My dream is to make my living creating games. It’s easier said than done. The industry is incredibly exclusive, and the increased accessibility of engines and editors has created a market saturated with people who share that dream, leading to fierce competition just to be noticed and find an audience.
I’m a sociable person, which has helped me find a place in the indie community and release two games for PC and a number of small mobile projects. These projects have given me the privilege of working with fantastically talented people from different cultures and backgrounds, forging relationships across the globe around the common goal of game development. And I’ve done this all, essentially, on nights and weekends, because I have a day job.
This is a simple reality for many indie developers. We are starving artists. We have service jobs and office jobs, and we make games out of a passion for the craft rather than guaranteed compensation. We dream of one day being able to devote ourselves to our craft full time, and that drive keeps us going despite long hours in the face of exhaustion.
I think it comes down to three factors: motivation, organisation, and sacrifice.
The motivation I’m talking about is along the lines of obsession. This isn’t a “get rich quick” scheme. It’s not a quest to be a millionaire and live in a mansion. It’s a true desire to become a working game developer. My previous projects taught me not to chase that big pot of gold. I feel a lot of people get caught up in that mindset, including myself when I started out. You better learn quickly, and if you don’t have that deep-seated compulsion to make games, you won’t stick with it. Life will catch up, other things will take priority. But if you have that singular motivation, then you won’t be able to do anything else. You’ll have no choice but to stay the course.
I’ve been hindered in the past by a lack of organisation. I’m a bit of a scatterbrain–always looking ahead to the next problem, then the next, and so on. Improving documentation has helped with that, and implementing a project management tool into our production pipeline and getting the team on board to using it has saved me precious time in the last three months. Instead of working off of pure initiative and chasing people around, we just create ‘tasks’ that we need each other to do. I hate to think of the countless hours I’ve wasted pinging messages across various channels to get a simple update on something. It’s crucial for a team to organise around a solid, unambiguous workflow and clear documentation. When the darker times in development come, you can look back at it and say, ‘Crap, look at how much we’ve actually done!’ This kind of discipline affects the quality of your work as well and demonstrates a capability to operate professionally, beyond the level of a hobby.
Sacrifice will come in many forms. Your leisure time will be usurped by development. It will steal you away from your family and friends if you let it. Unfortunately, there just aren’t enough hours in the week to fulfil your obligations to your employer and to your passion without your personal life going down the toilet a bit. That’s the nature of development–it’s not simply time-consuming, it’s life-consuming. We’ve all been there: a bug we expected to be a quick fix has suddenly eaten into a day, maybe two, and in extreme cases even longer. Your friends, your significant other, your parents, your dog–they don’t see much of you until you emerge from your lair for food or air or a fleeting moment of social contact.
It can be easy to get lost in the vortex, so as you juggle motivation, organisation, and sacrifice, it becomes very important to not neglect self-care entirely. A friend of mine, who used to be an independent artist and now works full-time on games, offered me a piece of advice: “work smarter not harder”. This means don’t work 6 hours from 6 pm until midnight and produce sloppy work because of fatigue. Instead, do 3 hours where you feel energised, and you’ll produce better work that doesn’t need re-evaluating later. Make sure you sleep well. This is so important. The human brain can only endure so much in a single day, and working on games is mentally taxing. Make sure to factor in breaks every now and again away from the PC, console, or phone. Take a walk, go out for a meal, see the family, etc. These are important facets that are overlooked when all you can think about is your game. The result can be poor work, which means you’ll waste more time re-doing it later on.
Pursuing passion is hard, and in a craft as complex as game development, it can seem impossible. Managing the necessities of life while trying to make your dream a reality is truly a balancing act. Never overlook what a project management application can do for organising you and your team. Make sure to take care of yourselves, as the better you feel (this means sleep) in yourself the better work you will produce. Sometimes the crunch cannot be avoided but at least you’ll be prepared and mentally ready to face it without fighting pre-existing exhaustion. But even in the roughest times, don’t lose that singular, driving motivation that drew you to game development in the first place.