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How To Be A Happy Indie Game Developer

A quick look at why some indie devs aren't happy and how to deal with it.

You know what? Lots of indie game developers blog about how to make money (or sell more product, which is kind of the same thing). But do any of them blog about how to be happy while you’re doing it?


If you’re not an indie developer, you might think, “Why do you need to blog about that? Of course I’d be happy being an indie game developer. I’d be doing what I want with my life, right? How could I not be happy?”


But if you are an indie game developer you know. Some of my indie dev friends even have a term for it - the malaise. Even the most successful indies get it. It’s something a lot of us have to continually struggle with and fight against.


So, you know what? I’ve decided to be the one. The one who blogs about how to be happy while making your indie games.


Why me?


Well …


1) I’ve talked about happiness before. That elusive substance is why I named my company Happion Labs. I have a whole category tag for it on my blog.


Honestly, I don’t remember what all I’ve written. Skimming it now I see a lot of redundancy. So maybe I have said all that needs to be said. But I think it bears repeating.


2) Because I’ve been there (and often end up back there). Truth is, despite all my good fortune I still often feel kinda ‘meh’.  It’s not right, I know. I’m a spoiled brat who should be on his knees, thanking the powers that be that he got so lucky with his lot in life, and instead I’m often like, “Man, I’m tired and kinda grumpy and my family’s being a pain and my back is sore. Think I’ll go back to bed.” Unless I continually remind myself how lucky I am (“I make my own games! I had a fantastic Kickstarter the other day! I have a great family and my own home!”) and keep up with whatever happiness exercises I’m into at the time, whether it’s meditating or “double column technique” or walks in the woods or what. (These days it’s bicycling. Variety in these things is good. See hedonic adaptation, below.)


3) Unlike most game programmers, I have a psych degree. Sure it’s just a BA, but it has to be good for something, right?


So, if you’re not an indie game developer, you may be wondering what the fuck. Why aren’t indie game developers happy? Why do they get depressed or even feel just mediocre? Why aren’t they walking on sunbeams and puking rainbows all the time?


Part of it is what happiness scientists call hedonic adaptation. Whenever good stuff happens to us, we rapidly get used to our new standards, and things start seeming normal again. There’s a “set point” theory that says people are basically cheerful or not - once they get used to their current circumstances they return to their typical set point. If we’re born with a tendency to not be cheerful, it doesn’t matter how much awesome stuff happens to us in our lives, we rapidly return to that not-cheerful state. In other words - most people feel ‘meh’. And indie game developers are people.


So, if you’re not an indie game developer, and you’ve been thinking maybe it would make you happy, maybe you should think again. It turns out humans are notoriously bad at knowing what will make them happy. Whether you’re an indie developer or not probably will have no bearing on your happiness.


Now, suppose you’re like me, and there’s something in you that says, “I don’t care. I still want to do it, even so. I can’t imagine doing anything else.” Then what do we do?


First, let’s define our terms. Because I’ve written about happiness-in-game-development before, I was invited to talk at the Seattle Indies Expo about the topic. Then my dad died. So I was in the weird position of talking about happiness when I felt really sad. But never-being-sad is not the kind of happiness I’m talking about here. We want authentic happiness. Not the momentary pleasure of the hedonist, and not just smiles and laughter, but something more subtle and more lasting. That I’m-really-glad-to-be-alive feeling, even if I don’t happen to be eating a sumptuous meal or playing an awesome game at that very moment. You can be very sad that your dad is dead and also very glad to be alive at the same time. Happiness: The Science Behind Your Smile describes this distinction in more detail. (That talk, by the way, is what inspired me to start posting about happiness-in-game-development again. I remembered I have a lot to say on the topic.)


Then, how about we try to measure our happiness? We can to an extent. There are websites, like Authentic Happiness and, with surveys that will give you a very good indication of how you’ve been feeling lately. You might wonder why to do it. One reason is that when our mood sours, it feels like it’s always been that way. We forget that just yesterday we were on top of the world. It’s good to remember that it’s just a down in a series of ups and downs, and having an official record can help.


We can also get an idea where we stand. Maybe we feel ‘meh’. These tests can give us an idea whether that ‘meh’ is normal quiet desperation or we should seek therapy now.


And finally, we can make a game out of it. We’re gamers, so that should come naturally, right? When I started studying happiness science my CES-D score was usually in the double digits. By doing the work, I was usually able to keep it in the single digits, except when horrible stuff happened (like my dad dying.)


What kind of work? Well, the indie game developer’s malaise isn’t that different from other people’s run-of-the-mill unhappiness. So the same thing that fixes other people can fix us. The good news is the “set point” theory is kind of wrong. You can control your own happiness, but: it’s work; it doesn’t come from the things we commonly think it does; and we have to make it a priority. I’ve linked to these books before and I’ll probably link to them again - studies have shown that just reading a book can make you happier - The How of Happiness - Sonja Lyubomirsky and Feeling Good - David D. Burns.


They’re both a really good start.


But there are particular nuances and quirks of indie game development that pull us away from happiness, and I’ll try to cover them in future posts.


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