I’m going to write about what it’s been like making Bindstone from a personal perspective. My hope with this article/personal journey is to simply breathe out into the universe. Maybe it connects with others doing similar work. Maybe it is just an interesting introspective that captures your interest for a moment.
For me, it is a way of organizing my thoughts and emotions. In that way this article may read more like a journal.
I don’t know how to describe the way I feel about my game, but I will try. I feel a lot of things at once, it’s a jumble of emotions I battle with day and night. I feel immense joy and pride when I think about my game. Imagining myself doing anything else professionally is impossible. It’s hard not to get worked up and near tears when I think about what Bindstone means to me.
I imagine it sounds weird reading this.
Growing up I didn’t think I could ever make a game. At first, because it never occurred to me. Later because I did not think I could ever be good enough to compete seriously in the industry. I always held myself back. I never let myself think I could be at the top of my field so I didn’t try…
Every day I wake up at the same time as Michael and travel into Santa Monica with him on the way to work. I don’t actually have a job in his office, instead I go and work on Bindstone in a co-working space a block away for 8 hours. I didn’t always have a co-working space, I used to work in coffee shops. Before that I would stream at home, and before that, quiet contemplation with music and my thoughts. My work space has evolved over time, each location gave me something the one before did not.
Now that I’ve been working for three and a half years making a game, I’ve reluctantly, on some days, started to believe I can make it great and even be a world class game artist.
I have a lot of doubts though. Often I feel I am unable to do my game justice and I feel doubt about my work. How it is turning out visually, how long it is taking, and the process by which I complete it. To compete with these doubts I have had to teach myself coping mechanisms for handling the pressures of working alone on a large scale project.
I’ve found consolation in hearing about how long it takes for larger studios to produce a game, even a mobile title. I’ve found a couple of talks given by other developers that have helped me get through tough times. I’ve even set up an indie game jam group which meets monthly in our home to embrace the existing community of developers travelling this same path (our members are some of my favorite people).
Ultimately, however, I’ve made peace with the fact that there aren’t a lot of people in my life that will ever really be able to understand the work I do. I have very supportive friends and family, but it’s hard to communicate the daily effort that goes into this project in a way that translates well.
Working on a two man indie team is like building a house, but more than that. It is like being the architect, construction worker, electrician, plumber, carpenter, roofer, home decorator, and realtor all at once. Even then it feels like there is an enormity to this that just makes a person’s eyes glaze over. Communicating the scope is difficult, and presenting partial work to an audience who is used to seeing only a finished product is thankless. There is very little payoff in showing a 50% complete piece of artwork or a half done game.
The hard part with Bindstone in particular is that showing partially complete work to people just isn’t as exciting as a finished piece, and the map I’m working on is huge. It’s not as fun presenting it to a friend and then immediately having to explain that this isn’t the finished result. It’s isolating work because it isn’t immediately digestible, it is part of something larger that I have to hope will come together the way I have in my head.
It is primarily in this difficulty of sharing works in progress that long term indie projects are isolating. Most of a game project in general is in this unfinished stage. A few ways of sharing early work involve fun videos, teasers, and articles about the process, but these take precious time away from the game and there are long periods of time where the progress is incremental and not directly accessible without extensive context.
This is why very wise advice often given is to be able to demo an early prototype of your gameplay as soon as possible. Having an early demo would be extremely liberating, but not all games are easy to make a representative demo of in a short time-frame. With this said, in doing deep and difficult work, sometimes it just takes time and there aren’t always shortcuts you can take while maintaining the integrity of the project’s vision.
Quick prototypes are good, but consider there are over 500 games submitted to the app store every single day. The market is matured and becoming saturated, and it is my belief that quality matters more now than ever. There is value in travelling off the beaten path and forging your own. There is value in ignoring well worn advice when you have conviction and reason to follow your own vision.
With the glut of new indie titles being released every second; another platform-mechanic driven pixel style romp is going to really need something unique to it in order to drive interest. There is nothing wrong with building a game for Ludam Dare and then spending several months polishing and expanding on that game, I am just saying it is not the only path to success.
We spent over a month working on making pretty waterfalls. Maybe this adds value? Maybe this is my ego trying to justify sunk cost? Regardless, it weighs on me as I move forward and yet I can’t stop. I need to follow the path I have chosen because I believe in it. Despite my existential questions, I feel like every step has been a necessary one.
I try my best every day; and every week; and every month. My best fluctuates a little day to day, but the effort does not. I have come to appreciate how important it is to balance the internal pressures and commitments I hold myself to so that my mental health does not decline through this whole process. I’ve worked normal jobs in the past; where you put in your time and leave work at the end of the day.
Bindstone is a lifestyle.
I keep running into steps I didn’t even know existed and it makes it hard to estimate what’s left. I keep asking myself why I can’t work faster? Why can’t I work more hours?
And yet, I have worked faster, I have worked more hours. Compared to earlier in the project I’ve increased my capacity to put in meaningful work on a daily basis by every measure.
It hasn’t been a straight path. This project has seen me through two major moves and several swings in productivity. To be honest, right now, the reason I felt like writing this article is because I fear I’m on a downswing and it’s always during these times that I most strongly feel the need to reach out to others to understand the pressure of the work.
Starting this project I was optimistic and young. I threw myself into a move to a new country and the start of a new way of life with wide-eyed unsustainable enthusiasm.
A year later I found myself unable to crawl through even a few consecutive hours of productive effort. I was crushed by my own ambitions to the point of burnout for months. Moving to Santa Monica occurred during one of my lowest points of emotional well being in my life. It was hard and uncomfortable and grueling. The pressure I felt daily was like gravity multiplied, and being unable to rise to my own challenge was heartbreaking.
Something inside of me snapped on shortly after the move, like a light bulb. Not emotionally positive, but I shut my emotions down and my brain off and just became a machine. The only thing that gave me any sense of self was work. I didn’t think of playing games, I couldn’t imagine reading books. I didn’t know what else to do so I just sat and worked. I was depressed. I was productive.
This gave way to a healthier calm.
I know myself a little better now, and I won’t burn out so severely again. I am kinder to myself and more patient. I still struggle to bat down perfectionism, but I am better at it. I still have slower periods, but I have learned to care for myself during those times a lot better. I am not perfect, I don’t have all the answers, I stumble from time to time; but I’m learning as I go.
Michael always asks how I feel about the work I’m doing. It’s a good question worth thinking about. Overall I feel good about the work I’m doing after it is done. This is not always the same way I feel about it while I am working on it!
Every time I encounter a new task, I seem to go through the same series of emotional events:
- Get excited about new work!
- Start the task.
- Get frustrated that I don’t know how to do the task.
- Feel insecure about my inability to do the task, I should be able to do this naturally, right?
- Doubt my ability to ever get the task done.
- Get depressed and waste away self-loathing because my entire self worth is wrapped up in my ability to make pretty art.
- Pass out exhausted at the end of the day.
- Come back fresh the next day with no expectations for success.
- Finish a beautiful day’s work!
Every. Single. Time.
Michael says that most of these steps are unnecessary and that if they are skipped I will be happier. If only.
While this process itself may sound soul-crushing, little victories are frequently available. Hitting milestones feels good.
When faced with the monolithic task that Bindstone seems to be, smaller victories can feel kind of meaningless. Celebrating a milestone, but knowing there are 10 more milestones before the game is ready to demo is a weird feeling. It kind of makes the small victories feel emotionally hollow, which is a bit like feeling depressed but trying to smile. If I were to set my relationship status to Bindstone on Facebook it would be “complicated.”
One of the things Michael and I both agree about is that uncertainty is the killer of forward momentum. Procrastination is a symptom of uncertainty.
When I am stuck, the way forward always involves eliminating ambiguity in each step of the creation process. The quicker you can create a solid repeatable low-friction pipeline to go from concept to completion for a particular type of asset, the more confident you can be that it will work and look good in the game. This also makes it a lot easier to be excited about the work.
I feel like I’m making indie game development sound extremely unhealthy. I don’t feel like it has to be. It’s just that there isn’t very good formal training in how to manage multi-year projects on your own. I don’t think there can be good formal training for it either, but I think there’s something beautiful about there not being a single track to success.
With that said, I want to share some of the things that have helped me out through this whole process. One of the most important things I do now is stick to a routine. I put myself in environments where I feel accountable to work.
It feels downright awkward to pack up your bag every day and go to a coffee shop, get the wifi password plugged in, and dick off. Getting a co-working space is like multiplying that by two since you are surrounded by other people head down doing their thing as well. The routine of getting out into the world and sitting and paying for your space at the desk in a public space is enough to keep me working all day.
If I opt to stay home I engage in streaming. If taking up space in a coffee shop or office and dicking off feels awkward; it is multiplied 10 fold by having people literally watching my monitor and my face while I draw. It’s hard not to stay on task. Not all tasks are easily streamed, however, sometimes a task feels so long and boring or might take multiple days, require backtracking, or requires contemplation. There is also the innate social aspect of streaming which can actually be counter productive when misdirected. All of those cases can get in the way of the work and make it an imperfect option, but a good fallback in some situations.
I now recognize the value of taking a break. If I find my focus slipping and my attention wandering then I let myself actually rest. This is different from mousing over to social media and wasting time while feeling guilty about not working. Actually shutting your work down and reading a book or catching up with a friend for a few minutes makes all the difference. Finding an enjoyable task to do during a break is key.
The last major take-away for managing long projects is actually managing your own emotional well-being. Treat yourself, now and then, to a night out, new clothes, decorate your house, clean your work space. Groom yourself, get a haircut, keep up with friends when you feel the urge to. Your enthusiasm for the project is a resource more valuable than money, and burning your candle from both ends does not pay off when working on something for months or years at a time.
Many of the lessons I’ve learned will ease the difficulty of future projects, this just happens to be my first deep project. It is deep in time and deep in personal meaning. This is a project that has changed me.
With all of these victories, and difficulties with the work itself, personal image and concept of worth are equally important to address and consider when discussing life-encompassing work.
Because I jumped straight from school into indie development I feel like people in my life might view me as lazy and without a job. Despite my tremendous efforts on Bindstone, Bindstone is unreleased and isn’t paying any bills. There have been times where someone asks where I work and I feel like that lack of recognition means I am not taken seriously.
I feel like if I worked for a well known company some of these existential feelings might be lessened. My perception of how other people view me professionally would be improved if I had some brand recognition behind my endeavor. If I worked for Blizzard or Riot there would be a certain “nerd cred” I could lean on.
We are currently funded by Michael’s work in the games industry, and so, for tax reasons I am a dependent. It is undermining to put in more than full time hours into a project with no immediate payoff and very little peer validation. The hope is that it does pay off, but this is another thing I must constantly tell myself.
I’m not sure how much of this is internalized doubt, and how much is genuinely felt by others in my life. I feel like it’s more in my head, but a lot of these insecurities drive me to be a bit of a hermit. I don’t communicate often and I feel like I need to impress when I do. Sometimes it means I take a while to reach out to people I deeply care about because I am uncomfortable responding to questions about my game with “I’m still working on the map.”
It’s definitely worth it, though. I love the creative freedom I currently have, I would not give that up. There’s a lot of pride in being a solo artist on a large project developed end to end without assistance as well. I want to genuinely surprise people when they find out only two people created Bindstone. I want to compete with larger studios without apology or reservation.
Being independent on an unreleased title has drawbacks other than perception when it comes to efficiency and feedback. As the only artist on Bindstone I’m constantly learning.
I have to teach myself each individual step. I have to balance learning with productivity and keep momentum even as I am doing things I’ve never done before. I have to do each step, concept to completion, where larger teams can afford to have individuals working in parallel on different parts of production. I have to do this with minimal peer review which means it’s harder to be certain I’m on the right track.
I’m certain that some of the methods I’ve developed to create my assets are inefficient. It’s easier to spot potential workflow improvements when working with peers. Sometimes it’s better to do something slowly in a way you know will work than it is to invest a week in something that may or may not pay off. It’s not always possible to know if a little more investigation up front could yield time savings, or if it is just going to stall progress.
Knowing this is a bit of an emotional struggle because it means I feel self conscious about sharing my work, even when I’m proud of the result. I worry I work too slowly to justify the outcome and might feel exposed when I share a creative process that could appear idiotic to someone with more experience.
Despite all of these competing emotions, it’s more productive to have fun with your work, and find ways to be happy. It comes out better and faster when you aren’t constantly bogged down by doubt. So despite all of the pitfalls, the best way to work is to loosen up and let go. This is something I actively struggle with. Yes I recognize the irony in struggling to let go and relax.
Michael has told me to be more zen.
There’s a weird sort of procrastination that afflicts many young developers. It is the concept of having a side project with which you can be less constrained by the serious issues you’ve encountered on your main project.
If you feel like your main project is becoming a grind, it can be tempting to just start a new project with this strange cognitive dissonance that if one project was hard, maybe having two will be easier! The problem with a second project is, they always start easy, but the difficult problems with time and scale will crop up and the cycle will repeat. It’s harmless to spend a weekend participating in Ludam Dare, this is more about mindfulness about a cycle of project hopping.
We’ve flirted with small projects, but have ultimately decided to focus 100% of our efforts on Bindstone and I am grateful for that decision.
It was tempting to start a small project for a time, though because I was lamenting about the difficult art style I chose for Bindstone. It was tempting to jump into a smaller pixel style game which could be theoretically banged out in a much quicker time frame.
This leads into a good discussion about limitations. I feel like I am not time-efficient at the style I have chosen for Bindstone and other artists could do it faster and more effortlessly. The trap of this sort of thinking is that there is always greater talent in the world and I am actually totally correct. The difference between success and failure is often not raw ability, but the grit to see something through.
I don’t regret selecting my style, but the decision I made early on has long reaching consequences. I have grown tremendously as an artist, but I chose a look I was incapable of achieving when I made the decision. I jumped into the deep end without knowing how to swim and I’ve been learning how to ever since.
The long term payoff will be tremendous, and hopefully the style resonates with more people and benefits the project. It was not without hardship.
There’s a talk by Jonathan Blow that really resonates with me and helps me through hard times. At one point he says, you just need to trust your creativity and let the game go where it’s going to go. In this I have found a calm that I really couldn’t before. So, I’ve actually become able to reduce my anxiety during this tedious part and just trust myself to do this game justice.
I know that a lot of what I’ve written seems dramatic but this is an honest description of how I feel quite a bit of the time.
My game seeps into every aspect of my life and dictates how I feel from day to day. I’ve had to develop skills in order to handle the stress of a multi-year game independently. The differences between working in a structured school environment with discrete assignments to working as a full time indie developer on a single project took me a couple years to get used to. It took time to develop effective non-due-date based working habits and to find a rhythm with which I could steadily produce work.
When I have frustrated moments and find myself telling Michael I’m going to quit he’ll laugh playfully.
He tells me, “You say this, but you’re not capable of quitting.” And he’s right. I can’t.
My bluff is called. My audible groan is the only response I can muster before I sit down and start painting again.
That’s basically it. That is all I have to say about game development.
Does this speak to you? Let me know in the comments.
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