EDIT: You can see a post mortem of sorts in a presentation I made on the lessons I learned from my experience: Playing the Long Game: The Vital Importance of Purpose, Mission, and Vision to Your Business.
“You don’t know what it’s like out there! I’ve worked in the private sector. They expect results!” – Dr. Ray Stanz
I’ve been meaning to write about this topic for some time. Back in May of 2010, I put in my two weeks’ notice at my day job.
At the time, I wrote:
So why walk away from that? Because I’m also cutting myself off from an obligation to be anywhere for 40-60 hours a week. Those hours are mine now. I have the freedom to use them however I want. Instead of being a cog in an otherwise pretty great wheel, I’m making my own wheel.
Of course, with that freedom comes great responsibility. I’m solely responsible for the success or failure of my business. My future income depends more on my marketing, sales, creativity, and productive output than the time I spend sitting at a desk. It’s going to be hard work, and I’ll encounter challenges the likes of which I’ve never seen.
My burn rate said that I’d have enough savings for one year. Thanks to living in a city with a lower cost of living, the stipend I get as President of the Association of Software Professionals, and the support of my girlfriend-now-wife, I was able to last until 2012 before I needed to seriously look to supplement my income.
My income was near non-existent, though, and I should have been focused on supplementing it way earlier. You can do a lot of things wrong, but so long as you have sales/cash flow, you can live to tell the tale. If you don’t have cash flow, you can’t survive. I waited too long, unfortunately, so after having some contract PHP work disappear out from under me and realizing that I didn’t really have the network of support to find game development work easily, I once again took a full-time job.
I should do a full post mortem on my full-time indie attempt, but for now, here’s the highlights.
When I started out full-time indie, I probably spent too long figuring out what to do with my time. Eventually, I got into a structured daily routine of work. Things were going to be fine so long as I spent my days being productive. Get up, exercise, get some game development done, write a little, repeat the next day.
Unfortunately, I didn’t ship fast enough. My flagship game, Stop That Hero!, wasn’t officially released until a year after development, even though I thought it would be a one-month project at first. Even though I knew not to focus on technology and to focus on the game, even though I knew I should focus on getting to a positive cash flow as quickly as possible, even though I knew better, I still did the exact wrong things. While I had a good flurry of support from the pre-order, the sales are very low and aren’t going to be covering a regular meal, let alone mortgage payments.
Clearly what I’ve been doing isn’t working, but what was I supposed to do next? How was I supposed to turn things around?
Anything I spent my time on that didn’t bring in money felt like the wrong thing. I was feeling a lot of stress. Towards the end, I found myself somewhat paralyzed. Planning was important, but planning wasn’t action, but action for action’s sake wasn’t working. I could spend time learning a new development platform, but that would still mean no published games right away, but if I took time to plan I could figure out a way forward but who has time to plan? I know one hour of planning saves three hours of work, but if you only have mere hours left, you want to make them count. But that brings me back to trying to move forward while also trying to figure out which direction forward is. Gah!
I was disappointed, but I also felt like I was letting a lot of other people down. I’ve had a number of aspiring game developers tell me that I was an inspiration to them. My wife reminds me that I had a good couple of years worth of trying which is more than most people give themselves since they never make the attempt. She’s right, but it’s still hard to think I had an opportunity and lost it.
These days, it’s a lot less stressful not to worry about how to spend my day, wondering and second-guessing if I’m making the right choices in order to make a living. I’ve reintroduced that 40-60 hour week obligation, which means everything else in my life takes a backseat, but for the last few months, I’ve been able to breathe a bit more. I could take some time to reassess.
When I was hired, I made it clear that I fully intend to continue work on my business. It would have been a deal-breaker for me if I they were going to insist that I couldn’t as a condition of employment.
Now the trick is making time for my business outside of the day job hours while balancing the rest of my life. But I’ve been here before, and being on the other side of having a full-time business, I have new insights. I understand more fully the lessons I thought I pre-learned. I understand the game development industry just a little more.
So I’m not done. I’m going to live on. I’m going to survive.
And while there’s plenty of advice on how I should go about doing it, while there’s no shortage of people who can say that I should have focused on Facebook or mobile or free-to-play or Flash or HTML5 or Unity or Windows or any number of business models, platforms, and tools, I know I’ll find my own way. I’ll make my own rules.
In some cases, the consequences are heartache and failure that could have been avoided had I listened to someone else.
But I didn’t go into this to follow someone else’s lead. I’m not doing this to be like everyone else or make games like them.
I’m an independent game developer. I define my own success.