Want to Make a Game? First, Take Care of Yourself

Photo courtesy of @ phedran

Photo courtesy of @phedran

I’m back from a brief but deeply rewarding weekend at the Full Indie Summit in Vancouver, B.C. While I’ve been to indie conventions all over the U.S., I noticed a strikingly different tone at this conference – one that put humanity and humility above rhetoric, rallying cries or calls to action. It was still a celebration of creativity and the growing potential of games as a medium for meaningful communication and experiences, just without the jingoism and marketing spin that’s inescapable at larger conventions.

Instead, Full Indie was a chance for people from all walks of life who all came together for one purpose: to give each other a few words of advice for pursuing their passions. But before we dig into all of that, there’s an important question to address: What does it mean to be “indie”? And more crucially, what’s the price a person pays in committing to going down that road?

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Vlambeer’s Rami Ismail is an undeniable figurehead in the indie dev scene, and he’s someone who has developed a well-earned reputation for supporting other indies along the way. The conference kicked off with a keynote speech from Ismail that hit on all his familiar beats: how he and his business partner dropped out of school, built a game about shooting fish in Flashpunk, released a bunch more games very quickly and are fortunate enough to be in a position to spend more time helping other indies to get started and find success.

I’ve always found Ismail to be an inspirational figure in the indie game dev scene thanks to the work he puts into sharing free tools (and creating his own) to help the rest of us get started. Accordingly, his speech at Full Indie focused on what sort of support is out there for cost-effective indie development. But maybe the most important advice he shared came during the Q&A session after his presentation had ended. I don’t remember the question exactly, but it was something along the lines of “what are the most important things to focus on to survive and make it as an indie?” Ismail responded by saying there are really only three things you need to make games: money, technology and motivation.

Money comes and goes, but you can still make games without any money – they just may not be as well-realized or as polished as you’d like. And technology is necessary, but as long as you have access to a computer you can make games; in fact, Ismail even cited a repository of online game development tools that will run in any modern web browser, meaning you don’t even need your own computer to create code, graphics and audio anymore. But there’s no substitute for motivation.

You could have all the money in the world and an array of state-of-the-art development technology at your disposal, but if you’re not in a place where you’re able to channel your enthusiasm and creative drive into development, you’re going to fail. And unless your basic needs as a human being are being met—maintaining social bonds, getting exercise, taking care of your mental health—you’ll never be able to reach your greatest levels of motivation. In other words, you can have all the time, resources and skills in the world, and it won’t mean a damn if you’re not putting your own health and happiness first.

Maybe it sounds obvious, but when we consider the archetypal indie dev, we don’t usually picture reasonable working hours, healthy meals, regular exercise or making time to visit friends and see family. Instead, we often see this image of the suffering artist who slips away from society into their cave, burning the midnight oil and slaving away tirelessly at their work until, exhausted and creatively drained, they emerge back into society to bestow their work of untouchable genius upon the admiring masses.

That image is a fabrication, a myth of total fulfillment through total sacrifice – and it’s got to go. If we want to live the best lives we can and have the most positive impact on this medium possible, we’re gonna need to open up about what it’s like to live the indie life.

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There’s a perceived glory to going independent. People love to celebrate anyone with the audacity to take a big risk, and a big part of western society is structured to revere this notion of “following your dreams” and “doing things your way.” Isn’t that the essence of the American Dream? Even the most conservative among us dream of bucking the establishment from time to time. So we conjure this image of the independent creative as an intrepid, Indiana Jones-esque explorer, equipped with a sharp machete and a daredevil grin, hacking their own path to personal glory through the thickets of uncertainty, immune to the skeptical gaze of conformists and defenders of the status quo.

This entrepreneur, this artist, this dreamer isn’t just a risk-taker – they’re a figure to be worshipped. And by celebrating those people who decide to take the road less traveled, we elevate them to a position of prestige; we admire them and grant them a sort of honor beyond the rest of us mere mortals punching the clock at our corporate gigs.

That’s probably why so many of us react with a mixture of animosity and indifference whenever a creative entrepreneur speaks out about suffering from depression, anxiety, PTSD or suicidal thoughts. The popular narrative often seems to be that those problems developed in spite of that person’s accomplishments and unique strengths, not as a direct result of the stress they experienced. Maybe we take these suffering artists as fuel to justify our reticence to take our own risks. Maybe some of us are compelled by our own doubts and fears to seek out schadenfreude. More likely, most of us are empathetic creatures who wish the best for those of us who wish to pursue an ideal in life and can’t help but feel their pain when they suffer along the way.

But no matter the reason, this tacit silence about the mental and emotional toll that comes from trying to make it on your own needs to stop. It’s real, it affects everyone to some extent and, without care and treatment, it can be debilitating.

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The good news is that none of us needs to worry about being the first to step up into the spotlight and share their darkest moments with their audience. Alexander Bruce, the creator of Antichamber, gave an admirably honest talk at this year’s Game Developers Conference (GDC) about of his life during the seven years that led up to his game’s release. On the surface, his talk is about the process he went through for iterating on Antichamber’s design, learning from player feedback and navigating the festival and awards show circuit in an effort to build up critical recognition for his game. But the undercurrent linking everything throughout his talk is about the toll that Antichamber took on his life: the feelings of isolation, of uncertainty, of not knowing if all your years of work are going to be worth a damn.

Bruce’s talk was lauded by developers and the press at GDC, but it more or less stood on its own. Maybe it’s a symptom of the established yearly news cycle in the games industry: after GDC’s over, everyone shifts their attention to whatever the platform holders and big-name publishers have in store for their carefully rehearsed sound bites at E3 and Gamescom.

Fortunately, the indie development scene didn’t forget. Beginning with Rami Ismail’s keynote, nearly every talk at the Full Indie Summit offered a candid, forthcoming account of lessons learned along the way as developers. But from my point of view, nobody summed things up as well as Alec Holowka did when he asked the audience, “what does it mean to be indie?”.

Holowka is something of an indie jack-of-all-trades. He collaborated with Derek Yu on Aquaria and the now-infamous I’m O.K., composed the soundtrack to TowerFall and is currently working on the recently Kickstarted Night in the Woods. He lives in the Indie House, a sort of indie developers’ commune in the Vancouver area. It’s removed from the big city, but it offers a lot of freedom in Holowka’s life: you can keep whatever hours you want, work on what interests you, come and go as you please, and so on. The flexibility and opportunities for drawing inspiration from others that come from living in a shared creative space might help explain the variety of inspired games Holowka’s worked on.

When it comes to work, Holowka’s presentation highlights a couple of the coolest features from Night in the Woods, showcasing the natural fluttering of hundreds of dead leaves in a fall city scene. That animation technique—along with the surreal bowing of cables under the feet of your character and the logic governing the way squirrels move around the game’s backgrounds—is all built upon a simple sine wave. The key takeaway here is that you can accomplish some pretty amazing things without having to be an expert mathematician or graphics programmer. All it takes is persistence, confidence and a little creativity.

I’m paraphrasing Holowka here, but he more or less said that it doesn’t matter if your code is the cleanest or most efficient; all that matters is if the game seems to run fine from the player’s point of view. In other words, you shouldn’t psych yourself out or convince yourself you’re doomed to failure as an indie just because you’re lacking some area of expertise. Just keep trying new things and stop obsessing over all the little flaws that you see when you look at your game. Remember that when someone else looks at your game, they won’t see all those unfortunate blemishes, missed opportunities and partial successes: they’ll just see a game.

To close out, Holowka shared a story about a nervous breakdown he had as a teenager. It resulted from bringing too much stress upon himself over taking advanced classes—something he felt expected to do, not something he wanted to do necessarily—and he found himself recovering in a hospital room with a small window overlooking an open meadow. That moment, he said, led to a realization that freedom to live his life the way he wanted was what mattered most to him.

We all encounter challenges in our lives, and the path to independent success is fraught with uncertainty and extreme ups and downs. The only way to get through it is to focus on those values that matter most to you and to trust in the support that the people in your life provide.

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There’s a psychological cost to entrepreneurship of any kind. It’s easy to worry about the very real threats of exhaustion, financial ruin and failure to achieve your goals, and those fears can take a severe and long-term toll on your physical and mental well-being. I’ll share an example from my own life. Six months ago I decided to leave the certainty of a paycheck behind in order to finally pursue the challenge of independent game development, a desire I’ve harbored almost my entire life but had always been too afraid to pursue.

The last six months have been, without question, among the most difficult in my life. (They’ve been deeply rewarding, too, but we’ll get to that.) The thing I find myself obsessing over is this notion that I’m just an impostor – a pale imitation of a real independent game maker. It’s a nagging, constant concern, and it overshadows any satisfaction I ought to be taking from the significant personal and professional growth I’ve undergone this year. Here’s how it works:

  1. I finally take the plunge and decide to, come hell or high water, make this indie thing work. My brain’s response: “You’ll never be good enough.”
  2. After a month of full-time learning and cranking out tutorials and practice exercises, I still don’t have a single playable game to my name. “You’ll definitely never be good enough; you haven’t even finished a game!”
  3. A few weeks later, I managed to create a Flappy Bird clone from scratch and submit it to the Flappy Jam. Instead of appreciating the things I did well, all I could think about was how much I felt like a fraud: “It’s not even your own game; you just ripped off another one.”
  4. Months passed, and I shipped a few more game jam games and slightly more developed experiments. By this point, I was convinced I was a fraud and a failure: “Nothing you’ve made has been nearly as polished or playable as your janky Flappy Bird rip-off. You can keep trying all you want, but you’re never gonna make anything of yourself. Just suck it up, give this stupid dream up and get your shit together.”
  5. I reached a significant milestone in the early summer when a game I created for the Space Cowboy Game Jam, End Transmission, was well-received and even ranked very highly in a couple of categories. Surprisingly, the game even picked up some recognition in the press, leading to a couple of blog posts and even a YouTube video covering the game. Rather than allow myself to feel appreciative of or reinforced by these gestures, the voice insisted: “So what? It’s a three-minute game, and those cockpit textures are hideous. You don’t have a chance in hell of picking up any real recognition. Give it up, man.”

I realized something: those doubts will always be there, no matter how much I accomplish or how much recognition I receive. And I know I’m not the only one who wrestles with that voice, either. But I’ve realized there are a few things I can do to help brush it aside and focus on the things that matter.

First, be good to yourself. Above all else. Are you feeling shitty about something? Go for a walk. Go for a run. Get a book from the library and spend a couple hours reading it there. Leave your phone at home. Remember to get some sun. Learn how to cook, even if you’re as bad as I am. Volunteer at a local organization. Join a band. Pick up macramé. The more you focus on developing a healthy and diverse life, the less life-or-death work starts to seem, and the less powerful that destructive voice becomes.

Second, don’t suffer alone. These feelings aren’t unique to you; they come with the territory. Talk to someone. Message a friend. Fire up a game with some distant buddies. Reach out to your family. Be open to friendly chatter with the clerk at the grocery store. Nothing does a better job of reminding us that we’re not alone than interacting with the people around us.

Third, take time to think for yourself. When you’re working independently, it’s all too easy to get stuck in your head and obsess over self-deprecating thoughts. If you can’t focus or find yourself dwelling on negativity, force yourself to take a break. Go for a leisurely walk through your neighborhood, or take an impromptu trip to the beach or the mountain. Start meditating. Learn a new craft that keeps you busy making something tangible but still gives your mind time to wander freely.

I knew it’d be hard going down this road, but I never realized how so much of the challenges I faced would come from within myself. Fortunately, it’s not just me; in fact, it’s all of us.

From now on, I’m going do my damnedest to recognize and accept the difficult parts as part of the journey. The key difference is that I refuse to let them define it.