Abstract: I’ve been working independently on game development full-time for the last couple months. People often ask me how things are going, whether I’m enjoying myself and what my next steps are. Rather than respond to all of the above with a succinct and accurate “I don’t know,” I decided to write a bunch of other stuff about my experiences so far in the hopes of shedding some light on the mysterious creative process and to provide some context and advice for anyone who’s thinking about doing something similar. I think there’s a huge potential for personal and professional growth from taking your career into your own hands, but it’s one of the hardest paths to take, and the more you can prepare yourself for the challenges that come with it, the better your odds of success are.
I wanted to share some of the things I’ve learned from making a career shift from the familiar into the unknown. I’ve talked to lots of friends who dream about starting their own companies or developing a skill or craft into a career, but very few people I know actually follow through on it.
Honestly, they’re probably the smart ones; going independent is a terrifying, uncertain and, on some level, somewhat foolish thing to do. Having a routine, steady income and benefits is nothing to scoff at, and freedom can be suffocating when it’s all you’ve got. But these challenges aren’t insurmountable, and knowing a bit more about what you’ve gotten yourself into can make a huge difference.
So I thought I’d share a few thoughts about how to struggle, fail and occasionally succeed with a bit of grace.
A lot of you have been asking how work on my game is going, and I feel like I haven’t really responded with a good answer. I’ve been meaning to be more transparent and share more updates about the game I’m working on since it’s taking up so much of my time, but instead, I haven’t said much at all.
Why? Because I was afraid of admitting that it’s not all roses on the path to independent success. Truthfully, it’s kind of a mess: There’s no tried-and-true method for shipping a “real” game, and as a result I usually don’t know what I’m doing at any given time. Like so many great success stories, I’m mostly making things up as I go.
And that’s fine — that’s how we learn — but it’s not exactly giving me the confidence to stand up and proclaim the virtues of the path I’ve chosen. It’s certainly not the kind of path I’d recommend without reservation. If we’re being honest here, it’s actually kind of a shitty path; the kind with loose rocks strewn about to trip you up and that kind of tall, itchy grass that irritates the hell out of your ankles and camouflages wild Pokémon. If I sat down to write a Yelp review of this path, I wouldn’t be able to decide between a 1 or a 5 star rating and would just close the tab out of frustration. But I never wanted a rose garden; I wanted to work hard, to push myself, to walk away at the end more knowledgable and capable than ever. I made my bed, so I guess I’ll have to write my C# in it.
Of course, I wasn’t jumping in with blind faith that things would just work out on their own. I knew there’d be lots of hard work. I knew I’d have plenty of days when I didn’t know where to go next or how to solve the next set of problems. But I honestly didn’t anticipate what a toll those doubts and uncertainties can take on a person.
It sucks not knowing how to get from point A to point B. We spend so much of our lives in environments where there’s an established structure and way of doing things — in school, sports, careers, clubs, and so on — that it can be jarring to try to succeed in a vacuum where no mutually agreed-upon methodology exists. It doesn’t come naturally, which means you’re bound to struggle in finding a way to success, which means there’s gonna be some anxiety. Not just any kind of anxiety, either; this is some harsh, unyielding, end-of-Toy-Story-3 anxiety.
Or, in other words: Just because I know how to write code, design and manage projects, design interfaces, animate sprites, create music, generate sound effects, build websites, manage social media and promote a product (whew) doesn’t mean I can just sit down and crank through everything step-by-step for this project without having a few niggling doubts creep up and threaten to derail the whole thing. Fortunately, doubts can be defused before they totally ruin your day.
If there’s one crucial thing I’ve learned from trying to make something out of nothing on my own, it’s that the greatest challenge doesn’t come from actually executing on the work — which runs contrary to what I’d expected. If you’ve got an idea you’re excited about, inspiration and execution will eventually follow.
Instead, the greatest challenge I’ve encountered is navigating those doubts, uncertainties and anxieties that crop up without warning or invitation and foul up all your best-laid plans for making a damn thing and getting it done before you go broke or crazy. It’s not easy to develop and internalize a support system for the times when I encounter a roadblock, am stumped by a problem or am just feeling like I got in way over my head. When you’re a member of an organization, you can always fall back on an implicit support system — your peers, the rules and regulations that come with your position, the precedent set by others, etc. — and there’s a sort of safety net that comes with that familiarity.
But when you’re doing something on your own, you’re in free-fall. There are no backups, no failsafes, no quick fixes. It’s liberating, but it’s also dangerous.
The best solution I’m aware of is to structure your own stability so you can be productive without reservation. Some ways to do that:
- Meet people who care about the things you care about. I’ve had mixed results with the Seattle independent game development community, but I know there are a lot of inspired, creative, hard-working people in this area whom I could benefit from knowing. Going to meetups and grabbing coffee to catch up and chat can provide the sort of context-setting you need to take stock of where you’re at and how things are going.
- Make it work first, then make it not suck: Nothing you do is ever going to be perfect on the first pass. (Sorry.) Even if it is, there’s no telling whether your insanely clever innovation will have any place in the scope of the final product. The most important thing to keep in mind is momentum- find a solution and move on before you wind up banging your head against a wall. Components can always be polished up in time, and worrying too much about perfect execution can wear you out before you get a chance to build up some creative momentum.
- Don’t be afraid to dumb things down. It’s always easy to add complexity, but taking it away down the road is much harder. Think of your project like a Jenga tower.
- Own your time. Build timetables; map out dependencies; make sure you’re always working to understand the full scope of your project and the work that’s required to make it happen.
- Hold yourself accountable for your own success. Track your work. Examine how you spend your time if you’re having trouble focusing on what needs to get done.
- Take the time you need to make sure your baseline is structurally sound. If you’re feeling disconnected or frustrated with what you’re working on, take the time to figure out why. What sucks? What could be better? Contrastingly, what’s going well? Taking inventory of the bad and the good gives you a better perspective and helps you fix stuff before it gets worse.
- Ask for advice. This is one I’ve always struggled with. There’s no shame in asking for help. Doing everything yourself might seem admirable, but there’s no substitute for the experience and expertise that others can share.
- Give yourself permission to have fun. Creativity and anxiety don’t mix. If you’re having fun in dreaming something up and making it come to life, it’ll often show through in the final product. That’s a good thing. Enjoy the ride and grant yourself the freedom to poke fun at whatever you’re doing.
I don’t know where I’ll be in six months or a year, but it’s a good feeling knowing that I’ve already learned a fair bit about how to stay focused and chart my own course even when the path forward isn’t obvious. Whether you wind up in the same place by choice or by happenstance, having the right perspective can mean all the difference between embracing chaos and succumbing to it.