12 hour work days. Severely underpaid. Constant late-night calls because timezones. Waking up in the middle of the night to check notifications for disasters during big promotions. Crunching weeks on-end with no weekends. Forget about holidays. This is game development in 2015 and it's not getting any easier.
Would I trade it back for my six figure corporate job with 5 weeks of holiday? Not in this lifetime!
But I do suggest you don't develop video games full time. Don't go full time indie. Instead, do what I did and actually get jobs and work up a variety of different experiences - from different industries to working with different people.
The idea to write this article came after talking to dozens of development teams from around the world, and hearing most of them wanting to go all-in on their first game. While I could be selfish and say "yes, go ahead - do it! we'll publish & fund your game!", I steer away from the all-in scenario. In order to a successful indie today, you need to be able to afford to fail.
In this post I'll share some of my own personal background for context, the top reasons to not develop indie games full time, and the bigger issue of the gamedev bubble fueled by universities.
"If I had just graduated and got in here full-time, I'd fail"
Quick decisions. Daily opportunities. Breaking the boundaries of what's possible. A constantly evolving, dynamic industry that'll put your nerves to the ultimate test. This is where I thrive. However if I had just graduated and got in here full-time, I'd fail. Not in a good way, I'd burn myself so hard that I wouldn't get back to the industry anymore.
The reason I love it is because of my background - I grew up in Eastern Europe, in a little country called Latvia. As a post-soviet country, you can forget about financial stability. My family never had money. Every day was a constant fight for survival. Aggression is all around you, if you're any different, you get bullied (in some cases to suicide). If you were harassed, nobody came in to give you a hug. If you were out of a job, nobody came in to give you social security or wellfare. This is for context.
At 14 -- despite the school system saying I suck at it -- I discovered the art of writing about video games. I could write in both English and Russian and people on the Internet liked it for some reason. This launched a career in game journalism, eventually leading into marketing and game development.
By 18 I had already worked as a game producer and was leading a sales team in a cut-throat marketing environment. I got to start working in the video games industry, and then dropped out to try plenty of different things - via a series of fortunate and not so much events.
As funny as it is, playing bullshit bingo for couple of years at companies opens up a wider perspective on the different people you'll encounter during your career. It will teach you whom to trust, and who's just talking bullshit.
I went from writing about video games, to starting online stores for pro-gamers and doing deliveries for them, to being a marketing exec, a game producer, an affiliate persuading the "get rich online quick" myth, to trading stocks and currencies online.
All of this -- over 10 years of experience -- prepared me for tinyBuild. Without the knowledge or experience working in different companies, industries, and with different people -- I would never be able to do the amazingly dumb orange-branded stunts today.
For example, because of the affiliate marketing experience, I understand the partnerships game. This enabled us to pull off some very fruitful deals that'd usually require days of research. Instead, I'm able to come up to the marketing guy at company X, speak his language, propose a deal, and seal it right there.
Experience in cross-promoting web games and running click-based advertising campaigns enables easy filtering through the hundreds of "traffic service provider" offers for mobile games. The list goes on and on.
The encounters I had while managing teams of different people, different backgrounds and heritage, go a long way when building your own company. And I failed more than once. Hit walls. Got knocked over.
It's the same for everyone on our team really. Luke comes from the perspective of building a successful business to business conference. Yulia comes from working with indie developers and making connections. Mike wrote about video games and knows the PR game. Tom was an indie developer himself. We didn't just jump straight in and hope for the best. It took years of experience, learning, making mistakes, and adapting along with the industry.
Video games are a different medium
The difference between making video games and any other form of entertainment is that the user can interact with your product in ways you couldn't imagine. This makes planning next to impossible, and any great game you've ever played went through hundreds of iterations where timelines shifted, scope grew, and the end result is not what it was initially planned to be.
You've also seen the flip side of this, especially in recent generation games. Huge projects being released with bugs, feeling unintuitive -- because timelines and release schedules, and no time to iterate and too expensive to deviate.
The input methods are changing. The audience is constantly evolving. The way people discover games changes every 6 months. Youtubers? No, that's 2014. Twitch streamers is where it's at today. By January that space will be saturated, so don't count on it being your sure way in.
Sounds like chaos? It totally is.
And here are top3 reasons you shouldn't do it:
1. It's extremely stressful
If you can't live with uncertainty - don't get into video games. This also goes for studio jobs where big projects get teams scaled up fast, and after the game has shipped, most of the team is laid off. This is normal. It sucks, but it's the way it is.
- Will you be able to eat tomorrow? I heard there's a sale on chicken ramen in the supermarket
- Will the work of 3 years be noticed by anyone? Odds are stacked against it.
2. The work-life balance sucks
Get into the office at 9am, leave around 7pm. Have dinner. Back to work. Sneak in an hour of a TV show or your favorite game if you're lucky.
- Time for kids? Don't count on it.
- Hobbies? Your job is your hobby, embrace it!
- Holidays? LOL!
- Even playing video games become mandatory when you're working full-time indie. You need to see what other companies are doing. What kind of UI, storytelling, rendering, game design tricks everyone does. Otherwise you fall behind and start to invent the wheel, wasting time.
This is especially hard for people in Western Europe, where 5 weeks of holidays is the norm.
The only way we keep sane is by sneaking in a few days of city trips when we're at conventions. Sometimes. More often than not we're too tired after days of work, and just call it a night at a bar.
3. You will probably fail the first time
Yes, your first game will likely flop. So don't waste 3 years of your life making it, hoping to become the next "INDIE HIT X". Odds are heavily stacked against it.
If you embrace failure, and give it your best (hope for the best, prepare for the worst), you will be able to get back up and try again. Keep on trying until you succeed.
You do, however, need to have
- Means to sustain yourself, read: A JOB
- Lots of patience
- Be prepared for the two points above
The gamedev college graduates bubble
Coming into indie game development straight out of college is building a big bubble right now. I see more and more universities evangelizing this dream of game development. Look at these famous devs! They totally did it, and we will prepare you for it!
That's fantastic, until everyone is doing it.
What's worse, these educational institutions are mostly in Western Europe and in developed parts of the world. This is where people do expect holidays, a great work-life balance, and a stress-free work environment.
On top of the superficial things I mention, there's the tangible subject of burnrates. Putting it simply - living in countries like The Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, etc -- is expensive. Cost of life is high.
Employing people is even more expensive. In order to pay a proper salary, with all of the social taxes involved, you need to multiply your costs by a factor of 2. You can always get freelancers, which you should do - but if you're a team graduating out of college, odds are you all want to be on the team.
The Eastern Europe Disruption
This is where Eastern Europe comes in and disrupts the whole subject. Low burn rates. By default stressful work environments. Uncertainty. Low cost of life. Highly technical education.
I've visited at least 20 game dev events across Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Poland last few years. I've never seen students there who are about to graduate and jump straight into game development. This is where we got games like The Witcher, This War of Mine, Metro Series, thousands of mobile games, and our own projects like Party Hard and Divide By Sheep come from.
Now that the gaps in knowledge and technology are becoming non-existent, I see that region having an advantage over everything that's going on in Western Europe. Not that I specifically don't talk about gamedev in the US, because there it's a similar situation -- no overly safe social systems that require lots of overhead costs.
Be ready to fail and you can succeed
There are more people in general making games. Odds are heavily stacked against most of them succeeding. Devs inspired by post-mortems of successes are trying to replicate said successes. When everyone is doing the same thing, it's a bubble that's about to burst.
We will see more and more heartbreaking post-mortems of games not becoming successful.
Only those who can afford to fail will be able to try again. And only those who think outside of the box have a bigger chance to succeed.
This is indie game development in 2015.