Depression and the Creative Professional

In March, 2014, I announced the launch of the Mobile Frame Zero 002: Intercept Orbit (originally, Alpha Bandit) Kickstarter. I had high hopes, as my three previous Kickstarters had gone well, succeeding with between 300% and 900% of my cash goal. Instead, the project wound up testing my limits as a creator and seriously, adversely affecting my mental health.

I promised my backers that I’d tell them what had happened when it was all over. Now it’s over and, rather than feeling like I’m complaining and making excuses, I feel like it’s time to share something that should give backers an opportunity to get a glimpse into the challenges faced by project creators, and give creators the reassurance that this isn’t just happening to them.

My initial intention was to publish the game as a small, supplemental set of rules to Mobile Frame Zero 001: Rapid Attack, printed on a heavy, cardstock, 11×17” poster, the equivalent of seven pages plus the front cover. But as I’d closed in on how to express the differences in the two games, I began to realize that I was touching nearly every rule, and the specification grew to 48 pages.

Back in 2012, I’d badly underestimated costs on Rapid Attack, estimating at $9000. If I’d met that minimum, I’d have been short by $2000. Instead, I had exceeded that minimum by 800%, which meant I had made $18,000 too little. $18,000 that was to be my salary from the yearlong project.

I wanted to learn from that mistake, so I took more care in estimating my costs, which bumped my minimum for project success up to almost $30,000.

Once the project launched, I experienced a further worrying phenomenon: while existing fans brought in $15,000 on the first couple of days, I couldn’t catch any of the press that Rapid Attack had received. I began biting my nails. 30 days later, the Kickstarter ended at just short of $37,000. At 120%, it was the closest any of my four Kickstarters had come to failure.

But those stressors are the same that I’d experienced with my earlier Kickstarters. The next stressor was the one that was personally toughest to handle.

I started the page design of the book, getting the text in order, turning my notes into a game, and sharing each draft as it became complete. I was really happy when I started seeing blog posts of the MoFØs playing Intercept Orbit, building cool micro spaceships and testing the mettle of their fleets and strategy. But I started to notice something going wrong: games were ending in effective stalemates, where fleets would simply run out of dice, costing them all of their decision-making capabilities. Eventually, players had no options but to tempt fate and ram each other.

That made the game, already slower than Rapid Attack, go much, much slower, ending with a randomly determined victor.

It was bad. It was exactly what one worries about when designing a game. A loss of player control. A loss of player investment, throwing one’s fate to the winds.

It wasn’t happening every time, of course. But my calculations when designing the game had said that this should almost never happen. And it happened twice in perhaps five playtests.

Economic theory stands on this broad, stable foot of one assumption: that humans are rational actors, that they act in their own best interest. There are many arguments that say that this broad, stable foot is made of clay. I’m inclined to agree. We respond first and most strongly to our own emotions.

I started seeing this failure of game design — of my game design — as an overwhelming, personal one. It was a denunciation of my abilities as a game designer; the final proof that I don’t have what it takes, and that I was letting down almost a thousand backers who had faith in my ability to deliver an enjoyable social experience.

I went through the complete cycle of emotions.

  1. First, I was simply stunned. I couldn’t imagine why this was happening.
  2. Then I decided that it was a probabilistic fluke. It was unlikely, but it could still happen twice, right?
  3. When that started to feel implausible, I got mad at the players: why were they playing like that? It was stupid and they were just doing it because collisions are flashy. The were ruining my game.
  4. I considered a simple patch: warning the players that this was a dangerous outcome if they played a certain way, if only I could figure out how to express what that way was.
  5. Then I realized that none of this was true. I had written a bad game. It had a major rot in its heart and I was incapable of seeing what was going on. I just wasn’t up to the challenge of resolving this profound, endemic flaw.

This is where things really went off the rails, not just for the project, but for me, personally.

I remained frozen in this position for an entire year. I couldn’t even look at the text. After all, I’d already looked at it so, so much, right? How would looking at it more help?

In the meantime, I was rapidly running out of money. A large line item had turned off to be off by almost 100%, handily absorbing my profit. Shipping was threatening to jump again. The text had grown to 100+ pages, badly threatening my still-slim print budget. Entire sections were showing themselves to be unclear when I looked at the questions that playtesters had. It was a disaster. The only conclusion I could draw was that I was incompetent in my medium.

Throughout this process, I was dragging myself to the Owl & Raven creative space daily, trying to find the motivation to work on the text beside my fellow creators, primarily Hannah Shaffer and Evan Rowland. But working on other games made me feel guilty because I wasn’t fixing Intercept Orbit. I couldn’t even get my ass to the coworking space before 2 in the afternoon. Nothing could make me care enough to push myself forward to resolve the issues I was having.

Finally, a year after recognizing the problem, I decided to forgive myself for writing a crappy game, finish it off, and get it off my plate. I didn’t bother waiting to actually forgive myself. But I decided to, and rationalized that I could get to the forgiveness when it came.

I sat down and looked at the rules, reading from page one. In under a half hour, figured out what was wrong. There was an interplay of rules, a cascade of effects that went like this:

  • In Rapid Attack, much of the game is deciding whether to run out of cover to press forward or to keep a frame safe. In play, you try to make it so you’re running from cover to cover, but can’t always pull it off.
  • But cover gets in the way in Intercept Orbit. Too many pieces of cover, and there are constant collisions. Too few, and it reduces the texture of the battlespace to an undifferentiated plane, making the game too symmetrical. So there are only a couple of pieces of space junk and asteroids. It should, after all, feel like open ocean.
  • The lack of cover meant that, every turn, ships were taking 200% as many hits as mobile frames do in Rapid Attack.
  • To reduce the impact of being out of cover all the time, I’d earlier introduced a repair roll. You could use your white 6s to repair your ship. But ships weren’t getting the chances to repair themselves. Each turn, a ship had a 33% chance of repairing one damaged system.
  • I could halve the impact of damage by reducing the threshold of repair to 5 from 6.

The practical solution to a year of crushing depression was literally replacing “6” with  “5 or 6”.

I finished the text. I got the illustrations in order. I went through another round of editing with my editor, Joshua Yearsley, because I was incapable of reading the text critically; it was unmitigated garbage in my eyes, which meant that I couldn’t even see what I was trying to say. Remember, I’d only decided to forgive myself.

I got my proofs, made some quick changes, and went to press. The books shipped at the end of January, 2016, just a few weeks ago as I write this.

The project hit the red a good while ago. I haven’t made any money on it yet, but I expect it to start paying me back this year. That year of depression was close to being a year without an income. My plan had been to design and publish another game in 2015. I couldn’t do it.

Each day, I struggle to get my head together to make something. I teach game design two days a week right now. My students are wonderful: creative, focused, internally motivated. Each semester, I mentally put a bet on a few who will make better things than I can, which is necessarily one’s hope for one’s students.

The rest of the time, the things I want to do are a vague, but heavy, cloud at the edges of my consciousness. It’s difficult to sleep and difficult to wake up in direct proportion to how much stress I’m under, but knowing that tendency just makes me feel guilty about not getting my head together again today.

Depression has some sort of connection to creativity, so you’ll see this kind of story a lot from creators. When I was in high school and struggling, I was lucky enough to receive a book from my dad (also a professional creator), Churchill’s Black Dog, Kafka’s Mice, and Other Phenomena of the Human Mind. The important takeaway from the book was that one can use drive and creativity to run from depression; to shove yourself forward when you don’t feel the motivation and, in so doing, start to outrun the crushing dark that, as unstoppable as it is, approaches as a persistence hunter, not a pursuit predator.

I’ve seen creator after creator shrink in shame from their audience when things go wrong for them. They go to great expense, emotionally and financially, to fulfill their promises, often panicking and paying for large-volume fast shipping, or destroying their work over their inability, or eventual unwillingness, to base their estimation of their value as a person on the commercial expectations of their supporters.

It’s extremely dangerous to rely on the fickle opinions of others for both one’s income and confirmation of the value of one’s work. So, creators, have compassion for yourselves. And backers, please remember that, at the other end of that project is someone going through months of extreme pressure, working as hard as they can to fulfill their promises. Please have compassion on them, too.

That effort to shove myself forward often takes more than I have, but in moments where the pressure releases a bit, I grab opportunity in the form of a pencil and draw an alien or a spaceship or I sketch out an idea for a game I want to play. Sometimes those moments start a chain reaction that will lead to something I can make and sell. It is my hope that, next time, it won’t drain me of emotional and material resources.

You might be expecting me to say how I solved this depression and pulled myself out of it; how I got back to designing games; to teaching; to publishing, how I regained confidence in my self-worth. I haven’t. That’s not how this works. Instead of confidence, I have perseverance. I only get to try each moment once, and no moment exists without the perseverance that got me to this one, so I act the best I can right now. I have no reason to believe that what I am or what I do is particularly valuable, but I can’t help but notice how good the people around me are in their support, and how valuable their support is to me and to everyone else who, after all, are relying on each other.

And personally, I know how much that compassion matters because I’m very lucky to have really excellent backers. Thank you, MoFØs, for your support as I’ve gone through, and continue to live in, this profoundly difficult experience.

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