At the end of 2017, Gabby DaRienzo had finished shipping two successful games: A Mortician's Tale and Graceful Explosion Machine. She was working on two more: Super Crush KO, and another unannounced game from developer Laundry Bear. Sounds perfect, right?
But as DaRienzo described in her GDC 2020 talk, "Overcoming Creative Block on Super Crush KO," everything was far from perfect. She was exhausted all the time, felt "foggy", and had a hard time focusing. She was struggling to work eight-hour days, arguing with her teammates, and getting defensive about her work.
"I started feeling really unmotivated," she said. "Even though I was excited about the projects I was working on, it felt like a struggle for me to actually sit down and do the work. And when I did do the work on them, I wasn't happy with the work I was producing. I felt frustrated with myself, and I felt like I was making a lot of bad decisions."
"When our ability to discern something good has surpassed our ability to make something good, this is called a creative block"
Then, the problems began to bleed into her personal life. She stopped doing her creative hobbies, and started watching Netflix and scrolling through social media in the evenings. As a creative person, not doing creative things made her feel worse. It wasn't until her partner suggested she might be suffering from burnout, or creative block, that DaRienzo realized she needed a change.
"Creative block is described as the inability to access your internal creativity, which can result in the inability to create, the lack of motivation to create, and overall mental and emotional fatigue," DaRienzo explained, adding that it primarily affects people in creative positions: artists, writers, musicians, sound designers, game designers.
There are multiple theories, she continued, for why creative block happens in the first place.
"When our ability to make something good surpasses our ability to discern something good, this is called a creative high," DaRienzo said. "And when our ability to discern something good has surpassed our ability to make something good, this is called a creative low, or a creative block.
"Another reason why creative block happens is because of external pressure, feeling like everyone is watching you and that you're letting people down if you're not productive or 'good enough'. And in this day and age with indie games especially, with so many games being released constantly, it's important that your game stands out -- that it is beautiful and unique, and runs well on every platform, and that the game is simple enough to be made by a small team on top of that.
"And if you're an indie developer, you and your team's personal finances depend on it. It adds stress onto game artists, writers, and musicians especially. You feel like you can't just make art, you have to make beautiful, one-of-a-kind while also being efficiently made art. And that pressure can sometimes prevent you from making any art at all."
"You feel like you can't just make art, you have to make beautiful, one-of-a-kind while also being efficiently made art"
DaRienzo acknowledged that she is an anxious person to begin with. However, the success of both Graceful Explosion Machine and A Mortician's Tale didn't make her anxiety better. Instead, she felt more pressure to replicate that success in her current projects. When she didn't immediately have a brilliant idea for Super Crush KO, she grew even more frustrated.
"To be clear, my colleagues weren't the ones putting this pressure onto me," she said. "I was doing it to myself. And in hindsight, this wasn't very fair of me to do, because ultimately success is not a cure for mental illness.
"When you start with pre-production on a game, you very rarely immediately come up with the finalized look for your game. This process takes time and iteration. More likely, when you start concepting your game, you start out with mood boards, images that inspire you, rough sketches, color swatches and palettes -- you start with the basics. And because I was so stressed about getting it right the first time, I forgot how much fun concepting can be."
So DaRienzo made a change. With the blessing of her bosses, she took a month off work. During that month, she began prioritizing several key ideas and habits that helped her work through her burnout and return to creative form.
Don't try to be different, just try to be good
"The idea behind this phrase is that by focusing first on being good, following the basics of design and making decisions that you know work and trusting your instincts on what is good, you will ultimately make something that is different," DaRienzo said. "Good is different enough."
Lean on others
"If you're experiencing art block, do not isolate yourself from others. You do not have to suffer this alone"
"If you're experiencing art block, do not isolate yourself from others. You do not have to suffer this alone. If you're working with a team or have colleagues, tell them about your struggles with creative block, and encourage them to do the same with you. Sometimes people can give you an outside opinion or advice you may not have considered if you were just working alone. And having a group of colleagues you trust allows you to inspire, uplift, and support each other during creative block or other frustrating times."
Da Rienzo suggested that, while having in-person communities is extremely valuable, it's not feasible for many -- and at the moment, most -- people. Instead, she recommended looking online, using Discord and other social media platforms to find community to talk to, as well as searching online for educational resources and inspiration.
Surround yourself with inspiration
"If you're feeling uninspired and frustrated with the things you're making, try surrounding yourself with other art, music, or writing that you like that motivates you and makes you feel good," DaRienzo said. "And if you're looking for something unique for your game, try looking outside of what people are already doing in video games."
While on her month-long break, DaRienzo started a new habit. Every morning, she would make tea and scroll through different design websites to inspire herself, using things outside of video games. And when she returned from her break, she hung up art and other visuals on the walls of her office.
Finally, DaRienzo recommended several exercises that can be helpful to creatives regardless of whether or not they are currently dealing with burnout.
- Revisit the basics of whatever your art medium is
- Try a new thing -- a new medium, a different tool, different subject matter or genre
- Try a different hobby that's unrelated to your professional field
- Do something creative for yourself every day -- personal projects, not professional ones
- Be kind to yourself
DaRienzo's story has a happy ending. When she returned to work after her month of refocusing, she brought with her a new mock-up for Super Crush KO. The single mock-up was incredibly well-received, and ended up informing the art for the rest of the game.
"If you're experiencing creative block, you're not a bad artist," she concluded. "If you're experiencing creative block, you're not a bad game designer. If you're experiencing creative block, you're not alone."