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Knowing When To Stop

A life in game development can mean stress, fatigue and worry. Jurie Horneman has learned the value of stepping back

When you're a freelancer, security is rare. It's hard to get long-term projects, gigs can end at any time, and who knows when the next one comes along? So you submit talks to conferences, write on your blog, you're active on Twitter, you write emails, you comment, like, and fave. Maybe that one blog post or that one tweet over the weekend or that chance meeting at a dinner puts you on someone's radar and gets you the job. You work hard, because that's what it takes. You can always do more.

"Optimisation never stops. You can always do more - until you break"

When you run an independent company, stability is rare. It takes forever to get contracts signed. It takes a hundred 'No's before you get a 'Yes.' Projects get cancelled, whether it's legal or not. So you go to biz dev events, have 50 meetings in 3 days, talk about your company and your track record and your concepts until you can do it in your sleep. Everybody at your company is depending on you, and you work long after everyone else goes home, do the boring work nobody else wants to do, travel all over the place. You can always do more.

When you make indie games, certainty that your game will make money is rare. Games always take twice as long to make than you expect, there are twice as many hats to wear, and half of them you've never worn before. Maybe you'll get lucky if you just work hard enough. So you talk to the press, to YouTubers, to players. You polish, add more screen shake, submit your game to festivals. You can always do more.

When you make AAA games, long-term employment is rare. You can come in one morning and find the locks have changed. You are always one bad Metacritic rating away from having to move to another country or state. So you look at what other games did, and you take their features and their numbers and double them. You add a multiplayer mode, a single player mode, an open world, a platform generation, and that idea from someone very high up who's paying your salary. You work long hours, like everyone. You don't want to be the one who goes home first. You don't want anyone to say you have doubts about where you're going. It worked for those other guys, and you doubled their numbers! The players will love it. And if things really start going south, you can always do more.

We like feeling that we have control over our destinies. We like feeling that we have agency - perhaps, working in games, we like that more than most. But it's impossible to know for sure whether you will have work a month from now, or whether your company will exist a year from now, or whether your game will become a hit. Surely we can affect the odds? Surely we can optimise our chances? I believe we can - It helps me to get up in the morning. But optimisation never stops. You can always do more - until you break. We see that a lot in the games industry, and it leads to stress, crunch, delays, bad games, and burnouts.

"Work hard, get tired, lack the energy to think about doing something else than working hard. It's a vicious circle"

It is easy to mistake the outward signs of success with its prerequisites. It is easy to convince others and yourself that you're doing all you can because you spend so much time working. If you fail despite all that hard work, who will blame you? Nobody gets fired for buying IBM, to use a perhaps somewhat dated analogy, and nobody gets fired for working too hard. But what if you're not doing the right things? It is hard to think about that when you're tired, and you will be made tired by trying to solve the unsolvable problem of trying to control the future.

Work hard, get tired, lack the energy to think about doing something else than working hard. It's a vicious circle (and one that is not limited to the games industry). I don't believe in silver bullets and I don't think there's an easy way to 'solve' this problem, but here are some steps that can help you get out of situations like the ones above.

Step one: Take a step back. Relax. Maybe - I know it's hard - maybe consider dropping some of the balls you're keeping in the air. Who knows? Someone might catch them for you, or perhaps the world won't end.

Step two: Think about what you've been doing, and what has been effective, and what hasn't. Did those press releases help at all? Maybe you don't need that multiplayer mode. Maybe you can get more data, or prioritise better. Maybe you should bite the bullet and say no to those new feature requests.

Step three: Talk to the people you work with. (Outside! It's June.) Maybe they have ideas. Maybe they have been thinking the same thing - they were working late because you were, and not the other way around. Maybe you can make a better game with half the levels. Maybe you can convince people - developers, marketeers, players - that less is more. Maybe you can combine forces with other people.

"Relax. Maybe consider dropping some of the balls you're keeping in the air"

Step four: Do all of this on a regular basis. Put it in your calendar, because time flies, and a month or two months or three months from now you'll be busy again, too busy to remember how good it felt to take a step back and think about what you're doing and to talk about it with other people.

Is this foolproof? No. I have personally experienced many of the problems I describe above, and I wish I'd have taken these steps more often. But it's hard when you have your nose to the grindstone, it's hard to convince others, and sometimes it's too late to solve problems and you just have to ride it out. Still, over time, I've become better at recognising when I'm overdoing it, and I've become better at knowing when to stop. So even though these are pernicious and systemic problems that keep occurring, I am optimistic. It helps me to get up in the morning.

Thanks to Andy Schmoll for her help with this article.

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Jurie Horneman avatar
Jurie Horneman: "Jurie Horneman has been making games since 1991, from huge RPGs to console action games to mobile and online casual games. He has worked as a game designer, programmer, and producer, at companies such as Blue Byte, Rockstar Games, Arkane Studios, and the Vienna-based Mi'pu'mi Games, which he co-founded. In his copious spare time he runs Gameconfs, a directory of game industry events. Born in the Netherlands, he currently lives in Lyon, France."
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