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"You don't have to suffer to make great games"

Tanya Short of Kitfox Games explains how a developer's first priority is simply not to die

Crunch is a thorny issue in the games business. While some believe it to be a necessary evil, more and more are beginning to fight back against the phenomenon. Tanya Short of Kitfox Games is one of those people who believes making games can be done without logging ridiculously long hours on a project. Speaking as part of a series of indies during this year's Indie Soapbox at GDC, Short attempted to rally, or convince, her peers that self-care should be ranked highest in order of importance on the game development totem pole.

"Everyone in this room thinks our number one priority is to make a great game, but it's actually your number three priority. Your number one priority, unfortunately, is to not die," she said bluntly. "And it's important that you survive making this hopefully great game, because your next game will be better."

"Get it through your head that you need to survive because you're going to keep making games, goddamnit, and you're going to make them better and better every time."

For many in the industry, the practice of crunch has become so common that it's considered completely normal and acceptable. But when people have to sleep under their desks and don't see their families, that's not normal. "Forgive yourself, be kind to yourself, because we are primates. Primates need food and shelter and belonging. Primates need to be taken care of in a way that games don't. Burnout isn't about working a certain number of hours. Everyone has different work habits. A few long nights won't kill you, but a few long months might, especially when combined with death or disease or other problems that are real," Short continued.

"It is up to you to protect what time and love and joy you have left in you and not use it up making yourself feel more productive"

Short talked about her "miracle cure for death" which involves believing in yourself and making sure to prioritize and re-prioritize tasks, daily if needed. "Kitfox doesn't crunch. We do a couple of weeks of overtime here and there as needed but we made both Shattered Planet and Moon Hunters without burnout so it is possible," she noted.

"You will actually accomplish more if you stop working so much. If you're not prioritizing your tasks that's the next secret. It's actually important that what you're doing right now is actually important... Re-prioritize as often as you need. And actually estimate your tasks... If you're not estimating, you should because it's a skill that takes time."

Short cited a study on sleep and how people believe they can perform adequately on seven hours or less daily, but the science says otherwise. "[Working] three weeks at 60 hours [each] is scientifically less productive... You're doing it worse and your brain doesn't realize it. Because it feels awesome, you're putting in everything and you're bleeding all over it," she said.

Short emphasized that developers need to learn production. It's a skill that can be honed just like any other, but it's a lot less sexy than art or animation so people don't focus on it when they should. And if a project doesn't have someone to properly manage production, that's when burnout can set in for a team.

"Burnout is about becoming slowly dulled as layer after layer of exhaustion accumulates, weighing down on you. Burnout is the void left behind where the rest of your career would have been. You can choose differently; you don't have to suffer to make great games," Short stressed to the audience of indies.

"The moment we are in right now won't come again. We are here contemplating these great games because we are alive, and everyone here...will die; even if we create a masterpiece beloved for a thousand years our existence here and now will be gone forever. So it is up to you to protect what time and love and joy you have left in you and not use it up making yourself feel more productive.

"If it helps, envision your dedication to self-care as a sword; see the darkness of burnout gathering around you in the shadows stealing away your concentration and your still beating heart. Be disciplined warrior of light and courage - fight on, take care of yourself and survive to make more games," she remarked.

As Short closed her talk, she threw up slides of quotes from other indies with similar sentiments, like Helen Carmichael of Grey Alien Games who said, "Always put your health first," or Ryan Clark of Brace Yourself Games, who commented, "Being kind to yourself is the optimal strategy." Perhaps best of all: Johnneman Nordhagen of Dim Bulb Games, who said simply, "Get a cat."

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James Brightman avatar
James Brightman: James Brightman has been covering the games industry since 2003 and has been an avid gamer since the days of Atari and Intellivision. He was previously EIC and co-founder of IndustryGamers and spent several years leading GameDaily Biz at AOL prior to that.
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