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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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