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Unspoken Demons - The Pursuit of Happiness

In this blog, Matthew Dyet talks about the constant battle many independent game developers face over their perceived self-worth. It's a story of the people who choose to do what they love, and how they can hate themselves for it.

Two years ago I quit my full time job.

I was working as a web developer at the time. I'd been lucky enough to score an internship with this amazing company while I was in my final year of University, and that company made me a job offer in the final days of my internship. I accepted, and while I was not doing what I had hoped to be doing straight out of University, there was the promise and potential for it to be a great thing on the path to something bigger.

Only a few months into my job, I'd received an e-mail from the IGDA. They told me I was a GDC scholar, and that they would be paying for me to attend that years Game Developer's Conference. This was a huge thing, and it came perfectly timed - I had a full time job, I could actually pay for the flights! I discussed it with my boss, and even managed to convince them to let me off for a month so that I could spend the time in the United States with my girlfriend in Florida.

The company was hugely supportive. They contacted a newspaper and got an article written about me and my achievement. It was only a local newspaper, nothing on a state or national level - but it was a huge deal for me. I was one of a very small number of people deemed worthy of this massive thing. To somebody in the IGDA it may have only been the cost of a week-long GDC pass, but to me it was confirmation that I was in the right place in my life. I was doing the right thing.

GDC itself was a spectacular experience. It was my first time out of Australia, and here I was meeting all of these amazing people doing things that felt so much bigger than me. I visited Three Rings, went to Double Fine, and I just could not stop asking questions. I felt like I had to. I'd be flying back to Australia, and the only way I'd ever get the opportunity to ask much of these questions ever again would be to ask them then and there. This was a once in a lifetime thing, after all.

The week long GDC experience that first time I went was not only daunting, it was invigorating, it was inspiring - but most of all it was an affirmation. I sat in roundtables with producers from around the world discussing the craft, and at no point did I feel like I was in a room surrounded by my heroes - I was in a room surrounded by my peers. These weren't people doing something that was unachievable, these were people doing something that I could be doing right now.

In the days after GDC, I flew to Florida. I started putting out resumes to game studios in the United States, phoned up contacts and friends I'd made during my time at GDC. I'd made my decision - if this was what I was meant to be doing, then I was going to grab it with both hands and hold on. I contacted my boss and told him that I was going to be resigning. Writing up the resignation letter was one of the toughest things I've had to do. Despite being with the company for only 6 months, they'd been good to me - and I felt like I was abandoning them.

My month long trip turned into a 3 month one when none of the studios I had contacted got back to me. In that 3 months time, I probably sent out a hundred custom resumes and a hundred custom cover letters, and only one studio got back to me. Their reply was, essentially, that while I was a very attractive hire, I was simply too expensive. Relocating me and paying for a lawyer was simply too expensive since I was an entry level employee.

The months of my life that followed were very solemn ones. I didn't do much with myself once I got back home. I locked myself in my room as I tried to work out what I was going to do with my life. The advice from my wonderful mentor at GDC was that I should work independently, make games, and come back another year to try over again with a bit more experience under my belt. It was a hard pill to swallow, and I refused the idea. Being an independent developer simply seemed too difficult, and I had to consider my finances.

It wasn't until later in the year that I started to pick myself up again. I started doing contract work for a company developing interactive software and - amusingly enough - the company that hires us more often than not was the company I had quit my job with while in the United States. Every time I go in for a meeting with our client, I walk through the same doors I had to walk through when I had a full time job.

My plan was such: I was going to do the contract work, get back over to the United States and ask better questions at next year's GDC. I'd be direct, rather than skirting around the issue. I'd ask them what it was that was preventing them hiring me. And if there was zero chance of getting hired as a Game Developer in an overseas company, I'd finally swallow the pill of advice given to me by my mentor. I'd go back home, and I'd be an independent developer.

I got the answers I came for. I went home, and I started working on an idea.

The idea - while still fresh in my mind and still something I want to work on - has become increasingly more difficult to actually get done thanks to the contract work. Not because I have a lot of it - on the contrary, I can't get enough. But because contract work never sleeps. I have friends that tell me I just have to treat it as a 9 to 5, but when you work from home, it's difficult to maintain that mindset and start working on other projects when you have schedules and deadlines to meet on the job that actually pays your bills.

The most difficult part of being an independent - for me - is this constant back and forth struggle with two voices in my head. One voice talks about how I should have a house of my own, have a family, be raising kids and be putting money away for the days I am no longer able to work. This voice typically ends out sounding like the responsible adult - it's the voice that suggests that life is cruel, and that most people will never achieve their dreams, so why am I risking it all on a dream when I could be living comfortably? It reminds me that I only have a roof over my head from the kindness of others.

The other voice talks about how important passion is and how doing what you love is so much more important than money. It talks about how Rome wasn't built in a day, and that if I want to make something of myself it's going to take time, patience and a better handle on my 'me' time than what I currently have. It's the voice that tells me that if I want to achieve my goals and my dreams, what I need to do is buckle down, do what I love, and I'll see it pay off some day. This voice echoes to me again and again that I have a ridiculously supportive family - a family that always like to remind me that they aren't going to kick me to the curb any time soon.

This has all been stuff that has been on my mind for some time now, and there's always the little niggling reminder in my head that I should check my privilege because hey, at least this is a choice I can make, right? Most people don't get the opportunity to chase their dreams, because that's reality. Bills have to be paid, food has to be bought, rooftops have to be erected over heads. It's a privilege that I have the option of pursuing a career that pays nothing in the short term.

But that doesn't make it any less of a struggle between this old school thinking that I grew up surrounded by, and this new school thinking that I am finding myself having to adapt my life to. My parents had me when they were 24, and my father had to stop pursuing a career in music because of it. This was just how things really happened back when our parents were our age. Owning your own home wasn't as big a deal, and having kids was the big important thing.

Now days, I've met very few people in my generation - men or women - that tell me that their goal is to get out there, start a family and live in a house with a white picket fence. Their goal is to be doing something that makes them happy, that gives their lives meaning. We don't want to repeat the mistakes of our parents by locking ourselves into a job or a marriage that makes us unhappy. We're slower to move through those perceived 'rites of passage' our parents went through to enter into adulthood because we don't want to repeat their mistakes.

And that's okay!

I'm not here to tell you that I've got it all worked out. I really don't. I still struggle with the voices in my head bickering back and forth about what is best for me. It was reading an article about the success of Crossy Road that convinced me to write this. It talked about how one of the developers was living with his parents and making very little money before the game was released, and now the team has earned millions. That's not to say this blog is about going out and making money - it's not. This blog is about how the goal is to get out there and do what we love as long as we have the support of our loved ones. And if we are privileged enough to have the support of our families to be doing what we love, then that's what we need to grab with both hands and hold onto while the opportunity exists.

I am not saying everybody should go out and be irresponsible. I am saying: if the option is open to you to choose to be an independent developer, then you must have the financial stability to make that choice and pursue it. The important thing is to make the opportunity we have been given mean something and - more importantly - to not let self doubt completely immobilize us from doing anything at all.

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