“Developer Fatigue & Burnout – How to Cope?” (A GCS Special!)
Developer fatigue is no laughing matter. In fact, next to funding issues I’d say it’s the second major reason that a plethora of projects (fan-made all the way to AAA) don’t see the light of day. Over the years, I’ve seen a ton of fan-games and indie games that looked exceptionally promising (and even had public demos released to entice you in and leave you begging for more) that fell off the planet. Sometimes, they announced their goodbyes, citing problems with finding time to work on the game or the funds to continue, or in some cases saying they no longer had the will to press on. Yet, other times these games just vanish into the digital ether never to be heard of again. It’s sad, but this is the fate of many games.
Obviously, with the tools to design games being easy for anyone to get to, a huge volume of people have been able to get into the development game, whether as hobbyists or professionals. Yet, statistically, this means that there are (by volume) more and more people and projects that get burned out and never reach completion. Why, though, does this keep happening?
One thing to keep in mind when observing the development world from the outside is that playing a game and building a game are two totally different things. It’s easy to think that if you were the one building the newest Super Mario game that you’d have a blast doing so. And hey, you might be right. At the same time, though, when you become consumed by the project, spending hours and hours correcting minute bugs and working on redundant tasks that are necessary to complete the game, by the time you come down to play-testing the same area for the 1,000th time, you may be so burned out on the idea of the project that the very last thing you want to do is play a Mario game. You’re sick and tired of it, and you no longer have the will to continue. This happens to a lot of people, and I’d almost equate it in some ways to a writer’s block type of thing. You can finally reach a point of fatigue where the creative juices stop flowing, your willpower to finish the tasks at hand reach an all-time low, and it’s very tempting to just throw in the towel and move on.
After all, only a handful of people know you are working on this game in the first place, right? So why would they care if you just packed up shop and moved on. You don’t owe them a darn thing, after all.
I’ve been working on Zelda: Sword of Moria since back in the fall of 2014. It’s closing in on close to a year now and of course there were times when I felt like throwing in the towel and giving up on the whole affair. In fact, this idea has crept into my mind a bit recently and has since become the inspiration for this post. See, after finishing the third major dungeon of the game and thinking about all the stuff I have yet to do with the game, I started to get a bit panicky about whether or not I’d truly be able to finish this project since this is mostly a one-person show at this time. The scope of the project is vast, and I began to wonder if it was perhaps too vast.
One thing that is important to realize is that there’s no reason for you to rush something out the door just to say that you finished it. Yes, some people may be developing a game they intend to sell, and if there are investors (e.g. KickStarter supporters) involved, then that is a different matter, but for most of us who are doing this for fun (for now, at least), there’s no reason to force half-cocked products out the door. Sometimes, what’s needed is a mental break from the project. This isn’t to say that you should abandon it altogether and just move on, but rather, that sometimes taking a bit of time away from something helps reinvigorate you and give you a bunch more ideas to bring to life when you get back to the project. This could be just stepping away for a few days or it could mean taking a few months off after your next demo release gets launched. The point is, you shouldn’t force yourself to do something out of an obligation. This should be fun, too, and if you cannot have fun doing it, most of the time that will be reflected in your work. It might become sloppy and rushed and just not reflective of your overall talents.
One solution I came up with that I think is going to help me with Zelda: Sword of Moria is instead of having major public “Demos” that I periodically release, I might instead call them “Episodes.” Honestly, this is essentially a game of semantics, but at the core, if I entitle a release as, say, “Zelda: Sword of Moria – Episode I,” this feels more like a significant product release than a rough “demo” of the game. It solves the dilemma of wanting to rush the game out the door because “all I have out there currently are demos.” However, this also makes it to where I want to make sure an “Episode” is polished and can stand on its own as a release. The word “Episode” implies that this is a game in its own right, even if it is part of a longer journey. As such, I as a player expect it to have an “end” that can be reached and overall have a professional level of polish to the whole thing. That’s the trade off of using that term rather than “Demo.”
There’s also another benefit, the dreaded what-if: “What if I release Episode I and then never return to the project?” Having a full, stand-alone episode out there at least gives the player an experience of traveling from A to B. In my case, if all that was released of Sword of Moria was the first episode, with the way I have it planned out (more on that soon), you’d still have several hours of gameplay to enjoy, a very large overworld to explore, and five dungeons to slog through. Sure, at the end things would “wrap up” with more of a season-finale style cliffhanger, but at least you’d have something that you could say you played through and finished (or “completed” if you hunted down all the optional items and upgrades). And, in the event of an Episode II, Episode II would contain all of the first episode plus all new content, so you could just load up your save-file and continue with the game!
So, if I go ahead with this break down of the game, how would I personally divide Zelda: Sword of Moria into professional, episodic releases? Well, let’s try something like this:
- In the first episode, players will explore Death Mountain and most all of Calatia on a quest to find Princess Zelda, learn more about the shadow Link, and track down the three Mysterious Fragments that seem to have caught the attention of some no-good types. Once all three Fragments have been obtained, Link will be summoned to Calatia Royal Palace where the Queen will inform him that Jerik (a man claiming to have been a prisoner at Eldin Shrine along with the princess) betrayed them and kidnapped Zelda, apparently taking her to the ruined kingdom of Moria, across the western hills. Obviously, the Hero will need to travel to Moria to figure out what is going on, and that’ll be part of…
- Episode 2 will involve Link’s journey through the Great Desert and to the ruined kingdom of Moria. He will learn that after the collapse of the old kingdom, the people of Moria moved to a desert oasis and founded Moria Fortress. Jerik is in fact the brother of the current Lord of Moria and is leading a group of fanatics called the “True Morians” who believe in restoring their lost kingdom and conquering all of the Western and Eastern Hylia continents. Zelda is just a means to lure Link to Moria Castle, which sits on the remains of Sealed Grounds. The Mysterious Fragments are part of a broken sword of the demon king Demise. Their power breaks an ancient seal in the Grounds and releases the demon king’s spirit on the world once again. Zelda gets saved, but the world is in great danger. Ganon, who was an avatar of sorts of Demise, only had a fraction of the demon’s true potential, and this adversary will be one that Link will need great power to defeat.
- In Episode 3, Link will find the Master Sword deep in the Lost Woods of Old Hyrule. Yet, Demise’s presence in the world will have drained all the power from the blade. Yet, hope isn’t lost: the player will need to seek out six Vessels of Light that contain the blessings of the gods and take them to a special shrine where the magic of the gods can infuse it with a greater power than it has ever held.
- Finally, the final chapter will involve Link traveling to the Demon King’s lair and sealing him away for good in an epic battle.
Sounds pretty cool, right? But yep, that’s just a working concept. Episode I would be close to being finished in this style, but there’s still a lot more to go if I continue with 2, 3, and 4.
Anyway, I hope this article gave you some things to think about. I know that fatigue is a powerful killer of many projects, but it’s one that there are ways to see the light at the end of the tunnel for. I definitely think creating attainable goals is a good start, taking baby steps that you can manage in order to get a much larger project finished.
Well, next week, things will be turned back over to Warren, who I hear has a very interesting article coming up regarding some of his own thoughts that have occurred to him while working with RPG Maker XP!