March 20, 2023

Losing your creative Passion? Here’s how to bring that back.

Last spring, I found myself staring at my computer screen in desperate need of producing something. My client needed something and needed it soon.

Unfortunately, I was feeling a strange combination of boredom and apathy to my work. I not only felt uninspired in that moment, but I also felt like I had no interest at all.

As creatives, we will all find ourselves in this position eventually. It seems so cruel that the things that used to inspire us can dry up overnight. It’s a problem that has plagued anyone in a creative field for all human existence and no one is immune.

I’ve wanted to write about this subject for a while but struggled with how to go about it. In the end, I decided to have a conversation with a friend and collaborator Tobi Schnakenberg. Tobi is the creator and lead developer for the upcoming indie game Above Snakes, which I had the honor of creating the soundtrack for. Throughout our relationship, I’ve been impressed by Tobi’s ability to continually plug away at the game with incredible consistency. I knew that he worked on lots of fun and creative elements, but he also had to put his head down and work on much more rigorous and less colorful tasks. I was eager to get his thoughts on how he specifically handled the internal struggle that can come from working on something creative for a long time.

I spent about an hour chatting with Tobi and asking him about his process, his mindset, and ultimately how he kept motivated when motivation seemed lacking. For easier reading, I’ll structure this article with my question, followed by Tobi’s answer, and finally what I took away from each response.

First, where did the idea of Above Snakes come from?

Tobi: A lot of indie games come from someone combining the ideas they love from two different games; however, this came from a different direction. All my life I loved to create levels for things. That was good since I wasn’t the best gamer, so I was always the person making the levels for other people to play! For a long time, Warcraft 3 was my engine of choice since the world editor was so huge. In 2019 I was going to reinstall Warcraft 3 to work on my old map and found out it wasn’t compatible with the new version. So, I decided that I needed to get real and download Unity.

I started following tutorials and learning, then decided to start a project to keep growing my skills. My friend and I started brainstorming ideas of something we could work on together. We were big fans of Diablo, so we wanted to create a “hack n slash” game but in a setting you haven’t seen before. I think in the end, the top 2 options were making it in space or in the wild west… obviously the wild west won! At that point we started developing the predecessor to Above Snakes called Lonesome. After some time, I teamed up with Crytivo and we rebranded the game to Above Snakes. So, it really came from liking a certain genre, wanting to see it in a different setting and as a way to keep learn Unity.

Take away: Sometimes creative ideas spark simply out of learning! Trying something new or learning a new skill can bring about ideas you would never have thought of on your own.

You’ve been working on this project in some form for a really long time. Have you started to feel a grind when it comes to development, or does it still feel fresh and new?

Tobi: At times I definitely feel a grind. It would be a lie if I said I was sitting here and always 100% excited about the project. The good thing about being an indie dev is you have so many areas you can work on, so you aren’t doing the same thing every day. Some days I’m working balance, other days UI, and other days bug fixing. So, there is some room to choose what you are more in the mood for… but you will still feel the grind at times. Another aspect is that this isn’t a 9-5 job. I try to get my hours in during the week but sometimes when you don’t feel up to it, you don’t work on it. However, sometimes there are days when you work 16 hours on it non-stop! You have to trust yourself to let it balance out.

Take away: Don’t box yourself in with expectations. Having discipline and a strong work ethic is important, but it won’t necessarily be used in the same way every day. The approaches and ideas from other parts of life (such as working a 9-5), may not be suitable for the current project. Stay flexible.

How do you balance feeling good about having some longer days and some lighter days while still feeling productive?

Tobi: The problem is I don’t feel okay about it. If I have lighter days I feel guilty since I know other people are working so hard on things. To be honest, earlier in 2022 I stopped counting hours. The thing was, when I counted up my time I was actually working really long weeks and I needed to take more breaks. Remembering that I was putting a lot of time into the game on other days helped me justify taking lighter days when they come. When I have days that feel less productive, I try to work on something I enjoy, even if it isn’t a priority for the game. I try to never have a 0% day, I always want to go to bed knowing the game is better than it was before.

Take Away: It’s ok to not always feel like your system isn’t 100% comfortable. Sometimes you won’t be able to bring your head space around your method and that isn’t always a bad thing. The real art is not falling too far into overworking or underworking, and instead working to maintain your balance between them.

What do you do daily to stay creative and keep your drive?

Tobi: I listen to music almost all the time and it helps keep me focused. When it comes to drive, I don’t struggle as much with productivity… I struggle more with taking breaks. I get into flow state rather easily and that helps me stay at my PC for a long time, but it also causes me to hyper focus on problems that aren’t going to get solved.

What works well when I get stuck on something like that is to force myself out of work mode and and visit it another day. It’s amazing how I’ll work hard on something for a long time and never solve it, but when I go to bed and try again in the morning I solve it in 5 minutes! I also drop my ideas off with other people since you get blind to your own work. Often times, their advice is just what I needed to see it from a new angle. Between those two approaches I can usually keep up my drive and not drain my creativity.

Take Away: Get feedback and take breaks! More perspectives will not only help you make better decisions, it also helps your creative juices flow in new directions. Additionally, don’t be afraid to put something aside for a day. Sometimes your brain just needs to process things and you’ll be able to solve something much more quickly another time.

Do you ever go somewhere outside Above Snakes to find inspiration? Books? Movies? Other games?

I rarely play games due to limited time in the day. However, I will start games and analyze the systems to get ideas for Above Snakes. It’s hard for me to toggle off the “game developer” brain when I’m playing! So while I don’t play a lot of games all the way through, I spend a lot of time in the first part of a game, to see how they are integrating their systems and ideas.

I will also go walking and visit a nearby park to get some ideas flowing as well. Fresh air and getting my body moving seems to reinvigorate me and keep my creativity moving.

Take Away: Don’t try to reinvent the wheel. Analyzing other work for ideas is something the best artists have always done. If you aren’t trying to directly copy them, you’ll find yourself using their ideas in entirely new ways. This will bring a new creative energy and tool set as you continue to grow. Also, don’t be afraid to leave your office/studio behind and go outside! Even a short walk will give the brain a chance to process and reinvigorate you.

Has working with your co-developer helped build creativity?

Mark’s way of working with me is pretty interesting. We have similar long term-goals but we are very different on certain details. We see different things as very important and have lots of discussions about where to focus on when moving the game forward. Even though technically I’m the boss, we treat each other as equals.

Sometimes I make bad decisions and Mark will dig into them. It’s helpful to defend my design decisions to someone else out loud and can reveal errors I wouldn’t have seen otherwise. If you’re a solo developer, you won’t always have to defend your ideas and bad decisions make it through a lot more than you realize. Simply processing out loud with another person goes a long way.

Take Away: Find someone who isn’t afraid to give you objective advice! The conversations will often spawn further ideas and cut ideas away that aren’t worth it. This can be friends or coworkers but find someone who can give honest feedback without being overly negative or blunt. Finding that person is hard, but they can be critical to making the best version of a project possible.

What kind of specific advice to you give to other creatives about staying inspired and keeping their energy high for their projects?

Tobi: Working on something is critical. Never have a zero percent day, even if all you do is something that feels negligible. It’s also important to be open minded with your project and challenge your design decisions from the past. Also, when you do challenge your past decisions, don’t be afraid to throw things away! If you’re not 100% convinced of something you may want to just throw it out. Nothing is permanent so just try things out and see what sticks.

Take Away: Never let 0% happen on a workday. Consistency is often more important that intensity. Always at least do some small tasks on your project, even if you can’t bring yourself to do any more than that. Doing even a small thing helps keep your internal drive moving and to avoid stopping progress.

Tobi is an amazing blend of creative and technical thinking and manages to produce a staggering amount of content alongside his co-developer Mark. His ideas and suggestions may seem simple on the face of it… and that’s completely fine! None of them are complex solutions or magic tricks to suddenly be productive or creative. Instead, they are simple techniques he employs with discipline and consistency.

Tobi’s secret is that he commits to simple ideas such as “no 0% days” and doesn’t deviate from them, even if the actual productive work is small. His discipline in the small things has reaped huge results and when Above Snakes launches this year it will all be worth it.

Above Snakes will be launching in 2023 on PC and later on consoles. If you would like to support Tobi, you can find his twitter handle and the Above Snakes steam page linked below:

Twitter: @SquareGlade