Opinion: Redefining success - by a 'successful' game developer

Amir Rajan, the developer behind popular mobile and browser game A Dark Room, shares his idea of what "success" really means.

Amir Rajan, the developer behind popular mobile and browser game A Dark Room, shares his idea of what "success" really means.

Success, unfortunately, is a moving target. My own success in the App Store started off with:

"Awesome, I shipped! Holy crap I got some downloads!"

Today it's:

"Damn, my apps only grossed $15k this quarter. After taxes, royalties, and partnerships distributions, I only netted $5k. That's near poverty level in the US for a two person household. I'm screwed."

Everyone has their form of this internal monologue:

"I can't believe X got so much notoriety. My game Y is so much better. I put my heart and soul into it and this shoddy rendition 'makes it'?!"

I've been on the receiving end of this kind of frustration, here's part of an email I've received when someone stumbled upon one of my Reddit posts:

"I've decided to make an idle game. But a good one. A damn good one. Something never seen before. And use the income from this trash - to fund games I actually would enjoy making. Such as [New Game X] perhaps. I've decided to sculpt in shit, in order to eventually sculpt in pure gold. It wasn't easy, mind you."

"So I've almost finished this Idle game. And then I've bumped your Reddit thread. And I am worried. Because this time, it might be too much for me to handle. To digest."

"Viral is one thing. But I've always thought of viral as spotlight. And spotlight only. So the game has to be good. Otherwise the viral effect/spotlight will backfire and actually do more harm than good. Well, apparently - I am wrong. Your game is not that bad. Its so-so. Decent at best. I've seen worse, I've seen better. But such a "decent" game generating so much commotion and income? On a mobile platform? In a "paid" model? It did almost all the things from the 'Forbidden List of Don't'. I give up."

How can I redefine success so that I stop thinking like this?


I've tried my best in reframing "rich" as a function of time, money, and quality. So ask yourself the question: How long can you maintain your current standard of living without working a nine to five?

The premise here is that time and standard of living is a component of wealth (as opposed to just money). Whose wealthier?

  • Someone making $10,000 a month working 50 hours a week, with a cost of living at $9,000.

  • Someone making $6,000 a month working 20 hours a week, with a cost of living at $4,000.

  • Someone making $3,000 a month working zero hours a week, with a cost of living at $3,000.

Sometimes lowering your cost of living and the amount of time you work, will increase your wealth. Game development can be an unending, volatile cycle of feast and famine. For 2016, my projections put me at netting about $40,000 off of my current mobile games. Which isn't a lot of money for a two person, two doggies (yes, I said doggies) household.

But if I say:

"My mobile games net me $40,000 if I do absolutely nothing, and I can live off of $36,000 a year."

Suddenly, I'm wealthier than the person who makes $150,000 a year living paycheck to paycheck.

Like an idiot, I went whole hog into game development in 2013. I decided to live off of my savings that I had been stuffing away for seven years. I got lucky and managed to hit the #1 spot in the App Store. If I looked strictly at the money, I would have been better off keeping my day job (even with that kind of success).

But then I think about it, and if I did keep my day job I'd be at work in a cubical wearing a buttoned down shirt and slacks. Instead, I'm sitting on my patio on a Friday watching my two puppies roll around in the grass, and I even get to take a nap when 3pm rolls around. So sure, I could be making $140,000 a year right now, but at what cost to time and quality of life?

Reframe Money

My poorest performing game makes about $600 a year. That's nothing when we talk about dollars, but when I say:

"I get free access to high speed internet. And I don't have to do anything for it."

Suddenly, it's much more positive and valuable.

This type of reframing is incredibly important for your mental health. The fancy term for this "find the silver lining" is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. I try my best to do this with every one of my income generating assets:

Hey, [Game X] pays for my meals.

Sweet, [This One Thing I Built] covered a couple of car payments.

It's important to note that I actually enjoy the work that I do. When you reach that point, income is just icing on the cake.

Screw the Joneses

Stuff for the sake of status is poison. I drive down the streets in my city and see billboards advertising 4000+ square foot mini mansions for $400k. Who needs that kind of space? What's the point of buying a house like that, filling it with stuff, then spending the next 30 years paying it off by working/commuting 50 hours a week?

This infatuation with "Keeping up with the Joneses" takes us away from doing what we love (building games). What's more important? Sitting exhausted on the weekends flipping through 200 channels on your 70 inch TV? Or having the time to explore and create every day in your humble one/two bedroom apartment? Who's more successful?

Stop Comparing

Please don't be like the person from the email at the beginning. I get that some are dealt a bad hand in life, but you only make it worse for yourself by comparing it to other's successes. Take some time and reflect on what is really important to you. What will make you happy, how do you want to spend your time (something you can never get back), and how much money do you really need to pursue it.

This post first appeared on Reddit and was reposted with permission. You can read it, and the surrounding discussion, by clicking right here.

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