The six habits of healthy game developers

This post is part of a content series presented in partnership with smartwater. smartwater, simplicity is delicious. 

This past April, a New York Times Magazine cover story called “Just One More Game…” assessed the growing influence of digital games on our time, our money, and our state of mind. As the writer, Sam Anderson, sank deeper into Frank Lutz’s iOS hit Drop7, he wrote how “my brain would be thinking, very consciously, I have to stop playing… But I didn’t.”

Two months prior, in a Taiwanese internet cafe, 23-year-old Chen Rong-Yu died after playing League of Legends for nearly 24 hours straight. With such high-profile stories and fatal accidents, there’s a spotlight on gamers and their hobby’s potential negative consequences on both body and mind. The conversation isn’t new; members of Congress concerned themselves with the psychological well-being of Mortal Kombat fanatics back in 1994. But it is missing half of the equation.

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Forgotten are the game-makers themselves, who toil for months and years, long before their creations incite marathon playing sessions. Those outside the industry hear furtive whispers of “crunchtime”. Popular culture has given us few glimpses behind the curtain, and those we have aren’t always pretty. Recent documentary Indie Game: The Movie shows the physical and emotional anguish of bringing your vision to life. Read Masters of Doom and marvel at the early days of id Software as kids slave over their computers, faces awash in monitor glow, building their new game’s engine.

Aaron Isaksen, founder of AppAbove Games, gave a talk at GDC this past March, the subtitle of which reveals his simple but difficult mission: “Making Great Games Without Going Crazy.” He circulated a survey among his peers regarding their work habits and health. Concerns ranged from wrist problems to depression to nearly collapsing from stress. So here are some tips on battling your own work-related demons from designers taking part in the Boston Festival of Indie Games, held in Cambridge this past Saturday.

LESS CIRCUITS, MORE CIRCUS – Alex Schwartz, founder of Owlchemy Labs, makers of Snuggle Truck and the recent Jack Lumber: “I get up and juggle near my desk, around the office, or any place with an adequate ceiling height. I do this when code is compiling, when I’m feeling stressed, or when I’m having a mental block.”

MARRY A DOCTOR – Popcannibal’s Ziba Scott, whose first game Girls Like Robots is forthcoming on PC, Mac, and iOS: “No matter how hard I think I’m working, there are millions of people working harder.”

DO IT FOR THE KIDS – Hours spent refining the texture on an alien gunstock might leave your priorities skewed. When all that time results in a child’s betterment, the pain goes down like a spoonful of sugar. Cloudkid concept artist Kim Hsui knows. Voted “Most Likely to Create a Video Game” in high school, she’s happy to create art for PBS’s Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood and Cloudkid’s first original IP, Negative Nimbus.

PAY THE BILLS– Schwartz gave a talk on continuous development at Unite 2012, a conference held in Amsterdam for those working with the Unity engine. His team works in six-month cycles, finishing the well-paying contract job first before moving onto their original, riskier ideas.

FRESH, NOT FROZEN – Scott goes to the market and stocks up on fresh fruit, $20 for the week. Red seedless grapes make for a great popable burst of natural energy. Just don’t overindulge. “I’ll eat 2 pounds in a sitting,” Ziba says, “[and] I’ll feel ill afterword.”

“GET A REAL JOB.” – Maybe your mother was concerned for good reason. Making a quality game is hard. Selling that game and making an adequate living is even harder. I overheard Keith Morgado of Binary Takeover talking about his new game, Lost Marbles. When asked about a release date, he said that it will be done when it’s done. “I do this in my spare time,” he explained. Not the worst advice if you plan on keeping the marbles you already have.