have to move and I'd have to take a job making less than I was used to, but I did so because I understood that if I wanted to be happy, I had to make what I do something that made me happy. (Yeah, I just said that above but it's an important enough point to make again.)
Passion is crucial for design because there is a huge difference between painting by numbers and painting what you feel. Creative endeavors require some pouring of the soul and that won't get done if you don't have a personal, emotional investment in what you are doing. Yes, a competent designer can create in an emotional void but they aren't doing their best work. True art makes the audience feel something. It's hard for the artist to accomplish this if they themselves don't also feel it.
Flames of Passion
Passion's important. Check. Let's start to talk about how you use passion to make the best design you can. As it's Infect Week, I'm going to use poison as my go to for stories. That said, here are some things to keep in mind:
1. You Don't Choose Your Passions, Your Passions Choose You
As I explained above, passion is an emotion. You don't control emotions. They don't exactly do what you want them to. This, by the way, is why I think humans like to pretend that we're controlled by our intellect. It's so much easier when you feel that you're in control of all the decisions in your life. What you're going to be passionate about is not something that you choose. Rather it is something that you discover.
For example, let's take poison. As I talked about in my column about my history with poison, I was smitten within seconds of reading the card for the first time. Why was I enamored so quickly? Part of it had to do with my love of alternate win conditions. When Alliances came out, I was a big fan of Millstone as I loved how it let you win in a brand new way. Another part of it clearly had to do with the flavor. Poisoning your opponent to death sure sounded fun. (Ah, the vicarious living of gaming.) Finally, my inner-Johnny could see the challenge. Changing what I was trying to do got me to completely change how I was trying to do it.
The importance of this lesson is that I believe you can't force yourself to feel passionate about a topic. Either something clicks or it doesn't. Passion cannot be coerced. This leads to lesson #2:
2. Put Your Passion Into Your Design
While you can't choose your passions, you can choose your designs. If you want to be passionate about your designs you need to make sure that you include something in it that makes you passionate. As an example, I was desperate to design Magic. I managed to talk the powers that be into giving me my chance with Tempest. Because Tempest was part of the Weatherlight Saga, I knew that the block was going to be a dark, shadowy world. So I searched to find something that excited me that also made sense in such a place. What I came up with was, of course, poison. (To see how that didn't work out check my poison column.)
The difficulty with doing what I'm asking is that you can't just put any element into any design. As I've talked about many times, the mechanic has to make sense in the set it's going into. You can't add an element to a design just because you're passionate about it. The idea has to fit the design. Which leads us to the next lesson:
3. You Can Have Multiple Passions
The key to finding a passion stems from this important understanding: you are not restricted to one passion. In fact, it's important as an artist to have multiple passions. (Yes, one could argue if you stand back far enough, you're passions probably have some through-line much like the theme my writing teacher was talking about.)
The reason multiple passions are so important is threefold. One, in order to have the ability to add passions to your designs you need to have enough of a collection that you can find the one that fits. As the saying goes, "If all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail." (I took that quote from my favorite book, A Whack on the Side of the Head. If I somehow haven't yet convinced you to give it a read—come on now, work with me.) Having only one passion will force you to keep tilting your designs in the same direction and that leads you to falling into the same rut project after project.
Two, part of what helps a designer to grow is experiencing new things. In my column on creativity ("Connect the Dots") I talked about how a key element of creativity is the ability to connect things that have never been combined before. In order to do this, you have to be exposed to new and different things. Multiple passions help to draw you in different directions (as well as letting you have multiple passions to combine together).
Three, with multiple passions, you're able to follow the next lesson:
4. You Have to Take Breaks From Your Passion
When Lora, my wife, and I first started dating, one day she went to look for some food in my apartment kitchen. She came back a moment later and informed me that there was no food in my kitchen to which I replied, "Oh yeah, I never eat here." (Back in the day I ate all my meals out with various members of R&D—one of the many good reasons getting into a relationship was healthy for me.)
Flash forward, a few years later when Lora was pregnant with our first child, Rachel. It was hard for her to get around so I tried my hand at making some meals. The first meal I mastered was spaghetti. It was pretty easy and we both loved spaghetti. That combined with the fact that I didn't have a second dish yet meant that I made a lot of spaghetti. At some point, Lora banned spaghetti. What she once had loved had turned to hate because the repetition made her sick of it.
I still cook spaghetti for myself and the kids, but Lora usually eats leftovers or cooks herself something else. Finally, a few weeks ago, she said, "You know what, spaghetti sounds good," and for the first time in years she ate my spaghetti. Other than giving you a little insight into the Rosewater household (and yes, I now can prepare many more dishes than one), this story is a parable.
You can't dwell on the same thing no matter how much you love it. Humans need variety. Harping on the same passion is the surest way to kill it. With poison, I found that I was running into obstacles that only time was going to solve. Rather than try to accomplish the impossible, I decided to give poison a breather. I had other passions to pursue (a block with a strong tribal component, an artifact expansion set on a metal world, split cards, etc.).
Designers have many resources at their disposal. One that I don't think is often given enough attention is time. A lot of problem solving comes from finding new vantage points by which to solve the issue at hand. Nothing allows for new ideas to form better than time. Taking that breather from poison, for example, allowed me to come back to poison with a different, and I believe better, approach.
5. Don't Let Your Passion Blind You to What Your Design Needs to Do
So far I've talked about all the good your passions do for your design. While I believe there is more good than bad (as obviously I'm encouraging you to involve your passions in your designs), that doesn't mean that there aren't some downsides. The first is that passions can sometimes lure you down the wrong path in a design.
For example, while I very much wanted to put poison in a design, I knew that I had to be patient and wait for a set that wanted poison not one that I felt I could squeeze poison into. I've led numerous sets so I've had many other opportunities to try and fit poison into a design. The reason it happened during Scars of Mirrodin was that it was the first time, in a long while, that the set felt like it wanted poison. I knew that I needed something to represent the Phyrexians corrupting Mirrodin. The more I explored how I wanted the Phyrexians to feel the more I realized that poison was an ideal solution.
The point to this lesson is that passions are important because they infuse the designer with energy. Be careful that the energy is focused in the right place. A properly used passion can ignite a design. An improperly used one can burn it to the ground. Your passion should lead your energy but be careful not to let it lead your design.
6. Have Someone on Your Team (Or As a Sounding Board) Who Doesn't Share Your Passion
Passions can do wonderful things for motivation but it can also blind a designer from seeing things they need to. This is why it is crucial to have someone working with you that is not invested in your passion. In R&D, the expression we use is "have someone willing to call your baby ugly." The same energy that passion enables to fuel your design can also make you misjudge the value of certain things. When you are in love, be it with a person or an idea, you don't always see things as clearly as you need to. That is why you need someone you can trust to help you figure out if you've strayed from your design path.
During Scars of Mirrodin design I included someone who was a skeptic of poison on the team because I wanted to make sure there was someone keeping me honest. Once I got that designer on board, I knew what we were doing was working.
My plan for today was to share with you my passion for passion. I hope it inspires all of you to reexamine how you can use passion in your lives and designs.
Join me next week when I answer a few essay questions.
Until then, may you love what you do.