My First Week As An Indie Game Developer

My First Week As An Indie Game Developer
Image: Screwfly Studios

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.


  • well we can be your support to make sure you power though the project and have motivation to complete it.

    Myself am only into 4 days into my indie project i hope to complete in 5 months, only written 2 pages of design doc and still deciding whether or not to use the unity engine for what is going to be a 2D game.

    • Unity is definitely an option for a 2D game.

      Keep in mind that if you get your head around the tech in one project, it’s easier to use it in another… which might end up being 3D.

      • exactly, also news out of Unite 2011 is that melbourne is ranked 5th in the world for unity use which is interesting.

    • Depending on how complex your game is you should have a look at cocos2d (if you haven’t already) for iOS game development. I’ve found it very easy to pick up (coming from a java background with no mobile or game development experience). It’s not cross platform so that might sway your decision but it is free.

    • I have 2 really good ideas for app/games and have written out heaps of discription and worked out a lot how the scoring and game play and options and good ideas how it should look,, thing is I have no idea how to do the develope side of it and was wondering if anyone on here is interested in assisting me ,, have a really good feeling about these games and remember something like angry birds sold over 200 mil at a dollar a piece , let’s get rich

  • “Why aren’t you putting the same passion into your real work?”

    It’s mentalities like these that make me hate the business world. It’s not something business should expect from their workers, but something that should be nurtured in their workers.

    • True that. Besides who are they to stop people from doing stuff they like IN THEIR FREE TIME? It’s not company time, the company’s not loosing money from it.

      Greedy gits I say.

  • ill test it once its ready for testing if you want =P

    maybe ask for help im sure a bunch of the guys on here would be willing.

  • Glad to hear you made the move, I hope things work out for you =].

    I did the same thing a bit over a month ago but I didn’t (still don’t) have any experience with mobile or game development (I was a backend java developer) so I’ve spent most of the time learning. I have to admit I’ve been a bit lazy but I’ve got most of that out of my system now so things will start picking up.

  • Oh cool. Regular(ish) updates please 🙂
    I’m looking into being an indie developer, probably developing games for Windows 8/Windows Phone 7. That is, if I can stop playing Trackmania for long enough XD

  • Nice read! I too like many many others these days am trying my hand at indie development, so it’s always great to hear about other peoples experiences. That said, I took the ‘gung-ho/ throw caution into the lawnmower’ approach myself, but at least I’ve nearly finished two games!

  • Just thought I’d say that for your server I’d recommend NGINX+Redmine+Mercurial for all your dev stuff. If your game take
    s off, Apache will die quite quickly under the load. It you install Phusion Passenger and run redmine on top of that, you shouldn’t have any issues with speed or functionality.

    I know it’s too late but I just thought I’d try to help ^.^
    If you’d like, I can set up most of what I described above in ~1 hour on a VPS or something.

    • Man, I tried Ruby and Redmine – it literally drove me mad. I just could not get it working. Probably because my server is a Windows box. I don’t have time to learn the ins and outs of Linux at this stage.

      I think Apache will work for my needs, but I appreciate the recommendation. If it’s any consolation, I am using Git for source control.

      EDIT: I should mention it’s just a private dev server. If I have need of something dedicated, it’ll definitely be with a host who can provide the bandwidth and uptime.

  • gee, Firemint sayz they’d own whatever you did outside of work? That’s actually not a ubiquitous clause. Yes, if you work on your project in work time, on work premises and on work equipment, but hey. yay firemint.

    • Pretty much *any* game developer you could work for would have a similar clause. It’s entirely up to you whether you ask for exclusions or not, so it’s best to speak up if you’re planning on working on something in your free time.

      • Especially if you are to work for Apple. When I was going through the interview phases (Shudder) they are sure to cripple your want of personal creativity and entrepreneurship.
        Don’t worry though – cooler heads prevailed and I continue my self-employment. Thumbs up.

  • Wow, I guess you must have stashed away enough of your pay from Firemint so you could afford to go it alone w/o any source of income for 6 months to a year, unless you’ve got some other side gig. Or do you have a spouse/parents to support you? The economics of trying to make it as an indie must be pretty tough with so much competition out there.

  • I’ve had experience with the same contractual problems. It’s pretty much contrary to IP law, and IP law exists in such a fashion that the work you do for the company actually belongs to them. Studios should be thanking IP law for being that flexible, not breaking it with the overruling contract law.

  • I’m not a game developer but I’d be livid if I was contractually prevented from owning stuff I’d worked on outside of my employer. It makes a little bit of sense from their end, but it could also foster resent, frustration and creative fatigue. I don’t know of anything similar that exists in other creative industries.

      • There is no doubt that it is healthy for people to code/write/draw/whatever out of hours. I think the main issue for the “establishment” is that most contracts with publishers have restrictions that we, or our staff, can’t make competitive products.
        The way we try handle it at Big Ant is that as long as you tell us what you are doing (in abstract, general terms) then we put that in a register to which we agree we don’t have any moral rights.

        Anyway, good luck with it all, I envy you and sure do miss the days of sitting around programming in my pj’s 🙂

  • Best of luck mate, I’ve always wanted to make a game of my own but my programming skills (and more importantly, post-work motivation) are lacking for the time being.

    Keep us updated on your progress and I hope you rock the sh*t out of your new game 😀

  • Hi, Ive recently started venturing down the path of indie game developer, but with family and mortgage commitments, I will have to keep my day job for now and just work on this project of mine after work hours. I dont think this IP clause will affect me considering the company i work for is into outsourcing IT professionals.

    Motivation is a very big factor in pushing me to actually sit down and start coding after a long day at work, but I am not sure how much longer my current motivations will last.

    Good luck in your ventures.

    • Thanks Johnny. I’ve been dodging such commitments, but I’m sure they’ll catch up with me. 🙂

      I wish you the best as well!

  • Currently one month into my indie game, which is just a simple Xbox Live Indie game. I regularly spend about an hour each evening on it. The gameplay and vast majority of other stuff is there, it just needs some finishing (and sound effects / music) and then probably a LOT of polishing.

    However, I would NEVER dream of quitting a permanent, full-time job that’s giving me a stable income for anything as risky as indie game developing. I wish you luck but, in that regard, I don’t know what possessed you.

  • Hey Logan!

    Like your blog – good luck with it all. We’ve just moved to Australia ourselves from UK and trying to get set up here making music for games. Anyways, I saw your post and thought about how we can help the world of indie game developers too.

    So….. we’ve created a free download site of loopable high quality mp3’s. Hope it can help you out in your new venture and also anyone else who might be looking for music for their games.

    just visit and click on the soundcloud link.

    Hope its of help 🙂


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