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Indie Game Development Part 4: Stress Management

Indie Game Development Part 4: Stress Management

This is the part in the series where I talk about what I feel is the most important part of the development cycle, and that’s Stress Management. It’s something that an excited young person is probably the least likely to think about, until you’re overwhelmed. Dealing with your own self, is something that, in my opinion, is sometimes more difficult than any other aspect of creating something new. 

I’ve attempted to start this article a couple of times now, because I can’t really think of a better way to start talking than to say “game development is stressful”. But you know what? Sometimes the truth is simple. You’re almost definitely going to hit some walls when working on your project. This is the reality of being passionate about what you do, I think.

The reason I’ve emphasized planning so much in these articles, is because I want you to be your own best friend rather than your own worst enemy. We creative types tend to be hard on ourselves emotionally because we’re often questioning whether or not our ideas (or executions) are good enough. When you throw in financial difficulty, time management, interpersonal problems, onto the pile of self-doubt, it can be easy to be overburdened. If you haven’t had to deal with that before (heck, even if you have) it can easily cause emotional instability. If you take the time to plan rationally and consider what limitations you are going to have when making your game, you’ll stand a much better chance of reducing the stress that you’re going to inevitably go through.

joystickIf you’re like me, you put off diving into game development because you didn’t have the time. There’s always so much you want to do with your spare time. For me, it was playing games, playing music, hiking, climbing, martial arts, travelling, reading, watching movies and of course spending time with friends, family, and the reality that work comes first. I finally made the decision to get into game dev, because I just couldn’t stand that I was avoiding doing something that I really cared about for so long. But, as I said, there just aren’t enough hours in a day to do everything you want.

One of the first sources of stress when you make that decision to make your game will be that you have to give up other things. Maybe for you it will be as simple as no more cable, or Netflix, but likely it will also mean that on occasion people will invite you to do something when you have time scheduled to work on your game. What to do? On the one hand, you can put off progress of your game and hang out with friends and continue to have a social life… on the other you can stick to your schedule and work on your game, but miss out on the experience that all your other friends are having.

Now this problem seems very trivial, right? And it is! It will likely be one of the more trivial issues you face. But it’s also real. Make this decision enough times and you’re going to get stressed out. Either you’re procrastinating your passion project, or you’re becoming disconnected from your friends. Or family. It’s rough, but all I can say is try your best to make time for both, and communicate your needs to those around you. Having a set schedule that you work on your project really helps. It helps establish that this is a thing that is going to regularly happen so that you make progress and those around you know that you have a schedule. If you’re able to work dev into a slot of time that does not interrupt the other things that are important to you, even better. Balance your work/life carefully, because you’re going to need to do other things too, for your own sanity. People need rest and relaxation.

crunch_1847_generalHaving worked a few “crunches” myself both in school, professionally, and now, while on my own projects, I can tell you that it’s very easy to get into a workaholic state of mind and compulsively think about your project. There’s a bit of a culture in gaming and film that promotes the attitude that it’s ok to do this… and admittedly sometimes a crunch is avoidable. But it’s also going to be detrimental to the other aspects of your life. There will be times when you have a deadline. For example, maybe you want to submit your demo into a festival and it has an unchangeable entry date. You will have little choice but to give it your all if you want to submit (this year), and so it can be worth putting in extra hours for a short period. But if you try to burn the midnight oil for long stretches? You’re going to get cranky, you’re going to feel exhausted, and you’re likely not going to be rational about what you’re doing and will make mistakes and/or decisions that you wouldn’t make with a clear head. When you do have your head cleared, perhaps you’re not going to like what you did on four hours sleep. If you’re working in a team with other people? The odds that morale is going to drop and conflicts will happen increases. Problems will compound easily, and exhaustion won’t let you deal with it any better. I don’t feel that the crunch culture should be embraced. The point of working on your project is to enjoy what you’re doing If you’ve set unrealistic goals for yourself, maybe six months of crunch isn’t the solution to your problem.

Starting with a small project, and prototyping things in small clusters of features instead of aiming for the stars in one shot helps you to manage your workload. You’ll learn the ropes of what has to happen in a development cycle while not getting overly stressed about the quality of what you’re producing. Trying to do it all in one go can be a headache, and while you’ll likely eventually want to put a more serious effort into a project that will get people’s attention, hopefully you’ll have an idea of how to run your operation smoothly if you’ve done some sort of a trial run under your belt. You’ll have a better sense of how fast you work, of what tools work for you, and what feels right to you artistically.
critiqueEvery part of this process is going to involve decision making, and you’re going to have to learn that while it’s good to be flexible, and make tweaks that will improve your end product, sometimes you also need to just live with things and move on. As an artist, I think it’s incredibly valuable to get insight from other people. I think it’s important to show your work to other artists and get feedback. Sometimes people will see things that you didn’t. Their advice can be priceless. Little things like how you might improve your colour palette, or in the case of a game how the jump mechanic could feel a little better. It’s great to do this, and you will grow by reevaluating your work. If you can find a tight network of people who’s opinion you trust, try to take in what they say without it crushing your morale if they disagree with you. But the other thing to keep in mind, is that if you ever want to get it done, you’ll eventually have to decide where to draw the line and just decide that a given element serves its purpose and you cannot afford to spend more time on it. Believe in your ability to make that call. This after all, is your project.

You’ll need to keep this in mind both during and after the process. Nothing will please everyone, and there are people out there that will disagree with your methods, your choice in style, or even they way you look. There are valid opinions out there, and you should try to gain insight from where you can; however if you let criticism get you down, you’re in for a rocky emotional roller coaster. This is going to be difficult, because as a creator your goal is (likely) to create something that will be enjoyed by all. I can’t imagine creating something and not having an emotional attachment to it… but this is reality, and as they say, “C’est la vie”.

Stress is the silent killer. If you’re feeling it, evaluate what you could be doing differently, and don’t be afraid to look for some support from time to time. We’re all human. Now get back to making your game. :)

Written by Stephen G. Tucker

A graduate of Sheridan College's Animation program; Stephen has worked on a number of feature films around the world as a visual effects artist. Now on sabbatical, he works on creating independent video games for