Should I Become an Indie Game Developer?
“Should I become an indie game developer?”
No, it’s crazy. Study. Then get a steady job at a respectable company.
You deserve a better answer than that, but before we get into the meat of things, since this is my newsletter, I thought I’d give you some weekly observations. Think of this preamble as a warm-up act.
The Obsession With Tracking
I weighed myself this morning. Once upon a time, this meant standing on a box with some calibrated springs and watching a dial spin up to some dizzying number. Now I stand on some tiny black plate from the future, with four metal conductors where I’m supposed to place my heels and toes, a bit like social distancing markers for my own feet. Then, this FutureBox transmits some information to an app on my iPhone, which in turn extracts an infeasible array of indicators from my body.
Uh oh. My water volume seems a bit low. That doesn’t seem right. Apparently I am only 48.1% water, which at least puts paid to the rumour that I’m mostly hot air. So being the cynic that I am, I immediately down half a litre of water and try again. I am now 48% water. Should I throw this thing in the bin?
Well, no, and in any case, this obsession with tracking everything is a terrible waste of time. I don’t think the measurements are precise, and like the security theatre we used to be subjected to at airports in the Age of Flying, the measurements gleaned from a cheap box of chips from China offer an illusion of measurement.
Like the double slit experiment, the more closely I try to measure myself, and the more often, the more bewildering the results. It’s not a complete waste of time, just as flossing your teeth is only correlated with longer life expectancy because those who floss their teeth are more likely to be careful in other matters of health — so am I more likely to do something about my creeping waistline if the general drift of numbers, like the aggregate of quantum systems, is moving, generally, in the right direction.
It’s not how often you measure, nor how many sigmas of precision you consider adequate for the task, but that you measure, and that you don’t stop measuring. You make it a habit to observe, orient, decide, then act. The observation is one quarter of the OODA loop. If I don’t bother with the rest of the loop, I might as well eat Krispy Kreme.
Should I Quit My Job and go Indie?
No, really, don’t do it, unless you are comfortable with not making enough money (or any money at all) from it for a long time. Oh, you’re experienced, you say? It will be different for you, you say? Then you should know better!
Video games is a business. It’s also a creative industry, which means that financial success is elusive, financial security is hard and penury the rule. You only have to look at Hollywood to see this Pareto-extreme distribution in action.
For the vast majority of indies, making a living from their work is brutally hard. The quality of games is rising, all the time. Competition is increasing, all the time. Technology is making what you’ve already learned out of date, all the time.
“Yeah, but weren’t you the one who stood up on a stage at EGX in 2013 and used the Bradbury quote about jumping off the cliff and building your wings on the way down?”
Sure, but I didn’t say do it without at least having some feathers and glue with you, did I?
There’s risky, and there’s stupid. Almost everything has some degree of risk. Working for a big company is risky, no job is guaranteed any more, and yet, leaving the comfort of a regular salary seems riskier still. It’s not for everyone, and there’s absolutely no shame to that.
It was different for me, because it’s how I started in 1982. It’s the life I left behind, too soon, and there were things I still wanted to do. There was something I just couldn’t let go of, and it was driving me and my family crazy.
So I did take the risk, I did leave the relative safety of a superb job at a superb company in a superb position, where I was in no immediate or obvious danger of losing my job.
So why? Knowing all that I knew, why did I leave PlayStation in 2015, in my late 40s to become a developer again, just when it started to get really tough for independents? Well, I’ll let Jim Rohn answer that.
“I’ll tell you what changed my whole life: I finally discovered that it’s all risky. The minute you got born it got risky. If you think trying is risky, wait until they hand you the bill for not trying!” — Jim Rohn
I didn’t want to be handed the bill for not trying. The price of regret is far higher than any financial penalty, especially when you think your time is running out. There were things left undone, and I didn’t want to live with that regret. Then there was the other potential regret I was no longer prepared to live with.
I was spending almost no time with my young son, and I looked at a future where he had grown up and we were distant. I didn’t want him to live with that pain, I wasn’t prepared to live with that pain and so any scenario where I was able to give him more time during his formative years was going to be worth it, whatever the financial stress.
I looked into a future of regret, and I didn’t like what I saw. I look at the different past I now have and despite all the incredible stress, I am pleased I did what I did. I knew the risks, and I was prepared to face them. If worrying about whether you’re going to make the rent every month doesn’t bother you, then go ahead, listen to Bradbury, jump off the cliff, but know this: Crashing onto the rocks hurts, and not many people get up from it.
That said, I had no savings; that is, I had no feathers or glue, so how would jumping off the cliff work out for me, exactly?
The ideal situation would have been for me to be able to indulge my passion in my own time while maintaining my position at PlayStation. Work on your passion project in your own time, while still in a job. That’s my advice to you, if you’re considering taking the leap. Especially if you’re new to games development. Learn the craft, it takes time, enjoy the process, because it is an amazing process.
Why didn’t you take your own advice then, Einstein?
I tried. Given my profile at PlayStation at the time, it was vital that I did everything by the book. It might have seemed from the outside that I was a complete maverick, so doing things by the book might come as a surprise to some, but that was the fundamental tension of my role; to be a maverick and yet still be a responsible corporate citizen. If there was to be any collateral damage, I was always prepared to take the fall. I was never one to hide behind the protective façade of the corporation when things became dicey. That’s probably why I was successful. I was prepared to lose my job to do the right thing. Not many people are willing to do that, and perhaps that’s what indicated that I had the right constitution for entrepreneurship.
If a game project I’d been doing in my own time became public knowledge, there was no way of ensuring that the fallout wouldn’t affect PlayStation negatively. So we all tried to figure out if it was doable, and in the end, it just wasn’t. I am prepared to take risks that affect me, and with the support of my family, them too, to their immense credit. I am not prepared to take that risk to affect my relationships.
Had I not been able to get the support of Barry O’Neill and Gavin Harrison (to both of whom I owe an enormous debt of gratitude) to set up Ultimatum Games, I might still be at PlayStation today. That might not have been such a bad thing, but I didn’t want to be staring at the mirror today, five years on, with regret at the thought of not taking the leap when I had the chance.
I don’t have enough time to work on a game on the side, if I was able to do this full time, I could make it!
If you can’t eke out time right now, then it’s highly unlikely you’d make better use of time given more of it. Having less time available forces you to plan better, to become productive more urgently and to be pleased with progress, rather than fixated on results. Ultimately, these are skills that will serve you when eventually, you have more time to devote to making games.
In any case, there is no more time. There is only the time you have, and the process of deciding what your priority is at any given moment. While at PlayStation, and before my job became my passion and therefore my focus, I worked on a PC and Mac version of Chimera, my 1985 game. I worked on it in pockets of time, on an 11” MacBook Air, on the top deck of a 98 bus. I trained myself to get into flow state in minutes, to shut everything out and to be satisfied with small amounts of progress.
The best indicator of what you’d be like if you had a collossal amount of money is to see what you’re like with very little. If you’re selfish, then money will magnify that. If you’re generous, money will magnify that too. If you are not good at managing what little money you have now, then when you have tons of it, you’ll likely be terrible at managing it and will lose it quickly.
Time is no different. If you are not able to make any kind of progress when you don’t have much spare time to work on your game, then given lots of time, two things will happen. The first is that you will still not make any kind of progress. The second is that you will start to feel incredibly stressed that you are now broke, and that the passion you longed for is long gone as you try to figure out how to stay alive. The truth is likely to be a little messier, but the principle is the same: Time and Money are multipliers for your output and your character, respectively.
If you’re so bloody smart, why did Ultimatum Games fail?
Ah, but how are you looking at failure? Let’s examine that another day, shall we?