This industry eats people alive. That’s because it’s extremely demanding, draws in those who are passionate, but doesn’t pay well. I’ve been a full time game writer for most of the past 20 years, and more than a decade of that was freelance. A lot of people who began when I did have left, for computer games, novels, or in some cases security guard gigs or farming. They leave because the time demands, creativity demands, occasional unprofessional ruining either your projected income or something you love, and the pay is, compared to other things with similar demands, low. And often, they leave broken, vowing to never return.
To be clear, I don’t blame anyone for those facts. That’s the way the industry is. I work for, and with, a lot of great people who do their absolute best to take care of everyone they can. I’m not railing against some corporate greed, or claiming I could do better. heck, I’m a publisher as well as a writer and developer. I know what the economic realities are. I am very fortunate to have as many great employers as I do. It’s just a rough business, and it’s somewhere between hard and impossible to do well by only putting in 40 hours a week.
So, I do more than that. But that’s not a universally good thing. I know I take on a lot, and I try to give everyone what is expected. And, I fail sometimes. Sometimes very publicly. I’m in my late 40s, I have two decades under my belt, and I still feel like this is all a learning experience.
And like a lot of game designers, I live locked in battle with two extremes—burnout, and the rent.
Burnout is real, and if you fully burn out you are done. There are lots of signs of burnout—never enjoying the work instead of only not liking some parts of it; not being able to force yourself to work on a specific project; depression; panic; confusion, as to why what used to work to get projects finished doesn’t anymore; apathy; slowing of new ideas; reduced quality; a willingness to cut corners in ways you know aren’t right (be that ethically, legally, or just not the kind of work you like to produce, depending on who you are and how badly you burned out).
But just because you can see potential burnout, doesn’t mean you can walk away. Everyone will tell you to… but they don’t know your budget, your needs, your situation overall. If you have people depending on your to provide for them, if you know you can’t survive a loss of income, if you’re going to be homeless if a project falls through, “taking a break” may not be a realistic option for you.
I have flirted with burnout more than once over the years. Sometimes I’d love to have walked away, but at that moment it wasn’t financially practical. Other times I knew if I could push through some specific project, I’d be fine. It isn’t always the big projects, either. Sometimes something small will suck up hundreds of hours of time, because you just can’t get it right.
On the other hand, you also can’t just ignore signs of burnout. If you see it coming, you need to do something. Stepping back from even one big responsibility can make a huge difference. So can powering through something to see the results of your hard work. So can assign for help, if you have people you can ask.
In my experience, those things don’t fix problems immediately. But if you don’t take steps like that, and burnout gets worse, you are traveling a dark path. One that has taken out better designers than I.
Big and important projects—new core rulebooks, connected series of adventures, new jobs that have extremely steep learning curves, ventures with partners counting on you—can be particularly brutal. And if you do more than one of those at a time, the effects multiply, rather than add.
But such projects also, eventually, smooth out. Either you finish them, or you learn the ropes.
It’s all too easy to end up in a position that is unsustainable, caught between burnout and the rent. But small changes do, eventually, make a different. Not everything must be sustained forever.
Also, know what helps. Or if you don’t know, look. I’ve been very public with a lot of my mental issues, and I have posted a lot of retrospectives, like this. These are both a release valve for me–a cheap and useful form of stress relief–and something I do because I would have loved to have this information in 1997, when I was writing freelance material but nothing had been published yet. It helps me, and I hope it helps someone else.
Each person must navigate their own path between these creative and financial Scylla and Charybdis. And sometimes you just have to strap yourself to the tiller, lay on sail, and hope you are still above water when you reach the far side.
But if you do that…keep those navigational charts, and try to avoid those waters in the future. Most people, myself included, bring burnout down on themselves. Try to learn from it.
You’ll keep making mistakes, of course. Just try not to make the same mistakes over and over.
I have a patreon. It’s one way I try to navigate between burnout and the rent, and it has some exclusive content.
If you ever find my posts to be entertaining or useful, consider offering a dollar or two a month of support.
It’s late, and I’m tired. Today was a massive failure. As a result, I feel like a massive failure.
So, to coping mechanisms.
Though I do not believe it emotionally, or intellectually, I am going to keep telling myself everything is going to be all right, and that things will get better. There are risks to this, but it serves me better than despair, so that’s the mechanism. It has to be rote, or I won’t do it when I most need it. I have sometimes dug up my old checklist, from when I literally could not trust myself to make smart care decisions on nights like this. I’d stare at the times, and feel total apathy. But doing something seemed smart, so I’d do those things. And check them off, each as I did it, no matter how minor. Some lists even include not doing things, so I get to mark those off just by properly focusing my sloth.
The coping mechanism says I have to go forward assuming I can fix things tomorrow. I can’t keep the failure of today with me, count all my progress against the negative value of this and all the failed days that came before. That’s stacking the deck against myself. I need to have a realistic assessment of what is possible, but that’s about looking forward not weighing down measures of success with things I could have gotten done if I just hadn’t failed miserably on a range of occasions.
I do know, looking at my track record, that sometimes I pull it out, and sometimes I don’t. I also know I am a bad judge of my ratios of success to failure, and that smart people I trust often have a very different opinion of how I am doing. That all gets added to the coping mechanism calculations.
But there’s no point on hammering my brain any harder about this tonight. That hasn’t worked since I was 35. When I am done, I am done.
I need to go through my checklist of things to try to give tomorrow the best chance. What I eat, what I read or watch, how late I stay up, whether I take my prescriptions—these things feel utterly pointless right now, but I know they are not. However bad things are, there is no point in making them worse.
I am bad at self-care, but making every effort I am able to is part of the coping mechanism.
Also do the best you can to take care of yourself, and forgive yourself of your failures.
Monopoly was originally designed as “The Landlord’s Game” by a woman, Lizzie Maggie, and was intended to be a teaching game that showed that rents enriched property owners to the financial detriment of renters, who had little power to change the situation.
The design was patented twice, and despite that stolen by someone else, and turned into a hit with none of the teaching intent maintained, the original patent bought, and by the 1970s it was commonly stated the man who stole it was the sole creator of it.
So, yes. Credit matter. Presentation matters. Intent matters. And games can normalize concepts and help shape societal thought, despite the fact “they’re just games.”
Patreon. I has one.
I screwed up recently (not a new or rare occurrence), which lead me to begin running down my mental checklist for how to handle that fact. I realized I’ve never talked about that checklist, and that lead to:
Screwing Up. Next Steps.
Congratulations, you screwed up. Now what?
This is my general guide for when you screw up on what to do AFTER the screw up. It is born of my professional experiences in the game industry, and personal experiences as an uneducated depressive introvert with confrontation, communication, and time management problems.
In short this comes from a LOT of experience screwing up, but they are all a specific set of screw-ups. Your massive personal failures may vary, and I am not a trained or expert screw up therapist.
Step One: Accept and Acknowledge
These are two separate things, but they are pretty tightly linked. Let’s start with acceptance.
This is specifically a guide for when YOU have screwed up. Not when someone screwed something else up and you catch the blame, or when the universe screws things up and you have to find ways to fix it. The built-in framework here is for when, yeah, you screwed up.
So, you have to accept that.
Acceptance is important for a lot of reasons. First, without your own buy in that you screwed up, you won’t be able to internalize the lesson that screw up contains. Second, acting like you screwed up when you don’t believe you did leads to resentment, among other things.
I’m not here to tell you when you screwed up. Just to say you have to take a long, hard look at major failures, and decide if that’s your own fault. If no, then you need to manage the disaster with an eye towards those factors that DID cause it. But if you screwed up, you need to accept that fact.
Acknowledgement in this case means acknowledging the screw up to those effected. If you fail to do something you said you’d do, or do something that causes problems for others, you need to let them know that YOU know.
This isn’t the place for self-flagellation. The object here is not to garner sympathy, or make yourself feel worse, or make the people who are negatively impacted by your screw up feel worse. It’s just a heads-up that yes, there’s a problem, you caused it, and you know it. Doing this right is tricky. I find efforts to spin why or how you screwed up often get in the way of a clean and useful acknowledgement. Sometimes people need to know why or how, or ask for their own purposes, and that’s fine (if it’s not private, which it can be). But the idea in this acknowledgement isn’t to cover your ass against the consequences (but in some environments you might have to do that, and only you can make that call). The idea here is to bring the other people involved up to your level of information in a polite, professional, and straightforward way.
Step Two: Assess
Okay, this entire article assumes you have screwed up. That’s the premise. This is about finding out how BADLY you screwed up, and what led to the screw up.
Step two is really about baring down on step one as many times as you need to. I personally think accepting and acknowledging at least begin before assessing—admit you screwed up and let people know there’s an issue as soon as you are sure there is one. But right after that, figure out how big a problem you caused. If that calls for accepting that things are worse than you thought (or realizing it’s not that big a deal), and updating anyone else affected, then do that. You need the information to continue this checklist.
Step Three: Mitigate
Nope, the steps aren’t all A words.
Now that you have an idea how big a problem you caused and how you caused it, see if there’s anything reasonable you can do to fix it. What’s reasonable is going to vary, and I can’t really give you hard rules for that. Small problems, or screw ups that it is easier for someone else to fix, or screw ups so massive or personal that anything you try only makes things worse, certainly do happen. You need to see if you can fix it, and if not can you make things better, and if not what can you do to minimizing making things even worse.
Those are of course, all super vague. Lemme give some examples.
If you are working on a project for someone and you know for certain you are going to miss a deadline, you have likely screwed up. If you accept and acknowledge that fact, and assessed the screw up, you should have contacted the person you are to turn it over to and let them know you are going to miss the deadline.
The next question is, now what?
If you are only going to be a little late and the person you are working with can handle that, then mitigating is making sure you hit your new deadline. If you can’t finish the thing at all, you may need to figure out what you can do, and see if that’s helpful. And certainly, you don’t keep hiding or obfuscating that the project is going to be late in the hope you can finish it before you get pinned down. That’s not mitigation.
This may include some hard conversations with people you have let down. Again, straightforward and professional behavior is, in my experience, your best option. But you need to mitigate your screw up with appropriate levels of effort. Don’t cause more problems or become obsessed over the great lengths needed to fix a minor screw up. You can’t let even moderate screw ups take over your life. And if you can’t mitigate the damage you have done, you need to accept AND ACKNOWLEDGE for that too. People may be disappointed or even angry, but they deserve the truth.
Step Four: Learning
Most of my own screw up result from behavior I could have avoided if I had been smart or forethoughtful enough. As a result, after I realize I have screwed something up and done what I can to fix it, I want to examine what I did wrong. Making mistakes is human. Making the same mistake over and over is dumb.
Keep in mind, you often won’t get this right. It’s easy to take the wrong lesson away from an issue, or think your error was unique to a specific circumstance without recognize an underlying behavior that applies in a broader context than you think. Making a mistake about how you made a mistake is frustration, but it’s going to happen. So when you screw up, be sure to examine not only that specific calamity, but anything similar that you’ve screwed up before. In some cases, you’ll find you missed a larger lesson, and that’s your opportunity to finally learn it.
None of this can fix the fact you screwed up, and while that’s unfortunate it’s also okay. Everyone screws up from time to time. Hopefully you’ll screw up less often than I do, and you won’t need a mental checklist of how to handle such situations. But because everyone screws up occasionally, I have found that when you tackle you own screw ups with honesty, clear communication, and an effort to fix both the issues you cause and the underlying problems that lead to the screw up, people are generally understanding. Not everyone, of course, but you can never control the behavior of other people. You can only control what you do, and imperfectly at that. Which is what makes handling your own screw ups in an adult and reasonable manner so important.
Changing topics entirely, I want to let folks who haven;t read the end of one of my articles before know I have a Patreon. It’s how I justify taking the time to write a lot of this material on my blog. I’d love your support.
I turned down an offer of work today. On a cool project I’d love to do, too.
Now, this is unquestionably the right decision for me. I am behind on a lot of projects, and booked out for months and months on Starfinder opportunities and other things. I can’t, responsibly, take on anything else right now. When I had a thin wedge of availability, I filled it with high-priority items I think will pay a lot of career dividends, and even that was as much excitement as smart planning (though it did get my Business managers approval).
But my Freelancer Reflexes remain strong. The idea of someone offering to pay me to make games, and declining, rubs me the wrong way and often sets of waves of near-panic. I mean, if I turn down work, people will stop offering to me, right? And then I’ll have huge gaps in my production, and everyone will forget who I am, and I won’t be able to get any work, and I’ll go broke and starve.
Yes, it’s not rational. But it is part of what drove me for so many years.
But being a GOOD freelancer, even a good creative employee, means giving the people paying you their money’s worth. And that means you can’t take on so much work that you either rush any of it, or end up not being able to complete it on time, or maybe at all.
Those are hard lessons to learn. Most freelancers I know, myself definitely included, make the mistake of agreeing to too much early on, and then re-make that mistake from time to time.
You can’t do everything. You need some down time. More work will come. And, in my experience, telling someone that you’d love to do a project, but right now you are overbooked, never causes them to write you off forever. Frequently, producers appreciate that you know your limits, and make notes to contact you for other projects later on.
So yes sometimes turning down work is part of the job.
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If you have ever enjoyed anything I have ever done, you have some women to thank for it.
My mother, Claire McMurray, who even when she and my father both had full time jobs was the one who drove me to school if I missed the bus, made doctor appointments, did all the shopping, cleaned the house, bandaged injuries, cooked dinner, and somehow still had time and energy to introduce me to major aspects of fandom, be DM for me and my friends when no one else would, and talk to me when she saw I had problems.
My wife, Lj Stephens, without whom I never would have submitted my first game article, never would have gone to the TSR Writer’s Workshop, never would have learned to type, and basically “Never would have.”
Barbar Hambly, Katherine Kurtz, Mercedes Lackey, Ursula K. Le Guin, Anne McCaffery, and to a slightly lesser extent (because I was older) Katherine Kerr, Elizabeth Moon, and Janny Wurts wrote books that KEPT ME ALIVE. Without them, I would have killed myself as a teen.
More recently some amazing women have helped me become a better person, which I appreciate more than I can adequately describe. Kayla Graves and Alison Stoneklifft built two homes-away-from-home that kept me sane. Crystal Frasier and Lissa Guillet have taken me in many times over the past three years when I needed a safe sofa and a hug. Jessica Price and Amanda Hamon Kunz shared an office, and a big part of their lives, with me for more than a year and trusted me enough to let me see how very, very different the world is for them, which helped me grow a lot.
There are many, many more. Hopefully, I’ll find the right place and the right way to thank them all.
More than one person I know is dealing with the suicide of a friend sometime over the past two weeks.
I didn’t know any of the lost personally. My sadness is second-hand (for my friends and colleagues who are hurting and have suffered loss) and third-hand (I truly do weep for all the lost).
In many cases the suicides were a surprise.
That’s one of the problems with deep, serious, persistent depression.
Life teaches those of us that suffer that we can’t keep talking about it. That if the answer you give to “How are you doing?” is constantly “I’m depressed and thinking of killing myself” you
-A: Get stuck in a lot of extremely painful conversations that don’t help anything
-B: Drive away the very social contact you might need to survive life.
I’m almost always in pain, both physical and mental. Thankfully, many days I am only in a little pain. Sadly, some days I am in a lot of pain.
But I can’t talk about my pain all the time. I don’t have the energy, for one thing.
I don’t want to scare off friendly acquaintances who might someday become friends, for another.
And trust me, constantly being barraged with how crappy a depressed person is feeling will drive some people away. Including people who don’t think it will. Which means my life experience is that when you try to pop in and let me know you AREN’T one of those people, I can’t believe you.
I can’t afford to.
And, I’m sorry to say, 9 times out of 10 if I do confess how bad things are to someone, they make it worse. For example, being told to cheer up, or it’s not so bad, or “hey here’s a thing you can do to improve the situation you are mentioning right now” don’t help.
They are damaging. They are worse than not talking about it. They make a depressed person feel stupid for not being able to fix it, or piss them off that they can’t explain why the problem IS a huge problem.
I do have family and friends I can talk to about the worst feelings, thank goodness. But that trust took years, and a few terrifying risks. It can’t be duplicated quickly.
A good therapist helps, too. And that can be arranged for pretty fast, if I think I need it.
Most of the time “I’m fine” or “Not too bad” are the only answers I *can* give to people who ask how I’m doing. Anything else is a risk and an expenditure of energy I may not be able to afford.
That does, of course, suck for people who want to help. I know that. I’m sorry.
From my own experience, there are only a few things you can do.
If someone is depressed, try to invite them to things. Even if they don’t go to anything you invite them to. As long as they seem happy to be invited, keep inviting. Their depression has them in a prison. Sometimes they get a day pass, and sometimes they don’t. But if they do, it’s helpful to know they COULD go be with people. That they are welcome.
If they do reach out to you listen. Be understanding. They are telling you about the things ruining their lives. Don’t try to make those things sound small, or easily overcome. “That’s rough. I sympathize.” is much, much, much better than “Hey, it’ll all be okay.”
And try to remember, we often can’t ask for help. Literally can not. We are incapable. And you can’t force help on us. But you can let us know, by actions more than just saying so, that you are willing to listen, and willing to be present.
That’s all I have on the topic.
For those of you suffering, please try to find someone who will listen to you. I promise, it can help.
For those of you have have recently suffered loss, my sympathies. It wasn’t your fault. I hope you all have people you can turn to as well, because this kind of pain can be viral.
And well-wishes to you all.