Reverse Engineering: From Indie to Employee

On May 14, 2011, in Interview, by Steffen Itterheim

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!

Save Money By Being Indie

On May 3, 2011, in Experiences, Good Advice, by Steffen Itterheim

It might not surprise you that an Indie game developer spends less money than an employed game developer. After all the indie developer is likely making less money, so there’s less expendable income. But that’s not the whole story.

An Indie developer actually saves money that an employee would spend without second thought, or as a necessity even. Let me give you a couple examples about where and how much money I’m spending less than as an employed game developer.

Commute

Depending on where you live and where you go to work, the costs for commute can be immense.

In my case I was living about 5 miles (8 km) away from work, pretty close actually. At least two thirds of my colleagues commuted far greater distances each day. Most days I was going by car, sometimes by bike but on average I drove about 400 km per month not just to and from work, but also to and from lunch on occasion. I used to drive one of the most economical cars available, a VW Lupo 3L which at most consumed 4.5l Diesel during winter. Still I was spending about €26 per month on gas alone.

Km / month 400 km
Gas / km 4.5l Diesel
Gas / month 18l Diesel
Gas price €1.45 / l Diesel
Gas Total / month €26

 
Add to that additional costs, mainly car maintenance and taxes and those start to actually dwarf the gas prices. Based on repairs needed in recent years I estimate that on average the price for owning and maintaining that car was at least €100 per month.

As an Indie I virtually don’t drive anywhere work related, I could even do without a car entirely and just use public transportation. There are still costs for travel but overall I expect to save about €110 in commute costs each month. That’s for a work place that was almost too close for comfort. I used to be driving 160 km each day to and from work for several year. Imagine the savings in that case.

Lunch

As an employee, I regularly went out to lunch with colleagues. Sometimes as often as 5 times a week. If not that, we went shopping in a nearby supermarket – more often than not buying more than what was needed for lunch just because the opportunity arose to buy something funny, informative, a desert or sweets for others.

The lunch money spent was (roughly on average) 12€ for every workday of a month, or times 22 around €264 each month. I still go out for lunch from time to time, and regardless of that I still have to eat lunch but overall it should only amount to €80. That’s €184 saved every month.

Other Savings

There’s a list of things where I suspect that I’m spending less but I find it difficult to put a number on it. Plus they’re highly dependent on lifestyle and seasons.

This includes things like how much laundry you’ll end up doing every month, how much you spend on cosmetic articles and fashion items for your work. For most the difference will be negligible but I did notice that some of the things I used to buy frequently are not as often on my shopping list anymore. Given the fact that most of that has to do with the social factor of working closely with others, slacking off in those areas is probably the norm if you don’t go to an office five times a week. How much of a difference that makes depends on how much (of a show) you “put on” before going to work.

Speaking of peer pressure, I find that the most significant additional costs that you can save are spendings on gadgets and doo-dads. It’s the things you buy at or for work because you think it’s fun to do so. We all bought various pieces of crap just to get a laugh or raised eyebrows out of colleagues. I have a USB-controllable Rocket Launcher. Others had bought USB fans, USB Xmas trees, and so on. You won’t normally buy these things unless there’s someone else around to show off these things or interact with them. No point in shooting foam rockets if there isn’t someone around who runs off screaming.

Then there’s the “Oh this game is so awesome, you HAVE to get it too!” kind of peer pressure that makes you purchase things you’ll later regret. I still regret having bought Warhammer 40k for €60 on Steam – then not liking it and only then finding out that you can neither return nor sell games bought on Steam. I never bought anything that cost more than €20 on Steam ever again for exactly this reason.

It’s hard to put a number on it, and it certainly depends on how susceptible you are to peer pressure (make no mistake, we all are!), how aware you are of your spendings, and so on. But just considering the games I bought and haven’t played, and the joke articles I have no more use for, this should amount to a savings of €30 per month.

Don’t pay for procrastination

One additional item to consider is that most people will always be short on money. Or so they say. If you look closely I’m sure you’ll find that together with your increasing salary your spendings also increase. You’ll rent a bigger apartment the next time you move, you might even buy a house or take on a loan. You may decide that it’s finally time to have kids. Reasonable, but there’s one type of spending that we tend to put off because we simply don’t pay for it that often, but still regularly.

You’ll have more magazine subscriptions that you won’t be reading, you’ll join a fitness club that you’ll rarely go to, you’ll have a subscription to various online services that you’ll pay every year but don’t use. You’re still paying a quarterly fee for your backup phone? Still paying for your Xbox Live or XNA subscription? Still haven’t cancelled that porn website membership? We all have subscriptions we pay for that we don’t actually use anymore, or not at the level we used to. Get rid of those and save that money!

Time

Time is money, so they say. However, I have no idea how much time is worth. What I do know that with no commute, no extensive lunch hours and not spending as much time socializing – and I mean the kind of socializing that happens whether you want to or not, well rather not than anything else – you do have more time for yourself doing whatever you like to do whenever you like to. Well, at least much more often than before with greater flexibility.

How much is that worth to you?

For me, it’s priceless.

Total Savings

Overall, and just roughly filling in these numbers, I’m saving €324 every month being an Indie developer. You should do the math yourself because these numbers will certainly be different for you.

  Employed Indie Saved
Commute €126+ €16 €110
Lunch €264 €80 €184
Other Savings €40 €10 €30
Subscriptions More Less Depends
Free Time Less More Up to you
Total €430 €106 €324

 

Note: multiply the numbers by 1.4 and you’ll roughly get the US Dollar amounts.

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Good Advice and what to make of it

On April 23, 2011, in Good Advice, by Steffen Itterheim

If you’re reading this, I think it’s fair to assume you’re one of those developers who likes to read other developer’s blogs. If you’re anything like me, you’ve read a ton of different articles from various blogs, from very popular developers down to the “little man” just starting out with indie game development, or software development in general. A lot of these articles reveal good advice and tell a story about success, and sometimes failure. But with all these developer stories and the advice those developers give their readers, what should you make of it?

You’ll likely be asking yourself exactly this question while reading all those articles from Gamasutra all the way down to first-time-developer’s blogs.

What stops you? The back and forth!

The biggest problem with all this advice is that you may be tempted, and (as we all do) use it for rationalizing about certain decisions. If someone tells you you can’t make money on the App Store anymore, and there’s a lot of supportive evidence (eg dozens of iOS developers mentioning how little they make) – would that influence your decision not to publish a game on the App Store?

On the other side, have you been attracted to the App Store exactly because of the success stories in which iOS developers tell us how they were able to make a living off of it, and some even got rich (*) from the App Store? And then did you wonder how you could repeat that success? Later, did you think you were a fool to believe that this was even possible?

(*) rich as in: at least US $100,000 in less than a year.

So many questions, and what’s worse: to each question there are seemingly thousands of different answers. If you read a lot of developer blog posts, what you’ll learn eventually is that the best blog posts are from developers who took some advice, put it into action, tested and analyzed it and blogged about the results. This makes for very interesting posts and is advice supported by actual facts put into context. But more often than not you’ll come across another post by a different developer having taken the same advice but coming up with entirely different results. What should you make of that now?

Well, it turns out there’s only two things you can do:

Test it, or ignore it!

If you’re interested to find out if an advice works for you, you can only test it. Speculate and rationalize about it all you want, without applying the advice you’ll never know. And without some metrics it’ll be hard to figure out how much that particular advice helped your game to greater success. Particularly the metrics part was never something I was too keen on doing or monitoring. For my blogs I used the least possible amount of measure points, a bit of google analytics here and whatever stats I am provided with by my eCommerce vendor or iTunes Connect.

If you have the same disinterest about measuring the actual success of your website and product sales and marketing efforts, you can get away with the bare minimum too. As for making games, you should just make the game you love, for the platform you love developing for, and do everything the way you want to ignoring other developer’s advice entirely.

Some might say this may be dumb advice, but interestingly, if so much of a particular advice is subjective and works out differently for different developers, the best you can do for your game and with your time is to ignore that advice and find your own way. I suppose that most indie game developers’ biggest problem is actually finishing a game in the first place. Reading conflicting opinion pieces about game development and business can only lead to one thing:

Confusion with a chance of stagnation

Easy answers may or may not be not inexistent. But what’s for sure is that if you can’t make heads or tails out of a situation, your mind won’t stop thinking about this unresolved issue. It just keeps going at it. Should you better do A or rather go along with B? Both have their advantages and disadvantages. This is so difficult.

Did you ever catch yourself in this kind of thinking? Not knowing about something you are about to do or are in the middle of it, and not knowing the results and not even having any grounds to base your decisions on other than other people’s experiences, how could you possible decide which option is best for you?

The answer is: you don’t!

You just have to make a decision – any decision really – and the decisions you’ll feel most confident about come naturally. The stomach feeling. Your first reaction when confronted with a difficult choice. The first answer is the best when there’s no obvious choice. Always! Even the unreasonable choice. Why?

It’s the decision that’s right for you that’s right

That’s basically it. You just listen to your inner voice and it’ll guide you through the decisions that are too context-sensitive, so to speak. By that I mean if some piece of advice, the way to go, or any life decision for that matter – depends on a lot of variables of which most are outside your control and/or very specific to your life, your experience, your situation – then the best decision is the one that just feels right for you. And that’s almost always the gut-feeling reaction you have when confronted with a choice.

This has one big advantage: you’ll feel good about your decision, because you own it! And confidence in a decision is actually more important than which of the options you decided to do.

But alas, we humans are suckers for easy answers. We go through a lot to be able to get an easy answer, or even just to believe we found it. That’s why religion is so popular, it gives easy answers to complex and unsolvable questions. Conspiracy theories work in a similar fashion because they allow us to simply ignore the facts and allow us to accept the answers that we prefer to believe as true. Then we’ll find the evidence to support that believe. Simple and beautiful.

We want the feeling of confidence that a particular decision is the right one before acting on it. But unlike religion and thanks to the Internet we end up finding so many varying results and we lose the confidence to decide naturally what’s best for us. Too bad the bible doesn’t have the answer for us, nor does Roswell or the 9/11 inside job.

Against all odds

If 80% of the opinions and data on the Internet tell us to do one thing with our game to be able to make a living off of it, but that’s exactly something you have a bad feeling about – then you shouldn’t do it. Free yourself from thinking that that’s something you have to do (*) to be successful. That is never true.

(*) About the only things we really, really have to do are breathe, eat and drink. Everything else is entirely optional. Even fucking.

You can’t do something right if that’s not what you want to do, and you’ll feel much better about your game by not doing it, which in turn is likely going to make the game better. For example, many developers have a strong aversion against offering microtransactions in their games. If you’re one of them, ignore the advice to use microtransactions as the money-printing method and just don’t use them.

You can rest confident that if you added microtransactions without embracing them fully, you are likely not going to make much money off of it anyway. Because you think they suck the money right out of your gamers pockets – and then that’s what you’ll end up doing, and you’ll end up feeling terrible about doing it! You might even get rich financially against all odds but even then you’ll lose some of your spirit, something that makes you, well, you.

What is success, anyway?

While you’re at it, you might also want to reconsider your definition of success. What do you really want to achieve? Without a clear goal for life, everything you do is prone to fail anyway. Do you really want to get rich? Or would you rather redefine rich as in: earning enough money to support yourself and your family while working less than 40 hours per month? Richness in time vs. richness in money. You can achieve the latter and not have the former, and vice versa. Think about it.

Why is it so important to know your life’s goal? Because it puts everything in context and guides you through the difficult decisions that could go either way. If given the option to work on a dull, boring and time-consuming job for 6 months but with great pay – would you do it if your life’s goal is to spend as much time as possible with your family? Would you do it if your life’s goal is to be creative and define your own destiny? Even if your goal is to get rich quick – would this job be the right choice for you and get you closer to your goal? Think about that, too.

In essence

If you can’t decide, ask yourself how you would decide if you just did this for yourself. That’s going to be the right answer. After that you can google the web and read through the conflicting opinions if you want, but unless there’s a clear indication that what you’re going to do is going to spell doom and failure – like making a porn app for the App Store (*) – you should just do what you feel is right. And do it with confidence.

If you do love porn so much and making the perfect porn app is your calling, let me tell you that the problem isn’t the porn, it’s the App Store! Once you realize that there are always other options, you’ll find other ways to succeed.

Interestingly, I’ve seen the oddest things happening when following your gut instinct against all odds and reason. There is this former colleague of mine who wants to re-engineer mathematics (website in german). He wrote a series of articles about his new way of doing mathematics with lots of tables and new definitions for multiplication and division to get rid of, among other things, the “division by zero” conundrum. On first and second sight it is probably the dumbest thing to do, right after suicide. But somehow it was also fascinating, and spawned an ongoing discussion and actually had me think about how the basics of our mathematics work. At the very least I realized just how much we take for granted without actually knowing too much about it. On the other hand, if you don’t know much about something, you probably shouldn’t try to re-invent it either.

The point is: you don’t always get the results you want, but you’re certainly going to get something of note if you follow your gut instincts and remain confident in your decisions and be involved with what you do. This is how the most exciting things get made. And exciting tends to attract more attention from others. What you do with this attention is up to you. And I’m sure you can do better than reinventing the wheel. Or mathematics, for that matter.

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