Games and Mental Health: 'It doesn't have to be tragic to be an artist'

Good Shepherd's Mike Wilson on depression, the state of indie development and the label's continued growth.

Games have immense power. They have the power to educate, to connect people across the globe, to help individuals through difficult periods in their lives, and of course, to entertain. But how often do we stop to think about the power they have over the developer(s) creating the game? The very act of designing, developing and publishing a title can be arduous, and the sad reality is that many in the field suffer from mental health problems. It can be especially difficult for indies, Mike WIlson, co-founder of Devolver Digital and Good Shepherd Entertainment, told me.

For Wilson, mental health is not only critical to the games industry, but it’s about as personal as it gets. “We're seeing people falling apart right and left,” he remarked. “And it's not just the people we work with; it's friends. I know three friends in my personal network that have lost somebody to suicide recently. I lost my sister to suicide a year and a half ago.”

Both Devolver and Good Shepherd help indies bring their games to market, but Wilson wants to ensure that the indies themselves are actually cared for. “Good Shepherd, from the beginning, we [said], ‘That's something that we're going to actively focus on,’” Wilson said.

It's still a huge issue. I'm not going to name names but we've had several developers at both labels hospitalized over the last few years during the course of the development of their game.

“I really can't think of a more important topic as far as if you love this culture, especially the indie side of it. You want these guys to be well. You want them to keep creating. It doesn't have to be tragic to be an artist,” he continued.

“It's funny that a bunch of us just accept that a bunch of the most famous painters and authors and musicians were tragically conflicted and lost early, oftentimes before they ever had any success. We just accept that, the idea of the tortured artist. For me, when we've worked with as many artists as we do all the time, it's part of our job to see what we can do about that. We don't just go, ‘Oh yeah, he's an artist, he's supposed to be depressed.’”

At E3 2018, Good Shepherd hosted the charitable organization Take This, which aims to spread awareness about mental health and to help shed the stigma of mental illness. Building up awareness and normalizing mental health problems are both key issues, said Wilson, who also serves on the Take This board.

“We're helping raise money for them regularly,” he noted during E3. “They're selling a package of this deck of tarot cards with 12 of the best Good Shepherd games to date. All of the proceeds are going to Take This. And all of our developers and Good Shepherd were super happy to donate our share of that. $7,500 worth of games for whatever you want to pay.”

Wilson wants developers to understand that it’s okay to talk about mental health. There shouldn’t be any feeling of shame associated with it.

“A lot of it I think is just talking about it so much that people realize that it's normal when it happens to them,” he said. “Most of their friends have been depressed at some point whether they've talked about it or not. Just normalizing it, instead of going, ‘What is wrong with me, why does everybody else seem fine and I can't function?’

Phantom Doctrine from CreativeForge has been well received (Image: Good Shepherd)
Phantom Doctrine from CreativeForge has been well received (Image: Good Shepherd)

“It's kind of like, when you've been through it before and you've come out of it -- because I have -- I just want to tell everybody when they're having it the first time, it's like, 'Look, I know it seems absolutely hopeless, but you can learn to control yourself, control your emotions, control your health, you just have to decide to do it.'”

There’s been a surge in mental health discussion across America lately thanks to the untimely deaths of stars like Chris Cornell, Robin WIlliams, Anthony Bourdain, Kate Spade and many others. People are talking about mental health openly more than ever before, and that’s the first step. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, more than 16 percent of American adults suffer from some form of mental illness. The game development community is not immune; in fact, the stressors of development may mean the percentage is actually higher.

“It's still a huge issue. I'm not going to name names but we've had several developers at both labels hospitalized over the last few years during the course of the development of their game. Some of them are very successful developers, and some that are less so,” Wilson continued.

“We had a developer recently who got so stressed out on a two-person team, one of the two team members literally lost his vision from the stress, right at the end, right before they shipped. And he was doing that thing that you have to after you ship a game: patching it and improving it, and dealing with the community without the benefit of sight. So, literally having to have other people read the comments. And it still has been weeks and he still does not have his vision back.”  

No artist in the history of making art of any kind has had to deal with this level of direct interaction with their audience while they're creating and right after.

Sometimes the people piles of big shows can be a bit overwhelming, especially for those of us who are introverted. Game developers need to attend these shows, but it can be difficult for some. Wilson described one developer who “just literally couldn't get themselves to the plane” to come to E3.

“They had paid for their flight and everything. Luckily, we've created a culture where they know it's okay to just say that,” he said. “You don't have to make up a lie. They said 'I'm sorry, you know I battle, and right now I'm losing. I'm having a rough time. I'm okay, I'm not going to hurt myself, but I can't go deal with E3 right now.'

“And I think that's one of the most important things we can do, is just open those channels. We should be able to say that as easily as you should be able to say 'I got in a wreck,' or 'I have the flu.'”

Triple-A developers don’t have it easy by any stretch of the imagination, but indies may feel like they have the weight of the world resting on their shoulders. Crunch, which remains far too prevalent in the industry, is not good for anyone’s health, but indies feel helpless when it comes to working long hours.

“They don't have any choice,” Wilson commented. “It's bad at the big studios too. The only difference with the indies is instead of some boss telling you, you're by yourself for six months; it's even worse, because it's you kicking your own ass. And every time you read a comment it's personal to you. Because that was a choice you made. Or a thing you didn't deliver on.

“And I think oftentimes people making these comments are completely unaware that one or two people made this game. They imagine some studio with their name on the side of the building somewhere with this big staff. And you're like, ‘No, this is two people that live in two different countries working from home 80 hours a week, just trying to finish. And also expecting to constantly interact with the community while they're doing it. Many of them [are] introverted to start with.”

It’s a challenging new world for game developers in 2018. With social media and open game development processes, there’s never been more dialogue with an audience before, during, and after a game’s been released.

“No artist in the history of making art of any kind has had to deal with this level of direct interaction with their audience while they're creating and right after. There has usually been a shield of some sort,” Wilson remarked.

“We're always promoting the studio and we want these guys to become known for what they made and what they make. So, I don't know, it's a Catch-22, I hope it doesn't get to the point where we really feel like we have to shield these guys, and now you're just talking to PR people all the time. Because we really feel it’s important to connect with people directly.”

When Good Shepherd isn’t shining a spotlight on mental health, the indie publisher is trying its hardest to help developers succeed. Wilson fully admits that Good Shepherd (formerly Gambitious) hasn’t had its “Hotline Miami moment yet,” but in the year-plus since he transitioned away from Devolver to spend most of his time as Chief Creative Officer at Good Shepherd, the label has been making strides.

“A big part of the impetus for Devolver investing in Gambitious in the first place is to bring more money into funding indies, through this network of private investors, that's what Good Shepherd is doing,” said Wilson. “The magic of the relationship is that we are able to throw our experience with Devolver, which kind of incubated Gambitious, and pass on the way that we do business. That's working out, where people are able to make a living, even if they're not making mainstream hits.

“For the investors, it's the same thing. You're not betting on some lottery ticket, you're betting on what might be an average or slightly above average indie game… We're able to offer the opportunity to invest, in a much safer way than has traditionally been offered.. to invest literally alongside us as companies and individuals in the exact same terms. So that's a pretty easy sell right? We'll have somebody that's curious about games, has some money, and we'll go, ‘Okay, well we've been at it for a while, here's our track record, and I'm offering you literally the same deal that I get, that I personally invest.’”

While Devolver’s invested in Good Shepherd, the team is discrete and stands on its own now. Devolver is not sharing all its people and resources.

“What I'm saying is we've now built a fully functional second company,” explained Wilson. “The idea is that that company is built to scale because we're… bringing in outside money to feed the ecosystem, so that we can greenlight a lot more stuff and have people work at that same philosophy. The same artist-first philosophy that publishing doesn't have to be greed-based.”

The number of games on digital storefronts has gotten out of control and some indies clearly are struggling to make ends meet. That said, Wilson remains optimistic about the state of indie development.

We want everybody to win. We want more money funding more games and hopefully we've helped establish terms of what a good deal is

“As soon as you get comfortable, something changes, and that's what's great with these little indies that we work with. They keep adjusting, we keep adjusting, and I mean, this is still by far my favorite time in the industry, in the 25 years I've been in it,” Wilson enthused.

“Yes, there's a lot of competition, but there are also more platforms, and it's a more global business than it's ever been. For us, all of sudden China is a very important market after being a complete pirate market forever. It was left for dead a few years ago, and now it's the third or fourth biggest market.”

Digital storefronts are overcrowded, but the upside is that payments happen quickly. “They magically just pay you what they owe you every month, which was not the case in the retail days. It was always chasing money no matter, so I still think it's a way better time for indies, than any other time in the business,” WIlson added.

“[And if] somebody has a hit, it's life changing for them, forever. It's literally from broke to not having to worry, and just being able to create. That's super-satisfying.”

The ease of access to game development tools has been a boon for the industry’s artform, and importantly, its diversity too.

“All of that competition is happening because now people don't have to be hardcore programmers to make a game. A lot of our games are made by one or two people using an engine that exists, and there are way more artist than they are programmers or whatever. So you're getting a lot more unique voices, and yes sorry, early adopter, white males. It's not just your world anymore.”

Wilson is fully aware that neither Good Shepherd nor Devolver stand alone in the boutique indie publishing realm. And he’s not worried about the competition; he just wants indies to succeed and he’s hopeful that his way of conducting business can serve as a template of sorts.

“We want everybody to win. We want more money funding more games and hopefully we've helped establish terms of what a good deal is,” he said. “Because otherwise, if you don't [offer a good deal], then as soon as that indie is successful they're going to go to Devolver. They're going to go to Good Shepherd. Regardless of where they came from. These are now the rules of engagement for an indie publisher, and we're super proud of that. We want that to spread.

“If that's our legacy, that we helped set these rules of engagement and then hundreds of indies are getting funded under those terms every year, and getting to keep their IP and creative control, and getting a good deal, then that's a pretty big win. That's affecting a lot more people than we can personally affect.”

Wilson is happy to see the triple-A publishers engaging more and more with indies as well. With programs like EA Originals or Take-Two’s Private Division, it’s clear that the big companies are recognizing what indies bring to the table. Still, Wilson always cautions about greed when it comes to the big guys.

“As long as their terms are friendly, let everybody have a go at it,” he said. “Fund more games, more indie games. And it's good for people to be able to graduate. Devolver's budget rate is like 100 grand to maybe a couple of games that would have been 5 million dollars. But those are maybe one a year, two a year, something like that. A lot of teams have an aspiration to do bigger games, to build a traditional studio and not always be doing the working from home small thing.

“Whatever lets people create, as long as it's not in some usury terms. Often, when more money gets in, the more control the money people feel like they should have. And it's just a natural feeling. You paid for the fucking thing, it's 10 or 15 million dollars… And you get some of that on the indie side too. Some of these guys get private investors. The dangerous thing with that is thinking you know what you're talking about because you have some money.”

Even though Devolver and Good Shepherd are funding titles, Wilson’s philosophy has always been to defer decisions to the actual developers.

“They have final say on literally everything. Most of them want to defer that power, trust you, and would love for you to do what you do,” he said. “That first step is to break the golden rule of, ‘He who has the gold makes the rule,’ and go back to the actual golden rule.”

Editor-in-Chief

James has been covering the games industry since the early 2000s and was most recently the editor of GamesIndustry.biz. He loves Zelda, Metroidvania-style games, action adventure and single-player narratives. He's also the proud father of twin boys and is obsessed with good coffee and Yankees baseball. You can reach him @bright_pixels on Twitter or you can email him at james.brightman@gamedaily.biz.