Game Design, Programming and running a one-man games business…

Sanding the woodwork

For eight years I worked in a boatyard.

Thats not the start of a novel, or a poem, I really did, which might seem weird if you know me as a software developer or game designer. But its true! It was mostly part-time, but multiple days a week, and it was crushingly hard work in ways I wont even begin to list here. This is a post about motivation, creativity and getting stuff done. Like a lot of my blog posts it will seem on a tangent until I attempt to bring it all together at the end. So stay tuned :D.

Almost all of the boats we worked on were clinker-built Edwardian Thames Skiffs. Basically 20-30 foot wooden rowing boats. The details don’t matter, but one of the most common jobs was to sand the woodwork for the whole boat, and give it a nice new coat of varnish. This was the easiest job we did, but also at the same time it was the most boring. Apart from anything, it was also very incompatible with the job I had the other 50% of the time which was part musician/session guitarist/guitar teacher. If you have played electric guitar you will know you get very helpful toughened callouses on every left hand finger. They are essential. They are also very easy to totally rip to shreds with sandpaper. I was constantly tying my fingers up with masking tape to prevent this…


One day a fellow worker at the boatyard decided to give me his top tip on how to approach the task of sanding a skiff. This job would take maybe 2 days. I listened with interest as he said “You start off by doing all the really awkward bastard bits that are annoying, and then when you finish them, you realize that the job is done.” He paused. “Because they are all fucking awful bastard bits”. This was funny, but funnier still because I actually thought at the start he was giving me practical advice. Working in a boatyard is grim. We milked any humor there was.

Me sculling(not rowing!) one of the boats we worked on

The point of this anecdote is to try and convey how boring, and hard and more than anything unsatisfying this job was. A wooden boat that has had every surface properly and smoothly sanded in preparation for a coat of varnish is not a massively satisfying thing. Its not like stripping dirt away to reveal the ceiling of the Sistine chapel, its not something that passers-by stop to gawp at and exclaim ‘well thats some decent thorough sanding work my good man!”. Nope nobody gives a fuck. Why did I keep doing this for maybe 16 hours? Because I needed the money to buy food.

£2.50 an hour

Yes, I’m old, and its probably better paid now. But anyway, its a very very long boring day, and there is NO satisfaction from the actual work whatsoever. It did not require any brainpower whatsoever. I did it for eight years. Thats a long time. Also, if you think that you would mostly be on twitter or having a coffee break: no. No mobile phones then, and 2 allotted tea breaks at 10.30 and 3.30PM. Apart from that, you better be fucking working or you’d be yelled at and maybe have sharp things thrown at you with great force.

Ok, I get it, this sounds like a four yorkshireman sketch, and a typical boomer ‘in my day’ whine about how work was harder in my day etc. But actually its totally not that. Its about understanding that some parts of the best jobs in the world are also like sanding down the woodwork.

When your WHOLE JOB is doing tedious unexciting unfulfilling drudge work, you kind of just accept it and get to fucking work. In a way, this is EASIER than many creative and fulfilling/rewarding jobs. In a creative job (like game development), there is a ton of really cool shit. When I made Gratuitous Space Battles, I spent a lot of actual work time stepping through space battle clips from Star Wars, deciding on the colors of laser beams, and designing futuristic space weaponry. It was awesome. But in-between all that cool shit, there was also stuff like coding a UI to save/load ship deployments. Coding a system to adjust the UI to fit at different screen resolutions. There was code to handle different fonts for each language. There was code to handle online challenges and error handling from PHP and SQL. This was the woodwork-sanding stuff.

When you can choose to do the cool shit, or sand the woodwork, almost everyone does the cool shit, and just leaves a bit pile of sanding to do ‘at some point’. When you run out of cool shit you are then faced with a huge ton of tedious crap you have to do in order to finish the project.

Don’t do this

Take my sarcastic boatbuilder buddy’s advice. Sand the fucking woodwork. When you start work, when you are motivated, when you are excited, do some of the grunt work. Code the error handling, optimize the rendering. Check the game runs on min-spec. Do the multi-language support. Do the steam API implementation. Do the options menu. Do the level editor. Do the modding support. Do the stuff you know you wont want to do later. This is the way. Then when you feel your motivation flagging, go decide what color the laser beams should be.

One thought on

  1. Seconded!

    It’s never going to be wasted work either. The designers or publisher may completely alter how the game plays out over time, but whatever they decide you’ll still need some logging, splash screens, an options menu, a save system, localisation and accessibility support.

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