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Successful indie devs on coping with failure, imposter syndrome

Creators from Vlambeer, Spry Fox, and Arbitrary Metric talk about common mental health challenges at smaller studios

Professional success doesn't necessarily lead to personal happiness. That was one takeaway from a "Mental Wellness in Indie Games" panel at last week's International Gaming Summit on Mental Health.

International Game Developers Association executive director and Stumbling Cat CEO Renee Gittins moderated the panel, which featured former Vlambeer developer Rami Ismail, Arbitrary Metric developer Lazzie Brown, and SpryFox co-founder and CEO David Edery.

Gittins' first question was about whether the success each of the panelists has experienced came along with increased pressure to live up to it. In Brown's case, the pressure stemmed from the need to turn the Paratopic developer from a creative collaboration into a proper business when the game took off, but she added it's tough to complain about something like that.

Ismail seized on that idea in particular, the notion that a developer who experiences financial success somehow shouldn't talk about their challenges.

"It feels really bad to complain, or to feel like I'm complaining," Ismail said. "And that actually has been pretty dangerous to my mental health at times, the feeling that I can't talk about it."

"We sort of intellectually understood that [a project losing money] was a possibility, but emotionally had discounted it to the point where it was dangerous"

David Edery

Edery said SpryFox had a couple big hits by indie standards right out of the gate with TripleTown and Realm of the Mad God. Early on, even the projects of theirs that missed were still breaking even. He said that allowed the studio to fool itself into thinking it would be easy over the long haul.

"So when we had our first project that didn't do well, that lost more money than it made, we were caught flat-footed," Edery said, adding, "We sort of intellectually understood that was a possibility, but emotionally had discounted it to the point where it was dangerous."

Even if a developer believes they've figured out a formula that works, Edery noted that the industry undergoes seismic shifts with such frequency that it could be completely irrelevant just a couple years down the line.

"As an independent developer, it's really important to recognize just how much things can change, how much turbulence that can bring to your life, and how uncertain everything is," Edery said. "And as a result, to be kind to yourself when things don't go the way you expect... and to not fall into the trap of having a successful game and then taking every single penny you made and investing it into the next one. Thankfully it's something we didn't do, because had we done it, we wouldn't be here today."

Ismail would later echo some of those sentiments.

"I think everybody goes through these motions," he said. "In certain generations of indie games over the last decade, the same sort of pattern emerges. Everybody's trying and failing, until it works. And when it works, you get the sense of momentum, you get swept up in it, and then you hit the wall of reality. And depending on how much momentum you got to build, that wall hurts more or hurts less."

Ismail said Vlambeer hit the wall on development of its fourth game, Ridiculous Fishing, when the original Flash game was cloned and ported to iOS before the studio could get its own proper iOS version done.

"For us, we crunched through three games, which destroyed us," he said. "But we were not aware of it, because the momentum felt good. And then our fourth game was a disaster. It eventually launched super well, but when that clone hit, the only reason Vlambeer survived as a studio was because a small Canadian indie team reached out to us. They had been cloned before and they said if there's anything we can do to help, let us know."

That studio, Halfbot, handled the iOS port of Super Crate Box. Ismail said the money that project brought in was the only thing that kept Vlambeer alive in 2013.

Ismail pointed out that there are so many different avenues to success for developers that it seems futile to frame advice in terms of what people should do, because every developer's journey is different. So instead he's more likely to tell them about specific mistakes to avoid, but that framing has its own problems.

"I could tell 1,000 developers, 'Please don't do these things,' and they're going to do it anyway," Ismail said. "We're a bunch of super stubborn creatives. We believe we can do it the right way. Because I've been warned. When I started, people definitely warned me: Don't crunch, don't work ridiculous hours, go to bed at a good time, shower at your game jams... All of these things, and I can guarantee you that with a lot of that advice, I was like, 'Nah, we're good.' Now I'm the same person giving that advice."

It's particularly difficult for some indies who are starting up studios, Ismail said, because the process involves a lot of considerations developers may not have had to make before.

"It's kind of terrifying that people are just completely and utterly unaware of the fact that they have formed a culture, and that culture has both positive and negative effect on who they are but also how they interact with others," Ismail said.

To which Brown added, "And how do you bring people into that? Like you were saying about soft skills, that's not intuitive a lot of the time, to sell the day-to-day experience to someone, what place humor has, what place stupid ideas have, how you use your tools and all of that stuff? There's so much to it."

"We are very good as industry about talking about the things that went right. And we are awful about talking about the things that went wrong"

Rami Ismail

When asked about imposter syndrome, all three developers readily agreed they had experienced it.

Edery said it happens anytime the company releases a game that doesn't do as well as he expected, saying, "You can't help but start to feel, 'Maybe I don't belong here. Maybe I'm not doing as well as I should.'

Ismail added, "We are very good as industry about talking about the things that went right. And we are awful about talking about the things that went wrong. Because either you didn't hear those people because they didn't have a success, or because we just don't like talking about those things that much."

Edery noted a survivor bias in the industry, as the only people who speak about failure at shows like the Game Developers Conference are those who either had a long history of success leading up to it or followed it up with success.

"You never hear from what are literally the majority of game developers who just always failed, and that's that," Edery said. "It's a hard thing for people who are trying to break in, or have broken in but haven't had the success that's going to carry them forward."

"I felt like I departed one life, got on a long-haul flight, had another one for a week, then came back and there was no sign of it. I just had this exhibition pass"

Lazzie Brown

Edery estimated maybe 1-3% of indie games are successful, and almost all of them owe part of their success to luck and being in the right place at the right time.

Brown said the imposter syndrome hit hardest for her after attending GDC 2019. It was her first time going to a major conference, her first time meeting her colleagues in person, her first nomination (and first win) in the Independent Games Festival.

"I found where it hit the most substantially was when I came home and we all went our separate ways. I hadn't met my colleague before or since that week in SF. When I was waiting for the award to arrive, I was like, 'Did any of that just happen? Did I just make all of that up in my head?' I felt like I departed one life, got on a long-haul flight, had another one for a week, then came back and there was no sign of it. I just had this exhibition pass. That was seriously challenging. I talked a lot in therapy about that period."

Ismail emphasized that there's no right way or wrong way to go about being a developer, and that most people will have a hard time in games at some point.

"You are a human that feels things in response to these sometimes massive forces on your life, your work, and your creativity. And you will have to at some point reckon with it and deal with it, independent of how you are and what you're trying to do here. If you are committed to making video games, you care about video games... so if that is true, then it matters. And if it matters, it can hurt you, which means you have to just keep being aware of what you're putting your body through, what you're putting your mind through. And be OK about talking about it."

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Brendan Sinclair avatar
Brendan Sinclair: Brendan joined in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot.
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