Happy Indie Day to Me

May 21st is my own personal Independence Day. Even after running out of money and returning to corporate welfare, it’s a day that holds a lot of meaning for me.

10 years ago, I went to Chief O’Neill’s Pub & Restaurant to celebrate my last day working at a company that made slot machines.

Chief O’Neill’s is where we went to send people off whenever someone moved or changed jobs, and I remember realizing that no one was organizing an outing to do so for my last day.

Welp.

I told everyone that I was going to Chief’s, and for the remainder of the afternoon, people from work came in and out, hung out with me, and wished me luck on my next endeavor. It was a pleasant time.

Two weeks before, I had given my notice that I was quitting to pursue full-time indie game development.

Rereading the comments from other indies and friends from my blog post about going full-time indie brings tears to my eyes every time. Everyone is so encouraging and supportive. And I love how since that time I’ve even met some of you in person!

When I reported how things were going 6 months into my indie journey, which was frankly embarrassingly not well due to a lack of focus and direction, I got even more advice and encouragement.

You know, I miss everyone being into blogging rather than toxic social media.

Anyway, within a couple of years, I ran out of money and ended up back in a job, as I said. I wrote a bit about it in I Have a Day Job Again, but it was hard to go back to a day job, partly because I felt like I had squandered an opportunity.

I remember the first day. The commute felt foreign. Sitting in a cube and seeing everyone else sitting in their cubes felt foreign and familiar at the same time. I remember it feeling wrong.

And then I remember the day when I noticed that the day job didn’t feel different anymore, when it felt normal and I hadn’t noticed, and it was another sad day for me.

When I went back to having a day job, I figured it would be for just a couple of years at most. I would do what I did before, working on my business on the side, saving up money, and building myself a runway.

I’ve been working a day job for about 8 years now.

Most of the following comes from a tweet thread I did late last year.

10 years ago, I took a leap, and I hovered for a bit, but then fell.

I’d like to say that I’ve been trying to get back up in the air ever since, but things are different for me now.

Actually, I’ve considered myself an indie game developer for about 20 years, most of it very, very part-time.

I struggle with whether I can still call myself an indie game developer due to my lack of significant output in all that time.

When I was five years into it, I once asked a question on IRC & the response I got was not terribly helpful. That’s fine. But it ended with “I wouldn’t worry about it at this stage.”

Me: This stage?

Them: As a beginner.

I felt quite insulted at the presumption, but then again, I hadn’t shipped anything in those five years.

I have both the identity of a veteran and a never-was. It’s a weird place to be to think that I don’t have a beginner’s mind about game dev when maybe I need it more than ever, but, like, no, kid, you don’t need to introduce the concept of a navmesh to me.

And since I’m older, married, and have kids, plus have some volunteer work, my indie game development time is a lot more constrained than it used to be.

I used to have this fear that time was running out, that I needed to work faster to get something out before it was too late.

And by too late, I mean I was worried that once kids entered the picture, if I hadn’t gotten my business off the runway, it wasn’t going to get off that runway.

I feel like, 20 years later, I have the skills, the knowledge, the business sense, and more, but I’m not practicing it regularly, so I’m atrophying and falling behind.

Comparing yourself to others is a recipe for stress and anguish, but it’s hard sometimes seeing others building upon past successes while I’m still trying to build upon past failures. They are inspiring, but they’re also a reminder that I’m not as far along as I thought I’d be by now.

My priorities aren’t the same. Some people take on mortgages and credit card debt to get their runway extended and give their all. I never went into debt, but I quit my job once and had no income for a year while I tried to make indie dev work.

I’m not in that position anymore.

I think if I had a 2nd chance to focus full-time on indie game dev, I would do a much, much better job of running my business as a business, unlike last time when I spent a lot of time spinning my wheels on unfocused game dev and almost nothing on customers or marketing.

But I’m no longer in that position.

I have a family to take care of.

So my current indie game development plan for the last few years has been to slowly build up something until it becomes my primary source of income.

I just worry that there is such as thing as “too slow” and that I’m fooling myself.

I always had it in my head that one day I would eventually be a full-time indie game developer again.

Today’s not that day.

But today I am a husband, a father (that one is still new), an advocate for transgender rights, a speaker, a writer (even though I don’t blog as regularly as I used to), and a very, very part-time indie game developer.

My life is very full, and I often stress myself out trying to fill it even more, especially when I don’t see what’s there for what it is.

Part of it is greed. I want to experience and learn EVERYTHING. I want to turn my backyard into a garden. I want to learn how to play guitar. I want to learn Italian and maybe another language. I want to learn how to cook. I want to play soccer regularly again.

And I am running into the limitations of doing all of that while I have a day job AND a part-time business AND volunteer work AND being with family.

I’ve always liked the idea of being a Renaissance man. Why pigeon-hole myself into a single job or identity?

But, hoo, I’ve discovered in the last year or two that there are limits, and sacrificing sleep is a loser’s game, it turns out.

I realized I needed to start saying no to things a long time ago, but I haven’t quite internalized how much I have to say no to.

I had a side contract that I finished recently, which freed up the limited time I currently dedicate to it, but what kind of effort can I dedicate to my business?

Again, I worry there is a minimum amount of time and effort that I’m not going to be able to give with my current plan of working on my business on the side.

It would be one thing if I was Sisyphus pushing a boulder up a mountain and having to do it again and again. It’s another if I am barely budging the boulder while it grows moss.

I don’t know if I am mourning a past life or just the illusion of it.

I still identify as an indie game developer. I still expect that I will make games in the future as an indie game developer.

But what if I’m wrong?

This isn’t Imposter Syndrome. I don’t worry that I’ll be found out that I’m a fraud.

It’s more like I’m concerned that I’ve deluded myself into thinking I’m an indie game developer when any independent observer would think, “Eh, but are you really?”

I moved to Des Moines, Iowa in 2010 thinking that I would be a major driver of the indie game development scene, and instead I’ve been MIA from local meetups for many months. I have only recently been getting back into it, and I don’t have the energy or time to be a real leader there. I’ve had to be fine with being a participant who just happens to have access to the admin discussions.

I haven’t participated in game jams in years, and that was at least an area I could point at and say “See what I did as a game developer?”

The only fully complete game I’ve made commercially is from 2016. The contract game is finished and out, so that’s something to feel good about, but other than a name in the credits, it’s not really my game.

But I think the priority I give my indie game development isn’t where I would like it to be. There are competing priorities, and that’s a big part of the struggle I have with my identity as an indie game developer. A giant chunk of my waking hours are taken up with Not Game Dev, and the things that are Not Game Dev? Well, I’m not willing to sacrifice them for a variety of reasons.

And since I’m getting older, I’m finding myself getting tired sooner. It could be the lack of exercise? But it’s a phenomenon that I’ve noticed. So I don’t find myself spending as much time pushing past sleep to try to get some productivity in because I just can’t do it like I used to.

Still, May 21st is my Indie Day.

And I can lament all that isn’t going well when it comes to being an indie game developer, but what blessings can I count?

  • My business has a purpose, vision, and mission. It didn’t 10 years ago. My definition of success is not merely the default “I’m making money making games” and instead is focused on encouraging curiosity and supporting creativity.
  • My contract game development for the last two years has allowed me to throw significant money into my business accounts. It’s not quit your job money, but it’s money that means my business has turned a real profit for the first time in many years.
  • It also means that I have some money to spend on making my games better than they could be if I didn’t have the resources.
  • My 2016 game, which hasn’t seen an update in a few years, is now available for iOS and has new updates coming.
  • My insistence on ignoring the current hotness, whether it was Flash or Unity or casual game portals, and focusing on just doing what I was doing means that after all of these years, what I’m doing is still relevant somehow. Continuing to use C++ and SDL2 and focusing on supporting multiple platforms means that my games aren’t lost to some 3rd party’s decision to obsolete their technology. It might mean I don’t get to take advantage of some neat developments in existing game engines, but it also means that when something goes wrong, I feel empowered to figure it out and fix it rather than frustrated that someone else is not doing so for me.
  • I’ve got years of experience and insight into what does and does not work for me, and I know what I’m willing and not willing to do.

So happy Indie Day to me. It’s been years since I was a full-time indie game developer, and it might be years before I can do it again, but I was independent once, and it will forever be a part of me.

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