The Fire Fades: Dealing with the scourge of burnout in game dev
It's an imprecise term for a very specific, endemic problem in game development, one often (but not always) caused by the industry's proclivity for crunch.
Being a game developer is often an exercise in endurance: working on a creative project for years on end, there's a constant pressure to push harder to see the thing through. A sense that the task is endless, but that more work might just get it done quicker. Financial, social, and cultural reasons make developers throw themselves into it, feeling guilty or lazy or afraid of what will happen if it doesn’t get done quicker.
Those pressures can and will wear a developer down, slowly crushing them without them even knowing it until it -- is far too late. Burnout is an extremely serious issue for game developers as they work themselves ever-harder to see their passion projects brought to life, or through buckling down to get that huge game released on time. It is an insidious thing that devours minds and bodies with overwork, breaking the wonderful, creative people who want to bring their incredible visions to the world.
“Whenever you care about someone or something more than yourself, your risk of burnout takes a big leap forward.” says Jonathan Holmes, licensed independent clinical social worker. “Burnout is a slang term for when people get stuck in a behavior pattern that they were once able to thrive in, but over time makes them more and more anxious and/or depressed. Think of when a car spins its tires at high RPMs without going anywhere, and all you get from it is the stink of burnt rubber, but instead of your car, it's your brain. That's burnout.”
These overworking behaviors, often lauded or worn like badges of honor in the game development industry, often only serve to leave its creative minds in ruins, breaking people down. In an industry where people seem proud of working twelve, sixteen, twenty-four, or more hours during crunch periods that never seem to end, there are endless stories of burnout.
“I got thrown into the deep end and found myself trying to code multiple games by myself in a short amount of time, without any real guidance," says Quang Nguyen of UK game dev Asobi tech. "As time went on, the time pressures grew and grew, as each milestone had to be reached, regardless of the various issues I was running into due to my inexperience. I went from working from home to moving into a small bed and breakfast so I could be closer to the office, meaning I could code from the first thing in the morning to the very last thing at night. Rinse and repeat."
“My burnout spiral began when I felt like my experience as a teacher wasn't being recognized by my peers - whether that was true or not doesn't quite matter. I decided to work on games outside of my regular 9-5 hours," says Jennifer Scheurle of Opaque Space. "I kept taking on more and more gigs outside of my full-time job to seek legitimacy and I never felt like I was quite doing as well or as much as others in my industry. A lot of regional awards and official recognition include questions on what a person does besides their regular job, e.g. 30 under 30 lists, so there is a general consensus on asking people to work more than the regular 40 hours a week.”
“On the worst nights, I would lay in bed with my laptop, glowing with GameMaker open," says James Earl Cox III of Seemingly Pointless. "I was trying to sleep with it next to me, hoping that maybe I would wake up refreshed and ready to code something, but it mostly existed as a reminder that I wasn’t making anything anymore. There was an overwhelming wall of guilt. I’d fall asleep in a panic and wake up the same way, one day closer to whatever trivial deadline I was currently dreading.”
These stories can be the end of a game, though. The last straw for a project, and for the person behind it. As an industry, how can we identify the warning signs in our own behaviors? How can we sense burnout coming before it hits, and what can we do about it when it’s here? Most importantly, how can we stop it from happening to begin with?
Gamasutra spoke with a handful of developers about their personal stories of burnout, and how, as an industry, we can hope to heal and better protect from the awful practices that lead to it.
"Within the game industry, burnout is especially common"
“In graduate school, I was pushed to work myself to the bone, and I did -- it was a year and a half accelerated Master's degree program at the Guildhall at SMU," says Tanya Short of Kitfox Games. "Although classes were of a standard length, assignments and projects easily ate up 60 to 80 hours every week for the whole 18 months. I've become very sensitive to how the quality of my work suffers when I'm not well-rested, physically and mentally.”
“In the latter half of 2016 and the first half of 2017, I took Sausage Sports Club to several PAX conventions. These being big marketing and networking opportunities, I of course wanted to push to make the game as polished as possible," says Chris Wade of Luckshot Games. "Each time one of these events would come around, I'd spend 2+ weeks before the show overworking myself every day. That means long hours, not spending time with friends and my then girlfriend and just generally failing to take care of myself and living space. Then the event comes and there's more crunch-like living with booth prep, setup and then having to be ON all day every day demoing the game.”
“At each convention, all of that combined to make me a ball of stress and anxiety and dead-brain and then I'd get home and be useless for a few days. And then close to useless for a few weeks. And oops now the next PAX is in a month. Here we go again.” he continues.
Every developer reached out to for this article could rhyme off at least one story of a time they had worked themselves into burnout, struggling to meet deadlines or fighting to push themselves to certain goals. It took minutes to find enough developers to fill an article, and their examples could easily go on for pages and pages.
"The medical community is intimately aware of [burnout], as many of them suffer from it themselves."
Holmes illustrates a bit of what is happening to these developers, and many others, in burnout. “Though I'm not a medical clinician, I'm pretty sure that burnout has not yet become an official medical term or diagnosis. It's a sad irony, but it makes sense given that it's more of a slang term, one that the medical community is intimately aware of, as many of them suffer from it themselves. That’s especially true of people who work in the fields of psychiatry and behavioral health, where burnout among clinicians is both highly prevalent, and largely met without any sort of intervention for positive change.”
“There is a glucomate in our brains that gets burned every time we have to make a decision, with the more stressful decisions requiring more of the stuff than minor or inconsequential ones.” he continues. “Run out of that glucomate, and people may find themselves staring at wall for hours at the end of the day, unable to even decide to get up and go to bed, as they've run out of the chemicals you need to make even minor decisions like that.”
Medically, a developer that has been working themselves to the bone to accomplish a task in a far-too-small window may well have run out of the chemical in their brain that allows them to make decisions. They have pushed themselves into a position where even the smallest call is just about impossible. Considering how taxing this is on the mind, it’s a frighteningly common problem for game developers and the industry.
This can happen for financial or employment reasons, according to Holmes. “Any big money industry that a lot of young, optimistic people want to join is going to end up having a high burnout population. When supply for eager and willing applicants is larger than the demand for those jobs, employers will inevitably squeeze their staff as tightly as they want, without risk of ending up with unfilled positions in the company for any prolonged period of time.”
“Expectations within our industry, fear or missing out and crunch culture seem to be the most common themes around burnout," says Scheurle. "We are constantly told that we are lucky to work in games, that our jobs are dream jobs and that we should be grateful to work in the field - this is especially true for prestigious franchises where there is a long line of developers waiting to take your place if you can't take the pressure.”
This puts pressure on developers to perform. In the indie space, there will always be someone out there pushing to have a game out there before you, forcing you to work doubly hard to get your game out in a time when it will succeed. Otherwise, all of the years developing it will have been ‘wasted’.
In larger companies, a developer may feel that they’re easy to replace should they stop working so hard or complain that they are being overworked, as there are so many others looking to work in the industry.
“Our corporate structures encourage trading in the quality of life of our workers in exchange for increased value to shareholders. As individuals, we buy into it because it's a one-two punch of starving artist meets Silicon Valley," adds Short. "We're ambitious, intelligent, creative, and both North American and Japanese culture confuses industriousness ("working hard") with actual productivity (producing results). I wrote an article on why some people choose to destroy themselves, from plausible deniability to sunk cost fallacy, but none of those are particularly unique to games.”
"We're ambitious, intelligent, creative, and both North American and Japanese culture confuses industriousness ('working hard') with actual productivity (producing results)."
But pushing oneself too hard has become a part of games culture itself. In a culture that lionizes the all-night coding session there's an almost romantic quality to overworking, when it is anything but healthy.
“Within the game industry, burnout is especially common," says Holmes. "It may have to do with the fact that for a long time, embracing or even glorifying a lack of self care has been a big part of games culture. Of course, there really isn't just one 'games culture' anymore, but that's a whole other conversation.”
Of course, there's that alluring feeling of "flow" that so many game makers push themselves to achieve during marathon work sessions. Once you're there it's great, but the effort you put in to do so may pave the way to burnout.
“People who love to play, and eventually, to make video games are almost always driven by the urge to enter the 'flow state'," says Holmes. “The frame of mind where you are being challenged at just the right level to keep you fully engaged in an activity, a place that exists in the balance between being under-stimulated and overwhelmed.”
“For athletes, getting to that flow state can mean jogging at just the right pace, which can be great for their health... until they blow out their knees and can't run anymore," he continues. "After that, running will just damage their bodies more, while not running will leave them depressed and listless. Their ability to hit the flow state through running is destroyed by the physical pain and related anxiety that comes from their injuries.”
Ashley Godbold, senior programmer with GameSmart, can vouch for this. “Many developers, myself included, can get so hyper-focused on a task, that their own bodily needs are forgotten. I constantly forget to eat or drink, because I've been so 'in the zone'. As you can imagine, my mental health is also forgotten."
“Gaming and game development are different in that they offer both an opportunity to enter the flow state, and a naturally occurring anesthesia to any psychological injury you may sustain along the way," Holmes concludes. "Anything that causes you to forget that you physically exist, and that your physical existence comes with physiological and emotional needs, can be like a pleasant-smelling poisonous gas. The smell masks the damage being done to you as you breathe it in. Similarly, the way games and game development transport us and immerse us can make us forget to take care of ourselves.”
The reasons burnout can occur are beyond numerous, and again, almost any developer can call up a time when they’ve overworked themselves for any number of them. It’s a constant problem.
Knowing the signs of burnout could help, in theory, but it's very tricky because the circumstances which lead to burnout make it often hard to perceive what's happening, or hard to justify taking time for self-care due to the pressures that made the developer feel burnt out to begin with.
“What's terrible about burnout symptoms is that it makes you feel exactly the things that push you towards burnout in the first place: You are irritable, constantly tired, hopeless and terrifyingly: unproductive," says Scheurle. "Ironically, the more you burn out, the less work you actually end up doing while constantly feeling like and telling people about how much work you do. Burnout keeps you from working well, making you feel lazy and untalented. In that manner it is also hard to believe your friends when they notice these signs.”
Even so, developers owe it to themselves, and the work they’re trying to complete, to watch out for many of these signs.
"The most obvious sign of burnout is when someone seems flat and frustrated while engaging in activities that used to inspire excitement and optimism."
“The most obvious sign of burnout is when someone seems flat and frustrated while engaging in activities that used to inspire excitement and optimism. It's when people appear to be weighted down with a sense of burden as opposed to being lifted up by the feeling of opportunity when approaching a task that used to thrill them,” says Holmes.
“When things went wrong for me, I turned to making games. This worked fine as an undergraduate student when my university work was spread across multiple disciplines. Game making was mostly a hobby back then," adds Cox. "When I started at USC, it became both a hobby and my full-time study. Now that I’m graduated, it’s a hobby and my job. It’s fine to include game making in both my personal and professional life, but there needs to be alternative releases."
This is often how it goes: someone with a deep passion for making games suddenly finds that feeling turning to ash inside them.
“For me, burn out always sneaks up on me. It's days before I realize I haven't taken any breaks and have been working 10-13 hours each day on it,” says Tyler Doak, developer of Aces Wild. “It usually starts with me running into a difficult concept or implementation. Each day I make a tiny bit of progress, but if I work just a BIT harder, I can get through it. But that turns into a month of that and eventually I burn out.”
“On the other hand, it can happen when things are going great as well," he continues. "I'm excited to work on it every day, so I put in a dozen productive hours each day, the game is gonna be great, but then eventually my body gives in and I'm burnt out.”
“Emotional instability, irritability, general tiredness, dullness, disaffectedness...some people report a dread of going to work, or insomnia, but for me it manifests more as a narrowing of focus, an inability to process things like what is important and what is not important," recounts Short. "I become a hard-shelled body, walking down a corridor of ice, towards some distant destination, unquestioning, just working. Some people seem like they always feel this way, but I wonder if some people have been burned out for years and never managed to heal completely. In a creative industry, if you can't be excitable, curious, imaginative, analytical, intrigued, I'm not sure you're actually doing your job well.”
"In a creative industry, if you can't be excitable, curious, imaginative, analytical, intrigued, I'm not sure you're actually doing your job well."
“My sure signs of burnout are not wanting to get out of bed and the feeling of my brain actively resisting being at a computer or doing work. I'm generally excited to make things and be around people in an office, so when that changes I know something is wrong.” says Wade.
“Honest reflection of your mindset and health may help you to recognize your burnout more quickly. I tend to use 'avoidance' tactics when I first start feeling any mental or emotional strain. It takes me a little longer to notice my symptoms, because I am actively trying to ignore them," says Godbold. "Because I know this about myself, I like to do 'emotional spot checks' occasionally, where I reflect upon my current state versus my 'normal' state. I try to be as honest with myself as possible with these reflections. I have found this to be really helpful.”
Sometimes, having someone else who is also looking out for these signs can make a huge difference. “We don't notice it right away- but usually Adam [Saltsman] is the first person who notices something is super off,” says Rebekah Saltsman of Finji. “I don't eat as much because it makes me sick. He has to talk to me about my parenting because I am not interacting with the kids in a positive and encouraging way when they are being mischievous (or let’s be honest- they are being awful). He notices I am not making dinners or planning dinners or we are super behind on grocery shopping. I yell a lot more. I notice I am burning out because I can't manage my stress. I stop running which means I stop sleeping. I can't catch up on emails- even the simple ones.”
Diagnosing burnout in yourself can be tremendously tricky, but Holmes says self-awareness is key if you want to stop it before it hurts your work or your life.
“Make it a habit to take your temperature in terms of your levels of stress and depression," he says. "Even if that means just rating how much you got out of life that day on a scale from one to ten every night before bed, and taking a look at your cumulative scores at the end of each week, it's still a start towards upping your self awareness. Watching your back can do a lot to keep burnout from sneaking up on you.”
Of course, this is easier if you have a friend or loved one watching out for you as well.
“It's even better to have at least two people you can talk to about how you're doing who can reflect to you what they see about your mental state," Holmes continues. "Make sure they are people who you respect, and be willing to accept that they may be able to see aspects of your burnout that you are blind to. Like that line in John Dies At The End (and forgive me for paraphrasing), if your eye isn't working, you won't be able to use your eye to look in a mirror and see what's wrong with it. You'll need someone else to look for you. The same is true for your perception of yourself in the midst of burnout, so having someone you trust to help fill in the blanks can be a life saver.”
Short concurs, and recommends devs do their best to identify symptoms and course-correct early before they start to burn out.
“The earlier I catch it, the better. Even if there's still work to be done, it helps me to be aware of when I maybe shouldn't push that extra hour today, and explicitly push my brain to think about other things when I'm at home," she says. "Sleeping is magic, but I find putting energies into hobbies (cooking, writing, sports) gives back more than you put in. My partner (who's also a game developer) can help look out for me too, making sure I don't check my work emails at home, and maybe even stay off the computer entirely.”
Game makers shouldn't shoulder this burden alone. If you work as part of a larger company or even just a group of devs, the organization itself has a responsibility to help ensure the health of its employees.
“When a project starts it is imperative that there is team buy-in on how many hours you will work together," says Saltsman. "If you are working remotely, spend time just working while in an online hangout. Keep your Discord voice chat on during the day. Don't be alone. When you are up against a deadline, communicate when you are going to do reasonable development sprints. For example, when we have shows for Overland, we prep for 2 days of cleanup which might be 10-12 hour days instead of 8. We schedule this so everyone is capable of working together.”
“When you go too far and you can't get yourself out of the hole- when you are burned- it is time to take an honest look at things," she adds. "Are you almost done? Should the scope change immediately? Should you hire on someone ASAP? Is what you are trying to do possible with the resources you have?”
Up next: More on how to identify, prevent, and recover from burnout as a game dev