The Flow Path: How I beat burnout and started having fun making games again

This is a response to my post Mistakes Were Made, which covered some of the missteps I made while releasing my first title, Contract Work. I was surprised how many developers this resonated with (thanks for your kind feedback, everyone!). Since a few have asked what I’m doing differently now, I’ve been working on some follow-ups posts.

There are tactical/marketing things that I’d like to share, but this post focuses on what’s been helping me on the emotional/mental side. I will introduce some new/somewhat unproven concepts, so I understand if you choose to TLDR; please take these words with a grain of salt and a dash of patience.


It was the end of September 2013, and I had spent the entire year creating and releasing my first indie game ‘Contract Work’. I had also finished two expensive ad campaigns; one to drive reviews, the other to build Facebook presence. I logged into Paypal for the umpteenth time to check the net return of my effort & investment. 3 copies sold over 2 months. It was a crushing moment, when I saw the full size of the re-work iceberg. Tired and discouraged, I walked away; it was the last time I touched the code for 4 months.

Our ‘Death March’

I really enjoyed Benjamin Quinteros post on crunch. He talks about the work-hard-or-get-out culture of the games industry:

There is too much at stake as each person on the team takes the world on their shoulders.  If everyone isn’t working to their fullest potential (translated to some ratio of a 24 hour clock) then clearly that is the point of failure.

He’s speaking as a member of a studio team, but the same struggle applies to indies (maybe more so). You put yourself under relentless pressure to work more, and when things aren’t working, you blame it on your lack of effort. If only you’d tried harder, slept less and ignored more of your friends – then you would have succeeded. Promises made during an optimistic Kickstarter campaign added to my weight. I told my backers that I would release in the game next month, and I can’t let them down. But the thing I learned is that my game – and my life – only started to improve when I allowed myself to step back and rebalance my priorities.

Know Thyself – Understanding Flow

During my time away, I stumbled upon the book, “The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance” by Steven Kotler (I’m sharing a couple concepts from it, but it’s worth your time to read the whole). The central theme is ‘flow’, described (from Wikipedia) as ‘The mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity’.

It’s likely you are already familiar with flow. You could probably recall at least one time when you were so immersed in work or an activity that you completely forgot yourself and all perception of time (flow actually shuts down these areas of your brain off for max efficiency). Accessing this state allows us to become, in Kolters words, ‘Supermen’:

“Researchers believe flow responsible for most athletic triumphs, major scientific breakthroughs and significant progress in the arts. In business, a ten-year McKinsey study found executives in flow five times more productive than their steady state peers.”

In conjunction with enhancing productivity, flow produces chemicals in the brain (dopamine, anandamide, seratonin) that makes us feel really good (How good? One of the primary effects of cocaine is increased production and hindered absorption of dopamine). Flow makes us more productive, more creative and happier. So naturally we should just be in flow ALL THE TIME, right? Not quite…

Understanding the Flow Cycle

According to the research Kotler has put together, flow operates as a cycle in four stages.

  • The first stage is struggle, where you build up (extrinsically and intrinsically) information.
  • The second stage is release, which preps the brain for flow by severing prior thought and emotional patterns.
  • The third stage is flow itself.
  • The fourth stage is recovery, where the body replenishes and the brain absorbs the new memories from flow.

You can’t stay in flow permanently – flow literally drains us to the point where we have to recover. The harder we force ourselves back into flow (when we should be in recovery), the harder it becomes to achieve.

“In today’s world, rarely do we give ourselves permission to recover; rarely does anyone else. Finish one project and there are always a dozen more deadlines to be met…If we want to flow from cycle to cycle, we need to take full advantage of recovery to regroup and recharge…you have to go slow to go fast.”

Without the time to release/recover, we short-circuit the cycle; the longer we sustain the forced march (crunch), the less time we spend in flow. The less time we spend in flow, the less happy and productive we become. We drift straight into the unhappy cycle that ends in burnout.

Going with the Flow

The good news is that we can stop this spiral and get ourselves back to flow. Kotler suggests simple hacks for the flow cycle:

  • For struggle, novel/new stimuli help prime the brain to take in information; things as simple as brushing your teeth with your off hand or taking a different route to work.
  • For release, doing something completely different than the task at hand makes it easier for the brain to move into flow, such as taking a walk or watching a movie.
  • For recovery, taking a short nap is a great way to speed up the cycle.

If I may phrase it more simply – live the rest of your life. Find new things that excite you – try a new restaurant, start playing a sport, travel to unknown locations. Take some time during your day to read a book, play a game or watch a funny clip. Nap when you’re exhausted. Worry less about  ‘trying’ hard enough – flow is a powerful intrinsic motivator and will naturally draw you back into your work. Understand the time you take off is as important as the time you put in.

The Path Back

I’m certainly no scientific authority on flow and I can’t guarantee results from this advice. But I can tell you that I discovered, quite by accident, that taking time to recover and learn was exactly what I needed. I spent my hiatus reading, re-connecting with long neglected friends, playing some new games (Risk of Rain being a great inspiration) and spent a week in the Dominican Republic learning to surf and hand-fish in the ocean.

When I returned to Contract Work again, I felt a similar excitement as when I first started. Design choices, coding, art…everything felt easier. Development no longer felt like a burden, but (once again) an opportunity to make something amazing.

It’s still a struggle for me to keep myself in flow and out of crunch, but I’m working to be better at it; I take little breaks during my work cycles to clear my mind, I’ll give myself a day off on weekends to watch a movie and try a new restaurant, and I schedule big chunks of un-interrupted time so I can enjoy the hell out of my time in flow.

I don’t know if Contract Work will ever be the game I dream it can be, but the passion and the love has returned to my work. There’s no longer any need to lie when I say “I’m living the dream”.

The difference a little time off can make – transforming .gif of the Contract Work release and the in-development Contract Work: First Day


Mistakes Were Made

After the Kickstarter Lights Go Out

It’s been about a year since the Contract Work Kickstarter and while things are good, they aren’t exactly what I hoped. Let me say first that I’m incredibly fortunate to be where I’m at right now: A successful Kickstarter campaign completed, good health, a stable job, and a great circle of friends; it’s more than a lot of people have and more than I probably deserve.

With that said, there’s definitely some disappointment – Contract Work barely sold any copies, received mixed reviews (at best) and I’m back in the cubes instead of being the next indie gaming success story. Mistakes were definitely made – here’s my short list.

Not Making a Great Product

I’ve worked long enough in software to understand that it won’t be perfect; shipping a product is hard enough. But Contract Work utterly failed the ‘Is this game worth your time?’ test. Things that I really screwed up on:

1. Art & Style

I’m not a great artist, which from the beginning meant that I should have been smarter about the Contract Work art. At some point I tried to transition away from pixel art to taking advantage of my 3d rendering knowledge, but I didn’t finish the transition. I also brought in some outside assets to help fill some gaps. Take a look at this screen:

DivX Plus Player 2013-07-20 12-36-53-59

The security stations are in a pixel art style. The enemies are 3d renders. The floor tiles are outside assets. There are multiple types of disjointed lighting effects. There is so much text on the screen! As Adam Smith from RockPaperShotgun writes:

The graphics, taken as a whole, lack character, even if some of the robot designs are attractive in isolation. It’s all too busy, which added to my initial sense of disorientation and difficulty. The screen presents too much information, the camera is a little too close, and the character feels beset from all sides, even before the real action begins.

What I needed to do was clean everything up, take more time to establish a consistent style, then make sure that style was used in every part of the game. It retrospect, it was a hot mess.

2. Complexity Over Polish

This is a personal bad habit: making things too complex. In this case, my desire to provide enough ‘feature flair’ caused me to end up with many half baked features and not enough refined systems. As Michael Westgarth from IndieGameHQ writes:

Citing Contra as an inspiration, it then seems odd that Kee-Won Hong has gone for a more complicated control scheme. The A and D keys move the player left and right, S lets players drop through specific platforms, W jumps and double jumps, R reloads, Q switches weapon, the shift key must be held to sprint and E is held down to hack. This is all carried out while aiming and shooting with the mouse. If Contract Work’s control scheme sounds cumbersome, that’s because it is.

And he’s right! Somewhere along the line, a simple side scroller grew into this mess of keys and controls. Perhaps Steve Jobs said it best: “Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple”. And I don’t think I worked hard enough.

3. It’s boring

The dreaded b-word. I don’t know if there’s an easy fix, but the answer isn’t to add more features! For Contract Work, I think the answer may lie in ‘juiciness’ – making every jump, shot and movement feel good. If you want an example of a game that does this well, check out Towerfall. These guys also do a pretty good job showing how juiciness makes a game better: Juice it or Lose It!

The Business Things

For the past almost 10 years I’ve been building software, but I’m totally new and awful at selling it! Here’s just a couple things I did badly:

4. Demo zzzzz

To start playing you have to register an account (booo!). Then you get to play the ‘demo mode’, which starts with the training level and sloow basic levels…not a good way to sell the excitement and mystery of the full product.

5. Why should I buy? How do I buy?

Contract Work’s demo mode is also too long. Based on the stats, lots of people have played Contract Work, but not many choose to buy it. So besides the previous ‘bad product’ issues, playing the whole demo satiates or bores players. Also not helping – the buy process is only through Paypal, which isn’t everyones cup of tea.

6. Unsocial Media

Until very recently, I had about zero understanding about how to use social media to build real fans. What I did instead was throw a decent amount of money to purchase a lot of likes…of people that weren’t that interested in the game. My social media was fake marketing, and I got fake engagement in return.

7. The Personal

I’m can’t capture it all here, but Jan-Jun 2013 were some of the toughest months of my life. I know there’s no perfect time to start your dream (I was laid off in Jan of 2013), but I was definitely not in the best financial situation when I started. Straight after that I made a month long, $5000 bet on myself that left me utterly exhausted physically and mentally (I lost over 10 lbs over the course of my Kickstarter). Which doesn’t mean that it wasn’t an awesome experience! I’m still deeply grateful to everyone who helped me (seriously, thanks forever backers!). But I lived in a state of almost constant anxiety for 4-5 months, which eventually started causing small panic attacks. Even with friends all around me, it was one of the loneliest times I can remember. It’s hard to be creative when you’re that scared…a lot of the fear was manufactured, but it began negatively impacting development. Things that should have been simplified, re-done or thrown out were kept because I felt I couldn’t afford the time or effort to make the change. Which is exactly what the game actually needed – some time for me to step back and re-assess, experiment, simplify and polish.

Continuing Forward

In retrospect I was tremendously lucky. Lucky to get funded. Lucky to find work that kept me afloat, lucky to have a great network that continues to support me, lucky to have a second chance to do at something I love doing. Hardly anyone finds that much luck! I now have the luxury to continue my updates to Contract Work without constantly worrying about where rent is going to come from, and I think it’s helped. I have time to fail and learn from the failures. Time to do crazy experiments. Time to learn and connect. Time to understand myself better. My final thought is this: becoming a great artist or businessman takes great patience, effort and failure; you have to be willing for all of them.

Announcing Contract Work: First Day

First Day is the demo of the upcoming major Contract Work re-design. First Day is a short-form experience, designed to allow you to play it painlessly and to let me to make quick updates and design changes. I’ll be releasing more information on First Day soon. Thanks for reading!