In the middle of April, I did an experiment. Whenever I saw a complaint from a game dev pop up on my Twitter feed, I recorded it in Excel. I didn’t have a plan to use this data, I just thought it would be interesting to gather. I did this until I had 200 complaints.
One day, I decided to group the complaints into different categories. Something clicked for me. So many of the struggles that we deal with in game development are shared by others in the industry.
In my geeky analysis of game dev Twitter gripes, I found some common threads. The top five complaints were ones of exhaustion, time constraints, difficulty communicating with other people, disappointment in existing games, and frustration with development tools. All the other stuff we think we fret about – selling, motivation, Kickstarter, our lousy day jobs, and day to day events – pale in comparison to the top five. It’s not even close.
I’ve got a message of hope for you. That which is weighing you down is not your burden to bear alone. We’re all in this together.
If you’re feeling tired, you’re not alone.
If you feel like you’ve got no time, you’re not alone.
If you feel frustrated with players, reviewers, teammates, distributors, manufacturers, artists, or peers; you’re not alone.
If you feel like games sorta suck sometimes, you’re not alone.
If you want to chuck your Windows machine out a window, you’re not alone.
Today, I’m going take a moment to talk about each of these five big issues. I want to defuse the tense emotions, think about the root causes, and look for ways to improve. I believe leaving frustrations unexpressed squashes motivation.
There are two basic types of exhaustion: physical and emotional. They feel awfully similar, though, and I’ve become very acquainted with both of them. Game development is very demanding. Let’s be real: most of us are doing this with a full-time job and/or children. I put in about 70 hour weeks. I’m not proud of this because I don’t think it’s something to aspire to. Long hours are simply the tactical approach by which I’m pursuing my twin goals of making good games and helping you to do the same.
If you’re physically exhausted, you should do what your doctor tells you to do. Try to get enough sleep, whether that’s 6 hours or 10. You know your body. Get some regular exercise – it has the uncanny ability to pick us back up when we’re feeling down.
If you’re emotionally exhausted, pay attention to how you’re spending your time. Be a relentless time manager (see below). Say “no” to stuff that’s not useful and that you don’t want to do. If you feel like crap all the time, you could even be dealing with depression or anxiety. Consider therapy, as well. No shame in it – this is a straight-up smart thing to do if you need help. There is even a convenient online service for that. Take a 3-day weekend or a vacation every once in a while.
Don’t ignore exhaustion! Don’t hurt yourself in pursuit of a goal. Self-care is important.
Time is the great equalizer. We all have the same amount of it, but it doesn’t always feel like it. I strongly recommend that you check out Google Calendar. If you don’t use any scheduling software to run your life, just try playing around with it for a week or two. Track everything you do. It’s eye-opening.
On the other extreme, if you find yourself living very rigidly to your schedule and trying to squeeze every moment out of the day, that can be problematic as well. Even if you have strong time management skills, the brutal truth is that game development is measured in months and years and not weeks and days. Keep your time expectations realistic and don’t beat yourself up if it takes longer than you expect to make something great.
Communication Breakdowns with People
Becoming a good communicator takes a lot of practice. We do, after all, live in our heads and our own little worlds. How does one bridge the gap?
There are a lot people that game developers need to work with: customers and play testers, vendors, and teammates. Learning to communicate effectively with each of these groups is very important. Focus on listening more than speaking, for there are two goals here. You want others to feel heard and you want the data that their opinions will provide. Don’t prematurely judge, always assume good intent, and make sure you clarify your understanding every once in a while.
Once you get the basics down, you’ll slowly gain the ability to hear not just words, but deeper emotions. Once you start understanding people’s deeper emotions and motivations, you can respond even more adeptly. Again, this takes tons and tons of practice and is a highly sought after skill.
When you do speak, focus on being clear and unambiguous in your speech and with body language to match. Repeat yourself as appropriate and ask your audience if there are any points that need to be clarified.
Disappointment with Games
This is a surprisingly common complaint among game developers, but maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise. On some level, being disappointed by games that are currently in the market is a good fuel for inspiration. Nothing captures the stereotypical entrepreneurial spirit like believing “I can do it better.” By all means, if it keeps you creative, feel free to simmer in low-level frustration.
Other developers find games disappointing because they’ve realized many of the trade-offs that go with bringing a game to the market. You can’t have the nicest components and the lowest price – it’s just not feasible. You can’t have a ton of text and a big, super-accessible font size – something would have to give first.
Overall, as a pain point, this is a bittersweet one. It’s often a sign of the discontent and ambitious and occasionally a sign of the uninformed. Being discontent is not a problem to be solved so much as it is a fuel to tap into. Being uninformed is as easy to fix as reading a few game development books and blogs. Figure out which one you are and act accordingly.
Frustration of Inadequate Tools
Microsoft Excel crashes all the time on my computer. I have no idea why. Tabletop Simulator – as much as I love it and recommend it for rapid prototyping – often does the same. Nothing can derail my game dev time quite like these two programs dying on me. This is a common pain point for other game devs, too. I’ve got a list of complaints about computer peripherals, Windows updates, and – for the video game devs I follow – integrated development environments, engines, and programming languages themselves.
For as long as we are brains wrapped in skin, we will always have trouble acting upon our ideas as quickly as they come. No keyboard will ever type as fast as I think, and indeed, no fingers could ever move as fast either. GIMP, Photoshop, MS Paint…it doesn’t matter what you use to draw your game board, it will be a slow stroke-by-stroke process. These are more existential problems, but hey, they’re very real!
What can you do to improve your issues with development tools? If you’ve got a giant pile of money laying around, shell out some cash for a great computer. However, since that can cost over $1,000 and game development itself tends to be expensive, I suggest learning how to build your own desktop PC. I get all of my hardest work done on a stripped-down custom build. It was $600 with two big monitors. Get a great computer, pay for the software you need, and learn to cope with the rest.
Key Takeaways for Game Devs
- Game devs share a lot of pains. The top five are exhaustion, time constraints, difficulty communicating with other people, disappointment in existing games, and frustration with development tools.
- You are not alone. There is hope.
- Unexpressed frustration squashes motivation.
- Exhaustion: Sleep well and exercise often. Manage your time relentlessly. Get therapy if you have long-standing emotional issues that you need to work through.
- Time Constraints: Check out Google Calendar. If you’re a good time manager but still feel like you don’t have enough time, set your expectations more realistically. Game development is measured in months and years, not weeks and days.
- Communication Breakdowns: Becoming a good communicator takes a lot of practice. Actively listen. Learn to discern the emotion and motivation behind people’s words. When you speak, focus on being clear and unambiguous in your speech and with body language to match.
- Disappointment with Games: Figure out if you’re disappointed with games because you think you can do better or because you don’t know what goes into them. If it’s the former, use that as motivation. If it’s the latter, start reading!
- Frustration of Inadequate Tools: Get (or build) a great computer, pay for the software you need, and learn to cope with the rest.
- Intimidated by all these bullet points? Take them one at a time!