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GDC Speaker Q&A: Gabby DaRienzo wants to talk about burnout

If you're in the business of making games for a living, at some point you're going to get stuck.

Creative blocks impact the best of us, and nobody knows that better than game dev and DrinkBox Studios senior artist Gabby DaRienzo. After working on games like A Mortician's Tale and Celeste, DaRienzo spent over a year working through a creative block to ship Super Crush KO.

Along the way she learned a great deal about effective tools and techniques game makers can use to overcome creative blocks, as well as improve their mental health practice.

You can learn them for yourself at GDC in March, where DaRienzo is scheduled to deliver a promising Independent Games Summit talk on "Overcoming Creative Block on 'Super Crush KO'"; here she shares a bit more (via email) about what you can expect to get from her talk, as well as how she got into the game industry and why it's so important for game devs to talk about burnout.

Tell us a bit about yourself and your path into game development!

I’ve been working in games for ~8 years professionally. My background is in graphic design so I started out by working for the marketing team of a [now-defunct] Toronto games studio. Eventually I was transitioned into doing game art and UI/UX design for the same studio, where I also learned how to use Unity and some light programming.

I started getting more involved with the Toronto indie games scene and more active on Twitter where I met a bunch more indie devs. I started making my own games, self-taught myself 3D art, and was approached to do contract work for quite a few studios, so I left my fulltime job to pursue a career in freelance game art.

Around that time my partner and I decided to also co-found our own studio called Laundry Bear Games which we released A Mortician’s Tale under. We continued to prototype new games while both of us freelanced on the side.

Over the last few years I’ve had the pleasure of working on a lot of cool games including Celeste, Parkitect, and Super Crush KO (pictured) — which is the game I’ll be talking about in my GDC talk.

I now work fulltime at DrinkBox Studios (the creators of Guacamelee! and Severed) as a Senior Artist!

What inspired you to pitch this talk for GDC 2020?

Over the 8ish works I’ve worked in games I’ve only ever experienced creative block once, which was while I was working on Super Crush KO. I was art directing for both SCKO and another game project at the time, and I think the context-switching (among other outside factors) just burnt me out from making art altogether. I was constantly stressed, completely unmotivated, and subsequently was making poor decisions for the games I was working on.

A lot of my creative block was extremely self-inflicted, which I think isn’t a thing developers consider when they hear the term “burnout”. I think people often think associate burnout with crunch culture — being forced to work long hours by someone senior to you — but burnout can also be something we do to ourselves, often without even noticing it.

After finally recognizing my burnout, I was able to find tools and resources to help me eventually overcome this creative block and to start feeling excited and motivated to start making art again. I was able to work with the SCKO team and successfully art direct this beautiful, bright, and fun game that I'm absolutely proud of.

I wanted to talk about this at GDC because I know far too many developers — especially indies — who have (or will at some point) experience creative block and burnout. I wanted to share my own personal experiences with it and how I was able to overcome it, in order to hopefully provide tools for others to do the same if and when they experience burnout themselves.

How could the game industry change to make it easier for devs to avoid crossing the line into burnout?

There's been a lot of discussion about this when it comes to triple-A jobs or the industry as a whole -- unions, guilds, etc -- but I think when it comes to avoiding burnout when you're self-employed, it's important to discuss it openly and encourage each other to think about our own mental health and well-being.

The more we talk about this, share our own experiences, and ways to avoid and also deal with it, the more our peers can learn as well. This is a large reason why I wanted to do this GDC talk!

What are you hoping your peers will get from your talk?

While my experiences with creative block were largely art-based, I want to make sure everyone — regardless of role, background, and experience — can walk away from my talk with tools they can use for themselves and colleagues to prevent and treat burnout!

GDC 2020 runs from Monday, March 16th through Friday, March 20th. This will be the 34th edition of GDC, and if you're not already registered to attend organizers encourage you to take a look at the ever-expanding session schedule and your GDC pass options -- register early to lock in the best price!

For more details on GDC 2020 visit the show's official website, or subscribe to regular updates via FacebookTwitter, or RSS.


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