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Making Games On The Side: Development In The Real World
Three Toronto-area indie developers discuss the challenges and sacrifices required to make their indie game dreams come true - and whether or not it's possible, or even beneficial, to pursue that passion while holding down a job outside of game development.
July 15, 2010
12 Min Read
Gaming might be a multi-billion dollar industry, but that doesn't mean that everyone can eke out a living by making games -- or even that everyone who makes games wants to.
With the rise in popularity and accessibility of smaller, downloadable games, a number of developers are able to make the games they want on the side, in addition to other work. Some do so with the intention of eventually turning development into a career; others simply do it for the love.
Somehow, however, they all manage to make the time to create games on top of other responsibilities, from hobbyist developers like Benjamin Rivers to those trying to turn what they love into a career like Jim McGinley and Andy Moore.
Developing Games As A Hobby
Toronto native Benjamin Rivers is a busy man. In addition to running his own web design company, he also does freelance illustration work, creates and sells independent comic books, and sometimes teaches at the Ontario College of Art & Design.
But despite his clearly busy schedule, Rivers was able to get into the world of game development thanks in large part to Toronto's active indie development community. Events like the Artsy Games Incubator and Toronto Game Jam (better known as TOJam), as well as social organizations like the Hand Eye Society, serve as both a learning opportunity and a source of inspiration.
"I would say (the sense of community) is extremely important and likely more so than if, say, I was working at an actual developer, because I would have support there," says Rivers, who recently created a game called Drunken Rampage as an experimental title.
"The Hand Eye Society socials are obviously great because you have the opportunity to show off a game, which is fantastic, being able to share that with other people. But also just to meet other people and find people who are smarter than you, which is what I found, and being able to ask questions and get technical help, and also just inspiration help, and just figure out what's going on, and what people are doing."
Of course, the obvious question is how exactly he is able to find the time to create games in addition to all of the other work he does. In Rivers' case, the fact that game development isn't his primary career has actually been beneficial -- it allows him to create at his own pace.
"I guess my main thing is I try never to force it, I don't try to stress myself out doing it," he says. "If I feel like I have something to say or a game that I really want to make, I'll take the steps to do it, but I'm not 20 anymore so I don't really feel like spending 24 hours of my weekend jamming on a game so much. I do have a wife, so she wouldn't be too happy with that.
"I try to give myself a whole bunch of limitations: say I can make a game that only uses one button, maybe it's a one-screen game, something that I can realistically do in one weekend and isn't going to require weeks of art production. And then I sort of work within my own time capabilities and produce something that way, rather than trying to shoehorn a year-long project into a couple of weekends."
And unlike a lot of developers who hope to one day be able to quit their fulltime jobs in order to dive straight into the world of game development, Rivers is happy where he is, creating games not for financial gain, but simply because its something he enjoys doing. When it comes to his games, Rivers has no business plan or any real expectations of earning any money.
"I sort of have reluctantly come to grips with the fact that I guess, to be fair, I should call myself a 'hobby developer', because I'm not like a lot of people who actually pour in 60 hours a week to this kind of thing," he says. "So that's probably where I'll stay."
Juggling Work and Play
Not everyone is content with being a hobbyist, however. Jim McGinley, another native Torontonian, has made a career out of building large scale corporate websites. It's something he did fulltime for over a decade until his company folded a little over two years ago. Since then, he's been doing the same work on a contract basis. But building websites for the government isn't what McGinley always wanted to do.
After graduating nearly 15 years ago with a degree in computer science, McGinley was unable to find a job in the game industry, which had a much smaller Canadian footprint. In spite of his inability to find fulltime work as a game programmer, McGinley continued to create small games on the side with the hope of eventually selling one to a web portal like RealArcade or Pogo.
There was little interest, however. He describes his game Juggling as having been too hardcore for the portal market and too small to be a retail release. "I had a game but there was no place for it," he explains.
But McGinley continued to make games, most recently creating IGF 2010 entry Restraining Order, and believes that there are two major factors that allowed him to find the time to develop games while still working a fulltime job.
"One is you've got to keep the game smaller," he says. "There's no way around that. So if you look at the games I've made, if you go to the YouTube videos, they're very obviously smaller games. It's not like you go and say 'Oh, the art is amazing.' So they're very small, that's key. I think that's the secret.
"And then the second thing is, if you actually want to do something, you make time for it. I don't go out as often with friends, you don't go see movies. You do have a lot of free time even with a fulltime job, if you can focus. You have to basically come home, eat, work on your game. That's what I do."
Like Rivers, McGinley is an active member of the Toronto indie scene, and actually helps organize and run the annual TOJam. And while he admits that a sense of community can be an incredibly positive thing, he also warns that it has the potential to be a distraction.
"You have to be able to build games without that community," he says. "That's key. If you need the community to do that, you're doomed because the community is sort of a distraction. However, if you're already able to build games by yourself, having a community around of just people who are either trying to do that or who are interested in games, it just keeps you motivated...
"What I find on the flip side is people who can't build the games by themselves, if they get involved in the community, what you'll find is it's just more of a social outing for them. Meaning, it's great, they'll come out, they'll talk, they enjoy themselves but they're not actually getting any games done. So community is sort of a double-edged sword, meaning if you're making games by yourself it can help you inspire, if you're not able to make games by yourself it's actually more of a distraction."
Now that he's working in web development solely on a contract basis, McGinley is using the opportunity to attempt to finally transition into the world of fulltime game development.
This is thanks in large part to the "nest egg" he was able to save up while working his previous job, which gives him the freedom to not have to worry about living expenses... at least for a little while. His goal is to start earning money making games within the next two years, and if that doesn't happen, he'll be forced to go back to working fulltime.
At this point, McGinley says he's working on games about 75 percent of the time, while continuing to take on contract web work the other 25 percent. Eventually he hopes to do away with the contract work all together, though, due largely to a fear of falling behind the competition. "Any month you put towards this contract stuff is taking away from you getting better at building games."
Taking Flight in a Steambird
Andy Moore was able to make just that transition, moving from being a software developer to a fulltime game developer in late 2008. Up until then, Moore worked fulltime developing web-based productivity software. However, he later picked up a part-time job as community manager for the successful Flash game Fantastic Contraption, which spurred his eventual decision to tackle game development as a career.
Moore made what he describes as a "gradual" transition, from his day job to part-time community manager, before finally landing in game development. He also made some "minimal" contributions to the development of Fantastic Contraption and he says that the key to making the shift a successful one was the ability to sacrifice.
"Despite living in the very-expensive Victoria, British Columbia, I've managed to keep my expenses very low," Moore explains. "I didn't own a vehicle and rarely went out to eat or to see movies or anything like that. I really just hunkered down and eliminated all the expenses I could from my life. I sold off most of my possessions; I even got rid of my phone.
"I guess it was pretty easy for me because I enjoy simplicity and keeping things minimal. I guess if someone out there wants to be an indie dev striking out on their own, and driving their Hummer to Taco Bell every day, they might end up having a harder time than I did.
"I guess it amazes me how many people are willing to shell out over $100/month for their cellphone bill, then turn around and say how they can't afford to make games. What's more important?"
As it turns out, this sacrifice wasn't quite enough, and, like McGinley, Moore ended up taking on several contract jobs in order to help subsidize his burgeoning career as an independent game developer. Surprisingly, despite the fact that these jobs had little to do with creating games, they ended up being more than just financially beneficial for Moore.
"I did two major contract jobs: one was making more productivity software, and one making a YouTube-like application for the U.S. Military. So no, not related to gaming at all... But they were very educational. I look at contract work as being 'paid to go to school.' I could have taken courses or bought some books on how to make a streaming video application, but being paid to sit down and actually make one? I have way more knowledge now on how to do that kind of thing.
"I'm actually thinking about how to roll those features into new games; have embedded tutorial or walkthrough video clips, things like that. Same thing with the productivity software. I learned a bunch about optimizing SQL queries, and I can use that to help drive multiplayer games in the future. I made sure each contract wouldn't last me much longer than a month though, I always had my goal in mind: games."
Moore also views these breaks from game development as positive because he believes "it's healthy to take the occasional break... to clear your mind a bit."
The work also essentially helped fund what would turn out to be Moore's biggest success: Steambirds, a turn-based aerial combat game. He managed to sell the licensing rights to Armor Games -- a process documented in a recent Gamasutra article.
He is hoping to continue to build off of the success he's already achieved with the game, with an iPhone port already in the works and plans to possibly bring Steambirds to the Xbox 360, Nintendo DS, and WiiWare.
As of this writing, Moore was currently close to completing a cross-Canada road trip, a vacation funded by his deal with Armor Games. But his hope is that he'll be able to continue making games for a living, though he is conscious of the fact that his success might not last forever.
"It's definitely my goal to make games for the rest of my life. I'll do what it takes to make that happen! If I have to go back to a desk job, so be it, but I'm going to try to get my feet solidly under me to continue as I am now.
"I think Steambirds is really going to pull through for me. It was designed from the outset as a market test -- to see what people might think, to see if the market was accepting. Turns out they are, which means I can continue work on 'the big version' of Steambirds!
"Of course, there's a chance it can flop. And maybe it won't keep paying the bills for me, and I'll have to start something new. But that's what us indie devs are best at: agility."
Clearly, there are many different routes available to someone with the desire to become a game developer outside of the traditional studio model, and these are just a few examples.
Not every developer will have the patience of a Jim McGinley and be able to save a nest egg for over a decade, just as not everyone can juggle month-long contract jobs alongside developing games, like Andy Moore. But the takeaway from these three examples is clear: if you want to make games, you'll find a way to do it. Sacrifices will need to be made, but it is possible.
"It's all about priorities," says Moore. "I wanted to make games bad enough, that I did what was necessary to make it happen."
Read more about:Features
About the Author(s)
Andrew Webster is an editor at Gamezebo and a contributing writer for Ars Technica. In addition to Gamasutra, his work has been featured in outlets including CNN, Eurogamer, GamePro, GamesRadar, The Escapist, and Wired.com, to name a few. He lives and works just outside of Toronto.
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