The Belly of the Whale: Living a Creative Life in the Games Industry.

Bob Bates

Every year, thousands of people come into the games industry, believing they have found their “dream job.” Five years later, about half of them are gone.

The business cost of this turnover is huge. We train people, only to lose them. The human cost is even more devastating, as these people enter a field they expect to love, then end up leaving, disillusioned.

It turns out that getting a job in our industry is actually pretty easy. What is hard is making a career of it. Each of us feels the need to do “meaningful work” in our lives, yet it’s hard to do such work and to find fulfillment within the sometimes brutal and unforgiving environment of the games industry.

To explore this problem, I interviewed over sixty people, ranging from workers “in the trenches” to company executives who have come up through the ranks, as well as people who have left the industry altogether. I spoke with writers, programmers, artists, testers, composers, producers, marketers, project managers and a host of others who are trying to use their creativity to nurse games through development.

I obviously struck a chord, because I ended up with hundreds of pages of material to sort through. People poured out their hearts and bared their souls. They reminded me again how deep the passion runs in those who make games. I promised anonymity, but many of the people whose quotes you will see below are household names in our industry.

By the end of this article you should realize that if you are having difficulty living a creative life, you are not alone. Fortunately, you should also realize that you are not powerless, and that there are successful strategies for dealing with the issues that many of us face.

The Problems

Everyone who wants to live a creative life quickly runs into all kinds of difficulties, no matter what field they’re in: finding meaning in their work; dealing with rejection; surviving identity crises; and sometimes battling depression and addictions.

Creatives in any industrial environment face additional challenges: reconciling their artistic goals with the financial imperatives of the business; doing repetitive, factory-like “assembly line” work; and becoming alienated from the product they are making because they touch only a small part of the overall project and lose the connection between the maker and the thing that is made.

But creatives in the games industry have even
more difficulties: adjusting to the loss of individual vision in service to the collaborative product; dealing with the resistance to new ideas built into our risk-averse environment; and the long development cycles and cancelled projects that limit the number of published titles an individual may work on in his or her career.

Our identities are tied up in our work, and yet here we are faced with all these problems. We want to make great games, but we find ourselves working on cookie-cutter projects that might never see the light of day and even if they do, our contribution is so small that it’s hard for us to say, “I made that game.”

In this article, we’ll deal with these four basic questions:

    But first, being the good critical thinkers that we are, we should attack the premise.

    Boo-hoo! Poor Little Us!

    The Department of Labor reports that men and women hold an average of about 14 jobs by the time they turn 40. And whereas previously they predicted that most people will have three totally different careers in their lifetimes, they are now predicting as many as 7 completely different careers (for example switching from being an engineer, to a teacher, to a shop owner, etc). Moreover, they say that almost half of all workers are not happy with their jobs.

    Several people I interviewed pointed out that we’ve got it better than creatives anywhere else. Painters, writers, composers, potters, weavers – almost all of them labor in poverty, insecurity, and obscurity.

    Others said the turnover is healthy – it weeds out the people who shouldn’t be in the industry in the first place.

    And it could be that our problems are the downside of the phrase “Do what you love the money will follow” . We’re doing what we love, but we’re finding out that what we love, is turning into WORK. (Or, as Tom Sawyer said, “Work is what a body is
    obliged to do.”)

    And finally there’s the theory that being unhappy is simply part of what makes people creative in the first place.

    In other words, it might be that we’re just a bunch of crybabies!

    A Cog in the Machine

    Nevertheless, our problems are real. Some of us are wondering whether we should make a move or stay where we are. We wonder how we can survive in an industry that treats us so horribly. Some of us feel like cogs in the machine. Why is that?

    It could be due to an inaccurate set of perceptions that people have formed prior to coming into the industry. Making games just isn’t as glamorous as some people think.

    But the reality is that this is where most people start. Most of the people you think of as leaders in this industry started off as a cog.

    Not only that, but it turns out that everyone is a cog.

    So if that’s how you have to start out, how do you make the best of it?

    Be the Cog

    While you are a cog:

      Malcolm Gladwell and others have written that it takes ten thousand hours of work to become an expert in any creative endeavor. From the Beatles to Bobby Fischer, no one ever made it big without those 10,000 hours. “...composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals… No one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time.” (Outliers)

          Several people I spoke to made the analogy to an orchestra. There are all different kinds of music, and orchestral music is one of them. The typical violin section of a symphony orchestra has 30-35 players. Each of them is playing the best they know how. Being a cog in that machine is vital to the creation of that grand style of music. If you are happy in that role, great! But if you find that your company does not value it properly, perhaps you should switch to one that does.
          Or if you find you are frustrated with that role, then perhaps you should find a different kind of music to play, maybe with a smaller ensemble where you can play a larger role. Those opportunities exist again in our industry now, and there are many opportunities to move from a large company to a smaller one.

            In every game company, there are jobs that aren’t getting done. There is a natural vacuum that is formed, and if you see something that needs to get done and offer to do it, you soon find that you start to get sucked upwards into positions of greater responsibility. So figure out what you want to be known for, and if there is an opportunity to do that work, then volunteer for it. When you are the solution to a problem, you’ll soon find yourself with as much responsibility as you can handle.

              Of course, into every career some rain must fall, and there will be times when you will have to resign yourself to just working for the money, or the experience, or the opportunity to work on the next project.

                But my best advice is to find something to be excited about on that project. You need to find something to love, or you won’t do a good job, and on top of that, you will be miserable.

                The Anxiety of Change

                OK. So you’ve been a cog long enough and you’re ready to make a change, and you’re nervous about the risk. Should you move to another company? Should you move up the ladder to a lead position in your own company? Should you go independent or freelance?

                There are risks in changing companies, but it can also be risky to stay where you are.

                      Whether you stay with your current company or move to a new one, it still might be risky to move up to a lead or manager position

                        One of the biggest fears that people have prior to accepting a promotion is that they will miss the hands-on creativity that they enjoy in their current job.

                        This is understandable. There is a real joy to be found in hands-on work. It is creativity in its rawest form. The ability to get an idea and make it come into existence is really thrilling!

                          There is something incredibly compelling and addictive that comes with having a good set of tools and the skill to use them. It doesn’t matter whether it’s an art package, or a programming language, or audio and music composition tools, or a level editor – when we are skilled, and when we have a vision, we have POWER. We can sit down and MAKE something.

                          A sculptor can chisel the marble the way he wants, a potter can mold the clay, a painter can wield the brush. And we can do the same.

                          Is that something you want to give up?


                            At a hands-on level, we use the tools that directly touch the audience. We’re writing the words they’ll hear and painting the textures they’ll see and building the levels they’ll walk through. But when we move to a lead or director level, instead we direct the teams that are using those tools.

                            Are you happier having that direct effect on the audience in that single dimension, or might it be more satisfying to have a broader influence on more areas of the game?

                              I love driving long distances. I think it’s because while I am engaged in that task, there is nothing else I should be doing, and there is a strong sense of completion when the task is done.

                              It’s a simple assignment: Get from here to there, and don’t crash the car.

                              Having a skill and using it to help build a game is like that. You’re asked to do something, and you do it. You get feedback, and move on to the next task.

                              But that is a world you leave behind when you move into management.

                              When you’re a manager, you’ve always got a million half-done tasks, none of which you’re doing as well as you would like, and most of which you’ll get yelled at for doing at all. When you’re a manager, there’s always something else you should be doing, and you’re rarely “done” with any of them.

                                Lots of people said the thing they worried about most before accepting a promotion was whether or not they’d actually be able to do the job. For most of them, it didn’t turn out to be a problem at all. And those who didn’t come through OK found it wasn’t too hard to revert to a former skilled position.

                                  Many people were surprised at the number of things they had to learn when they started managing people, and how little support their companies gave to train them.

                                    Some managers worried about whether they’d be able to effectively supervise others who do the work they once did themselves. They were worried that they’d become “back-seat drivers.”

                                    But in most cases, these worries proved to be unfounded.

                                    Also, when you are in a lead position, if you find that someone is not doing the job you believe needs to be done, you have the option of hiring someone who can!

                                    Those are the risks of moving up to a lead or manager position, but there are also rewards.

                                      As a project lead, you get to tap into the creativity of others to fulfill visions you could never deliver on your own.

                                      If I did the art for my games, it would all be stick figures. I can say I want the ground to shake when the monster walks, but it takes an modeler and an animator and a particles programmer to make the player FEEL it when that foot smashes into the ground and rocks fly up all around.

                                      There is creativity and joy in that collaboration.

                                        When someone takes the step into a lead or director role, it’s like a musician who puts down his instrument to become a conductor: they don't get to play, but they get to influence the whole crew.

                                          As a manager, you have the opportunity for a different kind of joy. It’s the happiness that comes from helping others. It’s called “Naches,” the pride in the accomplishment of those whom you have helped, or perhaps the pride in the accomplishments of the organizations you have built. For some of the people I interviewed, that pride was stronger than any of their achievements as hands-on game makers.

                                          One designer said this pride was “almost parental.”

                                            Some people found it useful to distinguish between “artistic” creativity, and “problem-solving” creativity.

                                            While “artistic” creativity may be inhibited in our industrial environment, that very same environment offers plenty of opportunities for problem-solving creativity in managerial roles.

                                            Many people talked about the creative challenges that come from working within constraints, and that their creative urges were more than satisfied by solving these problems.

                                            Many found it actually more rewarding than their hands-on work.

                                              Some people have the ambition to have an impact on the industry, and noted that it is difficult to do that from the trenches.

                                              To make an impact on our industry, you might have to do it from a leadership or managerial role.

                                                Quite a few people talked about getting into management in order to protect their creative vision.

                                                But most leads quickly come to the conclusion that vision isn’t something you create, it’s a synthesized product that you contribute to.

                                                Will you get to be creative? Clearly the answer is yes, but it’s a different kind of creativity, with different kinds of rewards.

                                                But perhaps you’re thinking about chucking the company life and striking out on your own! The advantages and disadvantages of going freelance are complicated enough to warrant a whole separate article, so for now I'll just cover the points that relate to creativity.

                                                If you want to become a freelancer is so that you can exert more creative control, forget it. I was an independent consultant for 7 years and my job was always to understand someone else’s goals and to help that team achieve their vision. What mattered was
                                                their desires, not mine. A freelancer has virtually no creative control over a client’s project.

                                                You must also have a range of skills, not just one skill in order to make it as a consultant. In addition to whatever game-development skills you have, you’ve got to add business savvy on top of that.

                                                One advantage of freelancing with regard to creativity is that if you are lucky, you get to pick and choose the projects you work on, whereas you often don’t have that luxury within a company. When someone would ask me to work on a project that I was clearly wrong for, I would tell them no, and re-direct them to someone else who could do the job better, which made everyone much happier all the way around. (Of course, turning down work means you don’t get paid, so this is not an unlimited freedom!)

                                                But, oddly, one of the biggest advantages of freelancing is the exact opposite of what you might expect. Security.

                                                When you work for a company, one phone call from headquarters can kill you. As a freelancer, you do not live in fear of that one phone call.

                                                So if you’re considering going freelance, here are some questions to ask yourself:

                                                  There is one other flavor of leaving the company life behind, and that is becoming a “Lone Wolf” developer – a one-person team.

                                                  Like the freelancer, the lone wolf has to have a wide range of skills and a great deal of business savvy. The biggest attraction for lone wolf developers is the total control they can exercise over a project. They want to succeed or fail on their own.

                                                  How Do You Decide?

                                                  So those are the risks you face when you’re thinking about making a change. The question remains:

                                                  Should you do it? Will you be happier if you do, or if you don’t? And how do you make the decision?

                                                  In his book
                                                  Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert says that the single best way to predict whether you will be happy with making a career change is not to look inside yourself, but to consult with others with similar backgrounds who have made a similar change and ask them about it.

                                                  That’s part of what this article is trying to do – to give you the benefit of having talked with dozens of industry people. So if you’re thinking about making a change, go talk to people.

                                                  That having been said, it is really important to understand yourself, because you’re not exactly like anyone else.

                                                  You have an incredible number of resources to draw on to understand the landscape, many more than we ever had before, and many more than people realize.

                                                  Part of knowing yourself is knowing what kind of games you like to work on and the environment that you like to work in. Big team vs. little team. Big company vs small indie. AAA titles vs casual. Violent vs non-violent. RPG vs Shooter vs Sports vs Puzzle games. Etc etc etc.

                                                  You’ve got to know what you like in order to make good decisions.

                                                  Going to a smaller team may give you the opportunity to wear more hats. Does that sound appealing to you… or not?

                                                  You might love something, but not be the best at it. People want to be exceptional. What would make you exceptional? If you have a single skill, maybe should stay focused on large projects and resist promotions. But if you have many skills, maybe you should consider smaller projects, or try moving up to a lead role. And remember that you will experience personal growth over time. What you enjoy (or are willing) to do at age 23 may not be what you are willing (or want) to do at age 35.

                                                  When considering a change, look at the people, more than the job.

                                                  Almost every single person I talked with brought up – on their own – how fulfilling it is to work with other talented people, and how much it sucks when the people aren’t right.

                                                  Independent research also shows that the biggest factor in job satisfaction is not the job itself, or the salary that goes with it, but whether or not you like and respect the people you are working with.

                                                  So if you’re looking to make a change, try to meet as many of the people in the new company as you can. The “meat-grinder” interview process can work both ways. You should be interviewing a prospective company just as much as they are interviewing you.

                                                  You can also get a pretty good idea of a company’s culture simply by asking the people there what life is like.

                                                  In particular, consider that some places are extremely focused on matching peoples’ goals with the company’s needs, and these are great places to work.

                                                    But after all those considerations, you still have to make a decision. Do you take the risk or not?

                                                    Surprisingly, there was almost unanimous consensus on this question…

                                                    Embrace the Risk!

                                                    It’s better to move, than to stay and be unhappy.

                                                    Worries tend to be misplaced. Many people said they worried about the wrong things entirely, and any problems they did have tended to be unforeseeable.

                                                    Only a few regretted their moves, and most said that even if it might not have worked out in the short term, it was the right thing to do in the long term.

                                                    As you change jobs, the knowledge you learn in each helps you with the next. Each job makes you more valuable as time goes on, and that’s how you build a long-lasting career.

                                                    In my own case, every time a company has crumbled underneath me, six months later I was happier in my new job than in my old one. It turns out there are strong psychological reasons for this…

                                                    Staying Creative and Sane

                                                    How do you stay creative and sane in the face of all the turmoil and risk that surrounds us?

                                                    First and foremost, you need to adapt, and you need to keep learning.

                                                    From a career point of view, to stand still is to be run over. You have to keep updating your skillset.

                                                    From a creativity point of view, the more you know, the more creative you can become. Creativity is about new associations, The more you know about other fields, the better you can create those new associations.

                                                    The book
                                                    The Medici Effect claims that creativity and innovation lies at the cross-section of disciplines. Everything you learn is the foundation for whatever comes next. The more skills you have, the more opportunities you will have to demonstrate your talent and apply your creativity.

                                                    Most of the people I talked to also kept their own projects on the side. (The ones who didn’t generally said it’s because their work keeps them very busy or creatively fulfilled.)

                                                    But most people do have personal projects. Some are game-related and some have nothing to do with games. Many people say they can’t help it. Some said that freedom from commercial restraints gave them the sense of absolute control. Others said they enjoy the collaborative nature of our business, but still enjoy having areas where they don’t have to answer to anyone else. But virtually everyone agreed that having side projects also helped them in their commercial work, because insights come from the oddest of hobbies and activities.

                                                    Understanding Your Creative Self

                                                    Without going too deeply into the psychology of creativity, there are a few useful things to point out about creative personalities and the things that motivate creative people to do good work.

                                                    This material is useful for creative people to know, because if you don’t know what you need, how will you know what to ask your managers for?

                                                    And of course, if you manage creative people, this information might be useful to you as well.

                                                    Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is known to most game designers for his work on the experience of “Flow”. But he has also spent 30 years studying how creative people live and work. He says creative people:

                                                      In work that many developers are already familiar with, Roger Von Oech states that each creative person houses four personalities:

                                                        Malcolm Gladwell says there are three things that motivate creative people.

                                                          Teresa Amabile is a professor at the Harvard Business School who studies creativity in industrial environments. According to her studies:

                                                            Managing Your Creative Life

                                                            OK, so what does that mean for us? Here are the kinds of intrinsic rewards that people said were particularly effective.

                                                              For many it came down to being shown that they are respected for their contribution, whatever form that respect may take,

                                                              It might be monetary, or the granting of increased scope on the next project, or even just a special ceremony.

                                                              Management showing trust in an individual is also a huge motivator

                                                                    Paying for an individual to attend an industry conference shows the company respects that person and is willing to invest in his or her personal and professional growth,

                                                                    It also shows trust in their own company (in that they’re not afraid for their people to see what life is like in other companies).

                                                                        Artists, for example, might appreciate the company organizing life studies classes.

                                                                        Programmers might appreciate high-end technical equipment and software.

                                                                        Game designers often like organized board game nights, or simply outings to the movies

                                                                            We have seen that extrinsic rewards in general are not effective motivators of creativity. In particular, and quite surprisingly, almost everyone I spoke to said that money was not a primary motivating factor for them. In fact, there is a ton of research that shows that once a person’s basic life needs are met, the amount of money they make is irrelevant to their happiness.

                                                                            So here is a look at some Extrinsic Rewards that don’t work

                                                                              Our projects are long and difficult. Delaying the reward for that work until the end of the project is ineffective.

                                                                                          But before I create the impression that creative people aren’t interested in money at all, here are some monetary rewards that DO seem to work.

                                                                                                  Creative Working Environments

                                                                                                  Another part of managing your creative life is placing yourself in a position to do good work. Different phases of creativity benefit from different kinds of working spaces.

                                                                                                  Some kinds of creativity need time and solitude: Time for reflection, time for the pieces to re-assemble themselves, time for the big picture to emerge.

                                                                                                  At times like that, you might need a place to be alone where the noise can drop away so you can hear the voice in your head again. For times like this, you probably want an office with a door that can close and a good set of noise-cancelling headphones. You might also just want to go for a walk.

                                                                                                  But there is also the other kind of creativity that is the idea-popping, lightning exchange of lively minds at work. This is the time we bounce thoughts off each other, building on what each of us has to contribute until the result is much cooler than what any one of us would have dreamed up on our own.

                                                                                                  Bullpens and open office plans often provide this kind of creative atmosphere, and open office plans also got points for improving the sense of both teamwork and accountability.

                                                                                                  The best offices offer both kinds of spaces. Places to be alone, and places to mingle. I remember with great fondness the Infocom offices in Cambridge, where the designers each had their own office, but they all opened up onto a common lounge.

                                                                                                  The one office plan that came under the most attack was cubicles. Most people seem to hate them. They’re not private enough to give you solitude, and not open enough to encourage the free flow of ideas.

                                                                                                  Your equipment is also part of your working environment, and many interviewees stressed that people need good tools to do good work.

                                                                                                  Creative Corporate Cultures

                                                                                                  Some company cultures clearly encourage creativity.

                                                                                                  For all the talk we hear about flat teams and group decision-making, most of the people I talked to didn’t want their companies to be
                                                                                                  too democratic. People want to have a say. They want their voices to be heard. They want their ideas to be considered. But they also want to have the sense that there is a decision-maker, that there is someone in charge.

                                                                                                  Not surprisingly, people like to work where the management treats people as they themselves would like to be treated.

                                                                                                  People like to work where the game is the thing. Where making a game is what matters. Where it is recognized that people are striving for the common good, rather than to further personal agendas.

                                                                                                  People want to work where managers give credit where credit is due.

                                                                                                  People want an environment that encourages playfulness, even though making games is serious business

                                                                                                  THE LONG DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL

                                                                                                  In this last part of the article, I hope I am addressing only a few of you. I should stress here that I am speaking completely on off my own bat, rather than representing anyone who I interviewed.

                                                                                                  What do you do when you’re in trouble? When you’re in despair? When the concept of getting out of bed and facing the world is simply more than you can imagine?

                                                                                                  As I said at the beginning, creative people are unusually subject to dark moods and depression.

                                                                                                  Our identity is wrapped up in our work, and in our business, that’s a pretty dangerous basket to put all your eggs in.

                                                                                                  We have chosen an unconventional path. We take risks that society, and even our peers, think are foolish. We work without a net.

                                                                                                  Our artistic goals and products are subject to attack from our own inner voices, and of course from the often harsh environment in which we work.

                                                                                                  So here are some words I hope might help you in times of trouble.

                                                                                                                              I believe that most of these problems are crises of meaning. We need to believe that we matter, that our work is important. Because our products are entertainment, that is sometimes difficult. But I believe that in order for us to be happy, our work must be meaningful to us.

                                                                                                                              We are, after all, artists.

                                                                                                                              So see if you can find a way to inject meaning and purpose into your work. I believe both you and your games will be the better for it.

                                                                                                                              IN CONCLUSION

                                                                                                                              But let’s see if we can wrap this up on a brighter note.

                                                                                                                              I called this article “The Belly of the Whale” because that is the part of the hero’s journey when he appears overwhelmed by the evil forces of the world.

                                                                                                                              When you are in the Belly of the Whale, it almost seems as if you are being swallowed up by something much larger than you. Something huge and unyielding. Something too big to fight.

                                                                                                                              Something like the game industry.

                                                                                                                              When you are in the Belly of the Whale, you are lost. Uncertain. Confused about what to do and which way to go.

                                                                                                                              But realizing you are in the belly of the whale is the final step before metamorphosis.

                                                                                                                              It is the last step before the hero undergoes transformation and finally makes the change that will allow him to triumph.


                                                                                                                              If you are feeling like a cog – Learn your craft

                                                                                                                              If you are feeling trapped – there are ways out. Good ways out. There are more opportunities and choices now than ever before.

                                                                                                                              If you feel isolated, remember that you are not alone. There are many people in this industry who want to see you succeed. We are all in this together.

                                                                                                                              If you are worried about the money, just make sure you cover the basics. Beyond that, go for job satisfaction, rather than a fatter paycheck.

                                                                                                                              If you are afraid of the risk – talk to people who have been there. And embrace change as part of your life’s journey

                                                                                                                              If you are troubled, try to bring meaningful work into your life – work that gives you autonomy, complexity, and purpose.

                                                                                                                              And to live a creative life, wherever you are in your career…