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Staying happy, creative, and productive in the tumultuous world of game dev
Staying happy, creative, and productive in the tumultuous world of game dev
September 9, 2016 | By Bryant Francis




Maybe this scene is familiar to you. It’s Friday night, and you’re neck deep in solving a problem with your game that QA discovered that morning. Your e-mail keeps dinging off with JIRA notifications, your cell phone buzzes with word about social plans that you’re going to have to cancel now. And all the while, the game you’re working on isn’t filling you with the same passion and purpose it did when you kicked off development. 

Being in AAA

Game development in large companies can often be a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, working with large teams can give you a great environment to come up with new ideas. On the other hand, much of your work is going to be battered through committee and subject to the whims of company management. 

Ryan Darcey, a former systems designer at 343 Entertainment, says working on Halo 5: Guardians conflicted with his innate desire to have a hand in literally every part of game development.

“To date, the highlight of my career was working on Star Wars: First Assault and that game didn't even ship," HE SAYS. "I was firing on all cylinders during that project and making significant contributions in all four areas related to my core skill sets."

“I didn't fully understand how important that was for me until I got through developing Halo 5.  By the end of it, I really missed everything I used to do in addition to systems design."

Darcey’s gone independent since finishing up his work with 343, and now thinks of his biggest creative challenges as being that of other indie developers. 

"A dream job still has to be a job. I learned pretty quick to be passionate about the work when creating it, but to be dispassionate with a dozen dissenting opinions pushing back on it."

Meanwhile Cameron Suey, a former writer and narrative designer at Crystal Dynamics, says he had to struggle with understanding game development as a process of iteration, making sure that every draft of Rise of the Tomb Raider’s script was written with the same passion as the first draft. “A dream job still has to be a job,” Suey says. “I learned pretty quick to detach myself from the work, to be passionate about it when creating it, but to be dispassionate with a dozen dissenting opinions pushing back on it, usually with contradictory feedback.” 

He adds, “I had an odd cycle of forcing emotional detachment from the work and then diving back in and trying to find what I liked the first time in order to iterate.” 

Suey describes a story he concocted for an optional side tomb in Rise of the Tomb Raider that had to be rewritten after it was moved to appear later in the game. It’s the kind of thing where even with having creative authorship over the experience, he had to internally come to grips with the second story, while still thinking the first provided a better alternative viewpoint on the events of the narrative. “That’s not something that even registers on the scales against good gameplay and player progression. And I fully understand it, but I won’t ever like it.”

Neither Suey and Darcey lay the blame of these struggles on their former teammates. It’s a conflict many triple-A developers deal with, which just led both of them to depart on their own earlier this year. But Supermassive creative director Gary Napper says it’s possible for leads in game development to create environments that can absorb some of this frustration. He says that development teams need to know they can be creative and are given room to explore ideas, but also understand the boundaries and direction of their development process. 

“It’s the creative lead’s responsibility to present that vision and clear direction to the team so their efforts are focused in the right ways,” Napper says. “A good motto is, ‘hire people smarter than you and trust them to do the job.’ This paints a picture of a team that understands their remit…but also understands where their ideas fit in with the rest of the project and team.”

Going it alone

Okay, so maybe you’re just not cut out working for a large company. What about a small company, or just working by yourself? Though this can open a lot of doors, it doesn’t mean the barriers between you and loving your work go away. 

As multiple independent developers explained (in different words), your biggest challenge when taking on game development in smaller teams is often your own health and general well-being. 

Nina Freeman, for instance, says she spent six months not taking a single weekend off while finishing Cibele, because she thought she had to work on the game 24/7 in order to ship the game in a reasonable amount of time.

“However, looking back, I could have taken a few weekends off and the game would have been fine. I was honestly wasting a lot of time being so stressed out that I could barely get anything done when I was working. It would have been way better to give myself some space and time to cool off.”

"Making games is really risky, and telling people to risk it all on their first project just seems absurd to me."

Alex Zandra Van Chastain agrees, saying her work since going indie even forced her to go on medical leave for a few months when she didn’t have anyone around to tell her to stop working. She says discipline is still important when working alone, but taking that time to relax will help your creativity.

“It's also good to realize when nothing is happening and just take some time to clear your head in other activities," she says. "Anything that occupies part of your brain is great for inspiration; walking, running, exercise, even just washing dishes can occupy part of your mind and let the rest be free to wander and create.”

Even if you’re able to manage the workload though, there remains the long-standing, ever present fact that indie game development can make you more vulnerable to the whims of economics then working for a large company. 

At this 2016 Independent Games Festival awards this year, Her Story’s Sam Barlow gave a heartfelt thanks to his wife for continuing to work at her day job while he could make Her Story with the support of their combined savings, but not all developers have that luxury, and a few pointed out it can interfere with your creative process when you’re trying to make ends meet. 

For instance, John Kane, creator of Killing Time at Lightspeed, finds it frustrating that so many argue for indie developers to quit their day job and just go full-time at making their game. “The thing I advocate for is having some kind of revenue stream while you do it,” Kane says. “Making games is really risky, and telling people to risk it all on their first project just seems absurd to me.”

And in the Australian games market, which has struggled with the closure of triple-A studios in recent years, Kane says he wishes developers would focus on seeking funds and grants as much as they talked about going it alone. 

Shawn Alexander, who’s worked at both Rockstar Games and now continues to work on his indie game Treachery in Beatdown City, has grappled with trying to maintain that balance for himself. He’s moved through different jobs, juggled PAX travel, grappled with Kickstarter funding, and more. “I don't know a lot of indie devs who do the convention route with games, who want it to be their primary source of income, without some sort of savings or what have you, without real safety nets like parents with some money or whatever,” he says.

“It's frustrating seeing brilliant people without a steady paycheck," Alexander says, "And I'm at least extremely lucky to have that these days.”

And while some might argue this simply just means indie devs just need to get a coffee shop job to keep funding their game, Rain Bro’s Akira Thompson says it means parts of his game he wants to get done just can’t come into existence. “There are many jobs that are also administrative involved in actually getting your game onto the market aside from the design, art, programming, and playtesting.” 

“This can sometimes mean making sacrifices in terms of cutting features you really wanted to have since you are doing so many things with limited time.”

The Side Gig

And of course, there’s the developers who live in between worlds—working for larger companies by day, running side projects by night. Sometimes these become a full-time job, but even when it’s not, practicing your game devevelopment abilities on the side and developing your talents is considered commonly good form. 

"Sometimes the real challenge is just continually reminding yourself that your side pursuit is just as real as your day job."

And according to Katie Chironis, who leads a dual life as a developer at Oculus and as the lead developer on the indie Shakespeare-meets-groundhog day game Elsinore, it’s a good habit to get into. Chironis says she’s been working on Elsinore in some fashion or another since college with her friends from Carnegie Mellon, even as she bounced around her first junior-level jobs in the industry. 

“Until this job, Elsinore was really the only consistent thing in my career, and in the past when things got hard it was one of the things that kept me motivated to ride out the craziness and stay in the industry,” she says.

But Chironis says even as she loves working on Elsinore, it’s had its costs. She’s had to put the game aside to make sure she’s keeping up with her deadlines at Oculus, and like Freeman and Cibele, she says keeping disciplined in production left her exhausted before GDC this year. And considering the game is a side project for her entire team, she says progress can feel slow compared to the fast-paced world of commercial development.

“Sometimes, for the team's sake, it's good for us to get together and compare things like a gameplay video from the build today vs. six months ago -- we're like, ‘whoa, look how much better everything looks and feels!’”

But not all developers have that kind of time to work on their own side projects. Suey explains that he had loads of time to work on his own projects while he was employed at various free-to-play companies before his time at Crystal Dynamics, but that changed after starting a family.

“At Crystal, with one child and another on the way, coupled with the longer hours and the creative expenditure, I found very little time to write," he says. "That was disappointing, because I never stopped thinking about ideas.”

And when you have to put other people’s work first, how do you make sure you still value your own? Jane Friedhoff, an independent developer and researcher at the Creative Research, says when your work isn’t paying your rent, it’s easy to diminish it to the point of not giving it due diligence.

“It can be a lot easier to dismiss your own work as either not worth the time/money, not important, or not ‘real’ indie game dev,” she explains. “Sometimes the real challenge is just continually reminding yourself that your side pursuit is just as real as your day job."

Friedhoff and Suey say they’re still working to grapple with these challenges in their own lives—Suey’s transitioned to a career as a freelance writer and full-time dad, and Friedhoff says she’s working on just organizing time to focus on her work. But if you’re going to put the same kind of effort into your side project that Chironis is, she says you should make sure your project meets your central skillsets if you actually want to get it done. 

“Often when I see side projects fail, it's because the person who bootstrapped the project chose something which didn't work for their personal skillset -- like a 3D artist who wants to make the next Dwarf Fortress or an engineer who wants to make the next Journey. If you're relying on someone else to do the heavy lifting required to produce your game, it will fail.”

Just Staying Creative

So when making games gets hard, how do you keep up that interest in making games? 

"More games creators should be better versed in things going on in the world, and culture around them."

Darcey and Alexander said it’s just as important to remember the world outside of game development when you’re making games.

“I think the ‘coolest’ things I get to do are away from games, like poetry readings, concerts, talks, going to art museums and botanical gardens,” Alexander muses. "They keep me thinking more about how games fit within the context of creativity in the world. More games creators should be better versed in things going on in the world, and culture around them, I think.”

Darcey also talks about a need to surround yourself in a community of peers who can give you feedback, but also just generally be a support and pick-me-up for any struggles you have. “I think the most paralyzing part of indie game development is second-guessing yourself,” he says. “It's very easy to create mental blocks when you don't have any external feedback coming in.”

And when you’re really down in the dumps, Friedhoff says it’s important to remember that feeling your worst can sometimes mean you’re about to be at your best.

“I often find that I hate my projects the most right before they get really good, so I just have to trust the process and work through it," Friedhoff says. "If I’m uninspired by it, yeah I’ll put it down, but if I hate it? That typically means I’m subconsciously frustrated by just how close I am to nailing it (even if it doesn’t feel that way), but not there yet. That gap is hard as hell, but as a game dev, you kind of have to be comfortable living there for a while.” 



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