What Should I Do With My Life?


I was amazed at all the responses I got to my last big blog entry. Sometimes I thought about responding but I always felt like I'd just be defensive of the advice or ideas so I held off.

Since then I read The Monk and the Riddle by Randy Komisar and also What Should I Do With My Life by Po Bronson. The first was recommended a while ago by my friend Dan. The second by my friend Monica. That second book has a really bad title in Japanese. It's called "このつまらない仕事を辞めたら、僕の人生は変わるのだろうか?" which basically is "If I quit this boring job will my life change?". Kind of sad because that's not really the point of the book although maybe it is one way of looking at it.

Anyway, the first book, in so many words advises that you shouldn't live on the deferred life plan. Which means, the author claims lots of people have a dream of doing something and their plan for achieving that dream is to do something else to first get enough money and then once they get enough money they'll go do their dream thing. He claims that he pretty much hasn't met anyone that's ever done this. Generally they either never actually get the money or 10 − 20 years they spend doing this thing they are really not interested in changes them such that they lose their dream.

One thing, Randy seems blessed with an awesome life so there's a certain part of his advice that is easy to dismiss thinking that he lucked out and so what does he really know about life for the rest of us. Still, it seems like good advice, although I'm not sure what my dream is/was that I haven't tried to achieve. My dream was to start my own game company. I did this 3 or 4 times depending on how you define it. I did contract work straight out of high school and a couple of other times in my life. Also my friends and I right after college worked on some contracts together. We were massively underpaid but it was a try. Then there was Seven and Big Grub.

Since then I'm not sure I still want to do that. It certainly felt good to have my own company and I learned a lot about what to do and what not to do. For one I learned that it's a butt load of work and you need partners that are willing to put in 80 hours a week for a few years until the company is successful. But, I also learned just how hard it is. There are so many roles that need to be filled. There are some awesome articles about how much there is to do here. All that makes me leary to try again. Worse, when I started making games in high school we could make them with just 1 person. My first commerial game was a conversion of Centipede from the Atari 800 to the Commodore 64. I think all the graphics in Centipede can be drawn in a few hours at most. Back then we didn't have graphics programs so we had to plot them out on graph paper and convert them to computer code by hand but even so it didn't take more than a day. Now the teams are 40 to 150 people big and the projects take 2 years. They cost $5 to $15 million dollars and you need all kinds of things in place to manage that many people. In fact one of the biggest problems is finding people that can actually do the job. This is off topic but the dotcom bust where all those programmers were supposedly out of work, my dad likes to bring that up, the thing is, we interview those guys and none of them had/have a clue. Even with all of them out of work there is still a shortage of people that can actually do these jobs.

Moving on, the other book was 50 or so stories of people that changed their lives in some way. Usually by switching careers. I guess their were one or 2 that didn't just as counter examples. I wouldn't say these stories were about people chasing their dreams so much as people trying to find something that made them happy or that made them feel like they belonged. I'm not sure what I got out of the book except possibly more anxiety that life doesn' stop and I need to figure out something as soon as possible.

I brought up getting out of games. I'm not sure if the idea of getting out is because my last couple of years in as been disappointing or if there is more to it. Certainly making games is much more fun on a great team with talented people making something you actually believe in and I haven't been in that situation since 1999 on Crash Team Racing. If I was in that situation again would everything be alright? But......On the other hand, a sub theme of the 2nd book above, not directly stated but inferred from the authors judgements and also part of the Anthony Robbins ideas is that most people need to feel like they are contributing to society or the big picture or something bigger than themselves in order to really be happy. To stop wondering if what they are doing is the right thing. Games hardly seem to fit that criteria.

Obviously you can come up with all kinds of ways they benefit people. Entertaining people is a valid and needed activity. Unfortunately, at least for me it's too far removed. If you perform live you might get to see the people you make happy but at the companies I've been at I've almost never seen any feedback from people that enjoyed my games. I see a little here on this website sometimes but to give you an example my friends worked at Shiny Entertainment. Back when they made Earthworm Jim they got a TON of fan mail. Thousands of letters. Lots of them were in hand drawn envelopes with fan drawn pictures of their characters. They had hundreds of them on the walls of their staircase at their office. It was really inspiring. I don't know if other companies get those or not. My feeling is they must but that the companies in question either don't put them up, they get answered in customer service and then discarded, or, like in the case of Crash Team Racing I suspect the majority of the fan mail went to Sony, not to Naughty Dog so we never got a chance to see them. I'm not sure if that would make the difference between games feeling more worthy of a life or not.

Another abstract reason, games employ hundreds of thousands of people directly and indirectly which provides for families etc. That's nothing to sneeze at. There's even more abstract things like games are probably the #1 force behind PCs and graphic cards getting faster. Graphic cards have gotten so fast and so powerful they are now being used to solve problems and study issues that used to require giant mainframes. They would likely never have gotten their without games but I think those things are too far removed to actually satisfy that feeling of contributing to society. Maybe as the boss / owner of a company, certainly you feel responsible for all your employees and if things are going well I'm sure it feels good to know you are helping each employee with their life. Is that the answer? I have to start a company to be able to do games and feel like I'm contributing?

I suppose some people get that feeling from raising their kids. I'm not sure I'm willing to wait and find out of that's the answer only to find it's not. As far as I know it might not be in my future although I hope it is. Others might get it from volunteering. Maybe I should persue that angle although that hardly helps with the job aspect.

People have suggested I give something else a try. Unfortunately it's not so easy. First off games are a constantly evolving industry. That means if you get out for a couple of years it will be extremely hard to get back in. Companies only want to hire people that have experience on current generation hardware, APIs etc. That means if I leave it I might never be able to get back in which is a scary thought.

Another giant issue is that in games, I'm a lead programmer. To put it in movie terms, that's an above the line position. I'm in a position I get to have direct input into the design of the game. There are 3 or 4 positions at the top of a game, they are producer, lead designer, lead artist and lead programmer. Some friends have suggested I go check out the financial industry. Especially since in Japan they pay probably double what I'm making. But, I suspect the work I would do would be pretty uninteresting and the bigger issue is that I would go from being at the top of the team to being basically someone supporting the traders.

To put it another way, games started around lead programmers. Originally we did it all, the programming and the art and the sounds, even the sales and marketing. Then as things got bigger we hired artists to make better art and sales people and marketing people to push our products. In financial, the traders are the base. A company starts with a trader or traders, then they hire secretaries so they can concetrate on trading, then networking guys to give them faster access to info, then programmers to write trading programs etc but the base is the traders. Everyone else is there support to the traders.

That is not meant to judge anyone in any other position, it's only ment to point out that in some ways, for me, switching industries would be a giant step down the ladder. Of course if making games is no fun anymore and if most other jobs suck as well then which ever job pays the most money or gives the most opportunities to have a life outside of your job might be the best choice. That's probably the temptation of financial. Larger salaries, more benefits, more vacations, a more balanced employee makeup are all pretty tempting. On the other hand I don't really feel like switching to financial would satisfy the kinds of needs those two books above talk about.

I see people getting MBAs. I have no idea if an MBA would be interesting or not but there are certainly lots of people with MBAs that appear to have very interesting opportunities. I really know absolutely ZERO about MBAs though so I have no clue if I would enjoy that path or if it's even open at 39.

There's another issue that's eating at me as well. Maybe it could best be described as symptom of burnout. But it's basically that I'm full of ideas and opinions on games, game hardware, game software, game APIs, game development, etc. I'd often like to pursue those ideas but at the same time I'm not willing to put in the time. I think it has to do with being 39 and single and having no balance. To give you an example I use to participate in the Computer Game Developers Conference discussion board back in the late 80s early 90s. I used to go to the Los Angeles Game Devlelopement SIG meetings once one month with my friends. Those types of opportunities still exist, maybe even more than they did before but it's really hard to get into them. I could be partly because the industry is bigger and I therefore get less out of it being a smaller part of it. But, I think the biggest reason is instead of seeing it as fun now I see it as work or as that thing that kept me away from the rest of my life.

One other big point of both books although made in seperate ways is finding something to do that excites you. That makes you excited to get up in the morning and do it. Randy talks about it in the terms of "could you do this for the rest of your life" or I think better, "if you failed would you still feel this thing you are doing was worth your time?" I guess an example might be, if you started a company selling fax machines hoping to get rich and it failed you probably would feel like you wasted your time. If on the other hand you started a company to find a cure for cancer and you failed you'd probably still be proud that you at least tried. Those are exaggerated examples but smaller examples might be things like I'm sure the people at Google.com feel like they are making the world a better place. The people at Apple, whether or not you like Apple, those people feel like they are making the world a better place. I'd even bet most of the people at Microsoft feel like they are trying to make the world a better place. The people at Tivo probably feel like they are changing the world.

Well, what is that for me? Games used to really jazz me up. I used to be excited to come in to work. I used to be love this stuff. Is it just a matter of balance and or burnout or is that gone forever and I need to find it somewhere else and if it is somewhere else where is it?

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