Being a small independent game developer can be very difficult and challenging, especially during the final crunch. There's a million things that can go wrong with the game itself, marketing, testing and schedules, any one of which can prove catastrophic. Twisted Jenius is going through the process of the final crunch right now as we prepare for our first game to be released on Steam. So I thought I'd take a moment to impart my villainous wisdom to any other small indie devs working diligently to achieve milestones on their first game.
When it comes to game development, a lot can be said about things like technology, game design, programming, art, etc. but it's easy to neglect the needs and mindsets of the developers themselves, and when you're on your own, essentially working for yourself, this can become very important. So that is what I would like to address here. How to cope with the challenges of finding a healthy balance between work and everything else.
There is no balance between work and everything else! Prepare to have every other facet of your existence absorbed, as if your project were some kind of giant amoeba consuming everything. That game is your life now, except it!
Of course this does not bode well for things that you may think of as being essential, like sleep, for example. You will need to greatly skew your perspective on this. Sleep is overrated. The evidence for how long it actually takes for a person to really die of sleep deprivation is still fairly inconclusive and besides, you'll start experiencing psychological effects like hallucinations and paranoia long before the more severe physical symptoms begin to take hold. This is for the best. You really don't want to have to be sane and fully cognitive during crunch time. Consider the fact that you're somewhat out of it, a mercy.
Of course that still leaves the challenge of how you continuously fend off sleep for long periods of time. Energy drinks are an obvious choice, but just relying on them is a rookie move. Instead try pouring a hot cup of pure espresso into a full bottle of No-Doz, liquefying all of the caffeine pills and downing the whole thing in one swig. I'd recommend starting every morning off like that but at this point all of your days and nights should be thoroughly running together into an unidentifiable mass of hellish existence, so just keep doing it every few hours until the project is done.
A side note about nutrition- During this time you may also be tempted to order a bunch of pizza or other delivery kinds of food to eat while you're working. But be careful, and don't eat too much; just what you absolutely need to survive. It's important to stay hungry and allow the hunger in your stomach to reflect the hunger you feel to get the game completed. Remember, lunch breaks are for the weak.
If you're still having trouble staying conscious during the course of the crunch, it's best to make your work area as cold as possible. Fans, air conditioning, open windows, whatever. The cold can act as a stimulant and keep you alert. You should be shivering there in front of your computer, warmed only by the pale glow of the screen in front of you and the faint glimmer of hope that you will somehow release this game in any reasonable manner.
Playing lots of really loud and jarring music can also be a really good way to make sure that your schedule stays on track. That's obvious, but you could also go another way with it and try the subliminal route. Keep playing Kid Ink's "Fuck Sleep" on a continuous loop until the message burrows deep into your brain like a carnivorous earwig, and you can't get it out. All of this may sound unpleasant but comfort and rest are for people who don't have deadlines, and they're not luxuries that you can afford.
Maintaining a social life while being an indie developer can be a bit tricky. Wait, no it's not. It's actually very simple- you don't have one! Friends are for earners, and your game hasn't made a dime yet. What makes you think they'd want to hang out with you anyway?
"Friends are for earners"
And even if you did have friends, you really don't have time for that now. So you might as well just block all of their emails, remove them from all of your friends lists and permanently turn off all messages from your phone because that's effectively what you're going to be doing anyway once you start the crunch. And if you have family, well, I pity them and you would too if you had enough time or energy to think about anything like that. Fortunately, you won't.
But don't worry, you will have something else to take the place of a normal, healthy social life. This will consist of attempting to contact or approach game journalists, Youtubers, and other folks in the industry and desperately tell them about your game. Your efforts will mostly be met with silence or occasional hostility. You'll write blog posts about your passion as you're shouting into the void, and you'll never hear an answer back. That deafening, dark indifference will quickly become your only true companion, so you better learn to enjoy it's company.
Mentally preparing for the game's release
You're probably able to press on with the project by thinking about how nice it'll be when the game is done. You'll finally be able to relax, have fun and rake in all of those piles of indiegame cash. Maybe you even believe that you will have contributed something to the world. Of course we both know that's not actually how any of that works, but that's also probably what you're forced to tell yourself just to get through the day. That kind of self delusion can be very helpful when the sweet release of death begins looking like a pleasant alternative to your current existence. But regardless of what you think is going to happen, it's important that you prepare yourself for what actually does happen when you put out a game. You're no longer going to be seen as human, now you're a game developer. This is a very important distinction.
You've seen it before with other devs and you know how this works. You'll release your game and then suddenly you're no longer a person, you're now a faceless, soulless business entity whose sole joy in life is fleecing innocent gamers out of their hard earned money or utterly disappointing them with your cruel and unprovoked game design decisions. You may not believe that's what you want and you may think you're still a person, but others will see the truth and be quick to remind you that this is no longer the case.
Be prepared to read blogs vividly describing all of the infectious diseases the author would rather contract than play your game. Expect to get hate mail for any and all conceivable and inconceivable reasons. If you try to publicly speak about any personal problems you have and naively attempt to convince others that you're still a person with feelings, you will be told in no uncertain terms to go cry on your pile of money (people will always assume you make more than you do).
If you're lucky you may get some fans, and if you're truly popular you may even get a couple of enthusiastic stalkers. None of these people will really know you or treat you like an actual human being either, but at least they'll be nicer about it. Or rather they will be until you make a misstep with one of your products, at which time they will turn on you like a pack of rabid hyenas, working under the assumption that whatever you did, you must've done specifically just to hurt and betray them personally.
You may be thinking that at least you'll still have your preexisting family and friends. Don't count on it. You know all of those people in your life who couldn't be bothered to test your game out when you were still working on it? Yeah, they're still not going to play it no matter how popular it gets. In fact if you do happen to get successful, you'll probably just alienate them even more.
So how do you prepare for this inevitable outcome? Simple, get ahead of it. Sacrifice your humanity now, so that there's less of a shock when it's taken away later. If you've been doing everything else correctly up until this point in crunch time, you probably already feel whatever fire you had inside you slowly dying. It's time to snuff that out completely. Cast out any semblance of your humanity, like you're ringing out a dirty washrag. By ripping that Band-Aid off right now, you'll feel better later. You can probably think of some other very successful indie devs. You know, the kind that are either completely out of touch or horribly reclusive, infuriatingly pompous or seem half ashamed of their own success and continuously whine about it and that everyone seems to grow to hate eventually. Best case scenario, if you're really, really, lucky you'll get to be one of those guys.
But chances are you're not that lucky. In fact at this point in your life the evidence is likely mounting that God really doesn't like you very much and even statistically speaking, your indie game efforts are likely to fail miserably. Fortunately, there is a silver lining to this because the very same process you need to prepare for success, also applies to preparing for failure. Namely it involves becoming a hollow bitter shell of a human being devoid of any true spark for life. This will set you up perfectly for your next job which will likely be at an entry level position at a place you really don't want to work.
You don't have to be crazy to work here… Oh wait, yes you do.
Disenchantment thrives in many job environments. Businesses will often say that they want someone who is energetic or enthusiastic, but we all know that's only true up to a point. Truly spirited and impassioned people don't make very good employees in a lot of situations. It's just usually easier to have a work force with their spirits mostly broken. And there you will find your place as yet another cog in the machine. But you won't be alone, in fact you'll be surrounded by others just like you who are also dissatisfied with their jobs. And so you'll also find camaraderie.
In fact you'll be able to complain about the situation you're in and others will be somewhat sympathetic and complain along with you. This is often a common bonding exercise in certain work environments. And you'll get to be lazy. Coming in everyday and doing the minimum not to get fired will feel like a very different experience than when you had to be constantly productive and motivated when you were an indie dev. Obedience will be encouraged and creativity will be discouraged and ridiculed. Your individual actions will matter significantly less as just another drone in a large company and depending on the standards of where you're working, you may be able to squeak by doing surprisingly little.
And there you will have found the social interaction and relaxed passionless and predictable workday that so alluded you as an indie developer. So take heart fellow aspiring game developers, the final crunch time of game development may be difficult, it may seem like an uphill battle fraught with endless turmoil. But there's always light at the end of the tunnel. Even if that light happens to be fluorescent, shining down sickly onto a sea of tiny beige cubicles.