Two years ago, sound designer and composer Stephan Schütze went to Sony Studios with a friend to watch the orchestra record a Muppets movie soundtrack. After, at dinner, they chatted about his career in the game audio business. He told his friend he didn't feel like a success. He hadn't done anything on a level equivalent to the Muppets movie. "I don't have anything with street cred, and I never worked on a Halo," he recalls saying. "I never worked on a Battlefield. I never worked on anything that was a big-name game that had people go, 'Wow.' I hadn't succeeded enough to be anybody of any value."
His friend countered, saying he'd done amazing things: Besides sustaining a career in the industry for more than 15 years, he'd written three fully orchestral game scores and worked with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. "I said I don't feel like any of those things are amazing," he recalls.
He had a classic case of impostor syndrome, which is a psychological phenomenon that stops people from internalizing their accomplishments — often to such an extent that they will attribute their success entirely to luck, circumstance or simple "hard work" rather than to genuine ability.
Schütze's friend had learned about it from a masterclass with John Powell, who wrote the musical scores for the "Bourne" films, "Kung Fu Panda," "How to Train Your Dragon" (for which he was nominated for an Academy Award) and dozens of other major motion pictures. Powell is one of the top composers in the movie business. Yet he felt like an impostor. Schütze was shocked. He couldn't believe it.
Then Schütze looked it up. He found a few famous, award-winning actors who had admitted to having impostor syndrome — a list that includes Denzel Washington, Tina Fey, Cate Blanchett, Jodi Foster and many others. Beneath the fame and fortune lurked an uncertainty. A fear, or guilt, that maybe they'd be exposed at some point as the frauds they really were.
What follows is the story of one game designer at a major studio and four at smaller teams who have found their success hard to swallow.
For many indies, the trouble with impostor syndrome doesn't start until after they release a game that proves them worthy to the world. Thomas Was Alone creator Mike Bithell wrote in a blog post in early 2014 that he'd noticed certain common threads in the way sudden, unexpected commercial success affected him and many of his indie peers. (Bithell declined Polygon's request for an interview.) The work to get there takes a mental, physical and social toll, he noted, but also a psychological one. That overnight success breeds guilt, and it comes as an emotional shock.
"You know of like 10 other games that came out last month that deserve it more than you," he wrote. "Why do you get to be the one whose dreams come true? If you're from humble beginnings, the money side of it makes it worse."
The Stanley Parable co-creator and The Beginner's Guide developer Davey Wreden found in the months following The Stanley Parable's standalone 2013 release that success both amplifies anxieties and strips you of your creative ownership. Writing on his blog, he described how he began to gauge his own satisfaction with himself and his work against Stanley Parable's place on Game of the Year lists. Wreden came to expect the game to be on these lists. "I crave[d] the validation I imagine[d] each new GotY list might shower me in," he wrote.
Organ Trail designer Ryan Wiemeyer — one half of indie studio The Men Who Wear Many Hats — has had similar issues. "Previous things that happened that used to be exciting [such as being featured on the App Store] become expectations," he says, "and they really suck when they don't happen."
Organ Trail was a huge hit for The Men Who Wear Many Hats. It drew a large audience in its first incarnation as a free browser game, which helped Wiemeyer and programmer Michael Block raise $16,339 on Kickstarter to fund development on an expanded version for mobile and PC. Recently, a further-expanded version came out for PlayStation 4 and the PS Vita. Organ Trail: Director's Cut has so far sold several hundred thousand copies and met with rave reviews from press and players.
But for Wiemeyer, that commercial and critical success made him feel like an impostor. He'd made a game people liked, but he wasn't convinced that its popularity stemmed from good design. Maybe it only did well because it combined the old educational game Oregon Trail with zombies, he thought.
"I specifically felt it the most when I went to PAX," he recalls. "I got accepted into the Indie Megabooth in PAX East to show Organ Trail at one point, and then the next PAX Prime we didn't get accepted. But I was still at PAX."
He walked around the expo floor and checked out the games his fellow indies were showing off. Games that he could never have made. And he met some of his heroes for the first or second time. "When you meet someone who you think is really cool [at an event like PAX], it feels like they're blowing you off," says Wiemeyer. "They're just really busy or they meet someone who thinks they're really cool every five seconds in that setting, so they just don't have the time to like invest in you." But his mind turned to the worst-case scenario. Organ Trail wasn't a completely original idea. Game developers value originality very highly in game design. They must, therefore, be unimpressed by Organ Trail. They must think it's cheap and stupid — the lazy route to success.
"I kind of internalized that it must have been that they know about the game and they've already dismissed it," Wiemeyer says, "and that's when I started to feel impostor syndrome the most. I would be like, 'Hey, I made this game and it's relatively popular and it's done well and it is a good idea and it's fun,' but people would be like, 'Oh, OK.' And that made me feel bad."
He later got to know many of these other indie developers and realized that he was just projecting his own insecurities onto others. But in the meantime he felt compelled to prove his place in the community. He had to design a game that was 100 percent original. A totally new idea. Something that couldn't possibly be dismissed as an existing game with a quirky twist.
That game became Max Gentlemen, a multiplayer "extreme manners simulator" that involves stacking hats and bare-knuckle brawling with shirtless gentlemen in a variety of locations. Despite debuting as a free download, it sold poorly compared to Organ Trail. A big part of the problem was that, during development, Wiemeyer couldn't step back from it. This was the game, after all, that would prove his design chops. It had to be perfect.
"As the game started not being right, I started getting depressed," he says. "I was like, 'This is my thing, and it's not perfect or great. It's just OK.’"
"I often compare myself to games that I want to be," he says. "So like Super Hexagon is a beautiful, simple game that was targeting some of the same platforms and was a similar play length and I loved how tight and wonderful that experience was. So I kept looking at our game and being like, 'It's not that game,' and feeling bad about it. Then it made me scared to share the game with people, which is also a huge design taboo — you need to constantly be getting feedback."
Stephan Schütze didn't think his talk on impostor syndrome at developer-centric conference Game Connect Asia Pacific in October would attract much of an audience. The experienced composer, who recently composed the audio for League of Geeks' acclaimed digital role-playing strategy board game Armello, thought that most conference attendees would rather "see things like art styles and code pipelines and some famous person talking in a keynote speech."
He couldn't have been more wrong. His talk was one of the most popular at the conference. Event staff had to turn people away from entry because the room was full.
"There were people who read the title of the talk and went, 'Oh my God, he knows! How did he find out? I'm a fake. I'm an impostor,'" says Schütze. He believes that impostor syndrome is widespread in the games industry, but few people talk about it or even know what it is.
To explain, he points to something that happened to him earlier this year while working with a team that he describes as superheroes — a team that's working to create audio technology and content for augmented reality startup Magic Leap. "I mentioned impostor syndrome to my boss, just as an offhand remark," says Schütze. His boss hadn't heard of it, so Schütze gave a quick, two-minute explanation. "Then [my boss] turned to the team, which at that stage was around eight people," Schütze continues, "and he said, 'Does anybody else here suffer that?' Without looking away from my boss, every single person on the team put their hand up."
"It is like being in a room with the Avengers and having them all put up their hand going, 'Yeah, look, I'm a fraud.'"
"It is like being in a room with the Avengers and having them all put up their hand going, 'Yeah, look, I'm a fraud. I'm not really very good at what I do. And I feel like a bit of a phony.' These are people like the guy who was in charge of audio for the original Xbox [and] the guy that designed the first ever software sampler, which evolved into the first software synthesizer."
Schütze thinks impostor syndrome sticks around or amplifies in accomplished people because they are acutely aware of their own limitations. The more they know, the more they see they still have to learn. And it's hard not to compare yourself unfavorably with your peers.
"Every single day I'm going to look at the people who've written amazing music for things like Mass Effect and Portal and stuff like that," says Schütze. "And I can't possibly compete with them because we're all unique. We're all different. I get this weird feeling with some pieces of music where it's this bittersweet thing. I am so, so sad that I didn't write that piece of music, but I'm so glad that I didn't write that piece of music because it's so awesome and I wouldn't have felt the same way about it if I had written it."
When Bungie designer M.E. "Emmy" Chung was in school, she considered anything less than a perfect grade to be a failure. Even when she scored 99 percent on a test, Chung would tell people she failed it. She'd study more than she had to because that was the only way she felt deserving of success.
In 2007, she left a budding career in academia to work in the games industry (first for Crystal Dynamics on Tomb Raider: Legend, then for 2K Marin on BioShock 2, then for 343 Industries on Halo 4, before moving to Bungie in 2011). It wasn't an easy transition. "I feel like everybody had a 'I knew I wanted to make games since I was five' [story] and they had made prototypes and their own card games and their own stories of these games that they've made in their free time. And I didn't have the same parallel stories," Chung says.
"Having a steady career at a game company can have such a legitimizing effect."
Chung had played games with her two older brothers as far back as she could remember, and she had been involved with the online competitive gaming scene since Counter-Strike 1.5. But she'd never thought of making games. "I didn't know that it was possible for people to make games," she says. "I had assumed that it was people in Japan who made games or like super rare geniuses who made games in the United States."
Now that she's in the industry and closely involved with the design of games that create social interactions between people, she oscillates between two emotional extremes. "I swing from, 'Why doesn't anyone understand this thing I've been intrinsically understanding for the last 20 years of my life?' to 'Oh my God, I don't know what I'm doing.'"
Chung is not the only person in the AAA development space with impostor syndrome. She notes that many of her past and present colleagues also share it.
Designer Chris DeLeon — who's had stints at Will Wright's Stupid Fun Club and EA Los Angeles, among others — thinks it's relatively uncommon in AAA developers. He explains over email that people at larger studios tend to be highly specialized and credentialed. "The animator is trusted to animate, the producer is trusted to know best how to be a producer, and so on," he writes. "Having a steady career at a game company can have such a legitimizing effect that, if anything, I've seen a lot of the opposite of impostor syndrome, such that they really seem to feel like they're unstoppable, can speak with authority on all topics about games and can do no wrong."
"I couldn't shake the feeling that I had no reason to be there because it didn't matter that it was me doing it."
DeLeon now teaches game development as part of IndieCade's GameU conference and through his Gamkedo online courses. Despite his wealth of experience, which also includes a decade of freeware game development and four years of graduate research and teaching at Georgia Tech, he's "genuinely surprised" when he gets positive reviews.
DeLeon has a history of underrating his own ability. One of his old jobs was as a level designer. He had designed levels in similar sorts of games for years on an amateur, hobbyist basis. But he couldn't understand why his co-workers were so impressed with the quality and quantity of the levels he made. "It felt to me like a task that, frankly, anyone else could do just as easily," he explains. "I couldn't shake the feeling that I had no reason to be there because it didn't matter that it was me doing it."
He didn't snap out of it until much later, after he'd left the company, when he learned that they'd pulled some of his level drafts from the archived trash to include in the game.
Chung has been dealing with a similar problem at Bungie. "In my last review, my manager told me, 'I want you to pitch your ideas when they get to 70 percent instead of 95 percent,'" she says. "It took me a while to understand what he meant because it's like, right, I have a type of personality where I want to make sure I have the complete picture in my head and I know exactly what I want it to be before I'm willing to talk to people about it. He's like, 'No. Your 70 percent is good enough to engage in conversation.'"
"[Sometimes people hold back their ideas through] a fear of being foolish or fear of being wrong or fear that they're going to see you as not worthy of that position," Chung continues.
In Chung's case, part of that fear comes from growing from a content designer to leading the Destiny live team, and the weight of responsibility that it came with.
"At some point, our leadership team was like 'M.E., do you want to run the live team?' 'Me! I don't know what I'm doing,'" recalls Chung. "The words that I said to [my boss] were, 'I am going to walk into the darkness. I have no idea what I'm doing.'"
It turned out to be a good thing for her, she says. She started seeing impostor syndrome in other people in the industry — especially women, many of whom had issues stemming partly from the boy's club culture cultivated in part by game industry marketing and simple gender differences. Chung often sees female colleagues and peers shortchange themselves in salary and title negotiations as well as employee reviews — not through a lack of self-confidence but through excessive humility.
Now she tries to act as a mentor, to show her junior-level colleagues that it's common to feel like you haven't earned your seat at the table at one time or another. "For me the fastest way to not feel like a fraud is to genuinely try to help someone else succeed," says Chung.
Tom Francis quit his job as a journalist with PC Gamer shortly after he released 2-D stealth game Gunpoint. He no longer needed a job; this game that he'd worked on in his spare time had earned him a year's salary in a week. The game was selling well enough that he could, in his words at the time, "quit jobs, as a concept." On top of that commercial success, Gunpoint met critical acclaim among Francis' former peers and colleagues.
But Francis also felt guilty, and before long he developed an irrational fear. The problem was that a tiny percentage of players — mere dozens among the tens of thousands who bought the game — had technical problems. Some problems he knew how to fix. Others were way beyond his programming knowledge, such as why the game ran poorly on high-end PCs or why it wouldn't start for some people.
"Even once I acknowledged, 'Hey, this has gone really well and the problems are at an acceptably low rate.' I still felt like this is something I got away with," Francis says. "I just about managed to pull it off and no one found out that I didn't have this full background in programming that I feel like I should have had."
He feared that one day someone would find a problem that would prove he's "a complete idiot" who made terrible mistakes in the game code. So he hired another company, Abstraction Games, to port Gunpoint to its own engine on Windows (as well as to Mac and Linux).
That way, Francis' shoddy code would be rewritten, and to get himself completely off the hook, he asked Abstraction to handle technical support as well. "They would figure out any problems and solve them on an ongoing basis," he says. "And probably cope with that in a very rational and calm way, which I was not capable of doing at the time."
Francis is hoping to fight off his impostor syndrome for his second game, Heat Signature. Whether he can do so may depend on how well he copes with programming problems he can't solve. Heat Signature went through a two-week alpha release earlier this year to get player feedback. The feedback was encouraging, but some players reported a memory error that stopped the game. This terrified Francis.
"If you play Gunpoint or Heat Signature and it pops up with a GameMaker error message saying, 'I don't know what this variable means,' then I can probably solve that," he says. "It might be difficult. It might take me a while to figure out where that problem is, but it's going to be a mistake I've made in the logic of my code. But if you try to run Heat Signature or Gunpoint and it just doesn't start, I feel completely lost. Like 'Oh God, I don't know.' That's just so beyond my abilities to even start to solve because there's no line of code that says 'don't run.'"
He eventually managed to solve the problem after a few of his testers provided hints and troubleshooting support about what might be going wrong. Each victory over his own code's bugs inspires a little more confidence, he says. "It makes me think — you know, part of the nature of programming is hitting problems where you don't know how to solve them because if you did, you probably would have avoided them in the first place," says Francis.
All five developers interviewed for this story stress that impostor syndrome is a part of life — a common phenomenon that affects people across all creative industries, albeit perhaps more so on the indie side of games than at large AAA studios with hyperspecialized staff. Left to fester, it becomes a trap for your mind and work. DeLeon notes that failing to get out of your own way negatively impacts those around you, thereby letting down the very people who want you to succeed.
Wiemeyer stresses that it's important to understand that "everyone else" is faking it. "I've actually taught at a university here [in Chicago]," he says, "and what I always teach them is that it doesn't matter if you're good at it. It matters what the user thinks." Even so, he's still chasing that validation from his peers. He copes much better with his insecurities now than before — a feat he attributes to spending more time around other people. "When you're working at home alone in your apartment you will go absolutely crazy," says Wiemeyer. "So I actually started a co-working space specifically so there were a lot of people around."
For some people, impostor syndrome never fades away. It continues to chafe for months and years after it sets in. But Chung isn't bothered because she sees it in people far more accomplished than she is, and they're doing fine. "If [Facebook COO] Sheryl Sandberg still has impostor syndrome, I'm probably never going to get over it. And that's OK," she says.