"I want to quit my job and make games for a living."
I thought my wife would fall out of her chair laughing when this sentence came out of my mouth. After all, I was working a full-time job, attending multiple online college courses, and digging my way out of debt. Not to mention I was in my mid-thirties and had zero professional game development background. Hell, I didn't even know what kind of game I wanted to make!
Instead her reply was “Okay babe, just be smart about it.” and she went back to drinking her quad grande two-pump mocha with whip cream and sprinkles. At least I had one thing working in my favor.
Over the next couple of years, I would finish my bachelor’s degree, build a game demo, market it, crowdfund it, sign a publishing deal, and quit my day job to do what I dreamed of doing since I was a kid. I actually made it!
Guts and Glory was my first video game project. It hit #1 on Steam Greenlight, #1 on IndieDB.com (where it has remained for months) and has sold well over 100,000 copies in Early Access, where it hit the Steam Best Seller list for short time. Version 1.0 launches this Summer for PC and Consoles
Screenshots of the (now defunct) Steam Greenlight stats for Guts and Glory
As a solo project, Guts and Glory was a big success, but it wasn't easy. In fact, it was one of the hardest journeys of my life and I made many mistakes along the way. To help others who may be traveling this path, I’ve put together a list of helpful tips and advice. I could probably write a whole chapter on each of these points, but I’ll do my best to keep them concise, yet valuable.
If you don't like reading, you can find a summary of my story in the first half of the video below.
Your passion will become a chore
GeniusGame Development is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.
I think the altered Thomas Edison quote above sums up game development quite well. Most of us get into this industry because of our love for the craft, but I think many of us don’t realize just how much work goes into building a game until we actually try it. If you’re new to gamedev, realize that no matter how much you love what you do, there will be many days where it becomes a chore; it comes down to good ol’ fashioned hard work to actually finish a project. If you realize and accept this before beginning, you will have an easier go of it.
Don't let anything distract you from the task at hand!
Set a schedule and stick to it
How much time you spend on game development is less important than how well you spend that time. When I first started, I could only allocate 10 hours per week on gamedev. This broke down to roughly 1 hour on weekdays and 2 hours on weekends. This is not much time at all to learn and apply such a complex subject.
However, I made the most of this by religiously sticking to two rules:
RULE #1: Work the allotted time no matter what.
Every. Single. Day. Sometimes this means staying up late, getting up early, or working on lunch breaks.
RULE #2: Keep each session laser-focused.
Pick a thing to learn or do and work only on that task until complete.Zero distractions.
Eventually, I was able to increase my schedule, which brings me to the next point.
Carve out new time
Once you can stick with a disciplined schedule, it’s time to start carving out more time. Think about your current job, for example. How much time in each day is truly productive work? Are there ways to do things faster? Are there things that could be cut out completely or delegated? Is telecommuting an option? Can you work on your game or study during breaks?
I worked 50-60 hour weeks at a demanding Fortune 500 company. Finding more time seemed impossible at first. However, after learning a few productivity/time management techniques and convincing my boss to let me telecommute, I was eventually able to reduce my work weeks down to only 30-40 hours per week. Again, a whole article could be written on this subject, but I’ll save that for another time.
Focus your scope
While we’re on the subject of time, let’s talk about project scope and feature creep. Like most beginners, I made huge mistakes in this area and over-committed myself early in the project. This led me to become very frustrated and burnt out. It was only by pure discipline and necessity that I was able to push through the final months of development and complete the game. (It’s in the publisher QA and porting stage now.)
To avoid this hell, it’s very important that you keep the scope of your first projects small… like really small. Once you’ve decided on a game idea, cut it in half… then in half again… and again. Boil it down to just the essential elements that will make a fun game. Forcing yourself to work within very limiting constraints will allow your creativity to grow.
Also realize that it will take you 2-4 times longer to complete a given game development task than you estimate. I’ve had a lot of conversations with other indie developers over the past year, and this is a recurring theme. Trust me, your game project will always take longer than you initially planned!
In retrospect, I believe I could have built Guts and Glory with only bicycles and it would have been just as successful. I could have put more effort into polishing those mechanics and building content around it. In the end, I think I would have ended up with an even better game and more success, so consider that when you are planning the scope of your own indie game project.
The right tools can save you a lot of time... and sanity
Work smarter not harder
If you’re a solo game developer like me, or a small team, it’s critical that you find every advantage possible. Here are a handful of resources that I found very useful during the development of Guts and Glory.
ATracker: Fast and easy time tracking app. Knowing how you spend your time is key to optimizing it. Time is your most valuable resource; you can always make more money, but you can’t make more time.
Evernote: One notepad to rule them all! Keeping all your game ideas, development notes, learning resources, links, etc. in one place makes it easy to reference them later.
Trello: Don’t make the mistake of thinking you don’t need to write out a plan just because you’re a solo game developer or duo. As the old saying goes, “measure twice, cut once.” Planning ahead forces you to think through the steps and workload needed to actually complete the project. Planning in Trello is about as lightweight and fast as it gets! If you manage a team, consider something like HacknPlan.
Asset Stores: Why build a 3D barrel model from scratch when there are already hundreds of pre-built models out there that you could use or modify to fit your aesthetic? If you’re going to spend money, then take advantage of marketplaces such as the Unity Asset Store to save time where possible. This applies to programming as well. If you get stuck in your project, sometimes you can find a solution in the asset store that will either directly solve the issue or, better yet, provide you with a hands-on learning resource. It always better to learn than to become reliant on solutions that may or may not be supported in the future. I’ve found this to be a much faster way to learn than books alone.
Reallusion Software: If you want a fast and easy way to produce high quality 3D characters or animations for your project, then I highly recommend checking out Reallusion’s software suite. I discovered these tools rather late in development but found them very valuable. So valuable, that I reached out to the company and now I’m working with them to help shape future versions of the software specifically for game development! They have some very exciting features coming out this year for gamedevs!
You can learn more about how I used Reallusion’s current tools here.
Round out your education
Learn business and marketing skills. If you want to make games as your primary source of income, you need to remind yourself that you’re running a business. Even if you partner with a publisher, having business skills at your disposal will give you a big advantage.
My professional background is in marketing, sales, and analytics, and these skills have proven useful for HakJak Productions time and time again.
Maintain your health and relationships
There’s no such thing as balance… at least not while working full-time and doing game development. If you’re going to try and make a career-change to full-time, independent game developer, you need to accept the fact that this will be a period of sacrifice. Even if you’re lucky enough to be in a situation that doesn’t require you to work a full-time job simultaneously, you’ll quickly find out that building a startup—any type of startup—requires an extraordinary amount of time and effort!
Fortunately, there are a few things you can do to prevent burn-out or ruined relationships.
- Get good nutrition: What we eat can significantly influence how we feel. Get the junk food out of the house and make healthy choices easy to grab. Trust me, this makes a big difference in your productivity!
- Exercise regularly: My health declined sharply when I transitioned from being on my feet all day to a sedentary desk job. Get up once per hour and try to work out 20-30 minutes per day, even if it’s only a brisk walk. An Apple Watch or other fitness tracker can really help with this, since it will give you regular reminders and motivations.
- Schedule sleep: Get your circadian rhythm on track by going to bed and getting up at the same time each day, including weekends. Avoid blue light right before bed as well, as it can interfere with your sleep cycle. Melatonin supplements are a natural way to help you fall asleep fast and get into a new cycle.
- Log your brain out: When you finish working on your game for the day, don’t think about it. Log out. Your subconscious mind will continue to problem solve for you in the background, and you will be able to return to your work refreshed and more productive.
- Enjoy life outside of games: Don’t neglect your friends, family, or hobbies outside of video games. Get outside. Explore new interests. Take your significant other on a date and make your relationships a high priority.
There are many more tips I could discuss around this subject, but I’ll leave it at this for now.
Enjoy time outside games and watch your productivity soar
Build a Showcase ASAP
Before you invest months or years of your life into a project, you need to test the market and see if it’s even worth pursuing, or needs modifications. The best way to do this is to either build a prototype, or build high quality art assets that showcase what your game is all about. Don’t hide this gem in a hole in the ground, show it to the world! See what others think about it. Ask them to brutally critique it so you can improve it—or can it and move on to something new. It’s better to cut your losses early rather than waste even more time on a project that’s dead in the water. The only way to know if you’re on the right path is to get opinions from your target markets as soon as possible.
Building a game by yourself is hard work. Making that game a commercial success, while working full-time, going to college and raising a family is even harder. I’ve learned so many lessons from this experience that I could write a whole book about it, but I hope you find these condensed highlights useful.
Thanks for reading and please help me share this with others in the gamedev community!
Guts and Glory is currently available on Steam Early Access, and version 1.0 will launch on PC (Windows, Mac, Linux) and Consoles (PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch) Summer 2018
Follow HakJak's game development journey at HakJak.com