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

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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.

 

 

kickstarter_jon
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.

 

atg_nobkgd_r_dropshadow
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

Categories At The Gates, News

53 thoughts on “How At the Gates took 7 years of my life – and nearly the rest

  1. Jon, you’ve always been amazing, and you’ll always be amazing. I miss working with you brother. Very much looking forward to firing up At the Gates!

  2. Great read, Jon. I’ve been following this project since the kickstarter and I could definitely see the ups and downs in your (excellent) backer posts and news. Thanks for telling your story and I can’t wait to play the final version of the game!

  3. Thank you for sharing. I did not know you were going though all this/didn’t know it was that bad. I’m happy for you, here’s to a successful launch. I’ll share this to friends and family who need inspiration and as a reminder there is always someone going though their personal hell and there is a way out. Hope to hear you on the podcast.

  4. Good on you Jon, both for sharing (difficult at best) and for pulling yourself through the dark ages. Looking forward to experiencing the result of all the blood, sweat, & tears… *air-high-five*

  5. So that’s what happened. I long wondered. Well, kudos to you for honesty, humility, grit and being a decent human being. Keep doing the right thing for yourself. May your story inspire others. Best wishes and may AtG be a blockbuster. I know I’m looking forward to it!

  6. Congratulations to you Jon for not only completing the game, but also surviving some of the darkest times in your life. Looking forward to playing AtG and watching your development as a creator!

  7. Macte virtute.

  8. Good job putting these thoughts and your hustory together and getting it out there. Alot of what you wrote (particularly early on) feels like I was reading about myself. Difficulty paying attention, keeping one thought, the ambitions and discontent with workplaces, even the choice to go it alone and turn a hobby project into something more.

    I feel a little fortunate that I was able to observe drug abuse at an early age and steer clear of it. It’s dangerous stuff and requires a lot of respect for what it can do to you in order to avoid abusing it. Especially for those of us who have a very polar/extreme personality where it’s often all in or nothing at all.

    I also think I took the same route with weight gain and complete isolation from the world paired with depression and thoughts of suicide, followed by the desire and commitment to change all of those things. I went though it quite young.

    Congratulations on pushing through, all of the personal development, and returning to finally ship what you started. I know it would haunt me for the rest of my life to start something such as AtG, make promises, take people’s money, and then never release it or release something mediocre and leave it at that. Even as I’m still actively working on a similar project, I feel some amount of discomfort in the pit of my stomach, like I’m not doing enough… it’s dangerous to listen to that feeling too much.

    You aren’t going to have to live with that any longer, not for this project and not for this milestone.

    Don’t forget to breathe.

  9. Congratulations on turning your life around, Jon. Sadly enough, the issues you encountered seem relatively common in the indie world, and doesn’t always have a happy ending. Your story sounds eerily similar to the one of Josh Parnell, a young developer who also kickstarted his dream game project in 2012. Maybe you heard of him. Anyways, congratilations again. I’m looking forward to playing AtG real soon.

    Best wishes.

  10. hey just wanted to chime in and say i relate so much to everything you wrote. i have the very same attention issues (and the same bad relationship with medication) and they’ve affected my life in very similar ways. i applaud you for (at multiple times in your story) realizing that you need to seize control of your life and your behavior. i think you are truly willing to be critical about yourself, which can be a detriment to quality of life (because, if i may, we live in a capitalist hell of competition, where pursuing your life’s work is devalued and exploitation is inseparable from success), but that same criticality will only lead you to further psychospiritual development. im very excited to buy your game!

  11. Congratulations on turning your life around, Jon. Sadly enough, the issues you encountered seem relatively common across indie devs. Your story sounds eerily similar to the one of Josh Parnell, a young developer who also kickstarted his dream game project in 2012 (Limit Theory, cancelled a few months ago). Maybe you heard of him. Anyways, congratulations again. I’m looking forward to playing AtG real soon.

    Best wishes.

  12. (Sorry about the kind of double post above. Got in some mobile WordPress login weirdness. Please feel free to delete)

  13. Jon, thank you for your honesty. The human being is a strange beast: surviving such dark times makes him much more resilient in the future and in general a better person. I’m really looking forward to playing AtG on Jan 23rd!

  14. Been waiting a long time for this release. Hopefully your next game won’t take quite so long. Not sure what your doctor meant by adult ADHD either, there is only ADHD and you have it for life.

  15. I too have followed the game’s creation since the Kickstarter genesis. As a grandfather, I’ve lived long enough to know that life vacillates and goes through various seasons. I’ve sensed that in your journey with At the Gates.

    It’s brave of you to share this personal story, and I hope that it will help others avoid some of the snares that tripped you up. I’m happy that it is all ending for now on a good note, and that your future is bright. I’m eager to play the game, and wish you the very best for 2019 and all the years to come.

  16. Jon, thank you for sharing.

    This piece resonates with me on a deep an personal level. I for one am glad you found a way back to life. I know the weight myself, but your story is inspiring.

    Oh, and I can’t wait to see the end result. The game is something that never left my mind through the entirety of the years.

    But honestly, even if the game was the worst thing ever put to hard drive, you can still be proud. Because you made it, when really, a lot of people would just have lain down and died.

  17. Congratulations on your recovery! We’ve been watching on the sidelines getting only scraps of information or lack thereof throughout the years and it seemed to get really dark at one point. Seeing news that you started work at Paradox was a relief at the time even though it seemed like the game might never be finished, at least you were back at work somewhere. As someone struggling to find motivation for my own “climb” I’m really glad you felt the need to share your story because it helps a lot to see others succeed in getting back on their feet. Good luck with the release and may it recoup at least a little part of what the development cycle took out of you 🙂

  18. Great heartfelt article Jon. Are you taking any medications for your ADHD, or if not, how did you overcome this without using medication?

    Personally, based on the character I saw when you wrote your original Kickstarter project, I was certain that you would eventually finish the project. That is the character that I saw, and the character you showed repeatedly when you discussed your life over the past few years. May you continue to live each day at a time and step forward.

  19. Very inspirational post, thanks for sharing. In case you’re curious, someone posted it on reddit as well: https://www.reddit.com/r/gamedev/comments/ae99kw/how_at_the_gates_took_7_years_of_my_life_and/

  20. Thanks for sharing your story, Jon. I can’t wait to play the game!

    How DO you make a perfect hardboiled egg?

  21. I’ve been on the working end of a “never-ending” complex indie project myself (though on a hobby basis), and I doubt most people who throw themselves into such undertakings understand just how massive and difficult such a project is. Glad to hear you got out of the other end OK, and thanks for sharing your story.

    And be careful. Even with 18!! years later, with all of the accumulated experience as a part-time indie, I still from time to time fall into the same old traps. As you enjoy the deserved triumph of getting “At the Gates” out of the door, remember the words of the Auriga: “Remember thou art mortal”. 😉

  22. Matthew Fullhart January 10, 2019 — 1:36 am

    Thank you. I’m so sorry to hear how destructive the process was, but I’m glad there is redemption to be had at the end. You’ve got much more to accomplish, and a long life ahead of you still to do so.

    Ad Victorem Spolia

  23. As an early AtG backer and someone who got to know you just a tiny bit (as much as you can get to know someone while talking OOTP trades over google chat), I am so glad to see you come out the other side a stronger and better person. I can understand how that can happen to someone. Personally, I find that I have to hang all of my clothes in daily wearing order every week, and plan every activity of my day in Google calendar just to feel secure. Otherwise, I would spend all of my time trying to decide what to do instead of actually doing anything. Rigid structure comforts me in a weird way.
    Congrats on finally finishing your game. I look forward to adding it to my leisure time calendar as soon as it comes out 🙂

  24. Jon – You are so generous to share your struggle. I have so many questions. What do you think happened? I mean, why did you lose your way? Was it chemical? Isolation? Some kind of madness? Psychological? As a psychiatrist myself, I know from getting to know people in very deep ways that all of us humans – me included- are always on the verge of complete dis-assembly and collapse. It’s only that most of us don’t share our story so publicly or directly. Stay awesome, Jon.

  25. This hits so close to home. I have had the exact same struggle, with one difference being the darkest time was while working full time and having external deadlines and also using alcohol to cope with the insane anxiety the medication started to create in me when I was abusing it/not sleeping or eating. It destroyed me as a person and I spent nearly a year at a zero productivity level. I’m on the climb back up now and have been far more stable for the past year, losing weight, and doing my best to be responsible and disciplined with meds. It’s so hard to climb out of but I have immense respect for you for making it work, and also allowing yourself to be vulnerable enough to share your story. Reading this was extremely helpful for me. Thank you

  26. A really interesting and compelling read. I’m a solo gamedev myself and I understand what you’ve went through.

    You obviously have a ton more talent and the game you’ve wonderfully crafted, At the Gates, is now on my wishlist on Steam. I hope it will be a huge hit!

  27. I struggle with attention issues too and I’ve often considered medication as the answer. However, something has always stopped me: Either the simple obstacles involved in getting a prescription or my own fears about losing myself in the “medicine”. I appreciate your honesty about everything, it has strengthened my resolve to avoid ADHD medication. I am doing well enough without it. In fact, I feel like my creativity is actually tied to my restless mind somehow… So I just have to work with it. I too have found that healthy living is one of the best antidotes to attention issues.

    Anyways… I guess I’m just trying to say that I relate and I want to thank you for sharing. I think your cautionary tale will be a blessing to many.

  28. Jon, original kickstarter supporter, been with you all the way, so glad you turned things around for both your mental and physical health. Keep making games, ATG has some generally unique design ideas and I really did enjoy your focus on user oriented notation tools withing the game, something I wish just about every strategy game would fully implement.

  29. Jon, thank you so much for writing this up. Its important to share your story for anyone else struggling. As an original Kickstarter backer for ATG its been great to see you come back, not just for the game itself, but to see you make a comeback after so long. Keep working on games, you really did implement some unique design ideas in ATG and I really enjoyed your focus on player note taking within the game.

  30. Wow, I felt like I was reading an alternate history of myself, except you made paper RPGs of Pokemon/Dragonball while I did extensive paper maps, monster sheets, and shop systems for HeroQuest/LEGO/LotR. You modded Civ 3 while I modded Colonization.

    We skipped a year of high school and sailed into our choice at full tilt, and despite some glorious early successes our impatience and lack of discipline led to bad bad things. I allowed myself to be talked out of pursuing games as my career (which I still have deep second guessing about, but isn’t everything a game?) However, I am only at the middle of my bad relationship to stims and the self inflicted death-spiral. So, thank you, thank you, thank you for your cautionary tale.

  31. Congratulations

  32. To expand on Michael Akinde’s sage advice.

    Jon_Shafer if you are reading this as one developer to another, I am begging you. Mentally prepare for failure. Build up your defences now before you release.

    To paraphrase Lee Iaccoca, he said he was never afraid of a meeting or a business decision because he always examined ahead of time what he would do if he failed. Then he could go into the business without fear, because he knew what he would do if he fell flat on his face. He had a mental defence plan for failure.

    Have a plan. What are you going to do a month after launch and its clear sales are not what you want them to be? What if there are over a dozen previously undiscovered game breaking bugs that you and testers missed? What if after you fix those bugs by crunching even harder than you did during development you are clearly selling nowhere near enough to to justify carrying on with the project? What if your reviews are mixed (or worse)? What if the games press kindly ignore it or less kindly hate it? What if some players hate you and your game? What if they tell you should should kill yourself its so bad? What if at the same time you know the game achieved what you set out to do and you love it?

    Whats your plan to mentally handle that? If you dont have one get one. Please.

    You can make other games you can get other jobs. One game does not define your self worth as a human being, hell making games doesnt define that.

    Just because your game is great for you and your beta testers does not mean its going to succeed financially or critically. Its succeeded for you and you completed it and fixed any bugs, that’s enough of a win. Know when to take the win , do right by your customers, then move on.

    I say this because I took a similar (but much safer) road to you. I took a year off to make a complex strategy game entirely solo and all the above happened to me. Even though I gave myself the advice I am giving you, it still was a massive punch in the face, and I had a few million bucks in the bank as a safety net. I dread to think what dark places I would have gone to if I wasn’t financially comfortable and mentally prepared.

    Hopefully my advice will look laughably foolish in a few weeks and we can all celebrate. But just in case, please start thinking about Plan B now. You might need a light in the dark to follow in the weeks ahead. Hopefully you will never need it but start prepping.

    I daresay other developers here who have made games solo will give you similar advice.

    Good luck and cant wait to play!
    Best
    Rod

  33. Thank you for sharing brother. Feel like a similar thing has happened in my life, albeit for its own strange reasons. But I agree with a lot of what you have said and can relate.

    All the best.

  34. Joachim Pileborg January 10, 2019 — 8:34 am

    Varför Svenska? Varför Sverige? I’m just curious. 🙂

    Anyway, I’m happy to have been part (albeit very small) of your journey, as a backer of the AtG kickstarter. I’m sorry it took you down a pretty bad rabbit hole, but glad that you managed to climb your way out of it.

    Some of the things you mention resonates with my own experience and my own feelings, but unfortunately I haven’t yet found my own way yet. Thankfully it isn’t quite that bad yet (I think and hope!). Fortunately my main life philosophy is that it will all work out in the end, one way or another, and that together with my family (wife and kid) it had held me together.

    Anyway, I look forward to the release of AtG!

  35. Jaroslav Kuprijanov January 10, 2019 — 10:08 am

    Thanks for sharing this deep insight. To my mind this article can help many of ones ho try to achieve their dream stay stronger and believe that they can, still can.

  36. Hi Jon,
    Thank you for sharing your experience. I went through a very similar experience several years ago.

    I tend to derive my sense of self-worth from my accomplishments. I realized this only recently, through meditation and talks with my therapist. Deriving self-worth from accomplishments is an effective way to be miserable most of the time. You seem to be suffering from the same unhealthy mental habit. Part of the solution for me is to remind myself that I have value and that I deserve love even if I accomplish nothing.

    You made it through your challenge by applying discipline to your routines. But you did not solve your underlying problem. I urge you to apply your discipline to understanding yourself more and identifying and purging the false ideas that you hold. A good place to start is to read the book “The Essential Enneagram”. Then find a skilled therapist. Then do the 10-day Goenka meditation course (reserve your spot now).

    Sincerely,
    Michael

  37. Thanks for sharing your intimate thoughts! A real interesting post which could give hope and guidance to other people in a similar situation. 🙂

  38. What a story, thank you for putting yourself out there.

    I remember Soren and I being in Sweden when I heard that you were hired by Paradox and moved there. I was hoping to see you there.
    I am looking forward to AtG, I read through all the comments, get ready either way!
    Please get in touch again.
    Congrats!

  39. Hi Jon,

    Thanks for writing this post and sharing it; I appreciate the visibility into the scope of the project, both as a game and in your life as a whole. It’s a little difficult to read how deep down the hole goes; I had a bit of a similar experience, and not even for the sake of something like a passion project.. the work to maintain that discipline is ongoing, for me.

    But it seems like you’ve made it to a better place, and I’m glad to hear that your experience is now something that you can draw on in a positive way; there’ll surely be more challenges in the future, and you’re better equipped to work through them now than before.

    As far as At the Gates goes, I’d just like to say that though I haven’t been an active participant, I still enjoyed reading the the discussions, blogs, digging into the different systems in the game, various ideas, and just being involved on that level has been worth it. In some ways I’ve found that reading and thinking about sorting out the problems in the game systems are as interesting as I think the game itself will be for me.

    So, thanks for all the time you put into it, and for not giving up on At the Gates, and most importantly, not giving up on yourself. I look forward to following your future projects, whether as a backer, just a player, or whatever else.

    Nam

  40. Glad you made the way out of the downward spiral. I’m really looking forward to the game, and I wish you much success and please be kind to yourself. I will look forward to hearing and getting your next project as well.

  41. Thank you for such a candid story. To any other adults reading this who have struggled with ADHD their wholes lives– please try cutting out sugar/carbs from your diet. It’ll be a hellish 3 weeks ahead of you but the light at the end of the tunnel is incredible.

  42. Thanks for the writeup, Jon, and heartfelt congratulations on shipping AtG! It was a pleasure to be on Frankenstein with you back when, and I’m happy to see you again have the drive and passion you did then.

    This is a very good and honest article, it’s great to see people with the courage to be so open about their difficult times.

    1. Kelly (aka 'Yin') January 29, 2019 — 9:17 pm

      Let me just add to my old friend Solver’s post, it was great working with you back in the Frankenstein days. If you need any help/testers/whatever with your next project, give me a shout.
      Yin

  43. Jon, thanks for writing this article. I am a self taught hack programmer who once wrote a CRM (in VB no less) for car salespeople that was (from a hack-indie standpoint) fairly successful. I wrote a new version every year and had a decent hobby going that was making me some extra $$$. As I got older (I’m now 51) I found myself refactoring a lot. Didn’t know know what refactoring was or that I was even doing it until I read your article. in my case–it was tightening up functions and variables even though it had no difference in speed or functionality of my program lol. I also cut out sugar 2 months ago (I’m pre-diabetic) and have gone from 280 to 260 without exercise–feeling much better and noticing a big change in how I look. I think I may start walking thanks for the motivation. Well, loved the article. I’ve watched your game from the beginning. I heard of you through Stardock not Civ (I used to frequent the Stardock BBS back in the C-64 days) Also, even though I run my mouth and say Civ IV was a better game, I had more fun playing V and way more hours so perhaps I’m in denial. I’m rambling. Good luck can’t wait to play your game–did not kickstart but I will buy.

  44. Christopher Cotton January 13, 2019 — 5:29 pm

    Dude, you’re an inspiration. That damned spiral of looking at the same code and fussing over it…..I know exactly what you mean. I’m very happy for you and your personal growth. Here’s to your continued happiness and success in 2019!

  45. It can’t be stressed how much of an important read this article is. As a warning, as inspiration, or as a life saver to some people. I’m glad to hear you’re fine- and that you learned and grew from your mistakes, to learn how to live better and make AtG a great looking project at the very least. Also wishlisted

  46. Welcome back …

  47. That’s a scary story for me, since I share a lot of these traits, and have been in a lot of those places myself, though not to the extent you did. The thing about AtG, though, is that even that very first prototype you gave us had me excited. Clearly, you could do it. And then you “went away”. Sometimes you would come back, promise something, give something, then go away again, and I saw people criticizing you, but I believed in you. You clearly _could_ do it, and I had a notion of what you might be going through, as the telltale signs are there for those of us who have been through it. I was sure you _wanted_ to do it, and that, eventually, would deliver it. A mind, however, is part of the body. If it needs healing, it needs time to heal.

    I have one advice, for whatever it is worth. There are people who care deeply for you. Find them. Know who they are. And don’t let yourself stray far from them. People move on, that’s life, but never let yourself be surrounded by no one. That routine of yours? Here’s something to add to it: take five minutes every day to write something to someone who cares about you. It doesn’t need to be profound or meaningful. It can be as simple as “Hi, I was thinking about you. How are you doing?”, but take those five minutes, and write to someone. There’s a strong genetic factor in our mental make up. I can relate to the feelings you mention by memory. And nine days ago was the anniversary of the death by suicide of my oldest sibling. There’s no handling these things when you are deep down in the valley, so use the time at the top of the hill to ensure someone will be there for you.

  48. I read your story, and before long I told my self…. hmm.. This guy’s got ADHD… and then I read you getting the diagnosis. and I said out loud. “I KNEW it… lol”
    Then I read the rest and my smile faded away… Your story is so similar to mine it’s scary…

    Your a brave and strong man.. Brave for sharing, and Strong for being able to cut out the stimulants.
    I still haven’t.. and I don’t know if I would be able to. without them I’m useless.

    I wasn’t going to buy your game, as I read all the negative comments, and it seemed like a bad copy of Civ trying to cash in on the Civ brand.
    But after reading your story.. I get it… And I just bough your game.. to support YOU…
    Hope it will end up being a GREAT game.. But it’s more important for you to take care of your self.

    I’m off to try your game now.. I wish you the best. and hope you’ve found your place in the world now.
    With ADHD.. it’s hard to sit still, hard to not always keep looking for new things and new challenges.

  49. Incredible story John. I think you can be proud of your achievement and wish you all the best with your game and future endeavours!

  50. Hi Jon, thanks for sharing this. I wish you the best for AtG release and your next projects!
    But most importantly continue to enjoy life, wherever it leads you 🙂

  51. Hello John – I wish to create game like this one – what tools you used creating it? I mean what I need to learn to create such game from functional point of view. Game engine? Computer language? Library? Framework? Thanks for answer.

    1. We used an old Microsoft game ‘platform’ (not quite an engine) called XNA, which is based on the C# language. It’s pretty tough to get up and running from such a low-level point though, so I’d recommend starting with something like Unity or Unreal instead now. It’s what I would do were I getting started right now.

      – Jon

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