The Moonlight Grind: how to make games, win friends and stay sane

I’ve been developing and releasing commercial games in my spare time for over 6 years now. While it hasn’t been easy, I’m here to tell you it’s totally possible–even sustainable! In this article I will share some of the techniques that have worked for me.

Minimize distractions

Let’s start with the easy stuff: minimizing distractions. This is true of pretty much anything you want to focus on. Let’s tackle the really easy (and some of the most disruptive) ones first:

  • Keep your phone on silent mode (better yet: do not disturb mode, or off entirely)
  • Turn off all non-essential notifications (do you really need a notification that Jonny256 liked that picture of your lunch?)
  • Keep your phone in a different room (or failing that, a drawer, or screen down). There is research that shows even having your phone in the same room can hurt your cognitive capacity!

I try to apply the same philosophy to desktop applications: resist the temptation to have your email, social media, etc. open (especially on a second screen–a surefire focus stealer). I personally avoid having any music or videos playing in the background. I’ve heard some say this helps them, but I’m skeptical.

Some people go so far as to have a dedicated work spaces which they only use for their craft and nothing else. While this is impractical for me, I can definitely see the benefit: it helps to create a physical/mental connection (i.e. “When I’m in this room, I’m focusing on ____”.)

Similarly, set expectations with your housemates. There’s nothing wrong with saying you’re off limits for an hour or two; it preempts the potential frustration of having your state of flow interrupted by random drop-ins.

Put first things first

To quote Stephen Covey’s 3rd habit, put first things first!

“Putting first things first means organizing and executing around your most important priorities. It is living and being driven by the principles you value most, not by the agendas and forces surrounding you.”

Stephen Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change

Words to live by, if you ask me!

Part of living this habit includes maintaining a vision at all times. What’s important do you? Why do you what you do? What do you hope to get out of it? If you can’t answer these sorts of questions, you might not be ready to start.

Prioritize learning

This has bitten me a few times: not taking the time to learn a simple skill, and inevitably wasting far more time by not doing so. There’s actually a school of thought that says “If you’re not spending 5 hours per week learning, you’re being irresponsible.” I wholeheartedly agree.

Granted, you can’t learn everything, so you’ll certainly want to understand your limitations and have a network of colleagues that you can reach out to for help, but if it’s something fundamental to your craft, there’s really no way around this.

Starting is the hardest part

This is one of those universal truths, and one that never seems to go away with time! Some nights I really don’t feel like working, or so my brain tells me, but it’s a trick! Some experts believe procrastination is actually a defense mechanism, and the sooner you see it as such, the sooner you’re able to get past it. In most cases, as soon as I take that first step and start doing something, I get right into it, and before I know it it’s been hours!

Side note: along the same lines, I’ve learned that motivation is not something that one can rely on it. It’s great when it’s there–ride that wave!–but it’s rarely there when you need it.

Finishing is even harder

(Ha, I lied! Starting is hard, but finishing is often harder.)

This is something I feel very strongly about: finish what you start! The first few weeks (or months) of a new project are what I call the “honeymoon” phase. You’re still kind of infatuated with your idea, feeling pretty motivated, etc. A few weeks later, you start to lose this drive and it starts to feel like a grind. Eventually, you loathe working on the project, and you abandon it entirely, thus repeating the cycle.

Okay, that’s maybe a bit of an extreme example, but there’s truth to it, and it happens to the best of us! 

There are a couple ways to deal with this:

  • Take a planned break. Don’t outright abandon it, but take time off to revisit an old project or take on a smaller one for a few weeks. Ideally, get to the point where you’ve all but forgotten about it, and then (hopefully) return to it with renewed enthusiasm. 
  • Reduce scope. So maybe your idea for a ground-breaking MMORPG didn’t pan out, but could you make into a small single player RPG experience? You will learn a lot by finishing (and releasing) something, trust me! Finishing is a skill in and of itself, and it requires practice just like any other skill.

Write things down

While I’m a huge proponent of action over words, it’s important to know when to write things down. I’ve found writing helpful when:

  • I’m trying to visualize the scope of something (i.e. how big is this release going to be?)
  • I need to communicate information to others
  • I know it’s something I’m going to forget
  • I’m trying to change a behaviour (more on this later)

Whenever possible, I choose the fastest, laziest, cheapest way of writing things down: bullet points in Evernote (or your note taking tool of choice), with minimal punctuation, formatting and a healthy dose of typos and grammatical errors. I really only worry about quality writing when it matters (public communications, articles, etc.)

The reward is the journey, not the destination

This one may go without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway: you need to enjoy game development to for any of this to make sense. If you conflate the idea of being a game developer with act of developing games, things will turn out poorly for you.

Making games is hard, often frustrating, and sometimes even isolating.

I love the process of making games; if you took away all the external motivating factors (the inevitable fame and fortune, throngs of fans mobbing you in public, etc.), I’m pretty sure I’d still be doing it. Would you?

Any progress is still progress

One common problem I’ve run into is a feeling of guilt over having an unproductive day or not accomplishing enough. I’ll let you in on a little secret: you can never do enough, so instead, find ways to silence this voice. One mantra I repeat to myself often is: any progress is still progress (so long as you’ve actually finished something). If I only got one thing done, it still moved the needle forward.

Personally, I resist the urge to measure progress in hours (with one exception, which I’ll discuss in the next section). This is generally a  meaningless measurement and will often leave you feeling even worse when you’re not able to hit your target. Instead ask yourself: did my accomplishments today make a meaningful contribution towards my goal? If not, do something different tomorrow. 😉 

Change habits, one measurement at a time

Something that I’ve found particularly helpful for changing habits–partially inspired by the the Japanese budgeting technique Kakeibo— is writing things down. In particular, I’ve found that writing things down really makes you feel the weight of them.

For example, do you think you’re spending too much time consuming content (watching TV, scrolling news feed, playing games, etc.), and that it’s getting in the way of your craft? Keep a journal and see how it changes. If it doesn’t change by virtue of simply writing it down–I’d be surprised if it doesn’t–start setting targets for yourself.

Among other things, I’ve successfully used this technique to ensure I’m getting enough exercise (see: Take care of yourself) and not drinking too much alcohol.

Similarly, consider Stephen Covey’s 4 Quadrants technique to help manage your time effectively. The technique involves categorizing everything you do into one of four quadrants (right). Quadrant 2 contains the items that are non-urgent but important. According to Covey, these are the ones he believes we are likely to neglect, but should focus on to achieve effectiveness.

Stephen Covey’s 4 Quadrants technique

Take care of yourself

Nobody can expected to be productive when they’re exhausted–or worse, burnt out–so taking care of yourself both mentally and physically is paramount! To that end, here are just a few of the things I try to do as regularly as possible:

  • Get a good night’s sleep! There is so much research into the value of sleep and the detrimental effects of not getting enough. Some people have convinced themselves they can run on a few hours of sleep, but they’re only fooling themselves! (I try for at least 7 every night)
  • Eat well. While this can be difficult to do when you’re busy, fast doesn’t need to be mean bad. There are healthy pre-made and packaged options, just keep an eye on the ingredients and nutritional information. Lately, I’ve cut meat out of my diet and it’s had so many positive effects; right away I’m getting a much more diverse range of foods, and therefore natural vitamins and nutrients.
  • Exercise. I try to find the easiest and fastest ways to incorporate exercise into my days. For example, I take the stairs everywhere, and I’ve been walking through our hilly neighbourhood every day during lockdown.
  • Make time for family and friends. It’s easy to get caught up in a project and forget about socializing, but it’s important to our well-being as humans. I try to get together with friends at least once a week, and my wife and I have a few “rituals” to ensure we spend time together regularly.
  • Limit caffeine, alcohol, and other stimulants. All of these are just crutches. I would not go so far as to say cut them out of your life entirely–they are wonderful in moderation!–but for some people it’s the only way.

Forge your own path

As they say, YMMV (your mileage may vary)! I’ve shared some of the things that have worked for me personally; that doesn’t mean they will work for you. Although I may have used strong language in places, please don’t treat any of these as absolutes. Ultimately, you need to try things to see what works and what doesn’t. 

I would advise against drawing comparisons or outright copying others. Learn from others, absolutely, but only you know what’s right for you, and it takes time to figure this out. (hint: this is a life-long journey!)

tl;dr;

  • Minimize distractions
  • Put first things first
  • Prioritize learning
  • Starting is the hardest part
  • Finishing is even harder
  • The reward is the journey, not the destination
  • Any progress is still progress
  • Change habits, one measurement at a time
  • Take care of yourself
  • Forge your own path

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