Mar 05


Five Tactics for Designing Games While Depressed

Posted by: Dan Fabulich | Comments (20)

I was at the Game Developer Conference this week in San Francisco; on Monday, Michael Todd (@thegamedesigner) gave a short presentation about his personal battle with depression. It was the best presentation I’ve seen all year, and I’d like to use this space to blog my notes about it.

EDIT: The video of Michael Todd’s presentation has been posted for free online.

Depression is common among independent game developers. Working on a large creative project all by yourself is a huge emotional challenge. Indie game developers work notoriously long hours, often in isolation. You’re constantly facing the outer limits of your artistic ability; doubting that you can even finish the project; wondering whether anyone else will see what’s cool about the game, even if you do finish it.

When depression strikes during the creative process, you can enter a death spiral of unproductivity: lack of productivity makes you more depressed, which makes you less productive. You stop being able to see what’s interesting or exciting or fun about anything.

Most of Michael’s techniques will work for anyone in any creative field. I know too many novelists struggling to publish their first novel who could really benefit from techniques like these. (And writing a game in ChoiceScript is not so different from writing a novel. Episode 1 of Choice of the Vampire is over 160,000 words long!) The same applies to musicians who compose their own stuff, or entrepreneurs launching a startup. Anyone in an unproductive slump can benefit from Michael’s strategy.

1) Focus on Highly Rewarding Projects

Specifically, this means projects that are fun to work on, or an idea that you’re excited about. The more you like the idea, the easier it is to remember that it’s worth sticking through to the end. When working on highly rewarding projects, you’re essentially designing for yourself, working on what maintains your day-to-day interest in development. “Finishing a project happens only once a year; going to work is every day of your life.”

(Michael chose to work as an independent game developer because he wanted — needed — to find a job in which he could be happy. At a traditional job, it’s generally not an option to say, “Sorry, I’m going to be depressed for the next month, so I’ll only be able to work on ideas that I really love; all other work will have to wait.”)

But great ideas aren’t always highly rewarding — highly rewarding projects should also give you instant positive feedback. Michael distinguishes between “complete” and “progressive” projects. In a “complete” project, you need to have all of the puzzle pieces finished and put together before you can really see whether it’s any good. In a “progressive” project, you start with something that’s immediately playable, and iterate on that project over and over. When depressed, work on these “progressive” projects, and avoid “complete” projects.

Get directly to the gameplay, without getting bogged down on boring details or polish. Test your game immediately, ideally with real players. The sooner the feedback, the more rewarding the project.

But beware; it can be easy to take a long “complete” project (with a few fun parts and a lot of long boring parts) and make it look “progressive,” simply by working on the fun parts right away. That’s just eating your dessert first; you won’t have an appetite for completing the project, which may only cause you to crash harder later.

2) Stop Being a Perfectionist: Get Some Perspective

When you’re depressed, it’s easy to lose perspective on your work. When your job is to create fun but depression has drained the fun out of everything you do, it’s easy to start thinking that your brilliant idea actually sucks.

So get more perspectives! Find other people to play your game. They can remind you of what parts of your game are actually fun, allowing you to hone in on that.

You can also ask other designers questions. (We love it when people ask us for advice!) Show them the game you’re working on, and ask how to solve a problem you see in the design. Much of the time, another designer will be able to tell you that you’re worrying about nothing; there is no problem. And some of the time, they’ll have an idea that can fix your problem.

Another way you can avoid perfectionism is to play a few games. Go play some demos on Steam, XBLIG or Newgrounds. (The crappier, the better!) Someone thought that each and every one of those games was good enough for other people to play and enjoy. Maybe your game isn’t so bad after all!

3) Work on Shorter Projects

Starting a new project often has a clear arc: in the first 10% of the project, you’re thinking, “This is an awesome idea! Yeah!” But that soon wears off; for the next 50% of the project, you’re still excited, but not quite as enthusiastic. In the next 20% of the project, you start to get bored with the idea. “Is this idea even any fun? Was I fooling myself?” And in the last 20% of the project, you’ve come to loathe it. “I fucking hate this game.”

Choosing shorter projects helps you spend more time in the phase where you’re still excited about the potential, and less time hating what you do. Ideally, you can get a working prototype up and running before you get bored of the concept.

Obviously, this doesn’t mean you should work on a short project simply because it’s short. If you’re not excited by the idea, then the project won’t be rewarding, even if you can finish it in a day or two.

4) Measure Work Hours

Michael uses ProcrastiTracker, which automatically measures how much time you spend in various applications: 4 hours spent in Firefox, 8 hours spent in Visual Studio, and so forth. No need to manually click on your timer. (Anybody know of an equivalent tool for Mac or Linux?)

Staying conscious of your work hours indirectly supports most of the other techniques as well. Was that project as short as you thought it was? How fast are you iterating? Are you working too hard? Not hard enough?

5) Design a Game to Suit Your Abilities

Put together a list of which parts of the job you love, and which parts you hate. Michael, for example, hates working with textures, so he designs a lot of games with bare silhouettes.

Everybody has a unique set of resources; even if you don’t have an unusual skill, you probably have an unusual interest, or influences, or friends. Even your dislikes and areas of incompetence can provide rare creative constraints, from which great work can ultimately emerge.

Turn Depression into Inspiration

Every game you make is an image of yourself. A game is a thousand tiny choices made by the development team. When a single developer makes a game in a short time, in a single mood, it crystallizes the emotion in the finished product.

After all, great art comes from powerful emotions, even (perhaps especially) when those emotions aren’t positive. Compare a few songs about heartache with a few songs about being happily in love.

This emotional power is why, as an individual, your games can be more effective than games written by large teams with multi-million dollar budgets. Upbeat, casual social games and AAA console titles may rake in a lot of cash, but “the next great work of art will not come from PopCap or EA.”

Depression can be an opportunity to do something you didn’t know you could do, something that no one has ever done before.

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