The 3 Day Work Week

A surprising thing happened early in 2023. I decided I wanted to make art again and be paid for it😱. Or in other words, I went back to work! Except now, it’s my business and it’s only open 3 days a week (with the extra occasional opening when I feel particularly enthused!).

Don’t Call it a Comeback

That’s right, I took it one step further than those Four Day Work week trials that have been going on. It turns out the findings about productivity are true! I often get more done in 3 days than I used to in 5 working at a studio. With reduced distraction, stress and politics. Though of course I sometimes miss the more positive in-person social sides of those things.

I chose to start work again because I wanted to spend some of my time solving creative briefs for a great client who was keen to work with me, and who I had really enjoyed working with before. They have given me so much great stuff to do and also have been so empathetic and supportive of where I was coming from post-burnout; which is really restoring my faith in myself and others.

This was 100% a decision based on how I wanted to spend my time in the new life I am building. But earning again also meant I could do more of the other stuff I love during the other 4 days of the week, as well as regain my confidence professionally. So it’s been win-win so far!

There and Back Again

When I quit my job, I honestly thought I would never want, or be able, to make art ever again. Something that had started out as a lifelong passion, had become a prison. But then, at Christmas, I drew a Giraffe for a family member and some of that creative joy came back!

What follows is a quick overview of how the joy was killed for me and then what brought it back. Hopefully it may prove useful to others who have gone through similar things.

The Numbers Game

As an artist working in a modern game studio, you have little direct contact with players. Sure, there could be opportunities to help man a booth at a trade show or event, or you might occasionally see someone playing your game on public transport, but when you were really grinding at work, there was no time for that. Mostly, the only connection you had was via cold hard numbers and data.

If you were lucky it was via written reviews or a Metacritic rating, if it’s a high number… it told you people loved your game. Woohoo! But more commonly, and especially in mobile games, it was a firehose of rather cold analytic data, delivered via email, like:

  • How many people are playing the game.
  • How long they play it for.
  • How frequently they come back to the game.
  • How much money they spent.
  • How long it took for them to become a spender.
  • How many “Whales” play the game. (Not literal whales, they don’t have thumbs, but a term borrowed from gambling 🤮 used to refer to players who spend a lot more on the game than others.)

None of this reliably tells you if someone is enjoying your game; or if it is a welcome retreat from the stresses of their life. Some of it, makes you feel plain icky. All it tells you for sure is that when you tweaked that graphic or section, the game became more “sticky”. Nowadays, most likely you just made the skinner box more addictive. Something the “user” feels compelled to play, but may feel bad for spending so much time and money on when asked to reflect on it later.

All of this is compounded when your other team members are so focused on their own “impact”, due to timelines or company culture, that they rarely express appreciation for the work of their colleagues.

It wasn’t always this way, the mobile industry was once full of innovative, artistic and unique games. As the business model changed to free-to-play, people went to greater and greater depths of yuckiness to get noticed, get installs, keep players and make them spend.

A Race to the Bottom

Over time, this made me and the industry I worked in feel pretty shallow. Just another factory worker, pushing a product out into the void. Making art for the sake of pushing some company’s financial line up higher, empty values leading to another empty product. Everyone, on both sides, feeling unfulfilled at the end of it and wondering why.

The mobile games industry has become a race to the bottom, with most studios just trying to squeeze more juice out of the same tired old concepts and money out of tired players.

The state of most Mobile App Stores today. Photo by Katie Rodriguez on Unsplash

In 2023, I am hopeful Apple’s recent steps with their Arcade, and to make console spec games run on iPhone Pro 15, will hopefully turn this all around.

Arguably, things are better currently if you are working on a console or PC game. There are plenty of recent works of art that have also been massively successful.

Even then, the console industry is not exactly a paradise of good health and balance for it’s workers. So it did not appeal to me to walk into another studio of any kind full time. Maybe there was a middle ground…

So, what to do?

When I wasn’t travelling or working on my health, I spent a lot of 2022 thinking about what meaningful work I could do. Maybe I could work on UI for Electric cars? Or lend my design talents to other companies working on clean energy or healthy living?

I haven’t written off those things, in fact I hope to pursue them as part of my business too. However an unexpected moment of joy during Christmas 2022, as well as the kind words and honest offer of work and support from a previous client of mine made me realise that there may be some ink left in the pen for videogame art after all. As well as a way to possibly make it a sustainable part of my life, rather than an all consuming identity.

Return of the Artist

So what happened? Well undoubtedly some well deserved R&R during 2022 helped, but then … a Christmas miracle! And it was so simple.

A family member asked me if I could draw something cool/cute as a height chart for their little boy. I agreed and drew an 8 foot giraffe on their kitchen wall with marker pens. Possiby the biggest piece of art I’ve made by hand!

Producing something for an audience of one (plus family and friends) was incredibly liberating. There were no deadlines, no overthinking the requirements, just a quick sketch followed by putting the pen to wall. And then immediately seeing the joy on the faces of the people it was for.

Suddenly I felt what had been missing from the creative process for the last few years: The purpose, the reason why I did it. To put smiles on faces, create fun moments and inspire. It sounds so simple, but it’s really hard to find and feel that in a modern mobile games studio. I’m beginning to think making Indie games is the only way to experience that more reliably in the industry.

New Year, New Me!

I came back after Christmas feeling like a spark had been lit. I helped my partner make an educational cat platforming game, learning how to script in C# especially for it.

As an artist, not a programmer, there were definitely some moments that I thought the whole thing would prove impossible or fall apart, or even that the stress would prove too much post-burnout; but I did it! And the reception from it’s target audience was great. Now I might even make some whole games just for myself!

Now, I spend a few days a week working on personal projects like that, this blog or my health and fitness. The other three days of the week are set aside to work on briefs set by my client. I have really enjoyed and been proud of the work I have done for them so far. The projects have been mobile games, but as a team we have been so invested in making better and better art and appreciating the work done by others that I am really enjoying it! We talk art, we talk game design, but we rarely, maybe even never, talk about the numbers. And right now that’s the way I like it!

(Return of the Matt) Pump Up the World

So in many ways it sounds and feels like a simple fix for a burnt out artist. Just make some art for the joy of making it and see others enjoy it. But the reality was it took over 2 years from when the burn out started, to when I started feeling like being creative again for 3 days a week. It wasn’t a fun experience emotionally for me or people I care a lot about and I do not want to ever go through anything like it again.

To some it may look like a partial recovery; an attempt at work by someone who is still feeling worn out, but I’m lucky to be able to say it’s a choice. I may not want to work a 5 day work week as a common occurrence ever again. Maybe sometimes I’ll even do less, or take long breaks. That’s what makes all this FI stuff so powerful. I finally feel like the master of my own destiny, health and happiness again. Something I haven’t felt much since I was maybe 17 years old.

So, baby, listen carefully
While I sing my come-back song

Mark Morrison (The Mack)

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