My First Week As An Indie Game Developer

Five weeks ago, I quit my job at Firemint, one of the world’s top mobile game developers, to pursue a career in independent games development. Whether or not this rather insane decision proves to be my undoing… well, you’ll be the first to know.

Firemint is based in Richmond, Victoria. The studio is responsible for the iPhone classic Flight Control, the Real Racing series, which set the benchmark for iOS visuals (and continues to do so) and most recently SPY mouse, an action/adventure title that hit the App Store #1 paid position in over 20 countries within days of its release in late August of this year.

Not long ago, it was ranked in the top 50 of the world’s best developers.

Yes, my job at Firemint was in media relations and PR, and that mentality still lingers. My overly verbose description of my previous digs very much alludes to this (could you tell?).

Firemint was acquired by EA back in March, though it’s my understanding that it only became official in May. While I can’t really speak more about this deal, I can say I’ve come away with nothing but positives as a former EA employee.

Anyway, that’s a story for another time.

Last week marked the first seven or so days of my transition from full-time office guy to sitting around in pajamas coding guy. Minus two of those days working as Weekend Editor on these fine sites, and how much work did I get done on my fledging and incredibly-niche PC game?

Zero per cent.

You Lazy Bastard

Cheers for the vote of confidence. While productivity on my game was equal to the nutritional value of a custard tart, I actually did get a lot done.

But first, some background.

(Cue hazy framing and blown-out contrast)

I’m currently working on Zafehouse 2, a title I’ve been pouring time into on and off over the last two-and-a-half years. It’s the spiritual successor to Zafehouse, a game I coded in seven days for this very site. It was reviewed by Rock, Paper, Shotgun, and they thought it was swell. Quite a few people have played it, too.

If you go by side-scrolling Minecraft-a-like Terraria‘s breakneck development time of five months, I could have made two, even three games in that time.

Except I spent most of that period in full-time employment, first as a game designer at Tantalus Media and then at Firemint, the details of which I’ve already unloaded on you.

The problem with working in the games industry is that while you’re working on games (awesome!), most developer employment contracts stipulate that you can only work on games for that company. Anything you do outside of work hours, even on your own hardware, instantly becomes their property.

Harsh, right? Kind of, but from a business perspective it makes sense because:

  1. Why aren’t you putting the same passion into your real work?
  2. You’re using the skills and experience we’ve given you to work on your own stuff, not ours
  3. If you’re doing this stuff on your own time, there’s a good chance it’ll impact negatively on what you’re doing at work (because you’re burning the candle at both ends, say)

So these clauses are more to discourage you from doing you’re own thing while you work for a game developer, as it’s unlikely they’ll have any interest in the IP you’ve made — unless you’re Jonathan Blow. The legality and fairness of these clauses is up for debate, but I can understand why they’re there. If you’re in this situation you have three options:

  1. Come clean to your employer, and try and get your off-time work excluded from your contract
  2. Work on your own stuff clandestinely and hope no one finds out
  3. Stop working on your own stuff and cry a bit

I, sadly, went with option 3, after option 1 failed. But, again, that’s a story for another time.

Hey, You Still Haven’t Told Us What You Did For Five Days

That’s very true. I did lots of things, though none of them was making a game. Here’s a simple breakdown of my activities:

  • Set up a home server to handle all my game development work
  • See above

Yes, that took five days. It’s still a work in progress.

As an indie developer, it’s critical to take all aspects of game making seriously. This isn’t just the meat of coding a game (and creating assets and testing and… ugh, lots of little things), it’s being sure your backup strategy is sound.

It’s configuring a bug and issue tracker so you know what needs fixing and having the ability to prioritise.

It’s having a collaboration site for ideas and thoughts that you can search and break down at a moment’s notice.

It’s scripting until your hands bleed so that builds are automated in a nice, friendly way for the rest of your team (one other person, at this stage).

It’s hacking WordPress templates and plugins because they don’t quite do what you need them to do.

It’s handling all the tiny things that can go wrong with a home server, from Apache configuration issues to managing SSL certificates so all your data is encrypted as it flies across the interwebs.

So, yes, indie games development is more than just about making games. It’s about making them right.

I could have gone the gung-ho route and just started coding. I could have thrown caution into the lawnmower and neglected to tell the neighbour where there family pet had really gone. Bizarre non-sequiturs aside, I decided to go thought the motions, to treat the endeavour seriously, for one, significant reason.

It is my livelihood.

So… When Can We Play It? This Zafehouse Thing?

Well, you can play the first one right now.

Oh, you mean the second one? Not for a while. Maybe six months, at the earliest. A year, if I’m to be realistic. And I am.

I won’t be giving you guys blow-by-blow details of my experiences going indie, but I will give you the odd update when there’s something interesting to say.

For now, wish me luck. I’m off to give the server a kick in the heatsink.

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