Bad stress

People who regularly read this blog, or should I say, people who regularly drop by to see if I’ve updated this blog, will have noticed my greatly reduced posting frequency of late. This is the first post in June. In May, I have posted five times, twice only to reassure my dwindling audience that I am not dead.

Well, there was a reason for that: I was too stressed, with the bad kind of stress.

I’ve been busy before. Last year I spent pretty much every day in the office for a few months. But that was good stress: we were all working on something achievable. Most of the time, it was kind of fun, and addictive. (I started a blog entry about this surprising conclusion back then – specifically, after five of us left work after an all-nighter, and went off to spend about 1000 Euros between us on consoles and games. I may finish it some day.)

At the start of this year, I was made producer on a new project at Rockstar Vienna. Rockstar’s confidentiality policy being what it is, I won’t be able to tell you anything about it until the well-orchestrated PR campaign has started.

Being a producer on a Rockstar title is a daunting thought, what with the huge sales numbers, the critical acclaim, and the intense attention to whatever the company does. This project also has a larger team and budget than what I’ve worked with before. But oddly enough all of this is not really a source of stress for me. Optimism is the hallmark of a producer – you have to be optimistic to believe that something great can be produced from nothing.

What turned out to generate significant amounts of bad stress was managing other, smaller projects on the side. I had already been doing this last year, when we were making the various localisations of the GTA Double Pack for the Xbox. Everyone was so absolutely exhausted from working on the US version of the Double Pack and the PS2 and Xbox ports of Max Payne 2 that it was very hard to be motivated to work on localisations. Consequently and ironically, these versions were, at least to me, much more difficult than the US version. Even though much less effort was involved, it was much harder to coax out and focus that effort.

This year brought some more of that. When I got back from the GDC I was producing a big project while at the same time producing a very small but also quite important project on the side, and having indirect responsibility for a third one. On this smaller project I communicated with stakeholders outside of the studio, I coordinated the efforts of various people, many of whom, like me, had responsibilities in other teams. I also made very detailed decisions on issues, and often solved them myself.

So I was thinking on many different levels of detail and many different time scales, for two to three projects at the same time. If this makes me sound super-human: well, think again. The stress I felt during April and May grew so strong that I lost interest in my job, the games industry, and the whole medium. I did not play games. I did not read about games. I did not think about games. I hardly talked with friends in the industry.

Each problem I saw was trivial to solve by itself, especially when discussing it with someone else. But everything together generated an overwhelming feeling that Things could Not be Dealt With. Especially not by me. Similarly to being depressed, the overall feeling caused by the bad stress colored my ability to objectively evaluate situations. Rationally, the problems could be dealt with, but emotionally I didn’t believe it. This gut feeling that it was all too much gnawed at my self confidence, which only made the problem worse.

In retrospect, the solution was quite simple. At some point I identified the bad stress itself as the source of the problem. Logically, it wasn’t the individual projects and their problems, nor was it me. It was the stress caused by working on these projects at the same time. I clearly communicated this to my boss, who found a solution allowing me to focus on my main project, and now things are slowly getting better. I am playing games again, and I am reading, thinking, and writing about them again, as you can see.

A friend of mine works for a large multinational financial company. When I told her about this solution, she remarked that in her job, having projects taken away is a bad thing, with bad consequences. I consider how the studio I work for reacted to this situation to be a strong sign of this being a good place to work. (My earlier point that on some level I enjoyed spending my weekends here last summer is another sign.)

I have discovered that, at least to me, producing means worrying. It’s worrying about all the problems nobody else is seeing, that nobody else is responsible for, neither above nor below you in the organisational structure, including the meta-problems of trying to make sure problems are seen and dealt with as soon as possible, and covered by someone’s responsibility. And I have discovered that switching between two sources of worry is deadly. It could have killed my career – not because of something that happened, or nearly happened, or could have happened, but because my mind’s sense of self-preservation would have simply removed my volition to be involved with games.

Ironically, ever since the smaller side projects were handed off to someone else, I have still been involved in them every single day. I am still the guy who has most of the important details in his head, and who knows best how certain things are done. Now, two weeks after the hand-over, it looks as if the first side project is practically done. But, as I have assured the poor guy who is now producing in my place, just being rid of the worrying is a huge load off my back. Solving the individual problems is a breeze.

Most of the time, when I get home, I still prefer reading a book than writing something about the games industry (and maybe it’s better that way). Even if I still need to do more thinking on ways of avoiding this kind of situation in the first place, I have learned a lot from doing these little side projects. What I have learned several times over is that if the end result of a project is a title that goes on a shelf, such as a localisation, it is more similar to a “real” 18 to 24 month project than you may think. I have also learned I can identify bad stress as something separate from myself, and can overcome my shame and deal with it in a productive way. And that feels pretty good.

So there it is: an explanation, perhaps, of why I haven’t updated much lately, in the shape of the kind of personal post I never write, but that Robin is so good at. It feels strange – egocentric, because I just talk about me and barely mention the great people I work with. Overly cryptic, because I don’t want to give hints of what I am working on. But I hope it conveys the insight about working in the games industry that I have recently gained.

Comments 4

  1. Markus Friedl wrote:

    cool post Jurie!
    also glad to hear that things seem to move into the right direction again…

    not sure yet, though, what I should think about the new color scheme here… ;)

    Posted 14 Jun 2004 at 9:32
  2. Nick wrote:

    Stress is a real killer and certainly not something to be taken lightly. My wife recently had a real bad period because of stress-related work (she was finishing her master’s thesis and had all kinds of problems with her writing partner). It was really quite scary to see how quickly it hit and the, as you hint at yourself, the kind of denial that takes place when it hits.

    It’s good to hear you’re better.

    Posted 14 Jun 2004 at 9:40
  3. Jurie Horneman wrote:

    Thanks for the kind words.

    Stress is dangerous, and I’ve dealt with it before, but because of the way I have changed and my work has changed, I still have new things to learn about it. It started pretty quickly, and it distorted my reasoning, which made it hard to realise (admit?) that it was a real problem, and required a real solution.

    Posted 14 Jun 2004 at 20:59
  4. Stephane wrote:

    I hardly believed you when you posted that you where still alive ;)
    Glad to know you’re feeling better.
    Take care.

    Posted 15 Jun 2004 at 11:59