Work/life balance is still a rocky topic in the game industry. Too many developers feel compelled to put in extra hours on nights and weekends, even as studies suggest crunching can actually hurt a game’s outcome.
Even so, many game makers still work overtime of their own volition, designing their days around both paying work and personal projects while enjoying as much of a personal life as they can jam into the cracks.
Luis Antonio is a striking example; when I met him at GDC in 2013 he told me he was working as an artist on The Witness, and later I found out he’d started working on his own game on the side: Twelve Minutes, a passion project that bears little resemblance to his day job.
He’s not alone. There are others like him, some of whom I’ve corresponded with while at Gamasutra; most of them have experience working for big-budget studios, but they’ve all gone indie and now feel compelled to work on two (or more) full-time projects simultaneously. How do they do it, I wonder -- and what does it do to them?
It takes a toll
“I don’t want to be a hermit,” Antonio tells me. Few developers do, I think, despite some popular preconceptions to the contrary.
At the same time, he can't stop thinking about his game. The concept for Twelve Minutes has been kicking around in his head for years, but he could never convince fellow developers (Antonio put in time as an artist at Rockstar London and, later, an art lead at Ubisoft) to tackle the game with him.
After he started working on The Witness he was inspired to teach himself enough programming in Unity to make Twelve Minutes, but first he had to effectively give up everything that wasn’t important to his family, his job, or his passion project.
A prototype of Twelve Minutes
“I decided to use all my free time towards the project; this means that time with family and friends would not be affected too much, but playing games or being lazy would,” Antonio tells me. “I went over the plan with my wife and I set out to wake up early every day and work an hour before going to the office, another hour during lunchtime and, every second day, after dinner, work until I was too tired to be productive.”
He’s been living like this for over two years. He expects to keep it going for at least a bit longer, and advises fellow developers in similar situations to stay sane by focusing on accomplishing their end goal and not getting mired in feature creep (“I only learned the tools I would need to get the gameplay I had designed”) while still trying to enjoy the process.
“If I’m exhausted and just can’t work, then I won’t. I’ll relax and enjoy my free time," he says. "I used to have a strong stance where I should not let friendships get in front of my life’s work. Until one day, when I needed support, I realized I didn’t have anyone left."
Now he makes time for friends and family, as well as meditative activities like hiking and surfing. But not too much time; Antonio and other devs living similar lifestyles are very honest about the toll it takes on your personal life.
“I still carve out space for a personal life, but often that has to meld with making games,” notes designer Teddy Diefenbach. He works on Hyper Light Drifter by day as part of team Heart Machine, but in his spare time he’s building his own pet project: the Bushido Blade-inspired multiplayer brawler Kyoto Wild. “My general mindset is typically 'work until I need a break,' and then I take that break. This puts great responsibility on me to be vigilant, because I don't have default times set aside to relax.”
An early version of Kyoto Wild
Antonio concurs, noting that toll is “too exhausting, emotionally and physically” to be sustainable long-term. His day job will probably be the first of his projects to ship, and while his plan is to stick with Jonathan Blow and The Witness crew on whatever they do next, he dreams of releasing Twelve Minutes and making enough money to be free to work on his own personal grojects full-time -- much like Cult & Daggers developer Rod Humble now does after stepping down as CEO of Linden Lab last year.
Like Antonio, Humble is an indie dev who used to think up side projects while working day jobs at big game companies. As a production executive at EA he was responsible for overseeing development of games like The Sims 3, even as he was producing his own games like The Marriage in 2007 and Last Thoughts of the Aurochs in 2010. For him, working at night was comforting.
“I think the odd thing is after working on big triple-A games all day, I would work on games at night to relax, and it worked,” Humble tells me. “I think I was better at my day job as a result,” because working on passion projects kept him excited about game development during lulls in a big production cycle.
Indie game designer Lisa Brown feels much the same way; she went indie in March after six years at Insomniac, and during her tenure there she found that "side projects became a pure source of leisure, and an ability to explore things about the games space that I wasn't necessarily going to do in my work."
Slow Down Bull, Insomniac's experiment in small-team open development spearheaded by Brown
Working on nights and weekends made her feel like a hobbyist, someone who could explore weird ideas or try creative solutions without risk. She admires developers who game jam, and getting to be one of them helped sustain her passion for making games.
"Because I had a job there was no pressure to do something that would generate revenue, or press," she adds. "In hindsight, making games full-time all day only to go home and continue making games all night maaaaay have been perceived as slightly unhealthy... but because I approached side projects with a hobbyist attitude, it did not feel like I was succumbing to an obsession."
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Humble seems to have found similar solace in his side projects. “For triple-A games it could take two-plus years to get a game done, whereas my art games could take a week or up to a couple of months in the evenings," he says; but things have changed now that he’s working for himself full-time.
“I code all morning and then go pick up the kids and code for an hour or two in the afternoon,” Humble explains. “In the evenings I tend to do the game art or make the game music or marketing campaigns.”
Diefenbach has a similar split, focusing on making art or music for his games in the evening after spending his days designing tools and systems for Drifter.
"At the start I was unable to stop. I was literally working every single free second I had, not paying attention to anything else."
Which brings up a really practical concern: If you’re juggling multiple projects, how do you most effectively budget your time? In a sense, having a day job at a big studio actually makes things easier because it affords you clear priorities: focus on making the game that pays the bills, and make everything else when you can. But when you're juggling multiple projects on your own, as Humble and now Brown are, things get tricky.
"Now that I'm an indie, it's been a struggle to resolve how suddenly all the things I used to do for leisure are now 'work,'" says Brown. "Not because it makes them less exciting to work on or anything, but because it is now very dangerous to work all the time."
So how do you safeguard yourself against that danger and avoid burning out in your own work? Every developer has to find their own solution, but those I spoke to have some hard-won advice to offer.
One common recommendation is that you pretty much have to train yourself to never waste time. Antonio has his aforementioned schedule, which allows for some breathing room while also mandating that he do at least one hour of work on his passion project every day.
“I agree with Luis about the daily part, just to keep things moving forward,” says Humble. “The key bit is the habit... It is very easy to give up TV as a daily routine, for example, and replace it with game work.”
But you have to be careful not to hurt yourself or those around you. Brown is adamant about taking breaks, and Antonio’s schedule isn’t really meant to keep him focused on work; it's to force him to stop.
“At the start I was unable to stop. I was literally working every single free second I had, not paying attention to anything else,” he tells me. He had to find a way to balance his work with his need to be present in the lives of his wife and newborn daughter, and making a schedule with his partner was the best way for him to do so.
“This way I don’t feel guilty when I have to work... and I don’t abuse it by working outside of it; if I do, she has the right to ask me to stop,” says Antonio. “This also assures that I don’t exhaust myself.”
Working on nights and weekends also means you’ve got to get real good at seamlessly stopping and starting multiple different aspects of game development. Nobody I spoke to seems to have figured out how to do this easily; you've just got to get used to being productive in short bursts.
“The biggest issue in only having a few minutes here and there is to be able to continue where I left off... having to return to a thought process that took me half an hour to get into is sometimes very frustrating,” says Antonio.
"Know when not to overdo it"
To tackle this problem, he says he’s trained himself to be really good at taking notes (“like, ridiculously good”) and keeps a single text file in a Dropbox folder synced to every device he owns. All thoughts go in the Dropbox, to be acted on later. Humble does something similar, though a bit more tactile.
“Just keep a little notebook in the car or by the side of the bed,” says Humble. “After a drive or before you go to sleep/wake up you can scribble down your design thoughts before you forget.” Even just the act of writing them down will help them stick in your head, he says, and push you to act on them.
But if you get stuck on a specific problem, time not thinking about games can help you solve it. When Antonio’s beaten his head against a game dev problem for a few days without success, he’ll sometimes just take a break to go surfing.
“While I’m in the water, waiting for the next wave, enjoying the breeze, it all goes away... and when I return back to work I know what my priorities are,” says Antonio. “This allows me to see the problem with fresh eyes, and solve it much faster.”
Brown offers similar advice. "Know when not to overdo it. I guess one important thing is being sure you're clear with what you want out of your side project. Like, write it down." Like Antonio, she's a strong supporter of setting clear goals and holding yourself accountable for them -- and only them. "It helps to frame things," she says, "so you can know if you're getting out of hand."