Last night I watched Indie Game: The Movie, a film funded via Kickstarter and that followed the development of Super Meat Boy and Fez.

Just like when I watched The Social Network, I was left with a set of mixed, but very powerful, emotions.  The reason is that these movies resonate with me on a very personal level, because they represent things that I’ve:

  1. Always wanted to do, and/or;
  2. Have already done, and/or;
  3. Want to do again.

I have all the technical skills required to build virtually any sort of website or game.  I’m not alone in this — many people do.  The real trick is to have the right idea, at the right time, and to see it all the way to completion (and to have enough resources to not starve while doing so).

I often use the excuse that I don’t have enough time to be able to really make a game and/or website.  Which is bullshit.  The truth is that I don’t make the time.  Instead I’ve decided that I feel more secure and less stressed by having a conventional day job, and in my off hours I spend far more time playing games than creating things.  Of course, there is the phenomenally good caveat that I have found a way to create something while playing games (i.e. YouTube videos) which has been enormously satisfying. If I’m being really honest with myself, external factors aren’t to blame for me not spending more time creating games.

On the other hand, it’s not like I’m just wasting my time either.  I do work five days a week at a full-time job and spend hours each week producing videos for YouTube. I maintain my health by exercising at the gym. Hell, even the games I play that aren’t recorded are still “research” on the ebb and flow of gaming culture (as well as studying to learn a game for future Let’s Plays).  I spend far more time in front of my computer in my basement than I do with my wife — and somewhere in there I also like to see my friends from time to time.

I have a packed schedule.  But I still want to do more.  I don’t think there’s a way to just do more, so instead it’s a matter of making decisions about replacing things.  Stop doing X so I can do Y.

What are the X’s? My job?  Making YouTube videos?  Playing games altogether?  Seeing friends and family?

For many indie game developers, X is all those things. They give up everything except their game.  For years.

Hell, I’ve been here before. I made a website in my spare time that was stupendously successful.  I quit my great job to work full-time it.  That’s when I discovered that I hated running a business.  Accounting, taxes, licenses, etc…  They suck to deal with.  I was spending almost as much time managing the business as I was programming.  It drove me crazy.  Not to mention the fact that it’s hard to duplicate that kind of success — other websites I developed during that time never really took off, and that’s extremely depressing to deal with.  Also, the stress of depending on just yourself for your income is beyond anything else you’ll experience in your life.  After a year I stopped and went back to a day job…but five years later I’m just left staring at pile of unfinished projects I’ve left behind.

What is the right balance between following your dreams and leading a lower-stress life?

My dream continues to be to develop a full and proper game.  To have my name on something concrete, that people enjoy.  To make at least one dollar from selling a game and call myself a professional game developer.  The way I see it, I have two such projects already on the go:

  • Fish Tank Commander.  This has a great start and a lot of suggestions to feed off of. I have a clear plan to go forward with this.  The development timeline is extremely manageable, and deployment is simple. Web apps are my forte.
  • The space sim-roguelike-empire-building-strategy game (a.k.a. Project Porcupine). There was a lot of excitement about this when I originally brought up the idea, but it faces a major problem — the same one that faces virtually any “community” game effort: Complete lack of focus (also, actual participation). Unless you are cloning an existing game exactly, there really are an infinite different set of options for how you can build a game.  Design-by-Committee can’t work for a game like it can with single-purpose applications (the kind that succeed the best with open-source development).  That doesn’t mean that a game can’t be community-focused and open-source — but in doing my research it looks like every really great open-ish game tends to have a single gatekeeper, or at least started that way.  One central authority that is the final word on what the design and aesthetic of the game is.  Of course, that one person tends to do infinitely more work than everyone — more or less by definition.  It’s only after the core of the game is done can things really be opened up, because at that point the game has a clear design, function, and aesthetic.

 

I think one of the things that lends so much promise to FTC is that I more or less fell into the “I’ll open-source this game, but I am the Alpha and the Omega when it comes to decisions for it”.  This was by virtue of the fact that these were the rules for Ludum Dare. I didn’t have to be apologetic about being a dictator about it…but as a result the game is actually, you know, a game instead of just a long set of message board posts about what FTC “should” be (i.e. Project Porcupine).

Of course, what will make FTC *amazing* (and it will be amazing) is all the feedback and suggestions that people are providing.  There still needs to be a central authority that picks and chooses what to implement, but the Many-Eyes of the open community is still a tremendous strength.  I’m also hoping that people will eventually contribute actual, direct content and code (there’s already been one user-submitted programming bugfix!), but the reality is that I can’t expect other people to do all of the work for me.  I can’t even expect them to do a significant minority of the work.  I need to do almost everything, at least up until a version 1.0 release.  And realistically that might take a year or more of work.

I really believe that FTC is the best project to focus on first, partially because the scale is more reasonable and partially because I have more immediate expertise with web development than some kind of standalone game.  It’s also going to be the easiest to somehow blend the “I need to somehow monetize this” with “I want people to be able to see the source and contribute”.  FTC can be open source AND commercial simply by virtue that “fishtankcommander.com” will be the authoritative site for gameplay.  It can also grow much more organically, since these types of things tend to never be “finished”, unlike what people expect from something released on Steam or something. (Note that I’m building the game first, figuring out how it will pay for itself later.  Gameplay is king.  That’s the only way these things ever work, lest you turn into another Zynga.)

For the follow-up game (Syzygy?  Project Procupine Revival?), I think I need to use a model closer to Minecraft and Dwarf Fortress.  There’s an unapologetic central authority.  That’s how they work. The fact is that if Notch or Toady hadn’t dedicated themselves to the project completely, it would have never existed.  I cannot compensate for my lack of full-time involvement by turning the game into a magical “community” project.  That was a cope-out on my part. It will never work.  I need to make the game mine and place all the weight on my own shoulders, at least for the first release. That being said, both those games are so stupendous BECAUSE they still involve a lot of community feedback.  I also think I could safely go a little further by making the source available (which I wish Dwarf Fortress would do).

Surely there’s some middle ground, where I can make the source open for people to use for educational purposes, and to contribute to the game, without losing control of my baby — or going broke because I quit my job to make something that I’m now giving away for free? It might be as simple as getting a proper pre-release version together and making a Kickstarter or Indiegogo campaign to start with, followed by some kind of “beg for donations” system going forward.  Personally, I would absolutely not feel secure living off completely unreliable donations.  Holding a sign that says “I will code for food” is not my idea of a stress-free life.  I think I would want to come up with some other model instead, but one that doesn’t feel exploitative in any way.  No pay to win, ever.  Pay for shiny stuff? Maybe.  For something like Fish Tank Commander (which needs money for web servers, if nothing else), that might be something like a special icon, more ability to “vote” for new features, and access to additional niceties like more stats on your profile page and a subscriber-only chat room.

I’m not old, but I’m definitely not young anymore.  I can’t match the energy and passion of the standard indie game developer crowd, which is mostly 25 or younger (I’m 33.)  I sure as hell don’t want to give up the security of a full time job (and I actually like my job a LOT!) and go back to debt and ramen noodles.  Sure, you only live once, and I don’t want to die never having accomplished this dream — but I also don’t want to lose my house and live in poverty just to pursue this.  I’m sure my wife wouldn’t appreciate it either!