The Damaging Realities of Burnout and Self-Harm while Developing a Video Game

As Teragard gets closer to launch, I can’t help but reflect on how brutally destructive and painful the process of game development is. Maybe things would be different if I had a 9-5 job making the game, with a salary and a team of other professionals to spread out the workload. But I didn’t have that. Instead, I had to worry about money and balancing my real job on top of this “side-job” (that doesn’t pay).

I am a one-man indie developer. I came up with every idea, wrote the story and every word of dialog, did a ton of programming, and made most of the graphics. I did everything, and Teragard in particular was an extremely ambitious project to make (more details on that in another blog post), so the entire process was very overwhelming from beginning to end.

No part of making a game is fun or enjoyable

Programming is very tedious– it takes a whole day of work to get a single feature working in the game, and many hours of testing the game and meticulously changing individual variables to get it working the way I wanted it, and bug-free. And yet, after launch, people will inevitably find more bugs. Getting every feature in the game to feel clean, with a good user-interface, and be easy-to-use for the player, are all challenges. And these are overwhelming, exhausting challenges, because games are complex and have many different kinds of features that work together interdependently.

Graphics are excruciatingly difficult for me. There are so many assets that normal people don’t even realize have to get made, like visual effects, battle backgrounds, the font, and just how many character animations there are. I’m not a good pixel artist, and I take every shortcut I can when it comes to graphics because otherwise the game would never get finished, and still I find it an extremely stressful process. It’s frustrating to spend hours and hours learning about pixel art and practicing it, all to have your game’s graphics only looking okay by the time it’s finished. And I say that as someone who has more than a decade of experience making pixel art.

Designing maps and dungeons is really hard. As with the graphics, I’m just not good at designing areas. I don’t think any of the areas in Teragard are ugly or terrible, but they end up being only-okay, just like the graphics, because designing locations simply isn’t a strength of mine. It took me an entire day to make each town in the game, and that’s just what the town looks like, there would still be a lot more work to do when it came to adding non-player-characters who inhabit that environment. Dungeons, also, take an entire day to create.

Writing is one of those things that sounds fun, and words are cheap and can be produced rapidly, but it’s so important (and takes so much time) to revise sentences so that they are error-free and make the most sense to the reader, while also conveying the personality of the character that the player is interacting with. It’s really tough to get right. Beyond that, there are over 150 characters in Teragard, and they all have a name and a schedule and a personality and a life. They don’t just say one thing, they say multiple things, based on where they are and what they’re doing. The script for Teragard is insanely long, and I hope I never again get the idea to make a game with such a large cast. I just didn’t want to have any nameless NPCs who were clones of each other, walking around a town in random directions ad infinitum, saying generic things. I also wanted them to live somewhere, have a relationship with their family members and other people in the town. It took forever and was very frustrating.

Are there really no good moments at all?

Conceiving the idea for a game can be exciting, and so can thinking about the cool features you can create for the player. As things begin to come together after many months of difficult work, that can feel exciting too. I was unable to really feel any excitement as I got near the end, though, because I was exhausted and didn’t want to be working on it anymore. But when so much progress has been made, and my always-open to-do list keeps the end in sight (although the to-do list also highlights exactly how much more work needs to be done, which is constantly discouraging), it’s hard to ever put the project down. At a certain point, I felt that I couldn’t really afford to give up, even though I totally could (and wanted to).

By the way, I should elaborate on just how much time I spent each day making this game. When I mentioned before that certain tasks “took a day,” I literally meant all day. For me, the only way that I’ll ever finish a game, especially one as massive as Teragard, is to work on it for 12 hours a day. And I have to work on it for that long every single day. No breaks, no time off. I did the same thing with my first game, Sojourner, and felt similarly burnt out and hated myself after a few months. But apparently, it’s what I have to put myself through. There are actually quite a few stories in the game design industry at large about absurd hours of unpaid overtime, so the way I treat myself isn’t too different than how some big studios are treating their employees (not that it’s okay).

I made the majority of Teragard during the summer break between my first and second year of grad school. I had been casually working on it for a year prior to that point, making little bits of progress where I could. But while my cohort was getting internships and advancing their careers during the summer, I decided to take the “time off” to work harder than I’ve ever worked at anything in my whole life to try to finish this game. If there was ever a moment that I wasn’t working on it, I would really beat myself up until I got back to it. And despite spending 12 hours on it every day, for the whole summer, I still didn’t finish the game by the time summer ended, because the project was just too massive and ambitious.

By the way, I live in a valley in LA county, and don’t have air-conditioning. Every summer here is miserably hot, especially in the part of town I live in. I was spending these extremely-long days sitting (or standing, thank goodness I built myself a standing desk a while back) in blazing heat, struggling to breathe sometimes. And that was my day-to-day routine.

I gave up everything to try to make this game. I stopped going to the gym, which was really important to me, and I also gave up the most important thing of all: time with friends and family. I could have devoted my whole summer to spending all the time in the world with friends and sharing good experiences and conversations, but more often than not I would opt to isolate myself and become distant, just so I could work on this frustrating, overwhelming game. And because I did that, it weakened my social skills by a large degree, and I would have trouble talking to friends, and would feel uncomfortable around them because my brain just didn’t seem to work anymore. I forgot how to talk to people or act normal.

The process of creating a game made me hate myself. I knew that my last game didn’t sell well and this game wouldn’t either. I knew that Teragard, which is inspired by SNES RPGs that were made more than 20 years ago, wouldn’t be nearly as good as those classics, no matter how much heart, soul, and hard work I put into it. I was even a little worried about white supremacists discovering this game and harassing me online forever (because they are very much the enemy in Teragard and are rightfully vilified in the game).

I gave up career opportunities, time with friends and family, important self-care like going to the gym, so that I could work my ass off for 12-hour days in miserable heat, to make a game that wouldn’t even be as good as the now-ancient games that inspired it, and wouldn’t sell well or earn any money.

Like I said at the beginning, if I had a salaried, 9-5 job where I could go into an office, be around other human beings all day (even if we weren’t always chatting, just being around people), and have the luxury to forget about my day job in the evenings and devote that after-work time to friends/family, that would be really different. But I didn’t have any of that. Being a lone independent developer is the worst thing you could ever do to yourself. That’s been my experience, anyway.

I really hope you enjoy Teragard. I nearly killed myself to create this only-okay game, because that’s what it takes.