The Game Designers's Life

Volume #1 Issue 2 June 1987

I am sometimes told by acquaintances, "Gee, I sure wish I could be a game designer. What fun it must be!" Most of the time I just smile and say, yup, it’s fun. I seldom bother to tell them what it’s really like to design games for a living. There’s the delight and curse of being in absolute control of my own time. Every aspect of my schedule is under my direct control. The only real time constraint on me is a contractual obligation to deliver a finished game ten or twelve months from signature. Otherwise, I am free. If I don’t feel like working one day, I don’t have to. If in the middle of the day, I feel like taking a long lunch, or just going for a walk, I can. I can take a vacation whenever I want, for as long as I want.

The curse of this is the ever-present sense of responsibility. I cannot take a moment off without feeling some pang of guilt that I am not working my best. The employee can tell himself, ’I earned this vacation, and I will enjoy it!’ I will never be able to say that to myself; every minute of relaxation is a minute stolen from the project. Under these circumstances, relaxation becomes something that is doled out in carefully rationed amounts. I relax just enough to keep my sanity, just enough to refresh myself for the next round of work. In three years, my longest vacation has been three days in Yosemite.

Another duality of freelancing comes from the creative control it offers. The good side of this is the opportunity it provides for me to do my very best work. I don’t have my efforts watered down by the mediocrity of a large organization. I don’t have to waste my time sitting in meetings, or explaining my decisions to some uncomprehending dork three departments away, or hassling the various bureaucratic problems of The Organization. I am vastly more productive now than at anytime in my life.

But the price I pay for this comes late at night, when I lay awake wondering about the decisions I must make on the morrow. There’s no fatherly boss down the hall to take my uncertainties to. There’s no friendly coworker in the next office to bounce ideas off of. There’s no gang around the water cooler to trade banter with. I’m all alone. The decisions I make weigh on me, and there is nobody to share the burden. Finances? They’re a roller coaster. Five years ago I had a hit, and I was rich. Three years ago the industry collapsed, and I was poor. Only the fact that we had saved much of the money from the good days saved us. Now I have a hit again, and again I am rich. But who knows when the royalties will dry up? Who knows whether this next game will be a hit or a failure? I save my money and work my butt off, hoping fervently that hard work and talent can stave off bankruptcy. So far, it’s worked.

It’s not fun, not in the way most people imagine. I don’t sit in front of the computer laughing and giggling as I assemble an array of cute tricks to tickle your ribs. It’s hard, grinding work, trying out things that don’t work, then trying more things that don’t work, until finally I try something that does work. I scowl at the screen a lot. Towards the end of every project, I become an ugly person. My temper grows short. I yell at my wife. My body starts to screw up in a dozen ways. I hate the project and I hate myself. My grip on reality weakens.

No, it’s not fun. What is fun is the deep satisfaction that comes from creation. It’s not an immediate sense of gratification I get from putting together some cute bit of code or some nice feature. No, the true joy of this job comes a few months after I have stamped out the last bug in a cold fury of desperate, behind-schedule bug-fixing. I shoot the last disk off with an angry or exhausted cover letter and joyfully turn away from the project that has ruined my life for so long. And then one day months later, a delivery truck comes down my driveway with a box that has my game in it. With trembling fingers I tear open the box and there sits my game. So beautiful it is! I turn the box over and over in my hands, savoring every detail. Inside is the rules manual and the disk. It all looks so wonderful, so professional, so perfect. I mount the box in a frame and proudly hang it on my wall with my other creations. Only then, months after I have finished work on a game, can I appreciate it. Later still, when I can look back from a distance and see what I have made, I can weigh the creative agony against the joy of creation, and say, "It was worth it."