If you want to move to Seattle to pursue indie game development, I'm now you one year into the future. Looking back at my experience, I have attended many more gaming events than before, met countless developers in my shoes, fostered promising business connections, and got a chance to showcase my upcoming game frequently. But there are some disappointments as well, such finding a flourishing social life like I had before. Here are all the pros, cons and what I learned from living in Seattle for a year.
(This article was originally posted on Koobazaur's Blog)
The before, and why I moved
I've been a geek my whole life, spending more time making intricate RPG-esque Starcraft maps than actually playing the game. I'm sure most can relate so let me jumpstart two decades later. It wasn't until I graduated my Masters and moved to Los Angeles (to work as a cinematographer, no less) when my first indie game Postmortem: one must die started taking off and I realized, crap, now I need an LLC.
To cut the story short, I went thru a bit of a passive-aggressive-hating-on-LA phase. Ultimately, I think it's a pretty alright city, but it just did not mesh with my style (especially the ruthless indie film scene and laissez-faire approach to time management).
As far as "indie game dev ecosystem" goes, there really isn't any of it. There is the Glitch City, an indie workspace and collective I never really got a chance to interact with while there, and then a ton of triple-A studios everywhere. When I went to the once-a-month (if lucky) game dev social, I'd be chatting with veterans complaining about managing their 20-people art teams. Needless to say, we weren't exactly on the same level. Sure, there's also IndieCade for smaller indies, but that's a once-a-year festival, hardly supporting a year-round community.
So I pulled out my map, opened the googles, and did some research. I was looking for a decent-sized but not overwhelming city that's walkable/bikable, good public transit, adequate weather (read: I like my rain), and an indie game community. Montreal, Austin, Portland and Seattle were just a few of the choices I analyzed. I did the responsible thing laying out the pros and cons, and settled on Seattle as my next destination... but not before shedding most of my material properties, accidentally setting a trashcan on fire, and backpacking across Europe for 2 months. Did I mention, responsible?
The Seattle Indie Community
Big shout out has to go to the Seattle Indies, a local non-profit group that organizes numerous events and basically keeps the game dev community together. Weekly co-working meetings in downtown Seattle, monthly socials, and the Seattle Indies Expo during PAX are just some of the many awesome things these guys do for us. And all for free (read: voluntary donations). If any of you guys is reading this, seriously. thank you.
Through these few events and other announcements, I quickly exploded my calendar even more: the weekly Beer Wednesday, Monday night Geekaraoke, Serious Game Discussion group, or the Eastside meet and greet for those across the pond. Some weeks, I'd be going to game related happenings as often as 3-4 days! Quite a big change from the rare and awkward LA social.
The natural by-product of this is meeting devs, SO MANY DEVS. But here is where my first little niggle comes in. The vast majority of attendees are going to be programmers. Finding artists is still hard, and I ran into whopping 3 writers during my whole year here. There's few full-time indies as well, with most pursuing game dev as a hobby in the evenings and weekends after their much more stable tech job (a prudent approaching, if you know anything about tho volatility of the indie scene).
Lastly, my biggest pet-peeve: while I definitely met some awesome people and have a strong development support network (the weekly co-working event is called the "Support Group" for a reason), I can't honestly say I made many friends.
Most will meet once a week for an event, and rarely talk in-between. Most will ask how your game is going, but not how your day was. We have a discord channel but there is hardly any conversation besides occasional and court "how do I do X in Unity" or "check out my latest screenshot" messages. While part of it is my own lack of trying, I've undoubtedly had much better success making meaningful personal connections outside the game dev circles (and even those are quite bare-bones compared to what I had before, but more on that later).
Tech and Gaming Events
Aside from the local community, there's plenty of big and small events just around the corner. In LA, I might have attended one or two expos a year requiring some travel. In the past year in Seattle, I attended numerous ones I literally biked or walked to. First was PAX West, swarming downtown with thousands of cosplaying fans and swallowing some 6 or 7 buildings alone. Soon after came Steam Dev Days, probably one of my favorite gamedev events. It was a closed conference focused on developers and the process - rather nice break from other expos where you're constantly eyeing out potential press badges or inviting fans to your booth until your throat gets sore.
Earlier this year, I had a chance to show my current project HEADLINER for the first time at iFest, a small expo down by the Seattle space needle. Just a little over a month ago, I attended DevGAMM, a whole-day conference full of well-curated talks about the industry, complete with 3 meals and obligatory after-party. It was immediately followed by Casual Connect, where I participated on a group panel about Indie Pioneers at the Diversity Symposium. The 3-day conference focused on mobile and casual development, boosting those KPIs and hunting the whales. As a desktop dev, I definitely felt out of place, but still manged to have a great time, learn a bit from the panels, and make some promising connections.
And just three weeks ago, I threw a little launch party for HEADLINER, and exhibited at Seattle Indies Expo taking place on the third day of PAX. At the end of this month I will also be showcasing at GeekGirlCon. Both of these opportunities were extended to me by the aforementioned awesome Seattle Indies!
Between these big events, I also had a chance to exhibit my game at the VALA Eastside "Game On!" Art Space, spoke to a few kids studying game design at the iD Tech summer camp, and attended several IGDA sponsored gatherings, such as the summer BBQ. I don't believe even half of these things would have happened had I not moved here.
Life in Seattle
Gaming aside, how has living in Seattle been? Overall, definitely better than Los Angeles, but I haven't quite found myself in the new space just yet. Will it be my final destination? That remains to be seen. For now, my lease is renewed.
The housing market is pretty bad. While not quite at the San Francisco or New York level, it's well on its way with the highest rent increase rate in the country. It was a struggle to find an apartment in my price range and good location not requiring an hour-long commute to everything. but I got lucky when the right opportunity fell down my lap. That is, until my beautiful view of First Hill slowly became marred by a sky-scraper construction literally right in front of my window. Cue two weeks of waking up at 7:30am to heavy pounding on concrete. Bliss.
The weather has been great. I got the rain I wanted, even a bit of snow I missed, but the summers have had a few deathly-hot record breakers as well (hello global warming). There's plenty of greenery and trees everywhere, giving a good mix of city and nature that I craved. There's definitely a few sketchy neighborhoods, but it's a much nicer and safer city than Los Angeles, where half of the neighborhoods are sketchy.
As a work-at-home indie, I go to cafes daily to regain some of my lacking social sanity. Seattle shines here as well, with endless options. Want busy-professional? Swing by downtown. Want the quirky? Capitol hill. Want something more cozy and local? Ballard's a good pick. There's also the University or International districts to fill your boba and kimchi craving. Unlike LA, I can get to any of these areas within 15-30 minutes tops.
However, I do miss my "cafe buddies", the baristas who would come up to chat with me on their breaks, or invite me to dinner after their shift. Somehow, I haven't quite managed to connect with any here, save for the awesome Jorge at Storyville who recently came to support me exhibiting at the last expo. Speaking of which...
Let's talk about social life! Seattle Freeze is a term referring to the natives' reluctance to meet new folks and start friendships (as if being post-school adult wasn't difficult enough). Although a good 80% of people I meet at various events (via Meetup.com, OKCupid, or word of mouth) are transplants, I still find the term applies. In the past year, there is barely a handful of people I would truly consider more than an acquaintance, aside from the few I already knew before moving. But I'm only a year in, so not giving up yet!
What I miss from my last city
While I have no desire to move back to Los Angeles, there are a few things that are "missing" here. The number one thing is the social life I mentioned above. Perhaps I got lucky, but I built a pretty big friends network in LA, in 3 completely different circles - something I have yet to even get close to doing here. I do not miss the "always-hour-late" and last-minute flakery of many LAlites, however.
Secondly, as a world-traveler, I wouldn't mint more of LA's extreme diversity. While Seattle provides a good variety of cultures and experiences, it can't beat living literally on the corner of KoreaTown, Little Bangladesh, Salvadorean district, and Hollywood. But I guess I just got really spoiled there as well.
The last minor thing would be the availability of things at all times and locations. There were a few 24-hour cafes near me, bunch of Asian and international grocers, convenience stores upon until 2am (which also sold hard liquor, something Seattle ones do not), late-night restaurants, and numerous bars brimming with crowds way past the legal bedtime (thanks, KoreaTown).
Again, with both points, I really got lucky living in a very particular neighborhood of LA, where all those options were just 10-15 minute walk or bike away. But I am very centralized here in Seattle (exactly for that reason), yet it doesn't quite feel the same.
So should you move? The final pros and cons
Whether you should move really depends on what you are looking for and what your current location provides. I am just one of many anecdotal stories and I implore you to research more, but I hope the extra details can help you with making the decision. So, as an Indie Game Developer, here's my final Pros and Cons list of moving to Seattle
- Awesome Indie Dev community with many recurring events
- Numerous other related groups and meetups
- Home to several big tech and gaming conferences, expos, and art exhibits
- General embrace and acceptance of all forms of geekery
- Liberal politics (if that's your cup of tea)
- Better-than-average (by US standards) public transit
- Pretty walk-able and bikable IF you pick the right neighborhood and don't mind some hills
- Many cool cafes and bars to hang out and work from
- Rapidly increasing cost of living
- Seattle freeze is a thing, making it hard to build new friendships
- Downtown traffic can get really bad (luckily I don't drive)
- Big homelessness problem (as is the case in many big US cities)
Overall, I am glad I moved. While I am still struggling with rebuilding my social life, Seattle has definitely been the right choice for growing my indie game dev career and opening many, many doors. It's also a beautiful city with many diverse things to see and do.
About the Author
Hi! I am a Polish-American, Game Dev and web consultant. I founded Unbound Creations, focusing on story-rich and introspective games. I published two commercial titles so far (“Postmortem: one must die” and “Karaski”), soon to add my third, and a few free web games as well. My titles have been a finalist at the Pixel Heaven Fest 2015 in Warsaw Poland, and on display at VALA Art Center in Redmond.
Check out my Blog for more nuggets of ill-advised wisdom!