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Variety Is the Spice of... Game Development

An article about burnout, the creative process, love and the video game industry.

  Me at the beach!

Me at the beach!

I've spent a solid year of my life working on a game as a full time independent developer, and another year working on it on and off. The game isn't quite done, so maybe I'm shooting off the fireworks a little early with this article, but it should be out by the end of the year. Overall, this has been a really amazing experience... but it's also probably been the most difficult time of my life so far.

Right before I started working full time on this game, I was a student. All throughout school I worked on various projects, and was usually frustrated at having to go to school when I could be home working on a game. I was pretty notorious for rarely leaving home to hang out with anyone because most of the time I would just want to leave and go work on something at home.

Imagine my shock, about seven months into working full-time, that my view on this completely flipped – I started to feel desperate for some type of social connection. Also, at this time I realised I’d only seen a small handful of people in seven months. Most people are probably thinking: ‘Okay, you want to see people, you should call someone up and go do something.’ The problem with that is for some reason, in my completely isolated state, I felt that everyone hated me and would never want to do anything with me.

I didn't really understand this at the time, but there was a conflict going on between my brain and body – or as Jonathan Blow says, the rational part of my mind (the thinking part) and the intuitive part of my mind (the part that’s in tune with animal-type needs like eating).

Rationally, I totally believe in what I'm doing. This game is very important to me, and feels like a reflection of many important experiences I've had. It's very important to me that I finish it and get it out to the world. If I don't do this, I will feel like a failure.

On the other hand, the intuitive part of my brain was panicking; I felt stuck, like everyone I knew was moving on and progressing in their lives, and here I am working on this game that's never going to do anything for me, that could quite possibly be rejected by a lot of people and financially force me to give up on my dream of being a full-time independent developer. Sometimes I've seriously considered giving up, going to work some crappy job I don't want to work, and calling it a day.

I wish there was some way to just kill off the panic and despair, but the truth is it's there, and has had a very real impact on my life. When you have such a strong conflict within you, you start to say stupid things and feel all these crazy emotions that have no basis in reality. I think this is a common thing in any creative field, but we shy away from talking about it. Maybe the best example of seeing people in the midst of this internal conflict is in Indie Game: The Movie, where you see developers saying similar things to what I said above.

I recently watched this lecture by Jonathan Blow, where he talks about a lot of this stuff. It's really helped me make sense of this mess of emotions and thoughts. Our body has core needs: like physical comfort and external validation. No matter what you do, your body never seems to understand why you're sitting in front of a computer and working on something for so long. It starts yearning for acceptance, it wants people to tell you how smart you are, how amazing you are; you want to be ‘loved’.

A lot of people let these needs control them, and it's pretty dangerous to do that. If you're a musician and the only thing that makes you happy is the applause after the performance, and not the performance itself, quite frankly you're totally screwed on ever being happy with yourself. You will just want more and more of that, never feeling fulfilled, always waiting for the next moment someone can tell you how great you are. It's much better to do something because you want to do it, not because you want to please other people. I'd argue that this is why things are so stagnant in our industry; designers are totally obsessed with pleasing players: pandering to their desire for mastery of skill, making sure everything feels fair, and most importantly making sure they are having fun.

On the other hand, when you completely self-indulge into something, your intuitive mind kicks in and tries to get you to do something different. I'm not sure if this was the intention of nature, but I think it’s good we have these two things colliding. At the end of the day, if what you're doing doesn't have the potential to make life better for everyone, it's probably not worth investing time into. At least, that's my view on things: too much of one thing is never good.

Naturally, when we get too much alone time and get desperate for social interaction, our first reaction is to climb on top of people and make demands. "You need to meet up with me." "Tell me how great I am so I have some sense of self worth." We don’t literally say that of course, but that’s what we mean by it.

A lot of us struggle with our self-image or self-confidence, and instead of developing this ourselves we tend to put our entire life’s worth into a relationship – our life has value as long as someone “loves us”. This isn't love, there's nothing truly fulfilling by doing this; it’s a temporary fix, like using drugs to hide from your problems. Real love is being extensional to someone, extending their understanding of life or providing tools that improve their life in some way. Real love is accepting people for who they are and what they want, not trying to change them to fit what your perception of a perfect relationship is. I believe we’ve all done things we regret or wish we could change.

So how do you make games with this type of philosophy? I believe to make something that has use to others it must first be useful to yourself. During creation, you must channel out potential audience reactions and focus on developing the game’s voice and statement, then after the main creative decisions are over, switch to people mode and carefully make small tweaks to make things more accessible.

When you rigorously test a game and try to respond to every bit of feedback players want you to implement, your game stops having a voice and starts being a commercial product that's afraid to step on someone's toes. This is a major problem in both mainstream and indie games. For something to be extensional to others, it must have a strong identity, and as a creator you should have a strong belief in what your game is and what it can do for others. It’s vital that we start listening to our project's identity instead of listening to what we think our audience reactions will be.

Maybe a reason we have a hard time making games like this is because of the long development cycles, and the internal conflicts that start to arise from it. I mean, I've only worked on this game full-time for a year; some games have three to five-year development cycles. So what are some ways we can manage these feelings during development?

I've found that releasing some type of smaller project, like a mixtape or YouTube video helps. Also, thinking about your situation from an outside perspective (thinking critically, meditating, or explaining these things to people you're close to) has helped me see that my problems really aren't as bad as they feel. In fact, I’d say a lot of these problems aren’t even rooted in anything concrete; they are just illusionary things your body is telling you. Even if the game is rejected or a financial failure, I've made something important that I will look back at for the rest of my life. Life will keep moving on, and I'm sure there will be many great experiences ahead as long as I take action to let them happen.

Even though I feel like I've overcome these feelings (recently I've done some important social things and took a vacation), I suspect this conflict will come back in the future when I start to work long hours again. This isn't a problem that has a permanent solution, like I said earlier I think it's actually beneficial at times – having this feeling will help motivate me to the finish line of the game. However, we have to be careful to not let any of these feelings overwhelm us. It's important to live a balanced life: talking to and seeing people you care about, but also working towards what you believe in.

I understand these topics are a little strange to talk about, but I actually think they're linked to many problems we hear about in this industry. An artist typically pulls from life experiences when working on something, but if all developers know is the studio and the inevitable crunch time that's coming, then how can we expect these people to explore new things in video games? All they know is what they've experienced.

Variety is the spice of life. Whether you're a creator working on a long project in isolation, a regular gamer, or just a human being in general, it's not good to burn yourself out on one thing. Try new things, take risk, appreciate the things currently in your life, learn from your failures and most importantly have fun. You only get one life in the real world, try to use it wisely.

If any of what I've said interests you, you will enjoy the new game I'm working on – it explores related topics. You can follow me on Twitter @michaelartsxm to catch the game's announcement, or to just drop me a line if you'd like. Thanks for reading.

                  - Michael Hicks (@michaelartsxm)

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