The title may be a little over the top, but it stems from some of the real struggles of my life over the past 4 years. I think the crux of this talk is really about how work and technology can intrude into our lives in a detrimental way. More importantly, I think that people in the game industry – who have a natural propensity and love for technology are more susceptible to these pitfalls.
So as a quick point of reference and awkward introduction. I’m Mike Gnade and live in Wilmington, Delaware – “The Place to be somebody” (that’s really the city’s slogan by the way). I just turned 31 years old before Christmas and have been married for 4 years so the pressure is officially ON to start having kids.
Before we get into the pitfalls of working almost entirely on a computer and the internet, I think it’s helpful to understand a little bit about myself and where these stresses stem from in my own life. I’ve done my best to map out my personal stress level over time.
In 2006 I entered the work force after Tufts Graduate School in Business Real Estate Development. I think looking back on it, we can all acknowledge that wasn’t a great industry to be in at the time. The 9-5 job was good, but I spent all of my free time on the internet, playing indie games, blogging about them and trying to figure out a way to truly do something I loved.
I married my longtime girlfriend in 2009 right after attending my first GDC in Austin. I like to think that GDC sparked something inside me. I started working on a casual card game and was ultimately laid off from my 9-5 job the summer of 2010.
So with a mortgage, car payments and other bills piling up – I decided to become an Entrepreneur. That summer I connected with an ex-Microsoft guy and started a business hosting company. I also finished that casual card game and got it on Big Fish Games. These successes (and other many other failures that I won’t get into) allowed me to launch IndieGameStand in Sept 2012.
I think it’s important to realize that as amazing as working for yourself seems when you’ve got a 9-5 job, it’s not perfect and it’s certainly not for everyone. I remember dreaming of taking frequent Xbox breaks and working 20-40 hours per week. Needless to say that hasn’t happened. Another enterpreneur said to me recently that the beauty of being independent is that you get to pick the 60-80 hours that you work a week. Here's an attempt at making those a Pros/Con list of the advantages of being an entrepreneur over working in an office.
So many of you are probably looking at this list and thinking, “Those cons aren’t that bad and it’s still worth it.” While I definitely agree, I can tell you that after being an entrepreneur for over 4 years – there are definitely times where you struggle, can’t sleep, and are incredibly stressed. Work can feel inescapable. Personally, there are times that I feel completely detached and isolated because 90% of my interactions at work are through email, twitter or online in some other way. This feeling of isolation is probably the biggest contributor to my stress level and self-doubt.
So where does this feeling of loneliness come from? I think it stems from a lack of human interaction. Like so many internet entrepreneurs and indie games developers, I spend eight hours or more every day in front of a computer. I work in different places, but my work is almost entirely in front of a computer. The very nature of my work and indie game development is somewhat solitary and lonely. While I’m communicating with customers and game developers every day, technology makes these interactions bland and impersonal. Like so many people that read Gamasutra, I love gadgets, the internet and my smartphone. These technological marvels have certainly made doing business easier and faster, but sometimes I question if these devices are really enhancing my life.
Virtual Interactions are not equal to Human Interactions
I have come to the conclusion that virtual interactions are not equal to human ones. I think all of us would agree that meeting up with a friend for dinner or a beer is worth a thousand tweets, facebook friends, and emails. These technological tools are great for staying in touch but nothing beats a face to face human interaction or phone call. Obviously, video-conferencing and other technology can facilitate this type of interaction, but the vast majority of my virtual interactions are tweets, emails, forum posts, IRC chat etc. Obviously this type of communication is important for business, but it doesn’t really help me feel personally connected. Maybe, I'm just showing my age here.
Work Feels Inescapable
All this technology actually leads to work feeling inescapable. There’s a constant pressure to tweet, post, blog, email, etc that can be overwhelming. Our smartphones are constantly updating us on new tweets, emails, RSS feeds, facebook messages and more. When it’s your business, it’s very hard to ignore your phone and let things wait until the next morning. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve told my wife that I just had a couple things I needed to do on the computer – and then ended up working an extra hour or two at night or on the weekend – all because some email came in at an off-hour. I’m so thankful that I am so passionate about my job to work these insane hours, but it’s stressful to realize that work is always intruding into my personal life. It also creates a fear that if I were to take a week off that everything would fall apart. I realize that this is completely irrational, but it’s very hard to rationalize your emotions.
Financial Stress / Failure
I think that ultimately all of these pitfalls are a result of something very positive. I love video games and what I do – and I want to protect that at all costs. I don’t want to go back to a 9-5 job, but realize that if I’m not successful – it’s a reality that I may have to face. This fear of failure and the financial pressure to provide for myself, my wife and my future family is a fact of life. Even though it is stressful to dwell on, I believe it and my passion for games are the driving forces of my work ethic and success. People always say that the most important quality of an Entrepreneur is someone who gets things done. This extends to game development too – to be a game developer, you have to make games and finish them. You’ll struggle along the way and there are many who will never finish their game, but that’s ok because in the end nothing worth achieving is easy.
I’ve wasted a good portion of this post warning everyone about becoming independent entrepreneurs and the stress, solitude, and pitfalls that come along with it. I thought it would be helpful to share with you how I have learned to deal and persevere through these issues. Over the past 4 years of being an entrepreneur, here are some of the things that I have done to feel more connected and less stressed:
Stay Active / Healthy
Sitting in front of a computer for 8 or more hours a day is not healthy. This past year, I’ve started working at an adjustable desk that converts to a standing desk. I also make sure to walk my dog at least a mile every day and I regularly work out. I’ve found hot Yoga to be an incredible stress reliever, but I also lift at my local YMCA and play pickup Basketball every Monday night.
Get involved in your Community
Attend GDC, it is great. But be sure to follow-up and stay involved with your local IGDA chapter or other local gaming activities when you go home. I’m lucky enough to live close to Philadelphia which has an active IGDA chapter and a few indie studios that regularly host dev nights and other events (Thank you Cipher Prime). Be mindful that your community can extend beyond games and your business. I work at my local church as a Senior High Youth leader and regularly chaperone mission trips. This is an incredibly rewarding activity that keeps me busy on Sunday nights and takes me out of the game industry every week.
Collaborate – Don’t work alone!
I’ve collaborated online before, and it’s still necessary sometimes, but I can tell you that collaborating with someone in person is much more rewarding. If you have someone in the area that you can work with and partner up with, you should do it – and you should get together at least once a month to touch base and discuss things in person. Even if you don’t want or need a business partner, you should look into co-op working spaces just so that you can get out of your house and exchange ideas about your game and business. It’s helpful to keep work and home separate by getting an office or even walking to your local coffee shop.
Disconnect from Work
The reality is that being indie means that you are going to have weeks where you work insane hours and then times where you take it a little easier. That kind of flexibility is great, but you should still do your best to define a work schedule and create boundaries so that business stresses don’t intrude on your personal life. I do my best to only work from 8am – 6pm. I’m not great at sticking to that schedule, but it’s good to have a sense that you’re putting in extra time – so you don’t feel guilty if you take an hour lunch or head off to Yoga in the middle of the day. The biggest rule for me that has greatly helped me is that I turn my phone off between 9-10pm. That means that by 10pm, every email waits until the next morning. This has made a huge impact for me when it comes to spending quality time with my wife without the distraction of work. It’s also great to avoid an email or communication that could set you off 10 minutes before you’re going to bed – leading you to a restless night.
Obviously, these are just a few suggestions of how to reduce your stress level and avoid feeling lonely. They’ve helped me, but everyone is different and there’s no way to completely eliminate some of the pressure and stress that you feel as an entrepreneur or indie game developer.
This past summer I read an awesome post by Ben Horowitz from Andreessen Horowitz venture capital entitled The Struggle. I’d like to close out with this quote since it really spoke to me and made me feel like I wasn’t alone in my experiences:
The Struggle is when you wonder why you started the company in the first place.
The Struggle is when people ask you why you don’t quit and you don’t know the answer.
The Struggle is when your employees think you are lying and you think they may be right.
The Struggle is when food loses its taste.
The Struggle is when you don’t believe you should be CEO of your company. The Struggle is when you know that you are in over your head and you know that you cannot be replaced. The Struggle is when everybody thinks you are an idiot, but nobody will fire you. The Struggle is where self-doubt becomes self-hatred.
The Struggle is when you are having a conversation with someone and you can’t hear a word that they are saying because all you can hear is The Struggle.
The Struggle is when you want the pain to stop. The Struggle is unhappiness.
The Struggle is when you go on vacation to feel better and you feel worse.
The Struggle is when you are surrounded by people and you are all alone. The Struggle has no mercy.
The Struggle is the land of broken promises and crushed dreams. The Struggle is a cold sweat. The Struggle is where your guts boil so much that you feel like you are going to spit blood.
The Struggle is not failure, but it causes failure. Especially if you are weak. Always if you are weak.
Most people are not strong enough.
If anyone would like to reach me directly, you can tweet me @mgnade or email me at mike at indiegamestand.com. Good luck and keep makng awesome games and pursuing your dreams. It's not easy, but in the end I think it's worth it.