How At the Gates took 7 years of my life – and nearly the rest

By Jon Shafer

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With At the Gates now only two weeks away from release I’ve had a lot of time to look back at its development, as well as my own. It’s not news to anyone that AtG took much, much longer than I planned, and promised. And while we often hear about stories of burnout, rarely are those made truly real for us. It’s always something at a distance, something impersonal. In this article I hope to pull back the curtain and show how bitterly dark it can be behind the public veneer. There were many moments where I’d given up on everything, and saw no future for myself, none whatsoever. I’m thankful now that I didn’t give up, because I came very close. This is the story of how At the Gates was made, and how it almost destroyed me.

I’m also hoping this article helps others avoid at least a few of the mistakes I made. I know there are people out there like me, in similar situations, some in games and some not. Know that I understand what you’re going through, and I’m rooting for you to make it through. I believe in you. I was able to make it out and you can too.

The Dream

I’ve always known what I wanted to do: make games. I learned to program from my father when I was around 8 years old, and the very first thing I did with this knowledge was start creating simple games in PCD3, an archaic programming language with some basic graphical tools. I was designing pen-and-paper Pokemon and Dragon Ball Z roleplaying games when I was 11.

I was also a big fan of history and strategy games though, and in high school a teacher first introduced me to Civilization 2 (by way of a pirated copy… yikes!). I moved onto the new hotness that was Civ 3 shortly after it came out, and while played the game for over a thousand hours I spent several thousand more making various mods, moderating forums, and occupying myself with other superfan activities. But it was the creation element that really appealed to me. When Civ 3 originally came out it didn’t have a map editor, but one was eventually released in a patch, and when that happened I was literally the first one on the scene creating and uploading maps to the forums.

I wanted to become a game developer so badly I figured out how to optimize my high school credits in order to graduate a year early, and as my impatience grew still further I decided I would drop out of studying computer science in order to move to Maryland and work for a video game QA company named Absolute Quality. My parents weren’t so much of a fan of this idea, and I only finally relented when they agreed to buy me a inexpensive used car (bribery works, kids!).

I would end up moving to Maryland and starting my game development career a year later.

Fortunately though the circumstances were a bit different from my original plan. Instead of starting at the bottom at a QA company dependent on receiving contracts from other companies I was going to be a programming intern at Firaxis on their marquee title: Civ 4. And my hiring was contingent on finishing my degree, which I would do a year later.

Unable to receive any credits for my previous programming experience and in a hurry to get on with things I enrolled in computer science 101, brought my work laptop to class and programmed gameplay features for Civ 4: Warlords literally from my desk. It was code, so it’s not like anyone would catch me! I may not be a scholar or especially obedient, but game development has from day one been my very heart and soul.

Up to this point I’d been very fortunate in my life. I’d worked hard, but also been extremely lucky along the way. I had parents who pushed me, but not too hard, and who had the financial resources to give me a hand when I needed it. I was in the right place at the right time when a new lead designer was needed on Civ 5. I had a marketable skill and opportunities ahead of me. But there was a fundamental defect in the system that would eventually combine with other factors and to destroy me.

diploma
Yes, I received a bachelor’s of science. In history. Don’t ask.

The Crack

I always did pretty well in school despite not studying, most likely due to my naturally-curious nature. I like to know how things work, regardless of what they are, and this is a pretty good seed for academic success.

What I was horrible at though was starting focused. Textbooks are of absolutely no use to me, as by the time I’ve made it to the end of a paragraph I’ll have already forgotten the beginning. This was true when I was 10 and remains true today. I’m an avid listener of podcasts and audiobooks, but hand me a printed novel and you might as well be in an another language.

As a good listener and usually genuinely interested in the material though this inability to focus didn’t really hold me back – until I was already lead designer on Civ 5. This is an incredibly large, difficult role, especially when you’re only 21 when you start the job. I received the position thanks to my passion and energy, but this wasn’t an infinite resource. In fact, there were occasionally entire weeks where my focus would lapse and I’d realize the following Monday hat I hadn’t actually gotten anything done.

I would always make up for this by working double-time a week or two later, but this approach is neither good for the quality of the work nor the health of the person. Civ 5 shipped, has done extremely well, and I’m very proud of the work the team did on it. But my contribution was uneven, and I know the reason why. In the end I worked 239 days in a row with no time off to finish up Civ 5, all of those missing days and weeks finally catching up with me.

Something else would eventually catch up with me as well.

The Mountain

I ended up leaving Firaxis after Civ 5, in part with the goal of taking on still newer and ever-grander challenges, and partly because continuing work on Civ 5 after the marathon sprint I finished it with wasn’t something I felt capable of.

I joined Stardock in Michigan with the aim of making something huge and new. My ambitions were a bit too great though and I once again felt the urge to take on something completely of my own. I had always worked as a part of a large team, but found them too slow and filled-with-real-people to fit my dream where anything was possible and everything moved a million miles-per-hour. Come on, let’s go!

In mid-2012 transitioned into being a contractor, and with newfound time and energy to play around with some ideas on the side the first seeds of what would become At the Gates were planted. In December my final contract with Stardock expired and a a crossroads I opted to go all-in on AtG and funding development with a Kickstarter campaign. Kickstarter was basically at its peak at that point, so it was the perfect time to take this kind of a wild shot.

But I also knew that I was going to have a hard time pulling this off as I was. Civ 5 had turned out well, but my process was a mess, and if I was going to be running my own company and building a game mostly by myself I needed to equip myself as best I could for the task at hand, which meant finally tackling my attention issues, and so I scheduled an appointment with a doctor.

There are always a thousand ideas working around in my head. Small optimizations I could make to my daily schedule. A philosophical theory as to why human tribes behave in a certain way. Whether the blacksmith profession should require any tools to train, and how that change relates to the role of tools in the game more broadly. Interesting phrases I’d like to incorporate into the diplomacy text. How Bismarck’s final conversations with Wilhelm II might have gone (a topic I still want to dig into!). Ideas for my next game. A few more for the one after that. Bits and pieces of this article, still unwritten. It’s all up in there. All at once.

My mind is always wandering, always analyzing things, always considering possibilities, both related to the thing I’m ostensibly paying attention to as well as otherwise. Needless to say, this isn’t a great state to be in when concentrating on any task, let alone one requiring a fair bit of focus like building and running your own company.

So I saw a doctor, who diagnosed me with adult ADHD and prescribed me simulants to help manage the condition. To my surprise this medication actually worked – and instantaneously. I was more productive, happier, and could now see my goals in crystal clarity. I’d finally mitigated my main weakness. There was nothing that could stop me now.

Things were going unbelievably well, but everyone has those days where they don’t get quite as much done as they would like to, where try to sneak in a little bit more work at the end of the day. To facilitate this I started occasionally take an extra pill in order to knock out those last few things so I could call it a day, relax, and move on to other things. It’s not like anyone follows prescriptions perfectly anyways and things turn out fine. Plus, not being the most obedient fellow is part of what makes me unique and good at what I do. Ask for forgiveness, not permission, right?

After a year though the pills were becoming less effective. Reaching the same level of performance required ever more of those little pills, now every day. Because I always got them through a prescription this would mean running out a few days, and then eventually weeks early. During these gaps my productivity would plummet to zero. This discovery was initially easily-dismissed and ignored (what’s a few more days?) but eventually become absolutely terrifying, as I’d bet everything I had on this game. Thousands of hours. Hundreds of thousands of dollars. The prime of my career.

I could not fail.

I told my doctor that the medication was becoming less effective and they increased the dosage. I avoided mention of my occasional and then regular extra dosing, as I feared disclosing this would lead to the doctor stripping me of this miracle cure for a problem that had haunted me all my life. Should that happen I knew I would have to start completely over from scratch, and in the middle of the hardest challenge I’d ever taken on. The stakes were too high. Building a complex strategy game mostly by yourself is no small feat but I was actually pulling it off. I just had to see things through and then I could deal with the consequences later.

It was going to be fine. I just had to finish the game.

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During Kickstarter campaign I felt invincible, but this feeling was deceptive.

The Valley

Not many people understand the extent to which being an indie game developer, or really any kind of independent artist, can not only consume your life but really, truly become it.

Not only is there the pressure of owning your own business and wanting that to succeed for obvious reasons, but there’s the pressure of knowing that you’re in a dream job that millions of other people would love to have. And on top of that there’s the pressure passionate people put on themselves to make something making great. Nobody allocates tons of their own money or years of their lives on something they want or expect to be mediocre.

Another cost to being a solo developer is the isolation. Sure, you might hang out with friends occasionally or live with other friends or family members but in the end it’s really just you. I had a ton of incredible support during the first couple years of the project, but this came from unpaid friends, and so there was always a limit. And as I myself changed my relationship with everyone around me changed. I slowly lost perspective, both with the game and eventually with everything around me.

I spent less and less time interacting with and eventually even communicating with friends, family, and basically any member of society. I isolated myself, fully, and by choice. I proactively made the decision to eliminate all of my hobbies in early-2014. I stepped down as host of the game design podcast I co-founded. I stopped playing the Out of the Park baseball sim I truly loved and had previously dedicated at least an hour or two or day, meticulously crafting spreadsheets and upgrading my two online 30-player multiplayer league teams from cellar-dwellers into perennial contenders (I’m still proud of how I turned those teams around!).

The first time I noticed something was off was after a strange incident where I found I’d spent 3 hours rewriting a single sentence of a Kickstarter update. I said to myself, “wow, that was really weird and unproductive. I hope that doesn’t happen again!”

But of course it would. Dozens, and maybe even hundreds more times.

Instead of writing new code or playtesting the game I found myself spending more and more time refactoring code. If you’re not a programmer this basically amounts to moving chairs around – something everyone should probably consider at least a little bit but certainly not spend, you know, months on. But I did. I spent months doing this. And you can still see it in the code, with weird formatting and random empty lines peppered across the tens of thousands of lines of code. I’m eventually going to open AtG up to modding after the release, and countless examples of this will still be visible because it’s more important for me to finish the game than get the spacing between functions right. A lesson I learned much, much too late.

The nature of my “work” started to become increasingly twisted. I rarely went to bed before 4am, and then eventually mostly stopped sleeping completely. I mostly stopped eating, and dropped from 160 lbs to 130 lbs (13.6 kg). At one point I remained at my computer desk for 110 hours, with only the occasional bathroom break. Four and a half days straight. Of “work”.

At this point it started to dawn on me that something was seriously wrong. I came up with plans for managing my time and medication, but nothing seemed to work. At one point I stopped taking the medication for a couple months, and with the help of my doctor tried other kinds designed to help with focus, but these ones were completely ineffective. And expensive. Money was starting to get tight, and the difference between a generic drug for $80 per month and one still under patent for $700 is very, very real. Furthermore, during this time my productivity across the board dropped to zero. I rarely left my bed.

With no other choice I told the doctor I wanted to go back to the stimulants. And so I did.

During this time I started to take on new hobby projects, like building my own custom CSS dark theme for the internet. I would make myself more productive by improving the environment around me. I’ve never liked staring at bright white screens, especially when you’re looking at a computer screen all night, every night, so I resolved to fix this by redesigning the look of the internet to suit my needs.

Eventually even this was unsuitable. The CSS editor itself was too primitive. I dug into the code which made up the editor itself, and redesigned it from a plain text black-and-white side panel to a semi-transparent mouseover window with full syntax highlighting. After a couple months of work on the CSS editor now nothing was going to stop me.

jons_css_mod
My optimized Google Search theme was pretty cool! Not the best use of my time though.

But my mind continued to degenerate to the point where I was eventually just moving lines of CSS for the CSS editor around. Even hobby projects were now out of my reach. The last shreds of creativity and productivity finally slipped between my fingers.

I was spinning in circles. Day after day. Week after week. Month after month. I would walk to the 24-hour grocery store at 3 am in order to buy groceries and cook fancy pasta for myself. Time lost its meaning. The external world lost all meaning. I was spinning, and spinning.

My mind had melted.

And it finally sunk in. It was over. Everything was over. I had destroyed everything. There was nothing left. Of the game. Of my career. Of my life. Anything. It was all gone.

That the fire that had driven me and bright me success for my entire life had been extinguished. My motivation to do anything had completely evaporated. And I didn’t see any possible way of it coming back.

Facing this final abyss I finally threw away my “medicine” for good. I had reached the end of the line, and it was clear that they were never going to help me again. I was in such misery that even something which could destroy minds was of no use to me any more.

But cutting stimulants out of my life still wasn’t the bottom, not really. In fact, this period was probably even tougher than that which preceded it, because there was now a suffocating level of awareness of my situation that has been lacking previously. And I was now completely incapable of doing anything. I stopped filing corporate paperwork. I stopped responding to emails. I stopped checking my bank account and my expenses. Everything just… shut down.

My health also suffered. Needless to say I spent no time exercising, and very little time moving at all. My diet wasn’t even bad, so much as virtually non-existent, which then swung violently into completely uncontrollable. With my medication gone and appetite finally back the weight built rapidly, and by January 2015 I was 65 pounds (30 kg) overweight.

My external circumstances suffered similarly. I spent my 401k retirement account down to zero, from something close to $70k in 2014. I had nothing left, financially, physically, or mentally.

jon_early_2017
The evolution of my life reflected in my appearance.

Breaking out of that prison and rebuilding my life has easily been the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and I can’t imagine anything in the future coming close. I know I will eventually experience aging and loss, but when I was in that place I had given up on everything. I felt that I’d completely let everyone down to an extent that I could never repair it.

I’ve found the hardest moments in life aren’t when you fiercely and bravely face the worst the universe has to offer you, but when you yourself surrender. When you lose even your belief in your own value. At this point you transform into an animated corpse, still going through the motions of life but already dead. No ties to reality or other people. No hope, no future. When you’re running not only from the world, but running from yourself. I know I’ll confront many more challenges in my life, but never will I do so having thoroughly given up on myself. I’m thankful I’ll never have to return to that empty place again.

The Climb

The thing that kept me going was that faint glimmer, that whisper in the neck of my mind.

“You can still do it.”

“You can.”

I honestly didn’t believe it, but I had to at least try. Surrendering completely and ending my own suffering was a thought I had often, but not one I could ever follow through on, if only for the pain I knew it would cause everyone around me. I might have no longer have any value, but they at least did. I owed it o them to at least give it one more shot.

So where do you go when you have nothing left?

At this point I simply clung to existence as best I could. I wasn’t productive in any way, but I was still there. And over time things gradually started to improve.

I knew that rebuilding my discipline was going to be the only way to truly dig myself out of this hole, and so I resolved to challenge myself, if only in the smallest ways. After all, if I lacked the drive necessary to mail paperwork that had already been prepared for me how could I possibly finish a complex strategy game, let alone make it good? I had to rebuild myself. I didn’t know how long it would take, or if I would even succeed, but the only way this was going to work was if I was patient and simply focused on putting one foot in front of the other.

I started with small things. I started waking up at a more regular time. I started spending a lot of my free time walking around and exploring the city, nearly always for at least 2 hours at a time and sometimes for up to 5. Needless to say this alone helped me lose a fair bit of weight, which in turn helped increase the amount of energy I could draw on for future tasks.

I realized I might be onto something here…

I turned my natural, insatiable desire to optimize to my routine. I started going to the gym 5 days per week, on the same days, and performing the same routine (cardio all 5 days, weights on two, separated by 3 and 2 days to optimize recovery). Every morning I brewed 300 ml of water and 25 g of coffee beans into one cup of coffee, would eat one tablespoon of peanut butter for breakfast, and study Swedish for 20 timed minutes. I would eat a salad for lunch each day containing 1 halved avocado, 2 boiled eggs, 40g of mozzarella, 5 cherry tomatoes, 6 kalamata olives, 30g of olive oil and 5g of salt. Hmmm, I should probably cut down on my salt.

salad
Behold! A pretty badass salad. This one is from Monday.

I had one little project at a time I would attempt to optimize as best I could. I would add it to the toolbox, then move on to something else a little bit harder. This ranged from how to cook a perfect boiled egg (be gentle but firm!) to what settings to use on the local gym’s exercise bike (the one nobody used of course because then I never had to worry about someone else stealing it and interrupting my routine). And sure, this sounds silly, but these are honestly the sorts of things that helped me come back from a state where something as simple as paying a bill I could easily afford was too difficult. Baby steps. They matter. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was anything else that’s mattered.

And over time these efforts began to pay dividends. For a while I cut sugar from my diet basically completely, and not only lost the 70 pounds I had gained but replaced it with muscle, and a new level of energy that wasn’t so wild and unfocused, but more intentional. I was building tools that could be really, truly useful for something.

In the end, a big part of my ticket out of the situation was an offer to join Paradox in Sweden. Unfortunately things didn’t work out in the end, largely for similar reasons as my previous employment. I liked to do things my way, and had ambitious plans. I was now in a place in my life where it made sense for me to be more high-level, but this is a hard sell before you’ve proven yourself. I wasn’t ready to do a huge amount of programming or detailed design work yet. I had my experience to draw on, but no the mass output which had defined my early career.

I had saved up some money though, and knew that it was time to get back to AtG. I had a new life in Sweden, and being active, working, and around other people again had recharged me in exactly the way I had hoped it would do.

It took a while before I was able to glue myself to a desk chair and start writing code again, but by mid-2018 I was working full steam ahead again. I implemented a rigorous daily schedule that left time for exercise, work, and a bit of relaxation to recharge. I wanted to establish the optimal foundation upon which to finish building my game and rebuild my life.

To be honest though this phase of my life was also pretty tough, despite things finally appearing to be back on track. I was now obligated to go back and read all of the old messages people had sent me. Speak with old team members. Do a full evaluation of my finances. And, of course, figure out what actually needed to be done in order to ship the game I had started back when I was a completely different person.

And the list was long. It was going to take a lot of hard work to not only finish this thing, but to do it right. I knew AtG had potential, and I refused to accept the fact that it would end up being mediocre because of me. For the longest time I had always been treating AtG as a hobby. Something I would do the fun parts of, and ignore or forget about the stuff I didn’t. After all, I was an indie. I could do whatever I wanted. I was my own damn boss!

But such an approach isn’t really ideal when it comes to actually shipping a super-complicated strategy game. With other genres of game you can at least ship a half-finished platformer that can be lot of fun in itself, even if the second half unravels a bit. But an improperly-balanced strategy game can be completely unplayable. It has literally no value until you reach a certain bar or quality.

But I did do the hard work of rebuilding my discipline. I focused on schedules, task lists, and cutting things that weren’t absolutely necessary in order to get this thing out the door. I had to make hard decisions, like putting off a large part of the diplomacy system until a future post-release update. But there was also still some fun design work to be done, for example, in finalizing the asymmetrical faction system, which was a nice motivating factor.

The exercise, the cutting sugar out of my diet, the generally healthier way of living was making a difference. I could feel energy pulsing through my body. An energy that required something difficult to try and vanquish. My fire was back. Something that I genuinely thought impossible two years earlier had happened. I was back.

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Almost there.

At the Gates hasn’t shipped yet, but it’s just about ready. A build has already been submitted to Steam for approval, so even if a space-rock vaporized me and my house tomorrow the game would still launch pretty much as normal. Which is honestly kind of strange to think about, but whatever. The game is a bit buggy, and it doesn’t have quite as many features as I’d like, but it’s fun. I love it, and it will always be a part of me, in a way that no other game will or even can be.

This is just the beginning for AtG, and for my work in strategy games. AtG started off as a prototype for some cool ideas that few into a full game. My future work will have both the experience I’ve gained as well as a much clearer focus. And I’m really excited about that. But first, is time to wrap up AtG. Let’s do this.

Having now experienced so much and made it through the other side I’m now a much more complete game creator, and even person. I’ve made a lot of mistakes, thought about them, and know at least a few things not to do next time. And with not just my old energy back but something completely new and amazing driving me now I’m excited to apply this new knowledge and really see what I’m capable of.

Certain songs still have very strong associations for me, having listened to them a great deal while at my darkest moments. They bring back strong feelings every time I hear them. Similarly, my past will always be a part of me. It’s not going anywhere, and certainly won’t now that I’ve shared it with everyone. But I think it makes me a stronger person. Hopefully a better person. I now know what it feels like to have nothing, to be nothing. And I want do do what I can to give back, now that I feel like I have something draw upon once again. For now that’s by delivering a game like At the Gates, but I’m hoping I can do much more than that in time. Thank you for coming with me on this journey, and I hope we can venture into the future and do some big things together.

– Jon

Jon Shafer - Nov 2018