This Dev Perspective shares my insights into the time investment of becoming an indie developer. It was originally written as a guest column for Continue Play.
In 2012 when I revived the idea of creating Afterdeath, the kind of platformer I’d like to play, I was starting completely from scratch.
I hadn’t taken programming classes, I possessed very little experience with digital art and animation, and I was completely inexperienced with marketing or social media platforms like Twitter or Reddit. I did have some on-the-job programming experience building autonomous robots and crafting internal automation for a software company but nothing like designing a full-scale commercial game that needs to run on thousands of people’s computers, Xboxes, and even Ouyas.
Don’t Quit the Day Job
If you’re starting your first game, you have a lot to learn. There will be bugs to fix, mistakes to undo, projects scrapped and started over. While you’re running this gauntlet, income from your game remains a distant gleaming on the horizon. The discipline required to make financially successful games with streamlined development schedules takes experience beyond the scope of your first game, so don’t cripple yourself by depending on your game (or worse, a Kickstarter) to pay your bills. Keeping a full-time or part-time job while you develop your project lets you focus on what really matters: making a great game.
While this does set you back at least 40 hours a week, it’s far more valuable to keep your game development from turning into a stressful experience as the months pass. A happy dev is a productive dev.
From Hobby to Full-Time Job
While designing a game starts as a hobby, you’ll soon realize that it’s not just the equivalent of one full-time job, but many. An indie developer has to wear (or outsource) many hats: programmer, artist, animator, musician, sfx mixer, tester, marketing extraordinaire, and salesman.
I treated my game dev like I would any job; I logged all my hours and tasks on a timesheet. I consider this practice invaluable. It lets me see that I’m making regular progress, keeps me motivated, and shows me what tasks demand the most of my time. Plus, metrics and graphs! I look forward to releasing all my collected stats along with Afterdeath so people can see that it’s more than just a collection of compiled code; it’s a piece of my life.
You can see the transformation from a hobby to a job, as game dev stopped being a weekend activity and became a lifestyle. Combined with the 40 hours per week at my day job, this represents a regular 60-80 hours of labor each week. There are a few dips at major holidays and a severe spike when I used a week of vacation time at my day job to work nonstop on an IGF submission, but the trend continues to rise. This graph doesn’t just represent progress on the game, but declined dinner invitations, missed movies, and months of sleep deprivation. It takes a significant commitment to finish a game that’s large in scope (2213 hours and counting!) and the timeline will always be longer than you planned.
Always Start Small
The best advice I can offer aspiring devs is to delay making the game of your dreams and start small instead. If you’re smart about it, you can make small games that form the foundation of your dream game, but can still be released as standalone titles after months of work instead of years. This offers the added benefit of helping you to raise funds for a larger game while getting your name out there in the gaming community. That’s a better alternative to starting a Kickstarter asking for $100,000 to build an MMO from scratch.
An easy way to get into game dev with smaller games is to participate in the frequent game jams hosted by the community. These jams have short timelines and simple goals, usually just a theme or a phrase to guide your game design. Committing 48 hours or a week of your time to making a game is an easy way to start and you’ll find that the hard deadline actually encourages your creativity rather than constraining it. Recent jams included FlappyJam and CyberPunkJam. The 7-day roguelike jam just began this week and it’s not too late to participate. In the future, you can join the Ludum Dare or One Game A Month community challenges as well.
Some may ask why I didn’t follow this advice myself, starting out making a platformer with six playable characters and six worlds encompassing more than a hundred levels. It’s a matter of perspective. Afterdeath is my stepping stone to an even more ambitious game.