Hello, lovelies. Long time, no post.
I was originally going to title this piece “Why I Gave Up on Being a Full-Time Indie Developer”, but then it hit me that I haven’t actually had that particular distinction most of my career. In reflecting on personal and industry events of 2019, I also decided that I won’t completely rule it out yet either. But I rather like the career I built, and it just keeps getting better and better, even if it wound up not looking like I initially thought it would look like.
As now is about the time that people start to check in on, or completely chuck, their New Year’s resolutions? About a fortnight into this new decade seems like a good time to talk about our expectations with games careers, especially if you decided this is the year to power up your career, and figuring out how to dream big vs. knowing when you’re flying too close to the sun.
So, I’m not fond of that phrase “don’t quit your day job!” with respect to diving into pursuing this full-time.
And I get that some of you probably just said “Wait a fucking minute!” upon reading that. But hear me out.
Yes, going indie is risky as it is. The industry also sure is different compared to when I entered in mid-2011, then it changed yet again from when I left my old career behind in 2014 first upon leaving the financial industry then teaching my first few business courses at Playcrafting. I can probably only use about 25% of my original content from Basics of Business nowadays: for both better and worse.
The good: we got a ways to go yet, but games have definitely gained more legitimacy as a medium. Things that were niches 5-6 years ago are now irrevocably woven into the fabric of community-building for games now, like streaming on Twitch. There’s Twitch channels with viewerships rivaling or even beating primetime TV shows and have proven crucial for getting into other markets. On that note, resonating with the US market doesn’t even have to be this be-all end-all for entertainment like it used to be. The barriers to entry are totally gone and underrepresented groups can use games to tell their stories just as ubiquitously as writing or music now.
Oh, and employed game devs are beginning to unionize too and address the long hours and studio conditions that have had an adverse impact on employees’ well-being, among other critical aspects of being paid to make someone else’s game.
The bad: that ubiquity came before the means of getting it to audiences was really sorted out, because woah, distribution is totally broken compared to when I first got an IGDA card.
Steam alone was your be-all end-all, if your indie game got distributed there then that meant you had it made. The selection process was as arbitrary as putting your business card in one of those deli fishbowls to win a year of free sandwiches. But if you were in, you were in. A few years later, Greenlight was introduced, which meant constantly nagging friends, fans, and family to upvote your game so you could prove you had enough of a market to be worth hosting. Then Greenlight got the axe and it just became this massive free-for-all with Steam Direct, where 82% of the games that come out on Steam now don’t even provide a year’s worth of American minimum wage. With 25 or more games being released on the platform daily, and no native tools for developers to market? Unless you’ve got a robust enough fanbase to sustain you, you pretty much only have a shot in hell of rising in the Steam ranks if a streamer with a huge following played it one night, if you didn’t release through a publisher with sufficient resources to beat the tide.
There’s other distributors now like Itch, the Humble widget, Amazon Games (hey, they at least offer native advertising tools), the Discord store...Steam still holds that lion’s share, but some more options are cropping up even if it feels a bit like hurling plastic butter knives at Godzilla.
So, all that risk, all the eyesocket-grinding labor that goes into making a game, and those depressing statistics: you’re probably wondering why I’m still not fond of “don’t quit your day job”.
I haven’t had a day job in almost six years at the time of writing. No intent or desire to ever go back to one. After all, my particular decision to never work a day job ever again was a no-brainer. I was in a side of the financial industry that really sucked. People perceived it as me having my pick of high-paying jobs with excellent benefits, but no, they were shitty jobs with no benefits and I was virtually never around people my age. I had to do things like explain to my boss how to copy and paste text into an email next to a talking Ronald Reagan doll while I schlep down from The Bronx every day to listen to people with seven-figure incomes complain about how universal pre-K isn’t fair to them. I worked seven days a week during tax season and it left me with a facial tic and ulcers, and workplace protection laws didn’t care because I was a “salaried professional engaged in the normal course of business”. Does that sound good to you? Well, it sucked harder than a nuclear-powered Oreck so when it came down to “figure out a career change and never apply to another tax office ever again”, it was pretty much no contest.
Thus, I’m a bit biased in side-eying “don’t quit your day job”, I’ll admit.
Rather, I think this phrase needs to be reframed to account for the possibilities a 21st century economy and infrastructure allow us. The “gig economy” has caused both suffering and delight, it opened doors while it closed windows. Many of us are fighting exploitation on both collective and individual levels. But none of that changes the fact that we live in a world now where you can bring in a livable income anywhere you have an Internet connection, more remote jobs are out there than ever before, and there’s more means to build a fanbase than ever...even if laws and attitudes are still stuck in the 20th century. You can build an audience on your own, though the traditional routes are still there if you want to try them or feel they’re necessary for your particular goals. There are a million and one ways to build a creative career today and I feel game developers aren’t told enough that there’s more options than A) become a studio employee, or B) go all in on the indie developer path.
I also 100% get that quitting your job is not always an option for some people, or at least not feasible right away. I’m just saying, “Stop saying this is the ONLY option for indies.”
Because a fanbase and the game itself still take time to build and manage, and being under a job’s control impacts that. If you had horrible jobs like I did, they take a toll on your physical and mental health. Even if you’re lucky to have a job you enjoy but it happens to be in games, tech, or other digital media, you might have to sign an agreement stating that you won’t work on outside projects-- including your own.
The whole “you need a job while you do this” thing didn’t work out for me. If it’s not working for you either, you might want to read this. My games career wound up becoming NOTHING like I thought it’d be. My expectations were blown the way people’s were playing Doki Doki Literature Club. I guess I’ll always be working on some kind of other consulting, business of games education, or digital media project instead of solely sustained by my games, and I decided I’m just not going to apologize for it anymore.
Here’s why I’ve embraced it and encourage you to think more about what you truly want out of your games career if social and/or industry pressure is getting to you.
No matter how you cut it, we’re talking more about owning your labor.
We’re finally having important conversations that need to be had, like quality of life for studio employees and the pressure that many indie developers place upon themselves to grind, grind, grind. I’ve fallen victim to it myself: I’d feel genuinely happy for my peers seeing all of their works in progress and shiny new demos plastered on Twitter and Discord, but then feel bad about myself for not having enough done. I was showing a rough prototype of It’s Different When It’s Your Own at GDC 2019, GDC 2020 will soon be upon us and I don’t even have a micro site up for the game yet. Yeah, more could’ve been done if I didn’t have this long journey full of suffering to get a life-changing surgery I’d been waiting for over a year.
Hey, you can’t make games if you’re dead or severely incapacitated. It means temporary setbacks where you have to prioritize paying the bills while you’re waiting for 36 stitches to come out. But the game is back in motion, a dev team has been assembled, assets are being made, and communication with my dev team has been of utmost importance to see if we can make it to a “polished prototype with bespoke assets” stage, if not expo-ready demo, by GDC 2020.
But it’s always a much different story when you own the end product compared to being paid to build it for a publisher or for-hire client. All of these arrangements have bonuses and disadvantages, but I pretty much chose this path because the ownership is simply more clear-cut. No debates about copyrights and royalties, those are pretty much negotiated in the beginning. When the cash outflows are constantly piling up and you’re dying to just move forward, it can definitely feel like you’re just never going to get the damn game out. And it’s why indies tend to put themselves into this self-imposed crunch, especially if everything is riding on that next game having a successful release. Just like how self-employment itself simultaneously gives you your time back, yet also takes it away? Same goes for your own games. You don’t have strict milestone terms and schedules, but that means it’s easy to get derailed when paid work, health issues, and other personal things crop up. When you have to schlep to medieval torture physical therapy several times a week and it impacts your time not devoted to paying clients, it’s easy to feel like you’re “not a real developer” for not spending days at a time writing code or dialog.
I have a spoiler alert for you though: no matter how much money you currently have or end up making, persistence and relationships are going to be more crucial to your long-term success than compromising your health by spending long hours in front of the computer and never getting a break from anything games-related.
That’s just one reason why I’ve come to embrace the amalgamated digital media fiefdom I built by accident. It makes going to games conferences something I treasure even more and provides balance, not to mention the wherewithal to take creative and financial risks I never could with a day job or relying solely on game royalties.
You can stay on top of what’s happening in the industry and the games you love, but pursuing things outside the industry can make you a better game developer. Not just for the appreciation factor, but because you pick up different skills, experiences, and passions that wind up translating to your own work differently than the familiarity overload we can wind up with when you’re in “all game dev, all the time” mode. Then when I get paid to help other dev teams to fund my projects, I always learn something new about engines, processes, narratives, or concerns in the speculation stage. So I’d say that in effect, my business of games consulting accidentally made me a better developer.
Lastly, maybe it’s just because of the way my brain is wired, but I love alternating between writing articles and helping a diverse array of indie teams solve their business problems to suddenly spending the week immersed back in my own game, just to be flown out by a law firm to talk to their employees about the nuances of doing business with indie developers. Owning your time also goes a long way to getting things done on the game, even if you have challenges like recovering from a major surgery and wrangling a tag team of similarly awesome free agents working on a variety of projects.
Plus, you can make the game as batshit crazy as you want when it’s just you footing the bill. That’s the ultimate sell for me.
It’s going to be a challenge to not be in that 82% of games on Steam. I’m assuming my wild adventure/visual novel hybrid won’t be in the top 5%, but that by focusing on such a large and underserved audience, I got faith it’s going to make it to some degree. How much, I don’t know yet. But I’m glad my games career wound up not being what I initially thought it would look like, so I can build this game and start this conversation with as few restrictions as possible.
As for being able to live solely off my own indie games, I haven’t completely ruled that out yet. But that’s what rules about not strictly abiding to the games career dichotomy we need to leave in the 2010s: the decision is mine in the end, just as your takeaways and decisions are yours. I once had a writing teacher who said that even if you never get anything published, the simple act of writing makes you a better person. That’s how I feel about game making. You’re putting your ideas out in the world, and it makes you a bolder and stronger person willing to be challenged.
Just remember that it’s a whole new frontier out there and we got possibilities we didn’t always have, but also lots of untangling to do in the 2020s to build a better world and industry than ever before.