Career Corner #3: What’s It Like In The Middle?

Hi Ms. Chironis,

To give some background, I spent the past year with my first real stab at the games industry, specifically as a contractor for a mobile game, working in narrative design/scene direction. Towards the end of the year, I started falling off of it, with burnout setting in hard (with possibly undiagonised ADD?) and separation of work/home being blurred by means of it being a remote position. Talking to a friend about it, they suggested I should reach out and ask industry veterans who are various numbers of years into their business how they feel about their work, where they are in their lives, how they’ve managed themselves, and what they see for themselves looking into the future.

So to break it down into a few questions:

  1. How long have you been in the industry? How do you feel about where you are in your life and career, and do you foresee yourself changing courses or pushing towards something different, or do you see a specific position you want to be in and stay in? What are you doing to achieve or plan for that?
  2.  What challenges did you come across early on in your career and how did you overcome them; what’s something you wish you could tell your younger self?
  3. What are you dealing with right now that’s challenging, and how are you approaching it? Has it been successful? Are there any notable mental health concerns people should be more aware of that you’ve come to recognize in your field of work?

Time’s a really funny thing when you’re no longer in school. Reading this I had to sit and think, really think, about how long I’ve been working in games. Technically, the answer is “eight years in the actual industry, twelve years making games in total.” This week is actually the anniversary of the week I packed up all my things to move to Seattle for my games job at Xbox.

I remember going to see a talk given by a designer whose work I really admired when I was first breaking into games. She’d been in games for eight years. Eight years! That seemed like an unfathomably long amount of time. I was a college student hustling at GDC for the first time that year, giving out business cards (which were terrible) to anyone who’d say hello to me, going to parties and buying overpriced beers with the hope of meeting someone who could connect me with a job (only to encounter lots of guys who wanted to connect with me, but not for a job) and basically just hauling ass to make as many small games as I could. I had never worked on a “real” game outside of a student project, back then. The idea of making it eight years in games seemed incredible to me. What kind of person would I be when I had made it eight years? And would I be ready to take on another eight?

The answers, in order, are this: Tired. Yes.

That woman whose talk I went to no longer works in games, by the way. Many of the friends I made in that first job at Xbox don’t, either. A couple of folks I really care about quit the company I’m working at this month and it had me in a fog of sadness until just a couple days ago. That’s sort of the nature of the beast. You don’t ever really “make it” in games, you are just stubborn as hell and refuse to go do something else with your life. I’ve already done a bunch of waxing about all the perils of joining the industry so this post isn’t about that.

I’ll start with the things I’ve learned that brought me to today.

The most important thing I’ve learned is that nobody actually really knows how a game is made. If you’re out there and you’re making your first game, or you’re working at your first studio and looking at the whole endeavor and going Uhhh this seems weird, I don’t think this is how real games get made, I assure you it probably is. Game studios are like families. Every one of them’s a little fucked up. Every one of them’s got their secrets, their baggage, their quirks, their particular preferences and rituals and histories. Every time I join a new studio I think “aha, surely this studio understands how to do it!” and then I feel a mix of shock and relief when I realize that, nope, it’s still chaos. We’re all just trying to make really great stuff and we’re figuring it out together and we’re sort of bumping our way around in an industry which is constantly evolving, constantly pulling the rug out from under our feet. There are no perfect answers. But we iterate towards finding one. Maybe we’ll get there someday.

I’ve also learned that the whole “game studios are like families” thing works in reverse, too. If you’re in a bad studio environment and you think the people who are mistreating you must be like that everywhere else, I promise you that’s not true. Go elsewhere. Find your people. Just because no studio has all the answers doesn’t mean they’re all toxic as hell.

I’ve learned that making games is as much about making the game as it is about the people who make the game. That’s my favorite part, really. I don’t know if players ever feel this, but I look at any game I’ve worked on and I see little bits of my coworkers reflected back at me, even if we haven’t worked together in a very long time. I see their quirks, like that one thing that environment artist always did with the foliage materials, or that one feature the engineer insisted on tuning to his own tastes because he was dead set against my design for it, or that one sound effect we put in as a silly temp stub and initially laughed over which somehow made it all the way to ship. I see the feature I designed which was never good enough for that one perfectionist designer on my team, or the part I disliked about this one mechanic which my lead and I argued over until we were both blue in the face. When I see my former coworkers at PAX or at the bar in passing, I give them a big hug and it’s like seeing an old friend. Honestly, many of them are old friends. On some projects, I spent more time with them each day than their own spouses and kids did. How bizarre is that?

I’ve learned that if you give all of yourself to the game or the studio, it will happily carve out the entire inside of you and you will not be rewarded for it. I know a lot of people who have been broken by the project they gave “everything” to. Sometimes it worked out and the game was super successful, but it left them a little bit fucked. One time I heard a guy bragging about how at a previous company he’d moved into an apartment so close to work that he could still make it in to the studio when all the roads were snowed out–which he claimed he had done, several times. That guy had been fully carved up already, though he didn’t know it. And developers do this all the time. Maybe they gave up a marriage, a kid’s birthday, time with a sick parent, extra playtime with their pet, their health, their happiness… or just their sense of balance. But giving all of yourself requires you take some holes out of you and those holes are seriously hard to refill, so don’t let that happen if you can. If you’re a workaholic like me, it’s hard to fight the lure of this kind of thing. I worked really hard for something on a project earlier this year. For months I slept poorly; I dreamed about work. I skipped lunch in order to work more. I drank with my coworkers–and on the nights I didn’t, I drank at home, sometimes alone. I thought I was drinking because it’s what people in their 20s do, but really I was drinking because I couldn’t turn my work brain off and I wanted to be outside of myself. I neglected my other friendships, people I really love and care about. The whole thing ended up crumbling under me and I’m still patching the hole it left. I promised not to work (or drink) like that again. I’m not sure I can keep that promise but I’m going to try.

I’ve learned that everything changes. You’ll blink and there will be some new hot trend you had never imagined. Eight years ago, the commercial indie game scene was just beginning to be a thing. Now it’s boomed so hard that scarcely any indie developers make a living. Eight years ago, the iPad had just been released and people weren’t quite sure how to make iPad games great yet. Eight years ago, tetherless VR seemed like some kind of impossible pipe dream. Eight years ago MMOs were the hot thing and now they’ve heavily waned, replaced with MMO-lites like Destiny 2. Eight years ago nobody had heard the term “loot box.” Eight years ago people thought “Battle Royale” was a Japanese indie film. Eight years ago Steam was a closed platform. You can choose to keep up or get phased out. Games are tech, and technology thrives on the cutting edge.

So what’s next? I’m looking at the next eight years now. When I first broke into games I think I had some wildly aspirational dreams of being a game director and getting to make big important single player story-based games. Probably my dreams would have looked like directing a Final Fantasy game or DragonAge or something in that vein. It takes a long time to work your way up to that sort of position, I knew I wasn’t remotely close to being there, and so for a few years I still thought that was the end goal. Get to be the next Neil Druckmann, or something.

But then I got to make Elsinore with my friends, and although it wasn’t some lofty AAA game director role, it was one of those things where you receive notes from people saying the game changed them as people, it made them think, it made them cry, it made them write fanfiction or draw fanart. And when Elsinore released and we started to get those emails, I initially expected to feel like I wanted to do that more, like I wanted to make more games in that fashion. But I realized that I didn’t, necessarily. I think that kind of game is incredible and I still love playing it–I’d even happily work on something like that again–but I think there are newer and more exciting challenges (for me, personally) to solve elsewhere.

I’m interested in how we as an industry can build games for global audiences, especially for people who don’t look or think like us. I’m interested in how to build games that work well on every platform without compromising the core experience. I’m interested in exploring good storytelling and character delivery within the context of a multiplayer game, because I think most multiplayer games have done a pretty bad job of this to date. I’m interested in games which create big, immersive, exciting worlds for players to live in. I’m interested in understanding how production methodologies can drive good or bad results when it comes to game design. I’m interested in understanding how we can build monetization models that work well for developers without leaving players feeling exploited or hurt. There are so many things, I could spend a lifetime exploring them all.

Beyond that, there are other things I want to do. I want to start a YouTube channel in 2020 to help people from all experience levels learn to make games. I want to do more outreach and fundraising for marginalized groups in the industry and find ways to get big companies to financially support these people. I want to help make an industry that is full of all kinds of folks from all kinds of walks of life.

In other words, I’m still really damn excited for the next eight years because the work, as I see it, is not done. And maybe it’ll take another eight more after that, or however long until the work is finished. At the same time, I am also very tired. I have seen and endured some truly awful things. But you know what? I’m not going anywhere. At least, not yet.

Every time I thought I was done making games and I was really leaving the industry, every time I hit rock bottom, a door opened. And when I took the door I found something even better than I’d ever expected. I don’t know how many doors there will be and they may run out eventually but as long as I keep finding them, I feel like I have to open them.

To you, question writer, I can only say this: I’m so sorry about your burnout. I’m so sorry about the bad experience you had. I know what it feels like to be riding the knife’s edge, unsure whether you’re “in” or “out” on the industry, unsure whether making games is really for you or not, unsure where the path will lead you. Only you can make that decision for yourself. Ultimately I think you have to do the thing which is best for your peace of mind, for your personal happiness. I hope you find that happiness, my friend, whatever form it takes for you.

If you do decide you want to stick around, shoot me a message. My door is always open.