Burn-out, in shortest possible, is a state of physical and mental exhaustion. Is is caused by too much work and stress, and not enough rest and sleep. It can lead to severe health problems, with the smallest one being clinical depression. Apparently, it is very common in game development professions.
I started working on Rick Henderson And The Artifact Of Gods a year and a half ago. First, everything was going fine. Fueled by passion and motivation, i stayed late many nights and used weekends to recover from that maniacal tempo. Then the weekends weren’t enough. I started barely waking up and functioning very lousy. Eating too much to get energy, drinking too much coffee. Quality of work started to fall, and it took me more and more time to finish stuff. My concentration was going down. I got frustrated when i simply couldn’t stay up anymore because i lacked energy. When i did stay up, it was a torture of mind and body with work quality falling down even more. Depression started to creep in. A vicious circle of guilt and exhaustion that ultimately led to a month pause during which i couldn’t even look at my game. After one big and one smaller burnout (the other one was a reminder) i experienced, i learned a good lesson. Making a game is not a 100 meters sprint of passion, it is a 42 kilometer marathon that requires perseverance, determination and motivation. To stay determined and motivated we need to take care of our bodies and minds. Typical, a bit satirized, representation of a programmer is a skinny or a fat bold guy with glasses and a generally neglected appearance (stubble, lousy wardrobe and so on).
Turns out, there’s a grain of truth in every joke. This type of work takes an enormous amount of time and while not physically demanding it DOES impact the body, and with it the mind enormously. I am determined to avoid burnouts in the future, and here is what i can recommend to you to avoid them too.
Developing games can be addictive, especially when you get into The Flow (or in the zone, as it is sometimes referred to). As i already have a full-time job and family, the flow usually comes late at night, when family is asleep and after an hour or two already in the works. I get completely immersed and have a distorted feeling of time and space, hyperfocus and increased productivity. If you think you can use this time well, make sure you can be absent from the work tomorrow so you can regenerate and have a good night of sleep. However, i wouldn’t recommend doing this often. It’s better to save that energy when you’re close to some goal that requires a large amount of work that you feel you must do in one push or you will lose focus if you split it in chunks.
Sleeping less than 6 hours increases obesity (you feel like eating more to compensate for lack of energy), chance of stroke, heart diseases and diabetes. Not to mention that you will be forgetful, need lots of coffee or caffeine drinks to make it through the day and be irritable as hell. Depression also creeps in. Make sure you sleep at least 7 hours and try sleeping in on weekends if you can.
I know it sounds obvious and like a cliché, but if you are mid thirties like i am, this fact needs to be repeated all the time. Make time to prepare a healthy, balanced meal. Eat vegetables, fruits, fish and meat. Besides making your own meals is the healthiest choice of all, it helps rest the mind by physically and mentally distancing you from computer. I find cooking relaxing and sometimes similar to long bicycle rides when my mind wanders off.
Drink water and tea, not sodas full of sugar. Recommendation of 2 liters of water per day is not a fad, your body requires a lot of water to function efficiently. The first sign of not drinking enough water will be a headache, so if you’re not feeling well, try taking a bit of water, you probably forgot to drink it for hours. I like dropping an effervescent 1000 mg vitamin C drop in the water, it’s much more tastier and you can’t get enough of vitamin C, though the higher your intake is, the more you will excrete. Linus Pauling’s “How to live longer and feel better” (he was a Nobel laureate in chemistry) is good on this subject, he took extremely high doses of vitamin C and lived to be 93.
Avoid too much caffeine, it actually makes you harder to concentrate if you overdo it, makes your brain foggy, causes caffeine crash and messes up your sleep quality when taken too late (if you manage to fall asleep). While we all love coffee as a stimulant, don’t forget that it is addicting and withdrawal symptoms can last very long, so it’s best to consume it in reasonable amounts.
Besides sleeping enough and eating healthy, exercise is one of the most important things in whole thing of staying mentally stable when working on a game. Get your juices flowing, ride a bike, pump some iron, run, cross fit, whatever makes you sweat. You will feel better, happier, healthier, have more energy to work, need less sleep, wake more rested and most important of all, have your brain functioning better due to improved blood flow. If you are like me, sitting in the office for 8 hours staring at a screen with (like most of us actually) and then doing that again in the afternoon, be realistic, it does horrible things to your body and mind and you must be fit to endure it. Besides back, neck takes the biggest hit, directly diminishing blood flow to your brain, causing headaches and brain fog. I found that the aerobic exercise works best for me (cycling and running). The repetitivness and the moving scenery clears your mind with the goal of acquiring mental void.
Don’t forget friends and family
Life doesn’t just stop because you are working on something that takes an enormous chunk of your spare time. You’ve got a family to spend time with and take care off and friendships you have to cherish. Socializing helps to take the mind off of your work, relax or perhaps vocalize the things that worry you or you are having problems with in your development. Even if someone is not into that, a fresh and naive look at your problem can be an eye opener.
After all, friends and family is all that matters in the end.
Take days off
No matter how great your passion and motivation are, being involved in anything 24/7 is just not good. You will get saturated, lose objectivity of your work and ultimately repelled by the sole sight of computer. Make goals on which you are working on, and say to yourself “when i finish this boss design, i’m going to treat myself with 3 days off”. And do it, feel satisfied with the work you’ve done and enjoy in your days off without guilt because you deserved them.
Relax (away from screen if possible)
Since you are probably already a full-time screen starer and you stare some more when you get home, i recommend you get some relaxation that doesn’t include staring at any type of screen. Cooking is a great way to relax, walk your dog without your smartphone, pet your cat for hours, read a book or a magazine, make a bubble bath, lay on the floor and stare at ceiling thinking about nothing, ride a bike out of town. It’s all relaxing and helps soothe your exhausted and work saturated mind.
Work on something different
If you really feel the need for working on your project, switching between the things you do often helps to avoid saturation. When i got bored of working on enemy waves, i switched to searching for sound effects and making some music. This development blog is also part of my avoiding burnout by doing something different. When you get sick of coding you can do some drawing if you’re apt at it, making music, writing a storyline, whatever jingles your bells. Just make sure you track your goals and don’t spread yourself too thin as it lowers the productivity and quality of work.
Managing it all
That’s all nice and dandy, taking care of yourself, but when you will find the time to work on the game with all this relaxing, exercising and cooking? It’s up to you to figure it out and integrate it into your lifestyle. It’s probably not going to translate into a lot of work hours, but what matters is the quality of those work hours. Most helpful thing if you are not able to work regularly on your game (i.e. have a family and a job) is to run a development log. Not just any, but a very tight one, with clear goals cut into smaller chunks you can handle and work on whenever you can grab some spare time. Besides knowing where to continue with your work after a few days of AFK, it will be motivating to track your progress. I’ll probably write more about it next time.
Stay healthy and take it easy!
Thanks to the encouraging critique from folks at reddit/r/gamedev i decided to update the article with some quantification of the problem. Being an already a full-time employee, hour tracking of work done can be tedious when working irregularly and takes too much time in my case, but i had a more or less regular work schedule before the first big burnout to prove that it’s simply not worth it and you should respect your body.
Let’s say i worked on the game for two hours and on top of that extra two hours every workday of the week. Those hours were always, as mentioned in the article, late at night, after full 8 hours of work, when i am already tired and my work efficiency is largely decreased. Every workday i worked an extra two hours led to a total of 40 hours of sleep debt (since the only time i could afford was borrowing a chunk of sleep). That comes to 5 nights of good sleep monthly or whole two months per year! Imagine not sleeping for an entire week per month or not sleeping one night every week of the month. That leaves horrible consequences to your mind and body.
Every one of us has a different organism, gender, age, need for sleep, physique that can withstand more abuse than the other, so it’s quite difficult to determine someones need for rest. Being a 34 year old male, some general proposition is not less than 7 hours of sleep. That can be an ungrateful number, since i usually don’t feel quite rested if i sleep under 8 hours of sleep, but let’s take that as a general rule of thumb.
If i worked an extra two hours per night and cut off my sleep for two hours, i gained 40 extra hours of development per month. When you look like it’s great, almost 500 hours per year, that alone is a figure that can net some serious results. But how was the quality of that work? Being already exhausted, we can say that it was 75% efficient compared to a workload when i was fully rested. There’s stuff to work on that don’t require much concentration or brain power and there’s not much efficiency deficiency on those, but there are some intensive tasks (writing new mechanics, creative tasks etc.) that need a lot more mental power to be done efficiently and that brain power is already spent. I reckon the diminish can go up to 50% on that one (i was really struggling on creative stuff when i was working late nights), so we get down to the number of 75% on average.
So, we have 75% efficiency workload of 2 hours, which comes down to one and a half hour of full efficiency work. “That’s still ok!” you think. As the month goes by, it diminishes even more, due to increased fatigue, frustration and saturation by work but let’s leave it at the figure of 75% for an easier calculation since you used weekends to sleep in and get some of that sleep debt back.
After a month of burning out, you are already overwhelmed by the exhaustion and you tell yourself “Alright, i can’t take it anymore, i need a break”. You gained 30 extra hours that month and you deserve a rest. How long will it take you to recover depends on many factors. If you already have a job and a family, you will find that all of that itself is quite exhausting by itself. You take a week of break (two weekends and one workweek) and during that time you lose 10 hours of development, so your net gain is now even lower, it’s not 30 hours, it’s 20 extra hours. You worked 40 extra hours for a month to gain only 20 hours of extra development time and the chances are you are not fully recovered at all! Not only that, you distanced yourself from the project and it will take some time to get to continue where you left off.
Those are some simple maths that may prove something else of what i’m trying to prove, but it was a bit different in my case. For me, it took a month to recover after that kind of crunch and i didn’t fully rest. After a month! When i got back to the project, i didn’t know where i stopped and what should i do next and i still had a feeling of not being quite ready to keep working. I simply needed more rest. Not to mention the fact that i was eating more (especially late at night which is bad by itself) because i was constantly tired, getting fatter, weaker, had no power to workout at all, had a lower quality of sleep for not respecting the usual times of going to sleep and getting up and drinking too much coffee. All those symptoms didn’t get away after a month of resting by doing absolutely nothing except going to work where i was equally as useless. First the guilt and frustration comes in, for being weak not to work on the project, then depression usually knocks on the door. A depression so severe in my case that it took me three weeks just to snap out of it and start feeling a bit better about myself.
There are always times when you can push yourself to the limit and find an excuse for it. Whether is it “I just need to punch in the foundations and it will be easier later” or “release time is near, i have to give my best” at the end of the day it’s just not worth. Extra hours in a profession that needs a lot of time investment by itself, is damaging to your body since you are practically not moving for a lot of time and requires your brain to be fully rested are just a drop in the sea compared to what you are losing in the long run. The damage you do to yourself is usually not possible to repair fully, especially if you are not in your twenties when you could handle a lot of abuse and just keep going.