There have been many reports of Indie developers leaving their employment to start running their own business making games. I always wondered if there aren’t cases where it’s the other way around? A very recent event, Zynga hiring the main cocos2d-iphone developers who had been making a living off their products, shows that in fact those cases are a reality.
Another example is Luke Rogers of Rizer Games, who graduated with a degree in Computer Science from UEA in 2009 and lives in Norwich, UK. For the past 18 months Luke has been running the freelancing and indie lifestyle, the result of the latter being his indie iPhone game Flying Cats Game. But eventually he found that he needed to get a full-time job for various reasons. I asked him about his motives, his life and work as an Indie and his expectations from his future working as an employee and after-hours indie.
Interview with Luke Rogers of Rizer Games
SI: Luke, you’ve been an indie and freelance iPhone developer for about 18 months. Now you want to go back to full-time employment. You explained your decision in the blog post Moving Forward to a Full-Time Job by going into detail on keywords like stability, structure, money, people, experience that can be found working full-time. Which of those was your driving motivator to become a full-time employee, and why?
LR: It was definitely a combination of all those factors, although I guess money and stability would probably be the main ones. There was a point at the start of the year where having quoted on a whole range of projects, not one of them came in. It certainly makes life interesting at times, but I think right now that I’d really appreciate not having to worry about where and when the next payment is coming in.
SI: One particular reasoning to become employed struck me as odd: Inspiration. You mentioned other indie developers who work full-time AND were able to create a lot more indie games than you while you were freelancing. You expressed the “if they can do it, so can I” attitude as a reason to become employed. Why do you think employment + indie development will work better for your when freelance work + indie development didn’t?
LR: There are definitely positives and negatives with both approaches. The main down side of going into full time employment I think will be that I’ll have a lot less time to work on projects than I do now – certainly fewer big blocks of time anyway. And I know from experience that after a long day at work sat in front of a computer coding, it can be hard to motivate yourself to come home and do the same.
On the plus side, structure is a nice thing. I know that I’m consistently going to have several evenings free each week, plus the weekend. Freelancing can swallow up those hours outside the standard 9 to 5 very easily if you let it. When I was busy freelancing, I could go for months without working on my own projects at all, which can often lead to a loss of momentum.
I’ve heard of other people being more disciplined and working on freelance projects 9 to 5 then switching to their own projects in the evenings, but with deadlines looming I always found it hard to have the discipline to stop. And if you’re going to freelance 9 to 5, why not just get a full time job? I never set out to freelance – it was always a back-up plan for when the indie income wasn’t enough.
Doing work for hire really isn’t that different to working full time. You don’t get much creative freedom – you do what you’re told. It’s hard to escape from freelancing too. The projects that you created you are responsible for, and you are responsible for fixing. Clients will still email you and phone you on your days off, and probably will do for months and years after the project is signed off.
Talking of inspiration and looking at people who successfully made great games whilst working full-time, I can think of no more inspiring story than Matt Rix’s. Definitely worth reading if you haven’t already.
Matt Rix talks about Trainyard at FlashinTO
SI: During your 18 months doing freelance work, which indie game projects have you started and which of those are complete?
LR: Counting up, it looks like I started 16 projects, and completed 2 of them. I guess that’s where all my time went!
I think it’s a pretty common problem amongst indie devs to have a plethora of unfinished projects, although I think to some extent that’s a healthy part of the creative process. It’s definitely an easy trap to fall into where you jump from project to project because the new idea is always more attractive than the one you’re currently working on.
Some of those projects I want to go back to, but most I know I won’t. I’d love to hear if anyone has any tips for how to finish more projects, or how not to get too deep into those you know ultimately you’re not going to be able to finish. I think I’m getting better, but I still have a lot to learn in that respect.
SI: What were the biggest motivational issues you’ve had in the last 18 months? Did you find it harder to work on the freelance jobs, or on the indie games?
LR: Freelance jobs always have a deadline, a nagging client, a clear brief and guaranteed money, so in many ways it’s easier to be motivated to work on those.
I think the biggest thing that motivates me to work on my own games is dreaming of their success. There’s a lot of the game creation process that’s really fun, but I think you need that long term vision to get you through the boring and difficult bits. When you’ve seen your previous projects not reach your expectations for them, it can be hard to motivate yourself to keep going at times.
SI: What was your biggest failure and your biggest success in the past 18 months?
LR: My biggest success was making games! Nothing has been a financial success, or even anywhere close, but to hear from people that genuinely enjoy playing your game is a fantastic feeling.
One of my friends uses Brainz to help her teach maths to school children. And the reaction to Flying Cats Game has been great. I hear stories of people’s mums getting addicted to it, and see pictures on Twitter of little kids having fun playing it. That’s really rewarding.
My biggest failure was probably procrastinating too much. I look back at the number of games I’ve made in that time, and I feel like I could have done a lot more.
Flying Cats Game gameplay video
SI: Will you consider becoming a full-time freelance and indie developer once again?
LR: No. In my mind now I’m done with freelancing. My aim is still to go full-time, but only as an indie developer with no freelancing involved.
SI: Looking back at your time as independent developer, what would you do differently the next time around?
LR: Start off with a better plan and some money to keep me going for a few months. I didn’t really have much of either when I started.
SI: You also said regarding money that iOS developers are sought after and well paid, and that the wages paid by employers you were looking into are more than you could make from freelance projects. Do you think that employers generally pay more than freelance jobs?
LR: Not per hour, no, but factoring in all the time looking for freelance projects, fixing bugs, client changes, going over the quoted time and all the other time when you’re not actually getting paid (holidays for example), then in my experience full time work definitely pays better. Maybe other freelancers charge more – I’m not sure.
SI: Are you specifically looking for a job in the game industry?
LR: I didn’t actually consider going for a games industry job. In part that was because I didn’t want to relocate and I’m not sure that there is much in Norwich. I would have considered it if something had come up, but having now accepted a role as an app developer, I think it’ll be nice to have some variety between what I do for a day job and what I do in my spare time.
SI: In your very first blog post in November 2009 you mentioned that you’ve been employed as a full-time web developer. What made you become a freelance and indie developer in the first place?
LR: There were a number of factors. I came straight out of uni into the first job I could find, and in hindsight I think it might have been wise to look at other employment options. I went in to that job knowing that I had a strong desire to be an independent developer, and with a belief that I was good enough and ambitious enough to make it happen, so I had in mind that it wasn’t a long term career move.
The job itself involved doing a lot of HTML and CSS, which was all mind-numbingly simple and not at all challenging. To go from a uni environment where you’re constantly learning and being challenged every day to do doing stuff that I’d taught myself to do before uni really amplified the voice in my head that said I wasn’t reaching my full potential. So I left after about 4 months and went straight into seeing what I could achieve as an indie. Being able to live on a shoestring meant that I was prepared to risk not having a decent income just to give it a go.
SI: Also in the same first post, you said very openly that you want to be rich. Would you say that’s a valid goal to strive for as an indie game developer? Do you think that’s a goal an indie game developer can actively work towards, or does it depend mostly on luck?
LR: I think I’m definitely in a minority amongst indie developers to have that as a goal. Just to clarify the context of that post, what I’m talking about is creating wealth in order to use that to make a difference to the lives of others. Most people will tell you that it would be the wrong way to go about trying to become rich, but I also want to do something that I love and there are examples of people who’ve made significant incomes from making games.
I think it is something you work towards, definitely. It seems that some people get lucky, and that’s true to some extent, but you don’t “get lucky” without putting a lot of effort into making something exceptionally good. I’ve learnt that it won’t just happen over night, and if you look into all the overnight successes you’ll see that actually there is so much that led up to the point when they became a public success.
SI: In your New Year’s resolution for 2011 you said that you need to improve your marketing skills in order to make more than 5% of your life’s income from indie games. Why do you think marketing is the most important factor to sell more of your indie games?
LR: Marketing seems to be the target for blame when a good game doesn’t do well. Maybe it is marketing that is to blame in the case of my games, but maybe it’s something else. I still have a lot to learn, that’s for sure.
One thing I have learnt is that you can’t just go to some marketing checklist on someone’s blog and expect that to work for you. They might be able to give you tips about how to get the word out, but in my experience it must take some extra ingredient. Seems strange that we try and be so unique when it comes to creating our games, but yet we want to do what everyone else does when it comes to marketing. I think I just need to be a bit more creative in that regard.
SI: You’ve blogged a lot about originality of games. I think a lot of game developers, indie or not, are very conscious when it comes to originality. For most it’s part of the spirit of being indie, to make game that are different. Why do you think originality is so important for so many game developers, yet most of them struggle to create original games respectively make those truly original games actually fun to play?
LR: I think originality is a little too highly prized in the indie community. It’s impossible to create a game that could draw no parallels to anything that has come before it, so don’t let that put you off making something you want to make.
Also, I think we can be original in ways other than gameplay. When Tiny Wings came on the scene, I saw a lot of people pointing out that it’s fundamental gameplay mechanic had been done before, but actual it’s a very original game. The way they treat achievements is pretty original, as are the graphics, and far more importantly than any of that it’s a real joy to play.
Tiny Wings gameplay trailer
I think it’s kind of cool that people make games that are totally obscure in their gameplay mechanic even if they’re not particularly fun to play because it pushes the medium forward. But personally I’d rather make something that might be a little similar to stuff that has come before it, but really delights the user. That’s not to say you should go round ripping off other people’s ideas – definitely don’t do that!
SI: One thing that I personally found very difficult was the often-repeated advice to make the game you’d love to make. But as with any love, what starts as a hot fling or crush doesn’t always end up as a “happily ever after”, to say the least. How did you know that a certain game was the one you’d love to make? What does such a game need, what does it make special to be “the one”?
LR: Good question. I guess I’m someone who’s flirted with a lot of ideas, but I’ve only pushed home with one or two.
I think it’s important that your games are a reflection of who you are, but I think it’s also important to remember that there will be other games. To see a game through to completion requires a decent level of commitment. My approach is generally to pick a really small project (most of my ideas never get started because the idea is too big for right now), and then not to think about it too much! Just put the blinkers on and go for it. Small projects are good because you can have lots of “happily ever afters”.
SI: Do you think the iTunes App Store is a great platform for publishing indie game titles? Would you publish on the App Store again or would you rather choose to publish for a different platform and store in the future?
LR: The App Store is a game changer, for sure. Essentially the other stores that are appearing at the moment are inspired by the App Store.
I keep an eye on what’s happening with other platforms, and I think it’s possible that I might develop for them in addition to iOS, but in my experience iOS is the most fun to develop for and it’s also where you’re most likely to make money, so I’ve got no plans to abandon the Apple ship.
SI: From your frustration with freelance job listing sites you started your own project dubbed Freelance House. How is it different from regular job listing sites and how did it work out?
LR: In my experience, the best freelance work comes from knowing someone who knows someone who wants an app made. Having some level of relationship there really seems to help, as both sides are taking a risk in entering into an agreement for the work. But in our digitally connected world that seems a little old fashioned to me.
Of course there are digital job boards, but often the clients advertising have very little budget and the freelancers are all trying to undercut each other. That’s no way to earn a living, and it’s a massive waste of time scouring all the postings on the many different sites. I wanted Freelance House to be the digital meeting place where I could introduce developers to clients, without wasting anyone’s time with nonsense jobs or developers that just weren’t able to fulfill the brief.
It totally flopped as I didn’t have a marketing budget, but I still think it’s a reasonably good idea. In hindsight, I’m not sure maintaining a site like that would have been something that I’d want to do, so in a way it might be good that it didn’t work out.
Thanks to Luke Rogers for taking the time for this interview. Be sure to check out his Rizer Games blog!