The Price of Energy Drink-Fueled Game Development

Over a decade ago, a friend of a friend from Germany came to my hometown of Novi Sad, Serbia, to visit the Exit Music Festival. At one point, someone asked him what does strike him as different in Serbia compared to his life in Germany. He said two things.

The first one was that he never visited a country where people spend more time on their mobile phones talking to people whom they’ll meet in half an hour (completely accurate). The second thing was that he never saw a place where more energy drinks were consumed.

Both were interesting but the thing that stuck with me was his second observation. Today, I can tell that the same guy never worked in game development because here, the amount of the same beverage being used is most likely a lot bigger even compared to Serbia in 2006.

In my experience, geography and culture do not hamper the universal love for energy drinks in game dev, at least in Europe and in my experience. From the Brighton to Belgrade, it looks to me like everyone is chugging down on any and all imaginable energy drink brands, from those that adorned helmets of extreme sports athletes to those made locally who-knows-where.

And it’s easy to see the allure. Game development usually demands alertness, creativity, and mental dedication. The combo of sugar, taurine, and caffeine, present in most energy drinks, covers all of that. It gets you up after your personal late-night gaming session and ready for work. It pulls you from your slump that comes from the pastry-based breakfast and carbo-loading you had as your first meal.

It keeps you from hitting your head on the keyboard when you’re in a crunch and it helps you keep your eyes open for that second 3-hour meeting of the day. Like all drugs, energy drinks are popular because they work. They don’t mess with your cognitive processes, they are legal and available. You don’t need to boil water to make it or put a small bag in it, you pop a can open. What’s not to like?

Well, they might be making you ruin the game you’re working on. Maybe not all the time and not for everyone, but they are not helping. As a psychoactive substance, they come with benefits and drawbacks. Here, there are two main issues you should worry about. They elevate your anxieties, which are most likely not very low to being with.

By impacting the neurotransmitters that regulate alertness, they will boost any baseline anxiety you might experience. They will impact your sleep pattern and they will make you sleep less (which the point). But, they will also make the sleep you do have degraded quality.

Both factors will impact your life in many different ways, but professionally, anxiety and lack of sleep will stifle your creativity in the long run. As a free-flowing thing, the ability to solve unorthodox problems (not regular issues you come across daily) is highly susceptible to your state of well-being and bad sleeping alone will impact that. You won’t feel it as a freight train hitting you, but more as the seasonal flu coming on. You’re still you, but somehow you’re operating at 90%. Then at 85%, followed by 80%.

The process can stop at some point or even bounce back a bit. Yet, regardless of that, it will not help you in your career if you plan to stay in game development for the next decade or two. Also, it will be able to deny you that creative spark when you need it the most and with it, stop your game from achieving its full potential.

In the global game development culture that seems to be perceiving the lives of the individuals in it as fuel that needs to be spent for a game to come out, energy drinks are the ideal accelerant. Of course, I’m not saying to drop them right now and never pick it up again. Instead, like with any drug you might choose to use, be aware of the things you’re given, but also the things that are taken away at the same time.

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This article is also available on Gamasutra.com.