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How To Create An Indie Game Whilst Holding Down A 10 Hour A Day Job, Being A Husband And Father – Part 3

The third part in a series where I dicuss how I created, GLO, my first commercial game and released it to Steam in 3 months, whilst also juggling being a father, holiding down a 10 hour a day job and taking part in a fitness transformation competition.

Recap

In part 2 we talked about picking a game idea, picking your tools and finding further motivation. If you’ve gotten to this point then you have all the ingredients you need to put in the hard work and get your game made. The tricky part now is finding the time to use those ingredients and using them efficiently and effectively. What I will go over in this part is how I planned, how I found time to put the work in, the sacrifices I made and how I balanced all that out;rounded off with an example of what an average day looked like for me.

Planning

First of all planning is essential. It’s what is going to help you remain efficient and ensure you stay on track. It is also what is going to give you the vision of what you are aiming for in the long term. Now planning doesn’t have to be tedious or even meticulous. I think when a lot of people think about planning they think of detailed charts and spreadsheets which provide a roadmap of every step along the way. It’s pretty daunting to try and think of every task you are going to need to perform from beginning to end and for a big project it’s not even realistic. Let’s remember the primary reason that a plan exists. It is to help us stay on track efficiently. Whatever shape or form your planning takes, if it canhelp you stay on track then it is a good plan.

So how detailed should your plan be? Well that’s up to the type of person you are and the type and size of your project. For me I’m someone that likes to have list of the basic tasks I need to perform so that I have some way of tracking my progress. It helps keep me focused on my work and gives me a sense of achievement when I tick tasks off the list. Now in terms of projects, Glo was a relatively simple one. It was easy for me to visualise the end point and to have a good idea of the steps I needed to get there. Therefore my plan took the form of a list main tasks that I needed to perform to get me to a finished product. I didn’t really put any time scales on it but I had an idea of the type of order I wanted to work in. I had a large overall list of tasks, essentially the roadmap, but what I also did was week by week set a target list of tasks that I announced on my blog. This gave me a short term focus to know how I was going to be targeting my time over the week but also gave me a sense of accountability in the fact that I had told you this was what I was going to do. If I didn’t manage to complete any of those tasks then I found myself explaining why the following week. This was a great form of motivation as I want to be a man of my word.

To handle my progress through the design I decided to take an agile approach whereby I iterated through the tasks to mature them over a number of cycles. In reality this turned out to be two passes but could have easily been more. In my first iteration I completed at least 25% of every part of the game, but made sure it was deliverable. That turned out to be 25 levels, 1 boss, a basic menu screen, most of the core mechanics and the majority of the graphical design. This got me to a point where I could release a demo of the game and get feedback. It also meant that a foundation for everything in the game existed. All further work was just maturing every part of it. After releasing the demo I went on to complete the remainder of the levels and bosses, which included some new platforming mechanics, flesh out the user interface, improve the graphical design and iron out a lot of bugs. Planning in this way meant that I initially went through a mini lifecycle once already before the game was complete. When I came back round it was very easy to understand and push through the lifecycle a second time to get the game complete. Just two passes was enough for Glo as it was a relatively simple game to make. However with something like Gym Empire, I’m going to be taking the same approach but I’m planning for many more iterations before the various features are mature enough.

The other aspect of my planning approach with Glo was that it was very flexible. I was totally comfortable with changing it as I progressed. I think this is very important as indefinitely things will change along the way. Certain tasks will take longer than you thought; sometimes when you’re lucky might even be a lot quicker. Your day to day availability will vary too, illness, family life and work are just a handful of things that can take you off track. Being able to adapt your plan to deal with these changes is crucial.

Finding Time

You might have the best plan in the world, but to achieve your goals you need to find time to put the work in. This is the part I think people will struggle with the most, especially if you have a busy life with family and work. Trust me though there is always time, it might not be as much as you want or when you want but there will be time you can use on your project. The key is using it whenever you get the chance, even if it amounts to just half an hour here and there.

I’d love to give you detailed steps on how to go about doing this but the reality is we are all different and we all have varied lifestyles. The time I am able to find may not translate to the time you could find. In part 2 of this series I talked about null time and how we can use time we didn’t think we had spare. That was more specific to doing research and finding motivation triggers but the same overall ideas can apply. I actually did most of the development of my first game, a mobile game called Cute Cat Splat, using that null time. That was possible because I coded it on my mobile phone. It becomes a bit trickier if you are coding on a laptop or desktop. The only common tip I can tell you is to look at the structure of your day and consider what time is taken up with things you have to do e.g. day job, spending quality time with your family; then look at all the other time and consider if it can be used instead for your project. When I looked at my life I realised I had a free hour at lunch every day, I had a few hours on weekend mornings where I could get up earlier instead of lying in, I also used to spend any solo downtime playing computer games. I decided to use that time instead to focus on game development. The best thing is it didn’t feel like a sacrifice, in fact I prefer spending my time like that. I still play the occasional game, go for lunch with friends once a week and have a lie in every so often, but the majority of that time is game dev time. Even though I find it so enjoyable, it still takes discipline to focus my time like that and it would be easy not to. Finding your free time and then focusing that time of your game development is the key.

The thing I find quite often and you might too is that those windows of time never feel long enough. Sometimes I don’t feel like I’m making the progress I want to. One hour at lunch isn’t a lot of time at all when you are trying to figure out a complex problem in your code. Sometimes the family gets up earlier on the weekend and my game dev gets cut short. It can be really challenging and sometimes make you feel like you are getting nowhere, but trust me if you are using that time you are progressing. Glo wasn’t too bad when it came to this as GameMaker Studio makes it really easy to make a lot of progress fast. However with Gym Empire I’ve been through months of feeling like I’m getting nowhere and it feels like the code is just stalling. But when I look at where I am now compared to where I was two months ago I’ve made some amazing progress, and that was all achieved with a few hours here and there which individually didn’t feel like much.

Sacrifices

This is where things can really start to get tricky. What can you sacrifice to get your game made? What should you sacrifice to get your game made? This is not a one size fits answer; it is entirely dependent on the individual and their circumstances. One thing I will say is to be very careful what you choose to sacrifice and be continuously mindful of the sacrifices you are making. What may seem like an OK sacrifice for a few weeks or even months may not be sustainable. You need to be able to read the signs so that you are not destroying the foundation of your life. At the end of the day when your game is complete you are still going to want to have your health, family and friends. You don’t want to be in a situation where you lost something important to you because you sacrificed too much. The reality is though you will probably have to sacrifice something, especially if you struggle to find spare time.

My personal philosophy is that I will never sacrifice health, family or security. Those three things are critical to my happiness in life and if anyone of those was to suffer, it would have a knock on affect to the other two and ultimately me and my family’s happiness. Over the three months of developing Glo I continued my exercise routine and in fact was stricter in following it than usual. I ensured that quality time with my family was first and foremost and didn’t sacrifice us going out and enjoying things together. I also ensured that my activities didn’t risk my day job as this is what gives me and my family the security we have in our lifestyle.

The areas I did sacrifice were more personal. I stopped playing computer games entirely. This wasn’t really a conscious decision; I just found myself enjoying game development more than game playing. I also sacrificed my work lunch hour. Whereas I would normally spend my lunch hour surfing the web, playing on my PS Vita or meeting friends for lunch I used it almost every day for game development. My friends sometimes would pop over to my car and joke about my “game dev office” but they were very supportive. This is one area though where I managed how much I actually sacrificed. I would still go out with friends for lunch every so often. To catch up with them and for them to know I wasn’t trying to distance myself, just that I was chasing a dream. Good friends can understand and support that.

One of the hardest sacrifices I had to make was sleep and any sense of real down time. I got into a routine of getting about 5 – 6 hours of sleep a night. At the weekends I would still be waking up at 6 am and getting in some game development while the family were still asleep. I would also use any spare minute I had to grab my phone and to do research and work on my marketing. This proved to require a lot more discipline than I thought though. Not in the effort to get up early or motivating myself to learn about marketing, that part excited me as I was eager to work on Glo and learn about how to market it. It was actually the effort to close the laptop or put the phone down and come back to the real world when my family was around. I’d say this was the closest I got to affecting my family time. However with a very understanding wife and some discipline I managed to not let game development get in the way.

Life Balance

When you find a project you are passionate about and you are excited to work on, the kind of project you find yourself thinking about every minute of the day. When you keep thinking about the next chance you get to work on your game and what new awesome feature you’re going to add next. When you find yourself there, it’s an amazing place to be. So amazing that it sometimes feels like nothing else matters. This is a great feeling to have but I need to stress how important it is to keep a life balance.

Most work places promote a work life balance. Initially, at least to me, it seems like work places need to promote this because they know they are inherently boring places to be and as a “conscientious” employer they don’t want to appear to be sucking you dry of all your time and energy. I guess that’s just the cynical side of me. I realise now that that it’s more than just that. Everything in life needs a balance. Life in extremes doesn’t work, at least not for a sustained period of time. With a normal day job it can be easier to know the importance of this work life balance, because most of us would rather be at home than at work. But what happens when you absolutely love your job or project, when you keep thinking about when you’re going to be able to work on it next. This is when we can forget that we need that balance. Like anything we enjoy or we’re passionate about, we want to do it all the time. This can be further exaggerated by all of the things I have mentioned prior to this:

· Surrounding yourself in your hobby

· Finding null time

· Sacrificing other hobbies

When you do that, you kind of put yourself into a mind-set that every second needs to be spent on this project. But it’s counterproductive. I know it sounds in opposition to everything we’ve gone through and might even scare some of you away, but it’s not that dramatic. Yes all of the techniques, ideas and mentality I’ve talked about are essential to what enabled me to make a my first commercial PC game in just 3 months, but it doesn't mean that it has to be 100% of your life. It shouldn’t be. When I previously referred to sacrifices I mentioned my philosophy on the three things I will never sacrifice:

· Health

· Family

· Security

Ensuring that we have that life balance helps us to ensure that we don’t sacrifice the things most important to us. If we had a nice weekend planned where we would be out of the house early I’d not bother with game dev that morning, I’d just get us all ready early and enjoy the family time. When we planned a week holiday to Spain I didn’t take my laptop with me. Instead I took the chance to play on my PS Vita on the plane and switched off from everything game dev related for the week. Four days a week I would ensure that my morning time was spent exercising instead of game developing. Once a week I’d join my friends for lunch. When the need would arise I’d do some overtime at work to help the team out. An hour here for exercise, a day there with friends and a week for holiday isn’t really that much time at all. Doing all that I was still able to get Glo out on its release day. The only “crunch” I performed at all over the three months was in the final two weeks and that was in part due to the unexpected invite to showcase Glo at an expo. I achieved this not because I did nothing but work on Glo every second I could, I achieved it because I was mindful and planned my time well. The time away from developing just helped me come back more fresh and excited and in fact helped me to focus and think with a clearer mind.

Structure of an Average Day

So to give some context how did I put all of this into practice? I’ll give you an example of an average weekday working on Glo. It’s not the exact structure of everyday but gives you an idea:

6:00 – 6:30 Wake up and have breakfast
6:30 – 7:30 Workout
7:30 – 9:00 Nursery run/drive to work: Listen to game development podcast or GDC talks
9:00 – 12:00 Day job: Occasional 5 minute break to make a coffee and catch up on social media or read up on marketing/research
12:00 – 13:00 Eat lunch/Game development
13:00 – 18:00 Day job: Occasional 5 minute break to make a coffee and catch up on social media or read up on marketing/research
18:00 – 19:00 Drive home: Listen to game development podcast or GDC talks
19:00 – 21:00 Family time, help with house work, eat evening meal
21:00 – 21:20 Read bedtime stories
21:20 – 21:30 Catch up on social media or read up on marketing/research
21:30 – 23:00 Relax with wife
23:00 – 00:00 Game development

Conclusion

Well that’s pretty much all you need to know about how I managed to find the motivation and time to create Glo in three months whilst working a 10 hour a day job, being a father and keeping fit. Following these basic principles will help you to also achieve your goals whether it’s game development or even something else. If all you’re after is to just complete the project you can stop here. However if you want to start building a community and to market your game your game there are some further things you will need to consider and they take up more of your time. I’ll be going over the following topics in part 4; marketing before, during and after and building a community.

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This blog post originally appeared on the Chronik Spartan blog.

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