Do you have a set routine when you’re in writing mode? What’s your secret for working through a block? Are there people you can count on to look over your stuff and give it to you straight when you’ve clearly run aground of what you’d intended?
I imagine that in any position where you need to be creative day-in and day-out, burn out is going to be something against which you have to constantly come up with strategies to fight. This is the case when it comes to writers in game development— we’re not only writing the dialogue, after all, but developing the quests and overall narrative. Even with the basic ideas already planned ahead (or sometimes provided for us) you still have to face that blank screen and figure out where to begin.
It goes beyond simple writer’s block. Writer’s block is something you have to actively manage, as it’ll probably occur anytime you start working on something… unless you have that rare time when you know exactly what approach you’re going to take, there’s that initial hesitation that can sometimes stretch out into a gaping void. Any writer knows what that feels like. Burn out is much worse. You’ve worked your fingers to the bone, poured all your creative juices into a project… and then the next one comes along and you just feel so exhausted you could cry. Not everyone knows where their creative juices come from, after all. You could try resting (if a vacation is even possible), reading, exercising, brainstorming… but what if, after all that, you still come up with nada? You start to wonder what you’re even doing there, and if this is really the job for you.
I’ve faced burn out twice so far in my game development career, looked it straight in the face and felt completely daunted. The first was right after Baldur’s Gate II: Throne of Bhaal wrapped. I’d written so much of BG2 it’s not even funny. James Ohlen nicknamed me “the Machine” because I could crank out dialogue and plots like nobody’s business… 20-odd years of tabletop gaming just poured out of me without restraint, and me a new writer with something to prove. There were others who had been through the first Baldur’s Gate and who were already exhausted, and I just didn’t get what they’d been through. Why couldn’t they keep up? This wasn’t that hard. And then towards the end of work on the expansion I hit a wall. It smacked me full in the face.
I did not know how to deal. It was doubly frustrating for me because the Machine was kind of expected to zoom along at his regular pace… and I was getting nowhere. I forced myself to write, but nothing felt good. I read over my own dialogue and was disgusted. Plus I had health issues which were exacerbating things, since I couldn’t sleep properly. At one point I think James came to talk to me about why I was so far behind on my tasks and I burst into frustrated tears. I thought I should quit, just give it up and move on. Clearly the new project (Knights of the Old Republic, I think?) wasn’t my thing— I was never a big Star Wars fan (horror of horrors!)— so I should just admit it and save BioWare the trouble.
James was patient, thankfully. We came up with some strategies for how I could approach the project— ignore the science fiction thing which was holding me up, just think of it as fantasy if that helped— and that did help. I started creeping forward, writing inch by painful inch, until I hit a plot where I had an idea. Korriban, I think. Or maybe it was when I started writing Jolee Bindo? I don’t recall. But having that idea opened the floodgates, and suddenly it was like my reservoir was full again. I was so flush with eagerness to write it made my heart race. And it restored my confidence.
And then it happened again when I was on the Hordes of the Underdark expansion for Neverwinter Nights. We’d been hit with a bunch of problems on the project, problems which sucked a lot of my enthusiasm out. The project wasn’t going to be this masterpiece I had envisioned, and rather than figure out how to make the best with what I had I dwelled on what I’d lost. My health worsened again, and I hit writer’s block in a big way… and it was this giant wall I just couldn’t get past. I wrote entire dialogues only to delete them in disgust. I browsed the web, telling myself I was just relaxing and waiting for inspiration but really I was just avoiding the truth. This time some vacation helped. Also learning to lean on the other writers… not just to pick up some of the slack, but to bounce ideas off of. Ever so slowly I began to write, painful as it was, and despite absolutely hating the first stuff I produced I went back and edited it afterwards… I let my experience do the talking and pick up the bad parts, figure out what would fix them like working a puzzle in my head, and that was completely different than the process of writing those lines in the first place. It worked, and wasn’t that hard. And the result was good. It was enough to let me move on.
Thankfully I work for a company which does its level best to combat crunch culture. It doesn’t always succeed, but the recognition that its employees have lives and going from crunch to crunch to crunch simply isn’t sustainable… not from an economic standpoint, and not from a human standpoint… is a good thing. We try to make schedules that are realistic and not composed of wishful thinking. If someone busted their ass to hell and back to do a piece of work in a week, that doesn’t mean that the next project should simply schedule a week for that same piece of work. I have bosses that recognize creativity isn’t available on demand. Sometimes it’s there, sometimes it’s not. If one of my writers says “I’m just not feeling it today”, I tell them to go home. We all know what the deadlines are. Everyone paces themselves differently, and if they’re willing to put in the time later to catch up that’s totally up to them… and, historically, that’s exactly what they will do. It’s only if their productivity starts breaking down overall that we need to sit down and discuss our options. There are always options.
My understanding is that not everyone in the industry is so lucky. I spoke to a designer once who’d come to us from a string of smaller studios, and he painted a pretty grim picture of what was pretty standard practice at these places: hire young, naive fellows just out of college who were excited just to get the chance to work in the game industry. It was a dream come true. They’d even accept less pay and work long, long hours to prove themselves. And that company would work them to the bone… until finally, burnt out and disillusioned, they were cast aside to be replaced by some new young buck fresh out of college who was willing and able to do the work they used to do, and for less money.
"How could they get away with that?", you might ask. Simple. Game development studios are considered part of the entertainment field, like with movies. The laws governing overtime and maximum work hours are different. So crunch culture is often institutionalized, to the point where many developers couldn’t work otherwise. And that’s ignoring the fact that many developers (and games) simply fail anyhow, no matter how hard they try. Such is the industry in which we work.
I’m not here to discuss industry issues, however, but to discuss dealing with burn out itself. Some things I’ve learned along the way:
1) Pace yourself. Like a marathon runner, you have to know this is a long haul. Yes, you could make that sprint and impress everyone for the moment… but you’ll just exhaust yourself in the long run and thus never reach the finish line. I’ve often found that short bouts of crunch can be helpful, periods where the entire team pulls together to make the next deadline, so long as it’s not sustained. Indeed, I’ve found I can work crunch all week long, and so long as I still get weekends off to recuperate I can sustain that for months. As soon as I work seven days a week (which has happened on occasion), that sustainable time drops dramatically. If occasional bouts of crunch aren’t enough, we should really be questioning whether the schedule was realistic in the first place.
2) Just write. I’ve had some friends who’ve tried writing novels, and the most common problem I’ve seen them run into is they get hung up on making everything perfect right out of the gate. They’ll write a chapter, and then go back again and again trying to tweak it. Or they’ll be stuck at some point because they can’t figure out how to make it as awesome as they’re picturing in their head… and it paralyzes them completely. A novel is a marathon, just like a game. I’ve done this myself, and the answer is to take that next step. If you can’t run, then walk. If you can’t walk, then crawl. You may hate what you’ve written, but don’t worry about it. Go back to it later, with fresh eyes. You probably have that one scene you just have to get to, but you’ll get there. Hold it out as a reward. It may feel terrible, but the act of getting words down on paper is far better than avoiding it and making no progress at all.
3) Talk to someone. I love being in the Writers Pit— that’s the big room where we have all the writers on the project. While there are moments where we’ve all got our noses to the grindstone, I’ve never felt hesitant to just grab everyone’s attention. “So, I’m working on this part of the plot, and I just can’t figure it out.” We’ll chat about it, probably joke about it. Chances are good that nobody will make an actual suggestion I can use, but they don’t need to. I just need something to click in my head, and often simply talking about the problem will make me figure out how to deal with it. Or someone will make a suggestion I reject, and in my head I’m already going “BUT if I did it this way, then…” It’s all you need. I imagine not everyone gets this kind of juice from social interaction… but, if you don’t, then figure out what does. And try to distinguish it from things that are just distractions. You may tell yourself that watching TV lets you think… but does it? Or does it just let you avoid the problem for a while?
4) Leave it alone for a while. I don’t mean go watch TV (though you should totally rest when you can), I mean that sometimes it’s best to get up and walk away from something that is really not working for you. I take a walk. I know it’s just me, but getting my blood moving actually helps… some of my best ideas come when I’m pacing, which amuses the other writers as occasionally I’ll get up from my desk and just sort of walk around the room (sometimes ranting and sometimes just biting my lip and considering). If I can, I’ll sometimes leave the part I’m working on and do something completely different. Coming back a few days later I’ll go, “SWEET MERCIFUL ZEUS WHAT WAS I THINKING?” Sometimes you need to crawl out of the pit to realize how dark it is down there.
5) Don’t believe the haters. I know this is pretty specific to me, but the absolute worst thing I can do while writing is go online to read opinions on my work. They don’t know what I go through, or what my responsibilities are. I don’t mean this in a mean or spiteful way at all— they just don’t. Why would they? Opinions are all fine and well, but eventually you’re going to have to decide what works for you. So long as you agree with it, you can be absolutely certain that at least one person does… as opposed to doing only what you think someone else wants, at which point you’re second-guessing yourself. Not that anyone should think every word spilling from their lips is utter gold, but second-guessing yourself is the quick way to hell. I’ve seen others do it— work themselves into such a frenzy of self-doubt that they end up in a tailspin. If you want the world to notice, that means you have to do something. Just do it. Let the ones who aren’t doing anything slip from your mind for the time being.
6) Value feedback. Pursuant to the above, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t appreciate good feedback when you get it. And, yes, there are differences between “good feedback” and “all feedback”. There is a time and place for when you’ll be ready for it. Right in the middle of the process? Probably not that time. At the start, or once you’re done? That’s the time. Every writer I’ve worked with has learned to savage their own work, and distance themselves from it enough so they don’t treat every piece of feedback as a personal criticism. Your work is not you. You can make it better. Chances are that, after the plot is getting reviewed by the rest of the team, you’re going to have to re-write big chunks of it on a regular basis.
7) Learn when to walk away. I’m not going to recite the lyrics to “the Gambler” here, but it’s absolutely vital to learn when “you can make it better” ends. If you can get it to 90%, do you need to struggle to get it to 95%? Do you need to throw out the whole thing and re-write it in order to get it to 96%? Would you know what that is? This is something our entire project has to deal with. When is it “good enough”? Test a plot often enough and you’ll start to get bored with it, for instance. You’ll think of a new idea, and wouldn’t that be better? The longer production goes on, the harder it will be to remember what felt good and new about your story waaaay back when you first wrote it… and remember that the audience will approach it that same way. You have to learn not to trip yourself up. You will never do it completely. At some point, you’ve done what you can and you take your lessons and use them on the next project. Otherwise you’ll keep touching up that painting until you’ve ruined it completely… or, when it comes to game development, that game will just never go out the door. Which is far worse.
I don’t know if I’ve completely answered your question, or if I’ve wandered off into my own tangent. Certainly there are routines we get into which help us. If I’m having a lot of trouble with a dialogue, for instance, I’ll do a “stub” version of it first. It’s completely temp, with no effort at characterization or nuance. All I’m doing is filling in the broad strokes.
NPC: “This is me telling you what’s going on here. Oh, it’s scary. The chillins all need some food.”
PC: “Not the chillins!”
NPC: “It sucks big time. You know— dragons bad. Bad, bad.”
PC: “I shall fight that there dragon!”
NPC: “You are so awesome.”
Okay… I would never stub in a dialogue which was that simple. Normally I do it for the big ones which have lots of branches, just so I can wrap my head around it. I know where the branches are, and where the important information is going to be relayed. I amuse myself with the terrible temp dialogue, making sure that nothing is even passably useable (or I might keep it), and then when I’m done I can go back and re-write it knowing exactly how it’s going to flow.
…and that’s probably the gist of it.