There, I said it. It’s not the sort of thing any employer will ever want to hear, but it’s true. Let me qualify that statement – I think nearly everyone is easily distracted and the difference lies in how people manage distractions.
All fields of games development (programming, art, writing, design, sound, etc) require concentration and the application of skills learnt over years. There’s an intangible “zone” where you feel fully focussed and do your best work that’s not easy to get into, and far too easy to fall out of. Some days you can spend hours in the “zone”, other days not at all.
Being honest, this is the big one for me. A friend might send me a link to a webcomic I’ve not seen before and before I know it, an hour has passed and I’ve read half the archive, or I’ll look something up on Wikipedia and end up reading a stream of completely different (though fascinating) articles.
A Welcome Distraction?
This isn’t always a bad thing though. Sometimes when you’re stuck on a problem, you need a welcome distraction to help your mind see it from a fresh perspective and the internet is more than willing to provide this.
Social networks are an example. I’ve certainly found twitter to be very useful as you can get advice and tips from other game devs who have tackled similar problems to what you’re working on, but social networks are still a bad distraction at times (facebook in particular is becoming much more noise than signal these days for me).
Also, now that I’m an indie developer, the social networks provide vital channels for promoting and building awareness of the game I’m building.
Dealing With The Internet
Simply pulling the plug doesn’t help, because the internet is a vast and immensely valuable resource used all the time for our jobs, so it takes a conscious effort to stay productive with an onslaught of information and entertainment at your fingertips. The trick is in limiting the time spent, and it’s something I’ve struggled with at times, but there are strategies.
For example, I recently went on holiday for a week and returned to find almost 1,000 unread items in Google Reader – that’s in the order of 50,000 a year! I immediately decided to remove the highest volume subscriptions (mostly comedy sites such as Memebase), and now the flow is much more manageable.
Closing browser tabs is another good plan and only checking the networks at particular times of day rather than leaving them open all day. The social networks all seem to put an unread message count in the browser tab, which is a siren call for the easily distracted. Close the tabs till later, and the temptation is gone.
“AAA” Office Distractions
For most of my career, I’ve worked in open plan offices with many other people. This is the usual layout in most “AAA” game studios. There’s a certain background noise to all this that you learn to tune out – air conditioning, PC and dev kit cooling fans (who remembers the noise of the early PS3 dev kits?), traffic outside, etc. If this was all there was to it, then avoiding distractions would be easy, but there are other things which need to be managed in this sort of studio.
You’re working away, deep in the middle of a problem when “DING!”, up pops Outlook’s meeting reminder on your screen telling you there’s a meeting in five minutes about a feature the team is due to start in a few weeks’ time. You have to then shunt all the things you were thinking of out of your mind, gather your notes and start thinking about what you need to say in the meeting. When the meeting is over, it’s going to take a while to get back up to speed on what you were working on.
Unfortunately, the human mind can’t suspend and resume threads as thoroughly and quickly as a computer can, so this process of switching thought processes from one subject to another has an overhead. It not only takes time to get from one train of thought to another, but I find it saps mental energy and makes you tired quicker than focussing on one task for an extended period.
There isn’t really an ideal solution for this. Meetings need to happen to help the people working on a feature or team all understand what each other is doing, and they can’t realistically be scheduled for times when everyone has just finished a task and has the time.
The only workable strategy is to think hard when you get a meeting request about whether you really need to be there, rejecting those for which you believe you will have little input. You ought to be able to read the minutes of the meeting afterwards if you need to know what happened (assuming anyone is actually taking minutes, which I’ve found is uncommon in the games industry). Rejecting meeting requests has another benefit, in that meetings with fewer people tend to be more focussed, so are more likely to finish on time and stay on topic (I have no scientific data for that, only my own experience and anecdotal evidence).
If you’re creating meetings, sometimes the conclusions of a small meeting can be passed to most people in a daily catchup rather than inviting them all. However, it’s sometimes a good idea to mark the other people as “optional” in a meeting as sometimes people don’t like things being decided in meetings without their input. If they know that the meeting is going to take place and decide not to attend, they can’t complain about this.
I’ve also known people and teams that enforce a “No Meeting Day”, once a week or fortnight, which lets people concentrate and get work done without this distraction.
“Can I ask a quick question?”
You’re deep in concentration when you get a tap on the shoulder. Someone want to ask you a question. You don’t know the answer, but you know (or think you know) who does, so you point them in the right direction. You turn back to your work, blink a few times and realise you can’t remember exactly where you were up to, so it costs you a few minutes to get back on track.
This is a tricky one to manage. I like to be open and would much prefer to answer any questions people have for me straight away, then have people sit there stewing because they think I’d shout at them for distracting me. In theory, the people to go to with questions are the leads, because it’s part of their job to mentor their team and deal with communication with people in other teams.
However, in reality you will sometimes know that Person A knows the most about a particular feature/level/thing because they built it, so it’s best to go directly to them rather than disturb their lead, who will then disturb Person A, which would lead to more people distracted and losing time. I guess what I’m saying here is, when you have a question to ask – try to make sure you know who to ask directly – if not, go to the lead. Person A could also help minimise this by creating an intranet wiki page about the feature which answers common questions.
Another way to deal with this distraction is to tell people something like “This afternoon, I want to really concentrate and get X finished, so can you please ask me no questions unless it’s an emergency. Thanks!”, although you probably wouldn’t want to do that too often as people might then become reluctant to ask you anything.
With a lot of people in an office, there’s inevitably going to be chatter going on. The usual remedy is to put on a pair of headphones and listen to music in your own little world instead (I prefer non-vocal ambient electronica when working, but the choice of music is up to you – if death metal works, then so be it). Just make sure the headphones aren’t leaking sound to other people. This works well in an office, but I’ll talk a little more about music being a distraction later on in the article!
You’d think that without meetings, people asking questions or background chatter it’d be easy to get more work done. Think of all that time spend in the “zone”!
This is partially true – I’ve certainly found that I’m more productive in general working in our spare bedroom on my own than I was in a large office, but indie life comes with its own distractions.
Like many indie developers, my project is self-funded (but YOU CAN HELP – shameless plug!). I say self-funded, what I really mean is wife-funded because the vast majority of the money that’s paying the household bills comes from her part time work and contracting. I’ve earned a little bit of money here and there, but she’s definitely the bread winner at the moment. As we have two pre-school children, this means that whilst she’s out earning money, I’m at home looking after the children otherwise that money would be going straight into the coffers of the local nursery.
This week is an extreme example. I had a few hours to work on Monday morning, and today (Thursday), I’ve found enough time to write this article. Next week I should be able to work a normal 40 hour week, but it varies wildly and it’s something I’ve had to get used to. It’s a problem that will mostly solve itself when both children are old enough to go to school, but for now it’s a constant frustration.
Lots Of Different Tasks To Choose From
When you’re making a game on your own, you do everything. However, with freedom comes a lack of structure, which means that it’s easy to put a tricky task off (such as building levels) and do something else (such as optimising shaders) instead. It’s all progress that adds up to the final game, but really the levels need building before shaving cycles off the lighting code.
I guess the solution is to hire a producer, though I can’t afford one so instead I’ll just have to become more disciplined with my scheduling.
Earlier, I said music is a good way to avoid the distraction of background chatter in an office. When I started as an indie developer, I continued this habit, but then realised that without any conscious effort, I sometimes wasn’t putting my headphones on when at my desk. Eventually, I realised that the music itself was a distraction from work, though a lesser one than background chatter. Now I rarely listen to music when working, only occasionally when the children are being particularly noisy downstairs or a neighbour is trimming their hedge or something like that. So little music that I cancelled my Spotify subscription (saving a valuable £60 a year) as the ten free hours a month is more than enough for me.
I certainly don’t have all the answers on avoiding distractions, and I still have to force myself to concentrate on the task in hand, but I hope there are a few useful titbits in this article for people. I’ve certainly made a more conscious effort to think about this in the last year or so. Thanks for reading – even if doing so has distracted you from something else!