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Opinion: Marriage Crisis vs. Crunch: A Post-Mortem
Opinion: Marriage Crisis vs. Crunch: A Post-Mortem
November 9, 2011 | By Mike Slone

November 9, 2011 | By Mike Slone
More: Console/PC, Business/Marketing

[In this reprinted #altdevblogaday-opinion piece, indie developer Mike Slone delivers an unconventional postmortem, reflecting on how he handled his marriage crisis in the midst of Saints Row 2's crunch.]

Today's post is a little different than most. It's a topic that is a little scary for me to write about, but it's very close to my heart. Many friends of mine in the industry have been through the same struggle I've experienced, but so few of them talk about it.

A little disclaimer for this post – it contains references to my religious habits. These references are made to give insight into my story, and are not intended to reflect opinions of #AltDevBlogADay/Gamasutra as a whole.

I will also state that I do not believe overtime contributed to my divorce. My hope here is to open discussion on how we can help each other in crises.

My Most Difficult Challenge

As I walked in circles at the end of the Venice Beach pier tonight, I tried to think of the most difficult challenges I've faced in my career. I've always felt it was my duty to share what I learned from my divorce.

Unable to shake the idea that I should write about that, I've decided to go against the grain and discuss something very emotionally difficult – how my failing marriage affected my work, and what I did to keep from losing my mind.

The brunt of the ugliness around my divorce happened during crunch on Saints Row 2, though it spanned from about a year before that to about a year after. We were in and out of counseling that whole time.

Despite all that craziness, I consistently finished my work in high quality while still managing to invest in my marriage and maintain my mental, emotional, and spiritual health. Hopefully my experiences can help others address the way their personal difficulties and work life interact.

What Went Right

Taking Time to Withdraw

My marriage was falling apart, and my work just kept piling up. Bug counts were rising at some kind of hyper-geometric rate, and meanwhile my wife had been slowly withdrawing from the marriage from the day of our wedding. The weight of all this was, at times, unbearable.

Occasionally, I would reach places where I knew I wasn't going to get anything done. I'm more emotional than the average person, so sometimes I'd start to feel negativity creeping up on me while I was working, and it would distract me from my work.

Stepping out of the situation for a few minutes allowed me to address what I was experiencing through prayer and meditation. At the height of it, I remember stepping into the bathroom and hanging my head in my hands and just feeling my guts implode and burn with grief.

My cousin and I now jokingly call that kind of day "a Duck Phillips day." Sometimes you have them, and sometimes all you can do is feel lousy for a bit, which leads me to my next success…

Taking Time to Grieve

My friend Ash once told me that in ancient Jewish tradition, when someone would die, the family of the deceased would simply sit in their home and grieve. Friends would come in and out of the home to be there for them. They didn't give advice. They didn't even try to say anything comforting. They were just there.

That thought really stuck with me. I've found that the only way to relieve emotional pain is to feel it, and sometimes just knowing someone is there for you is enough. By taking time with friends to grieve, it allowed me to spend time at work with minimal grief-related interruptions.

Faithful Friends

Call it luck, call it blessing, call it providence, but whatever you call it, this had little to do with me. When you're going through a crisis, you need friends. You'll make new friends. You'll call up old friends. People you don't know well will offer help, and that's okay!

Don't be afraid to be someone's charity case – you need help and they want to help. I don't think that's such a despicable thing – though it is humbling. Maybe they know something you don't. Regardless, I would advise you to consider what you know of the person; not everyone's advice is good.

Another element of this was staying plugged into a healthy social group. I was involved with a new "small group" (basically a Bible study with prayer time and some hang-out time) led by my close friend, Ash.

During prayer time, he and I would walk around the block, and I would get angry, or sad, or frustrated, and he would listen and pray simple, frustrated prayers with me. I shared less with the larger group, but they were there for me when I needed them, and that was such a huge blessing.

Making my Marriage a Priority

Most people won't tell you that your work is a priority over your marriage, but that's a much easier thing to say than it is to make policy. It's been said that you don't find time, you make it. If you're having marriage trouble, make time for your wife (or husband). If you can't make it home for dinner, maybe she can join you at a restaurant near work from time to time.

It's not just about time either. Find ways to show her that just because you're at work doesn't mean you've forgotten her. Call her during a break, send her flowers, a text from time to time – anything is better than nothing.

Sharing My Struggle

Even a year or so after the divorce, most of my coworkers didn't realize I'd had any marriage trouble, let alone a divorce. I quietly took down my photos of my wife after everyone had gone home one night.

I found out one day that several of the men in my room had been through divorces and marriage crises, and some were even currently going through them, so I told them my story.

Everybody dealt with their situations a little differently. Common threads, though, were alcoholism and "workaholism." Most game developers love what they do, and it can be a welcome distraction when they feel they've got nowhere else to go.

If you see someone working late hours, and maybe they seem to be going for the liquid solution a little more often than usual, they may need someone to talk to. Don't be pushy, just offer an open ear. If they don't want to talk, that's fine – they now know you'll listen. Also, even if you heard something, don't assume you know what's going on – just ask.

What Went Wrong

Keeping It Too Quiet

On two occasions, I left work early (that is, around the 8-hour mark) to address home issues. On one occasion, I was having a very difficult heart-to-heart with my wife and got a call from a manager asking where I was. I had told another manager that I wasn't feeling well and felt the need to go home, so I repeated that same lie.

On another occasion (the week my wife left), I told my boss I was sick and needed to go home to recoup. A friend and mentor called me and asked if going to a movie might help me feel better, so we went to see The Dark Knight (which is a terrible movie to see when you're depressed, it turns out).

There are only 2 full-sized movie theaters in Champaign-Urbana. Naturally, I ran into a coworker and had a nice, awkward moment…"glad you're feeling better!"

Had I gone to a manager I trusted and disclosed a little about the situation I was in, I think I could have handled both of those situations better.

Physical Health

Despite all my efforts to stay emotionally, spiritually, and mentally healthy, my physical health did slip during this time. I put on about 30 lbs over the course of a year or so, ate a lot of junk food, and spent little time engaging in physical activity.

To address this, I later introduced a 15-minute afternoon run a few times a week and stopped drinking from the soda fountain at work. The weight came back off pretty quickly.

Pass it On

I'm no trained counselor, but I've had coworkers and friends alike come to me to ask for my perspective on relationships, divorce, infidelity, and other related topics. I'm happy to help wherever I can. If you've gone through something difficult, don't be ashamed. Look for people who can benefit from your experience.

[This piece was reprinted from #AltDevBlogADay, a shared blog initiative started by @mike_acton devoted to giving game developers of all disciplines a place to motivate each other to write regularly about their personal game development passions.]

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Daniel Martinez
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Marriage sometimes takes more work than work itself. I'm glad you managed to keep it together and admire your courage to share this, Mike. Godspeed in all your future endeavors career and relationship-wise.

Montana Payne
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an honest and self deprecating piece. thanks for taking the time to write and share this...

Joseph Caddell
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Agreed, and also a good read. Inspiring as a game art student graduating soon I have that problem with family most of the time.

Jen Bauer
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Given all of the personal issues I've had that inevitably come up around crunches, I'm glad to read this. Thank you for sharing, Mike. I hope you continue to balance all of these unpredictable factors as you move forward.

Brian Bartram
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As someone who experienced a divorce while in the development process I can really appreciate your candor in raising the subject. I definitely went down the "workaholic" path myself. I thought that your "post mortem" approach to this essay was a great idea - talking about what worked about how you approached the situation, and what didn't. This industry is unique in many ways compared to the "standard 9 to 5" and I'd love to hear more lifestyle pieces about how living in the industry affects your life outside the industry. Great work, thanks for sharing.

Jakub Majewski
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Reading things like this, you always wish it had a happy ending, with everything working out in the end - and far too often, it does not.

...But the question this piece really begs is - are there any statistics regarding divorce in the games industry? I have this nagging feeling at the back of my head that game developers probably go through more divorces than most other people. It's far too easy to get distracted from your personal life when you're making entertainment, and the constant crunching is just brutal. Even if your wife is supportive of you at the start, you always wonder at which point she'll start losing patience.

Michael Slone
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From what I've seen, the game industry seems to have a high divorce rate, but then again, so does the rest of the US. For every guy I've worked with who has been through a divorce, I know one who has been happily married to one woman the whole time. That would put it about 50/50 which would match the non-industry rate, if I'm not mistaken.

Joe McGinn
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A little depressing that leaving after eight hours is something you needed permission for. I there with the team too when they need me, when we need to hit that milestone or build. But it should never be automatic, good managers should be in constant communication with their people in those circumstances. I'd say you handled it fine, your manager failed you.

Keith Moore
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Exactly what I was thinking. This tendency of crunch as a habit NEEDS to be the exception instead of the norm. Pushing people to exhaustion and destroying marriages (well, contributing to the problem) doesn't help any team's productivity. Jeez, much of the time you're just coming back the next day trying to fix what you screwed up when you were tired!

Marc-Andre Caron
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"I left work early (that is, around the 8-hour mark)"

This should not be considered early. It sure as hell isn't for the people I manage.

I feel fortunate that my wife didn't walk out on me, considering the long stretches of overtime I've been through in my years making games. Had it become an issue, the job would have had to go on without me at night, or without me at all if push had come to shove.

In our industry, one should never lose track of one important fact: we are making fake worlds for entertainment purposes. Whatever pressure one feels is not the least bit due to a sense of mission or a quest for the betterment of mankind. We're doing this because we have fun making fun. Remove this and the job loses all appeal.

Filmer Tolentino
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Nice article, glad you could write about it. SR2 was definitely a trying time. I wasn't married but working 70-80hrs 7 days a week, 60 on a good week caught up to me fast. It was undoubtedly hard to gain perspective on your own personal life and emotions when work took up 90% of your energy and life.

Cheers to you being more free in Venice, it was good times sitting next to you on the non crunch project after SR2 ;) Good luck to your indie games.