This isn’t going to be my typical blog post, in fact, it will likely be one-of-a-kind, as far as my blog goes. I am constantly asked about how I iterate on code and designs so quickly, how I stay motivated, where my inspiration comes from, and things of that nature. I’d like to take this time to touch on those topics. I may rant a bit, and I may swear a few times. If that is something that bothers you severely, please tell me. I will post a clean and strictly informative version, because I think that this is important.
Why you should listen to me
I will start with some background info, for those who do not know me. I am an independent game developer in Seattle, WA, USA. I am an owner and developer at Spaceboy Games. I have both succeeded and failed to launch commercial products on Steam, Humble Bundle, and more. I’ll stick with the positive experiences, upfront.
INK (2015) was my first commercial release. I programmed and designed it under the name ZackBellGames. INK has sold roughly ~100,000 copies to date. This success is what sparked the formation of Spaceboy Games via myself and several mutual Twitter followers. Our company is currently working on two commercial titles.
The first is HackyZack (Aug-Sept 2016), and it will be available in four to six weeks.
The second is Fara & The Eye of Darkness (TBD 2017), a quite ambitious (for a team of our size) JRPG with a card-based, spell-casting system.
Efficiency vs. Morale
What is efficiency and what is morale? The two are similar and often have a strong influence on one another.Efficiency is basically the ratio of total work to useful work. Total work being how much time you put in, and useful work being productive hours where you made visible progress. Morale on the other hand, is simply the amount of enthusiasm or discipline that you have towards work at any given time.
A highly efficient day will boost your morale, and positive morale will make you more efficient. The third part is motivation. Motivation is a lot like morale and is often just an emotion that incites an increase of efficiency, moral or both. This doesn’t necessarily have to be a positive emotion, it just needs to be a passionate emotion that fuels some form of drive. Being happy and excited about starting a new project is a good example. Being afraid of running out of time and/or money can be an equally powerful example.
“How do you iterate on code and design so quickly?”
Until recently, I hadn’t been, and that is why I decided to write this article tonight. It goes in waves based on both my efficiency and morale, and lately, neither have been great. INK was created in three months. That’s three months including the inception of the initial concept, the demo release via itch.io, a period of community feedback, the Steam Greenlight process, the development time of the expanded product, the Steam integration and verification processes, and the final launch via Steam, The Humble Bundle Store, itch.io, and more (on PC, Mac, and Linux).
This significant dip in morale lead to a potentially fatal (for the company) drop in efficiency. I wasn’t producing nearly at the rate that I was used to. Fara is a much more complex project than INK, and has considerable more overhead in terms of communication and team work, but the change in output seemed way too substantial. That is one of the several reasons that the team decided to switch gears and work on HackyZack. Fara is a dream of mine, which also means that Fara deserves the best of me (as does my team). On the flip side, we have HackyZack. I believe in that product as well and I have enjoyed working on it, but HackyZack is therapeutic while Fara is business. HackyZack is a personal project that stems from my relationship with social anxiety. The game deals with topics like mental health and unhealthy attachment to people or ideas (and is presented in a way that is special to me, but doesn’t distract the player from the bright, fast-paced platformer placed in front of them).
Without delving too much into my head, HackyZack is helping to restore my efficiency and morale, and it is doing a wonderful job. HackyZack will have taken roughly three months to complete (similar to INK’s timeline), while having more content and polish than my previous release. From there the team will return to Fara feeling fresh, and optimistically, more financially stable.
The Productivity Budget
For the rest of this entry, I will be talking about ways to recover from a drop in efficiency and morale while discussing rules and practices that I try to follow throughout the course of game development.
The first is the productivity budget. In some professions, the creativity budget may make more sense, but they can be used interchangeably. Everyone has an amount of work that they can put in each day before their productivity begins to tank. This is an abstract, ‘work’, because it doesn’t just apply to your gamedev work. Everything that you do can potentially decrease this value throughout your day. This is where routine becomes important. Assuming the bare minimum of positive morale, a person will be more efficient if they have a routine or multiple routines. It sounds silly, but deciding what to wear, deciding what to eat, and deciding what your down time will consist of has an effect on your budget. This is especially true if you develop in your spare times across multiple chunks of time rather than one large nine-to-five. The most effective people on Earth follow routines. At Spaceboy Games, Sandy and I (and perhaps others) eat the same few meals every day. A more popular example might be the late Steve Jobs tending to wear the same outfit every day (it’s also simple and cheap compared to most individuals with similarly-sized wallets). “It’s just easier to not think about it”.
This one may seem a bit obvious, but it is still often overlooked. The budget mentioned above can tend to carry over into numerous days when depleted beyond reason. This is called burn out. I reduce burn out by doing other things. Having hobbies outside of gamedev can help prevent yourself from overworking, can give you a different perspective when you return to your desk, and can potentially keep your mind and body healthy.
For me, I prefer both an additional creative outlet and a physical form of exercise. Prior to working in games full-time, I played and taught drums full-time. I still do this daily whether it just be small bouts of practice or larger gigs at local bars or venues. As far as physical fitness goes, I hate monotonous cardio (some people find it meditative). I am big on power-lifting and bodybuilding. I typically cycle two nights on and one night off at my gym. The owner allows members to have a key, so that I am able to lift at 1-4AM when I am done working for the day.
The 33-33-33 Rule
This is a simple rule that I use to provide balance in my life in terms of the type of people that I spend my time with. The people that you let into your life have an enormous impact on everything that I have discussed so far.
I apologize, but I am unable to cite this idea. It was shared with me a few years ago, and has stuck with me. The 33-33-33 Rule states that you should surround yourself equally with people from three different groups. 1) 33% people whom are currently below you. You will teach and better those people. 2) 33% people on your level. Be present to challenge and push each other. 3) 33% people that are above you. You are their group one and they should be happy to teach you and pull you up to their level.
It is not a science, but just be aware of who you hang around with. Being the weakest person in the room means that you are also the person with the most potential for growth.
Five Closest Colleagues
This isn’t as much of a rule as it is just something to keep in mind. I first heard about this idea while listening to the Tim Ferriss podcast. Tim has several discussions on his blog about efficiency, morale, and living a stoic lifestyle (essentially just preventing emotion from interfering with productivity).
In short, the belief is that each individual is simply a combination of the five people that they spend the most time communicating with. This seems simple at first, but it actually spreads out into a complex web. I am made up of five friends who are also made up of five friends, etc, etc. If you work with people with low efficiency and you work with people who tend to have a negative morale, it is likely to rub off on you. When your friend becomes toxic or you notice that your friends’ friends become toxic, consider a change. It could save you both time and sanity.
“Trim The Fat”
I think I’ll end with this, as it somewhat relates to the previous point. I took too long to recognize the things that cluttered my brain, slowed me down, and churned up unhealthy emotions. If someone or something is having an undesired effect on your work, your games, and your life, trim the fat. Get rid of them. There 7 billion people on this planet. I guarantee that someone else will fit nicely into their place.
When following the 33-33-33 rule, remember that the people in group one are “below you”, but only because they aren’t as far along on the timeline. This doesn’t mean lazy or uninspired people. These are still hardworking people who have drive, but just haven’t been doing this as long. Lift them up and show gratitude for how far you have come.
If your mind is cloudy and you’re constantly stuck in a cycle of anxiety and poor thought, consider a 5-minute-journal. This was also coined by Tim Ferriss to deflect what he calls “the monkey mind”. When you write things down (both in the morning and at night), you acknowledge them and free yourself of them temporarily. Get it out of your system so that you don’t sit and dwell in these thoughts all day. Trim the fat. Prefer efficiency and a positive morale over holding onto toxicity.
I have always wanted to do this type of writing, and this in itself has helped me heal and push through the slog that I put myself in. Together with HackyZack development, I know that I will be able to push myself to my limits and create the best version of Fara that I can, and deliver it to all of you.
Thank you for reading,