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The Belly of the Whale: Living a Creative Life in the Games Industry
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The Belly of the Whale: Living a Creative Life in the Games Industry

June 2, 2011 Article Start Page 1 of 6 Next

[In this comprehensive article, based on a popular GDC 2011 lecture, Zynga chief creative officer for external studios Bob Bates tackles the thorny issue of why the industry hemorrhages talent, and how to make sure you are creatively fulfilled.]

Every year, thousands of people come into the games industry, believing they have found their "dream job." Five years later, about half of them are gone.

The business cost of this turnover is huge. We train people, only to lose them. The human cost is even more devastating, as these people enter a field they expect to love, then end up leaving, disillusioned.

It turns out that getting a job in our industry is actually pretty easy. What is hard is making a career of it. Each of us feels the need to do "meaningful work" in our lives, yet it's hard to do such work and to find fulfillment within the sometimes brutal and unforgiving environment of the games industry.

To explore this problem, I interviewed over 60 people, ranging from workers "in the trenches" to company executives who have come up through the ranks, as well as people who have left the industry altogether.

I spoke with writers, programmers, artists, testers, composers, producers, marketers, project managers and a host of others who are trying to use their creativity to nurse games through development.

I obviously struck a chord, because I ended up with hundreds of pages of material to sort through. People poured out their hearts and bared their souls. They reminded me again how deep the passion runs in those who make games. I promised anonymity, but many of the people whose quotes you will see below are household names in our industry.

By the end of this article you should realize that if you are having difficulty living a creative life, you are not alone. Fortunately, you should also realize that you are not powerless, and that there are successful strategies for dealing with the issues that many of us face.

The Problems

Everyone who wants to live a creative life quickly runs into all kinds of difficulties, no matter what field they're in: finding meaning in their work; dealing with rejection; surviving identity crises; and sometimes battling depression and addictions.

Creatives in any industrial environment face additional challenges: reconciling their artistic goals with the financial imperatives of the business; doing repetitive, factory-like "assembly line" work; and becoming alienated from the product they are making because they touch only a small part of the overall project and lose the connection between the maker and the thing that is made.

But creatives in the games industry have even more difficulties: adjusting to the loss of individual vision in service to the collaborative product; dealing with the resistance to new ideas built into our risk-averse environment; and the long development cycles and cancelled projects that limit the number of published titles an individual may work on in his or her career.

Our identities are tied up in our work, and yet here we are faced with all these problems. We want to make great games, but we find ourselves working on cookie-cutter projects that might never see the light of day and even if they do, our contribution is so small that it's hard for us to say, "I made that game."

In this article, we'll deal with these four basic questions:

  1. Early in your career, what do you do if you're feeling like a "cog in the machine," with little opportunity to exercise your creativity?
  2. How do you contemplate the risks of making a change?
  3. Later in your career, how do you stay creative and sane?
  4. What do you do if your find yourself slipping into troubled territory?

But first, being the good critical thinkers that we are, we should attack the premise.

Boo-hoo! Poor Little Us!

The Department of Labor reports that men and women hold an average of about 14 jobs by the time they turn 40. And whereas previously they predicted that most people will have three totally different careers in their lifetimes, they are now predicting as many as seven completely different careers (for example switching from being an engineer, to a teacher, to a shop owner, etc). Moreover, they say that almost half of all workers are not happy with their jobs.

Several people I interviewed pointed out that we've got it better than creatives anywhere else. Painters, writers, composers, potters, weavers -- almost all of them labor in poverty, insecurity, and obscurity.

"I've never been under any illusion that the world owes me a living doing what I want to do. I'm kind of astonished by the notion that someone who enters a creative field should expect anything other than uncertainty and likely penury."

Others said the turnover is healthy -- it weeds out the people who shouldn't be in the industry in the first place.

"I'm reminded of Harlan Ellison's statement: 'Anyone who can be dissuaded from being a science fiction writer should be.'"

And it could be that our problems are the downside of the aphorism "Do what you love; the money will follow." We're doing what we love, but we're finding out that what we love, is turning into WORK. (Or, as Tom Sawyer said, "Work is what a body is obliged to do.")

And finally there's the theory that being unhappy is simply part of what makes people creative in the first place.

"Talented, creative people are sometimes inherently dissatisfied -- and that's actually what makes them so damn good at their jobs."

In other words, it might be that we're just a bunch of crybabies!

A Cog in the Machine

Nevertheless, our problems are real. Some of us are wondering whether we should make a move or stay where we are. We wonder how we can survive in an industry that treats us so horribly. Some of us feel like cogs in the machine. Why is that?

It could be due to an inaccurate set of perceptions that people have formed prior to coming into the industry. Making games just isn't as glamorous as some people think.

"I don't think college kids get that making games has little to do with playing them. People enjoy sausage but don't really want to work in the sausage factory."

But the reality is that this is where most people start. Most of the people you think of as leaders in this industry started off as a cog.

"Don't feel too entitled or impatient. 'Starting in the mail room' is a time-honored tradition, and it is still a true path in the games industry. There is a ton to learn now (way more than when I started.)"

Not only that, but it turns out that everyone is a cog.

"No one gets to make exactly the game they want to make -- even at highly-empowered studios."

"My current job title is 'Game Director', and while that might sound like I have a huge creative hammer, it's just not true."

So if that's how you have to start out, how do you make the best of it?

Article Start Page 1 of 6 Next

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Aaron Burton
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ive only red 3 out of 6 pages but so far i get what this article is saying. We all want to have some creative part in an interesting project. I have a problem with wanting to do everything or almost everything. Its hard to buckle down in one field. I like 3d, drawing, music, and level design. But i know I'm probably only gonna get paid for 1 of those depending on my level of skill.

Andrew Dobbs
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One important thing I've learned through a variety of jobs in the past ten years (not just game industry), is that each new opportunity is often vastly different from the last, even if the industry or the job title is the same.

As far as the article, I would have liked to read more about people's unique stories. The advice is great, but I wish you had included more specific examples from people's lives to illustrate those points.

Rafael Vazquez
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Excellent article, and very inspiring ! Right now, I am without a doubt in the whale's belly; however to know that this is a path that we all have to cross, and that I am not the only one to be there is quite comforting. Just my two cents, but I have found that furthering your own education is also an option. It not only allows you to take a break from corporate life, but also is an active step for your own improvement. The feeling that you are pursuing something to become better at your craft helps a lot when you feel stuck.

If anyone else feels like they are stuck in one place and not moving forward, I highly encourage you to look for a master's or PHD degree. Betting on education is always a good bet.

Sean Currie
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Excellent article, though I do fear that some of it echoes, albeit unintentionally, the machismo that prevents the industry from properly assessing and correcting institutional problems. The "The job's tough, deal with it," attitude is poisoning this industry. Especially when you consider that most of the problems people complain about have to do with organizational issues and limited compensation in comparison to increasing executive salaries and bonuses.

The Ellison quote is a bit misplaced - there's a significant difference in acting creatively on one's own (as does a novelist) and being forced into the low ROI scenarios that come with forced overtime, long hours, and job instability in a hyper corporate environment.

(As an aside, if you think that, given his reputation, Ellison would have put up with the working environment of the games industry for any length of time then I think we have different authors in mind.)

The fact is, a lot of people are being exploited in this industry and all of us have stories of seeing people operating under conditions that straddle the fence of being legal, let alone being conducive to "creative fulfillment".

Joe McGinn
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Nice article Bob, thanks for the time and effort you put into this. I see a lot of my own and my friends experienced in the game industry in different parts of what you wrote. Lot's of great, actionable ideas.

Jesse Perry
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Great article! Much appreciated.

Olivier Besson
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The article looks very interesting, and since I'm very naive, I'm going to read (and believe) what Zynga has to say about creativity (for example stealing other's ideas?

Sterling Reames
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That's Bob fucking Bates! Go learn some stuff and get your head out of your ass. Thank you.

Michael Peiffert
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This is just a provocative way to say "get inspiration from the best products, and make them even better". Wich is what it was all about in this industry for years. I don't see anything wrong with that.

Sean Currie
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I believe Olivier's point was that he wasn't going to take lessons on creativity from someone at Zynga. Given Mr. Bates pedigree in the industry, it is surprising that his name wasn't recognized as someone who has something important to share.

Regardless, I LOL'd.

Michael Joseph
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"Creatives in any industrial environment face additional challenges: reconciling their artistic goals with the financial imperatives of the business; doing repetitive, factory-like "assembly line" work; and becoming alienated from the product they are making because they touch only a small part of the overall project and lose the connection between the maker and the thing that is made."

Well this is the key. Industrial environments are very ANTI-social places. It's sink or swim. You can't count on your workplace community to help lift you above water if you're drowning. You'll simply be discarded because this is a community in the narrowest sense of the word. Nobody working 50-80 hours a week at such a place is ever going to be happy. And anyone working 50-80 hours a week is bound to be severly underpaid.

Alas, you see articles like this one every so often...

"How to [live/survive/not go crazy] whilst working [40/50/60/70/80] hours a week during the prime years of your life doing good and needed work for relatively low pay whilst executive pay exceeds 170x your own[1] and with the threat of being fired or layed off at a moment's notice."


Michael Joseph
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Rather than be the cog, I think a better mental approach is to "dream in a pragmatic way" to quote Aldous Huxley. Never resign yourself to being a cog. The reality is the company utilizes you and in return you must do your best to utilize it. If you're paying your dues, realize that you're paying those dues to yourself. To the extent you work hard for others or for a project, it's to the extent that you are working to further your own goals. Be pragmatic. If you were a true idealist you would've quit long time ago. But you haven't and so you aren't so grant yourself the freedom to be pragmatic.

And this sort of mindset will help you save money and be responsible instead of amassing credit card debt, a hefty mortgage and sports car payment that will prevent you from having the security you need in order to one day take THE chance that may ultimately provide you with real security and freedom.

Michael Joseph
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"The business cost of this turnover is huge. We train people, only to lose them."

I sometimes lose socks.

Seriously, training them and firing them (aka losing them) when the product has shipped is cheaper than keeping them on. I'm not sure how it can be any cheaper. It's not a "business cost" it's a business savings.

And people are generally not leaving the game industry because they are disillusioned. They leave because they get layed off and then can't get back in or can't climb the ladder and are stuck. One can only go through so many crunch cycles when working at the bottom rungs.

But you didn't talk about that either.

"many of the people whose quotes you will see below are household names in our industry"

Maybe part of the problem with this article is it seems to be adapted primarily from experiences of people who have become fairly successful and perhaps have been successful for a long time and have never gone through some of the experiences many of the readers of this article will have gone through. The title is "living a creative life" in the industry but it seems much more a "How to succeed (despite your mental illness aka idealism)"

You talk a lot about how to "fix" the individual but not at all about how to fix the industry.

Sean Currie
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"You talk a lot about how to "fix" the individual but not at all about how to fix the industry."


Glenn Storm
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What a wise and beautiful sentiment; comprehensive and invaluable. Thank you, Bob!

Daniel McMillan
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Also note that any amount of grief and aggravation can be overcome with the right salary.

Jitesh Panchal
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Incredible article by Mr. Bob! You have really gone into the intricacies of working/ leading a creative life.

Matthew Blankenship
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A very helpful article, thank you for so much insight.

Mike Sellers
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Well done, Bob!

For those reading this who don't know Bob, he's one of those few people who has been in the games industry longer than almost anyone, and yet has managed to stay sane, creative, and articulate. If you're starting out or are re-considering your career and have wished for a mentor who has a great heart and can show you the ropes -- that's what Bob is giving you with this article.