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

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.

Bob Bates, Blogger

June 2, 2011

40 Min Read

[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!

bobbates2.jpgThe 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?

Be the Cog

While you are a cog:

  • Put in your 10,000 hours.

    Malcolm Gladwell and others have written that it takes ten thousand hours of work to become an expert in any creative endeavor. From the Beatles to Bobby Fischer, no one ever made it big without those 10,000 hours. "...composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals... No one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time." (Outliers)

  • Use your position to learn your craft. You're on the inside -- the best possible place to get a hands-on education.

    "To me one of the biggest advantages of working in any game development job is access to information. You're working with a professional-grade game engine, have professional tools available, professional concept art, and most importantly, coworkers in different disciplines 'who know their stuff'. That's a treasure trove of information!"

  • Use the time to make the best possible game you can, and decide if that is the kind of game you want to keep making. This is the time for you to learn about yourself and about what you like to do.

    Several people I spoke to made the analogy to an orchestra. There are all different kinds of music, and orchestral music is one of them. The typical violin section of a symphony orchestra has 30 to 35 players. Each of them is playing the best they know how. Being a cog in that machine is vital to the creation of that grand style of music. If you are happy in that role, great! But if you find that your company does not value it properly, perhaps you should switch to one that does.

    Or if you find you are frustrated with that role, then perhaps you should find a different kind of music to play, maybe with a smaller ensemble where you can play a larger role. Those opportunities exist again in our industry now, and there are many opportunities to move from a large company to a smaller one.

  • Make yourself useful.

    In every game company, there are jobs that aren't getting done. There is a natural vacuum that is formed, and if you see something that needs to get done and offer to do it, you soon find that you start to get sucked upwards into positions of greater responsibility. So figure out what you want to be known for, and if there is an opportunity to do that work, then volunteer for it. When you are the solution to a problem, you'll soon find yourself with as much responsibility as you can handle.

  • Sometimes, you're just stuck (for a while).

    Of course, into every career some rain must fall, and there will be times when you will have to resign yourself to just working for the money, or the experience, or the opportunity to work on the next project.

  • Find something to love.

    But my best advice is to find something to be excited about on that project. You need to find something to love, or you won't do a good job, and on top of that, you will be miserable.

    "Become a damn good and useful cog, and then find opportunities to twirl the gear you once rode on."

    "If you love to be in full control of every single detail of your creative work, then the games industry presumably is not for you (consider writing novels unintended for publishing instead)."

    "To be happy and to do our best work, I believe we all need to find something to love about the project we're working on at any given time, whatever it happens to be. You have to love it a little or you won't excel. I've almost always managed to find something I can love about a game, even if it's not something I would normally get excited about."

The Anxiety of Change

whale_cogs.jpgOkay. So you've been a cog long enough and you're ready to make a change, and you're nervous about the risk. Should you move to another company? Should you move up the ladder to a lead position in your own company? Should you go independent or freelance?

There are risks in changing companies, but it can also be risky to stay where you are.

  • Companies and projects come and go. Any move you make is inherently risky. We all know people who have been laid off, or whose studio has been closed, or whose project has been cancelled. It really is impossible to know how stable a company is.

  • But it's worse than that. To stay where you are may actually be riskier than moving on. Each of you is now an entrepreneur, and your business is YOU. The corporate safety net is long gone, so it's up to each of us to find our next job, to manage our career progression, and to recognize that every option we have entails risk.

  • No one I talked to had any idea about how to eliminate this risk. The best we can do is try to manage it intelligently

    Whether you stay with your current company or move to a new one, it still might be risky to move up to a lead or manager position.

  • You might lose Hands-on Creativity.

    One of the biggest fears that people have prior to accepting a promotion is that they will miss the hands-on creativity that they enjoy in their current job.

    This is understandable. There is a real joy to be found in hands-on work. It is creativity in its rawest form. The ability to get an idea and make it come into existence is really thrilling!

  • You might not get to use your superpower.

    There is something incredibly compelling and addictive that comes with having a good set of tools and the skill to use them. It doesn't matter whether it's an art package, or a programming language, or audio and music composition tools, or a level editor -- when we are skilled, and when we have a vision, we have POWER. We can sit down and MAKE something.

    A sculptor can chisel the marble the way he wants, a potter can mold the clay, a painter can wield the brush. And we can do the same.

    Is that something you want to give up?


  • You will change how you "touch" the audience.

    At a hands-on level, we use the tools that directly touch the audience. We're writing the words they'll hear and painting the textures they'll see and building the levels they'll walk through. But when we move to a lead or director level, instead we direct the teams that are using those tools.

    Are you happier having that direct effect on the audience in that single dimension, or might it be more satisfying to have a broader influence on more areas of the game?

  • You will no longer have "completable" tasks.

    I love driving long distances. I think it's because while I am engaged in that task, there is nothing else I should be doing, and there is a strong sense of completion when the task is done.

    It's a simple assignment: Get from here to there, and don't crash the car.

    Having a skill and using it to help build a game is like that. You're asked to do something, and you do it. You get feedback, and move on to the next task.

    But that is a world you leave behind when you move into management.

    When you're a manager, you've always got a million half-done tasks, none of which you're doing as well as you would like, and most of which you'll get yelled at for doing at all. When you're a manager, there's always something else you should be doing, and you're rarely "done" with any of them.

  • "Can I do the job?"

    Lots of people said the thing they worried about most before accepting a promotion was whether or not they'd actually be able to do the job. For most of them, it didn't turn out to be a problem at all. And those who didn't come through okay found it wasn't too hard to revert to a former skilled position.

  • But you will need new skills

    Many people were surprised at the number of things they had to learn when they started managing people, and how little support their companies gave to train them.

    "What was the most surprising to me was the unexpected amount of things I had to learn to do my job well when I started managing people (coaching, production, risk management, a bit of finance, etc.)"

  • And you will need to let go.

    Some managers worried about whether they'd be able to effectively supervise others who do the work they once did themselves. They were worried that they'd become "back-seat drivers."

    But in most cases, these worries proved to be unfounded.

    "You need to accept and understand that other people will do things differently. You will at first only see that they do it 'wrong.' But take a step back, look at what they do and why, and see whether it's really worse or just different. Very often you will see that it's just different."

    Also, when you are in a lead position, if you find that someone is not doing the job you believe needs to be done, you have the option of hiring someone who can!

    "Now it seems I have an artist on every fingertip who may not do things exactly as I would, but who is invariably better at many skills. It doesn't matter to me. I find this as creative and individual a contribution as any other."

Those are the risks of moving up to a lead or manager position, but there are also rewards.

  • You become a "multiplier" on the creativity of others.

    As a project lead, you get to tap into the creativity of others to fulfill visions you could never deliver on your own.

    If I did the art for my games, it would all be stick figures. I can say I want the ground to shake when the monster walks, but it takes an modeler and an animator and a particles programmer to make the player feel it when that foot smashes into the ground and rocks fly up all around.

    There is creativity and joy in that collaboration.

  • You get to lead the orchestra.

    When someone takes the step into a lead or director role, it's like a musician who puts down his instrument to become a conductor: they don't get to play, but they get to influence the whole crew.

  • You get to enjoy the accomplishments of your team.

    As a manager, you have the opportunity for a different kind of joy. It's the happiness that comes from helping others. It's called "naches," the pride in the accomplishment of those whom you have helped, or perhaps the pride in the accomplishments of the organizations you have built. For some of the people I interviewed, that pride was stronger than any of their achievements as hands-on game makers.

    One designer said this pride was "almost parental."

  • You experience a different kind of creativity

    Some people found it useful to distinguish between "artistic" creativity, and "problem-solving" creativity.

    While "artistic" creativity may be inhibited in our industrial environment, that very same environment offers plenty of opportunities for problem-solving creativity in managerial roles.

    Many people talked about the creative challenges that come from working within constraints, and that their creative urges were more than satisfied by solving these problems.

    Many found it actually more rewarding than their hands-on work.

    "I started as a programmer, and moved into design and management. It's good for me -- I'm a better designer and manager than I am a coder."

  • You might get to change the world.

    Some people have the ambition to have an impact on the industry, and noted that it is difficult to do that from the trenches.

    To make an impact on our industry, you might have to do it from a leadership or managerial role.

  • You acquire a new understanding of what "vision" is.

    Quite a few people talked about getting into management in order to protect their creative vision.

    But most leads quickly come to the conclusion that vision isn't something you create, it's a synthesized product that you contribute to.

    Will you get to be creative? Clearly the answer is yes, but it's a different kind of creativity, with different kinds of rewards.

    "In the beginning, I was happy because my job was 'fun' -- full of short-cycle, short-term payoffs and thrills. Currently I am happy because my job is a long, thoughtful and deep emotional journey: from feeling inspired by being part of an amazing group, To being -- in the end -- kind of sad and alone, but very proud."

But perhaps you're thinking about chucking the company life and striking out on your own! The advantages and disadvantages of going freelance are complicated enough to warrant a whole separate article, so for now I'll just cover the points that relate to creativity.

If you want to become a freelancer is so that you can exert more creative control, forget it. I was an independent consultant for seven years and my job was always to understand someone else's goals and to help that team achieve their vision. What mattered was their desires, not mine. A freelancer has virtually no creative control over a client's project.

You must also have a range of skills, not just one skill, in order to make it as a consultant. In addition to whatever game development skills you have, you've got to add business savvy on top of that.

One advantage of freelancing with regard to creativity is that if you are lucky, you get to pick and choose the projects you work on, whereas you often don't have that luxury within a company.

When someone would ask me to work on a project that I was clearly wrong for, I would tell them no, and re-direct them to someone else who could do the job better, which made everyone much happier all the way around. (Of course, turning down work means you don't get paid, so this is not an unlimited freedom!)

But, oddly, one of the biggest advantages of freelancing is the exact opposite of what you might expect: security. When you work for a company, one phone call from headquarters can kill you. As a freelancer, you do not live in fear of that one phone call.

So if you're considering going freelance, here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Do you have a sufficient network of contacts in the industry?

  • Do you have the discipline to work on your own?

  • Are you comfortable with the insecurity of not knowing what you will be working on six months from now?

  • Will you be happy collaborating with other people to make their visions come to life?

There is one other flavor of leaving the company life behind, and that is becoming a "Lone Wolf" developer -- a one-person team.

Like the freelancer, the lone wolf has to have a wide range of skills and a great deal of business savvy. The biggest attraction for lone wolf developers is the total control they can exercise over a project. They want to succeed or fail on their own.

"I have to march to my own drum, come hell or high water. I'd rather be poor but striving for personal fulfillment, than a successful corporate slave. For me, that is what makes my life so enjoyable. To have the creative juices but also to be able to control them in every aspect down to the font color on the website. I don't want to be just one cog in a big wheel of a corporation."

How Do You Decide?

So those are the risks you face when you're thinking about making a change. The question remains... Should you do it? Will you be happier if you do, or if you don't? And how do you make the decision?

In his book Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert says that the single best way to predict whether you will be happy with making a career change is not to look inside yourself, but to consult with others with similar backgrounds who have made a similar change and ask them about it.

That's part of what this article is trying to do -- to give you the benefit of having talked with dozens of industry people. So if you're thinking about making a change, go talk to people.

That having been said, it is really important to understand yourself, because you're not exactly like anyone else.

You have an incredible number of resources to draw on to understand the landscape, many more than we ever had before, and many more than people realize.

Part of knowing yourself is knowing what kind of games you like to work on and the environment that you like to work in. Big team vs. little team. Big company vs. small indie. AAA titles vs. casual. Violent vs. non-violent. RPG vs. Shooter vs. Sports vs. Puzzle games. Etc etc etc.

You've got to know what you like in order to make good decisions.

Going to a smaller team may give you the opportunity to wear more hats. Does that sound appealing to you... or not?

"Those who want a focused role are likely to be happy on large projects. Those desiring creative control in many areas should either work with small projects where they perform many roles -- or in larger games where their responsibility spans many disciplines (e.g., game designer, producer, etc.)"

You might love something, but not be the best at it. People want to be exceptional. What would make you exceptional? If you have a single skill, maybe should stay focused on large projects and resist promotions. But if you have many skills, maybe you should consider smaller projects, or try moving up to a lead role. And remember that you will experience personal growth over time. What you enjoy (or are willing) to do at age 23 may not be what you are willing (or want) to do at age 35.

"And so it became clear to me that the sum of my talents makes me stick out far more than any one of my individual creative talents. While there are better artists, game designers and level builders out there, there aren't many people who know about each of these fields, who can lead a project, and who can get along with people at the same time."

When considering a change, look at the people more than the job.

Almost every single person I talked with brought up -- on their own -- how fulfilling it is to work with other talented people, and how much it sucks when the people aren't right.

Independent research also shows that the biggest factor in job satisfaction is not the job itself, or the salary that goes with it, but whether or not you like and respect the people you are working with.

So if you're looking to make a change, try to meet as many of the people in the new company as you can. The "meat-grinder" interview process can work both ways. You should be interviewing a prospective company just as much as they are interviewing you.

You can also get a pretty good idea of a company's culture simply by asking the people there what life is like.

In particular, consider that some places are extremely focused on matching peoples' goals with the company's needs, and these are great places to work.

  • Do the people there share your creative values?

  • Are they collaborative?

  • Do you like and respect them?

  • Are they competent, ethical, and sane?

  • Is there a good mentor there for you?

  • Are they talented, energized and passionate?

  • Do they share your work ethic and temperament?

But after all those considerations, you still have to make a decision. Do you take the risk or not?

Surprisingly, there was almost unanimous consensus on this question...

Embrace the Risk!

whale_happiness.jpgIt's better to move than to stay and be unhappy.

Worries tend to be misplaced. Many people said they worried about the wrong things entirely, and any problems they did have tended to be unforeseeable.

"I've made a handful of really big career decisions and every time I always had this feeling of leaping into the unknown -- which brings with it a certain amount of fear. But in every case, after making the leap, I look back months or years later and the decisions seem obvious. Sure didn't feel like it at the time."

Only a few regretted their moves, and most said that even if it might not have worked out in the short term, it was the right thing to do in the long term.

As you change jobs, the knowledge you learn in each helps you with the next. Each job makes you more valuable as time goes on, and that's how you build a long-lasting career.

In my own case, every time a company has crumbled underneath me, six months later I was happier in my new job than in my old one. It turns out there are strong psychological reasons for this...

Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert

  • "Resilience is often the most commonly observed outcome following exposure to traumatic events. Negative events do affect us, but generally not as much or for as long as we expect them to... This is because human minds exploit ambiguity."

  • "As soon as our potential experience becomes our actual experience -- as soon as we have a stake in its goodness -- our brains get busy looking for ways to think about the experience that will allow us to appreciate it."

  • People expect to feel more regret because of foolish actions than foolish inactions. But studies show that nine out of 10 people are wrong. Indeed, in the long run, people of every age and in every walk of life seem to regret not having done things, much more than they regret things they did."

Staying Creative and Sane

How do you stay creative and sane in the face of all the turmoil and risk that surrounds us?

First and foremost, you need to adapt, and you need to keep learning.

From a career point of view, to stand still is to be run over. You have to keep updating your skill set.

"My friends who enjoyed doing only one thing, coding in 6502 assembly or using one graphic tool and technique, or designing only text adventures, are the ones who left the industry. Not everyone can learn to love change, but I do think it's a prerequisite for happiness in our industry."

From a creativity point of view, the more you know, the more creative you can become. Creativity is about new associations. The more you know about other fields, the better you can create those new associations.

The book The Medici Effect claims that creativity and innovation lies at the cross-section of disciplines. Everything you learn is the foundation for whatever comes next. The more skills you have, the more opportunities you will have to demonstrate your talent and apply your creativity.

Most of the people I talked to also kept their own projects on the side. (The ones who didn't generally said it's because their work keeps them very busy or creatively fulfilled.)

But most people do have personal projects. Some are game-related and some have nothing to do with games. Many people say they can't help it. Some said that freedom from commercial restraints gave them the sense of absolute control. Others said they enjoy the collaborative nature of our business, but still enjoy having areas where they don't have to answer to anyone else. But virtually everyone agreed that having side projects also helped them in their commercial work, because insights come from the oddest of hobbies and activities.

"Things I learn while I'm writing a poem or building a three-mile model of the solar system or cooking a pot roast turn around and give me insight into games -- the boundaries are never as distinct as we imagine."

Understanding Your Creative Self 

Without going too deeply into the psychology of creativity, there are a few useful things to point out about creative personalities and the things that motivate creative people to do good work.

This material is useful for creative people to know, because if you don't know what you need, how will you know what to ask your managers for?

And of course, if you manage creative people, this information might be useful to you as well.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is known to most game designers for his work on the experience of "Flow". But he has also spent 30 years studying how creative people live and work. He says creative people:

  • Alternate between extended periods of great exertion, and periods of quiet and reflection.

  • Combine playfulness and discipline.

  • Tend to be both extroverted and introverted, which is quite unusual. Most people are either one or the other.

  • Because there is often no objective way to judge a person's creative work, they are exposed to suffering and pain.

In work that many developers are already familiar with, Roger Von Oech states that each creative person houses four personalities:

  • The Explorer, who goes off in search of new ideas.

  • The Artist, who creates something out of those ideas.

  • The Judge, who sits back and decides if the work is any good.

  • And the Warrior, who goes out and fights for those ideas.

Malcolm Gladwell says there are three things that motivate creative people:

  • Autonomy, a sense that we have the authority to approach a problem in our own way.

  • Complexity, or Mastery, a sense that the problems take some degree of skill to master.

  • Purpose, or Meaning, a connection between the effort and a reward we value, whatever that reward may be.

    "These are the three qualities that work has to have if it is to be satisfying. It is not how much money we make that ultimately makes us happy between nine and five. It's whether our work fulfills us..."

Teresa Amabile is a professor at the Harvard Business School who studies creativity in industrial environments. According to her studies:

  • Extrinsic rewards actually inhibit creativity. When people feel that they are being rewarded for an activity, that feeling of external control is enough to reduce their creativity.

  • But if intrinsic motivation is high, if we are passionate about what we are doing, creativity will flow.

Managing Your Creative Life

Okay, so what does that mean for us? Here are the kinds of intrinsic rewards that people said were particularly effective.

  • We should try to work in an atmosphere where we feel we are appreciated.

    For many it came down to being shown that they are respected for their contribution, whatever form that respect may take.

    It might be monetary, or the granting of increased scope on the next project, or even just a special ceremony.

    Management showing trust in an individual is also a huge motivator.

  • Team outings and activities that were fun and helped people get to know each other.

  • Positive feedback both from management and team members that convey the sense that an individual is both respected and valued.

  • Paid conference attendance.

    Paying for an individual to attend an industry conference shows the company respects that person and is willing to invest in his or her personal and professional growth.

    It also shows trust in their own company (in that they're not afraid for their people to see what life is like in other companies).

  • Being allowed to experiment in areas of personal interest.

  • Rewards that fed back into someone being able to do their job better.

    Artists, for example, might appreciate the company organizing life studies classes.

    Programmers might appreciate high-end technical equipment and software.

    Game designers often like organized board game nights, or simply outings to the movies

  • We appreciate working within structures that keep everyone informed and in the loop.

  • All of us enjoy the feeling of being on a kick-ass team where everyone is working hard to create a great product.

We have seen that extrinsic rewards in general are not effective motivators of creativity. In particular, and quite surprisingly, almost everyone I spoke to said that money was not a primary motivating factor for them. In fact, there is a ton of research that shows that once a person's basic life needs are met, the amount of money they make is irrelevant to their happiness.

So here is a look at some Extrinsic Rewards that don't work:

  • Delayed Rewards.

    Our projects are long and difficult. Delaying the reward for that work until the end of the project is ineffective.

    "Most creative folks I know have a tremendous sense of fiero at the moment of finishing a project, followed pretty quickly by postpartum blues, followed by a slightly dull memory of all that work. To reward this kind of psyche it has to happen fast -- not at the end of the fiscal year."

  • The Wrong Kind of Money.

    Bonus plans that are not delivered or where the rules change. Taking away a promised perk is worse than no promised perk at all.

    Bonus plans that pit employees against each other are de-motivating. Especially plans that identify "elites" among the teams.

    Plans based on metrics that the employee feels he has no chance of influencing. In other words, plans that are contingent on things beyond an individual's control.

    People were especially leery of bonus plans that feel fake and artificial -- "pie in the sky" promises that seem geared simply to getting everyone to do maximum crunch.

    Bonus plans that cause people to take actions that discourage best practices or that are not in the best interests of the game.

But before I create the impression that creative people aren't interested in money at all, here are some monetary rewards that DO seem to work.

  • The Right Kind of Money.

    A salary that shows that the company respects you and the contribution you are making.

    Profit-sharing or options plans that were regarded as quantifiable and real.

    Compensation of some kind for short, limited crunches.

Creative Working Environments

Another part of managing your creative life is placing yourself in a position to do good work. Different phases of creativity benefit from different kinds of working spaces.

Some kinds of creativity need time and solitude: time for reflection, time for the pieces to re-assemble themselves, time for the big picture to emerge.

At times like that, you might need a place to be alone where the noise can drop away so you can hear the voice in your head again. For times like this, you probably want an office with a door that can close and a good set of noise-cancelling headphones. You might also just want to go for a walk.

But there is also the other kind of creativity that is the idea-popping, lightning exchange of lively minds at work. This is the time we bounce thoughts off each other, building on what each of us has to contribute until the result is much cooler than what any one of us would have dreamed up on our own.

Bullpens and open office plans often provide this kind of creative atmosphere, and open office plans also got points for improving the sense of both teamwork and accountability.

The best offices offer both kinds of spaces. Places to be alone, and places to mingle. I remember with great fondness the Infocom offices in Cambridge, where the designers each had their own office, but they all opened up onto a common lounge.

The one office plan that came under the most attack was cubicles. Most people seem to hate them. They're not private enough to give you solitude, and not open enough to encourage the free flow of ideas.

Your equipment is also part of your working environment, and many interviewees stressed that people need good tools to do good work.

"Be frugal, but never cheap. The office space doesn't have to be luxurious, but the hardware and software should always be AAA."

Creative Corporate Cultures

Some company cultures clearly encourage creativity.

For all the talk we hear about flat teams and group decision-making, most of the people I talked to didn't want their companies to be too democratic. People want to have a say. They want their voices to be heard. They want their ideas to be considered. But they also want to have the sense that there is a decision-maker, that there is someone in charge.

Not surprisingly, people like to work where the management treats people as they themselves would like to be treated.

People like to work where the game is the thing. Where making a game is what matters. Where it is recognized that people are striving for the common good, rather than to further personal agendas.

"All the glass trophies, extra vacation time, or even bonuses I've ever received have paled in comparison to the long-term effect of high-quality management decisions made by development or publishing."

People want to work where managers give credit where credit is due.

People want an environment that encourages playfulness, even though making games is serious business.

"People are generally only creative in pursuits they enjoy."

"The company that plays together, stays together." (Matt Weinstein: Managing to Have Fun.)

The Long Dark Night of the Soul

In this last part of the article, I hope I am addressing only a few of you. I should stress here that I am speaking completely on off my own bat, rather than representing anyone I interviewed.

What do you do when you're in trouble? When you're in despair? When the concept of getting out of bed and facing the world is simply more than you can imagine?

As I said at the beginning, creative people are unusually subject to dark moods and depression.

Our identity is wrapped up in our work, and in our business, that's a pretty dangerous basket to put all your eggs in.

We have chosen an unconventional path. We take risks that society, and even our peers, think are foolish. We work without a net.

Our artistic goals and products are subject to attack from our own inner voices, and of course from the often harsh environment in which we work.

So here are some words I hope might help you in times of trouble.

  • Take care of the physical plant. Keep yourself healthy.

  • Alcohol is not your friend, and I'm not sure caffeine is either.

  • But you do need a friend. Find someone who you can talk to. You are not alone. A lot of us feel this way.

  • When you're feeling overwhelmed, tackle large problems one small piece at a time.

  • Allow yourself to be less than perfect. There are some tasks where good enough is good enough.

  • If you're a procrastinator, see if there are some things you can handle right away. Sometimes the underbrush piles up so high it's impossible for you to see the trees, let alone the forest

  • Also try simply crossing some things off the list so you stop worrying about them. Especially things that you feel you "ought" to do, but don't "have" to do.

  • The fear that "you will never be that good again" is unfounded. You know more now than you did then. You still have good work and pleasant surprises ahead of you.

  • Get medical help. Seeing a doctor is not a sign of weakness, but of courage. Doctors can be great advisors, but remember that you have to stay your own main advocate.

  • Find something that's fun, preferably unconnected to work. (One of the problems with integrating work fully into your life is that it's hard to tell when you're not working. When you're reading a book for pleasure and suddenly realize it might be useful in your work, some of the fun might go out of it. But don't worry about that -- try to find something you can enjoy for its own sake, and if something else comes of it, then that's okay too.)

  • Even on your bad days, try to keep pushing things forward. ("To be a professional," Norman Mailer once wrote, "is to do good work on a bad day.")

  • If you're feeling overwhelmed by responsibility, remember that no project ever failed because just one person left it.

  • If you're really down, remember that depression runs in cycles.

  • Although it may be hard to imagine today, the day will come once again when you can laugh and have fun.

I believe that most of these problems are crises of meaning. We need to believe that we matter, that our work is important. Because our products are entertainment, that is sometimes difficult. But I believe that in order for us to be happy, our work must be meaningful to us.

We are, after all, artists.

So see if you can find a way to inject meaning and purpose into your work. I believe both you and your games will be the better for it.

In Conclusion

But let's see if we can wrap this up on a brighter note.

I called this article "The Belly of the Whale" because that is the part of the hero's journey when he appears overwhelmed by the evil forces of the world.

When you are in the Belly of the Whale, it almost seems as if you are being swallowed up by something much larger than you. Something huge and unyielding. Something too big to fight.

Something like the game industry.

When you are in the Belly of the Whale, you are lost. Uncertain. Confused about what to do and which way to go.

But realizing you are in the belly of the whale is the final step before metamorphosis.

It is the last step before the hero undergoes transformation and finally makes the change that will allow him to triumph.


If you are feeling like a cog -- learn your craft

If you are feeling trapped -- there are ways out. Good ways out. There are more opportunities and choices now than ever before.

If you feel isolated, remember that you are not alone. There are many people in this industry who want to see you succeed. We are all in this together.

If you are worried about the money, just make sure you cover the basics. Beyond that, go for job satisfaction, rather than a fatter paycheck.

If you are afraid of the risk -- talk to people who have been there. And embrace change as part of your life's journey

If you are troubled, try to bring meaningful work into your life -- work that gives you autonomy, complexity, and purpose.

And to live a creative life, wherever you are in your career...

  • Keep learning.

  • Play Nice.

  • Work Hard.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Zynga.

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About the Author(s)

Bob Bates


Bob Bates started writing games for Infocom in 1986. In the 25 years since then he has credits on over 40 published titles as an Indie developer, game designer, programmer, producer, studio head, executive at a multi-national publisher, and independent consultant. He has twice been elected Chair of the IGDA and has also published the bestselling book "Game Design: The Art and Business of Creating Games." In December of 2010 he became the Chief Creative Officer for the external studios of Zynga.

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