Australia is a beautiful place, but it’s expensive to live and not historically the most supportive country for video game development. But what if it’s your home? What if you want to finish your game — and you’ve just quit your job? Some devs might move in with their family, relatives or partner for a couple of years. Others would change careers entirely. Ben Johnson, developer of Geneshift, did something else: he moved overseas.
This story originally appeared in May 2017. Geneshift has been significantly updated since that time, with a complete graphical overhaul, expansion of its map and sandbox mechanics, new single and multiplayer features, bots, and more. A free demo for the game is available through Steam.
Chatting to Kotaku, the Sydney-born game dev explained that Geneshift originally started as a way to show of all of the skills he’d learned from his design computing degree. “I thought a game would be a fun thing to make that covers all the bases,” he explained.
Like a lot of other first-time devs, he thought Geneshift would be done fairly quickly. But it took a year before he could produce a demo, which was initially called Subvein. “I got a few players from a Rock Paper Shotgun article and they’ve just, well, some of them have stuck with the game ever since … they’d say ‘this thing here is broken, we need this feature’, so I could never really pull myself away from the game.”
That was in 2009. Johnson kept chipping away, fixing bugs, adding assets and tweaking features in his spare time. Five years later, Johnson decided he wanted to travel the world instead of working around the clock.
“I had saved up some money to do some travelling anyway, and I wanted to finish the game,” he explained. “So I quit my job, went travelling and then about a month after I went travelling the game got greenlit [on Steam].”
“I did the math with how long I thought it would take to finish the game, and how much money I had left, and if I went to a cheap place, such as Peru where is where I ended up. I had about $20,000 in savings at that time, which was enough to last me about a year in Peru, a bit over a year. But of course it took a lot longer than expected, so I went onto the credit cards as well. But the decision was basically if I get somewhere cheap, I’ll be somewhere exotic, I can learn Spanish – which I failed to do – and just try to finish off the game properly once and for all.”
So after six years of part-time development, Johnson left Australia and began coding around the world. Travelling with some friends for the first few months, he started out in cheap hostels. But spending his days coding in the common areas quickly became demoralising.
“I would sort of stay in a hostel – if it was a cheap country like Thailand I would try and code for a bit there, but I found that really distracting,” he recalled. “You don’t have your own room, and I felt very anti-social. You’re sitting on your laptop eight hours a day in the common area, and everyone else is having fun around you.”
So after the first six months, Johnson relocated to Peru. Soured by the hostels, he found a place on Airbnb that would let him stay for a month. The rent: $9 a night. That’s an absolute pittance compared to rent anywhere in Sydney, where Johnson had lived, even compared to Australian hostels.
And as it turns out, Peru is a lot more relaxed when it comes to long-term tenants. “I just said to the guy, ‘I’d like to stay for a month and extend if I can,’ and he was like, ‘Yeah sure man.’ You know in Australia how you have to go through the retailer and commit to a six month contract and that stuff, but in Peru it was really, really flexible. So I just sort of stayed on and kept on extending it a month at a time, I just did that for 18 months.”
It seems insane until you crunch the numbers on everyday living costs. Australia’s metropolitan cities are astronomically expensive relatively speaking, especially when compared to less developed countries. For example, a meal at an inexpensive restaurant in Peru can range from 7 S/. to 13 S/. (S/. being sol, the currency of Peru), which works out to be around $5.34 Australian at the top end. Local beer can be picked up for around 6 S/. ($2.46).
Neither site should be taken as as gospel when it comes to the exact cost for either city. And while those working full-time might not notice or be bothered by the expenses of daily life, it makes a massive difference when you’ve just quit your job to finish developing your game full-time.
But as Johnson discovered, moving to another country comes with consequences of its own. While he was able to dive into development as much as he liked – seven days a week, more or less – it also came with a sense of isolation. “I was travelling with my friends for the first few months and it was kind of fun and exciting. But once I settled into Peru I was really, you have no friends, no family … you really do feel lonely or isolated.”
On top of that, he also made a mistake that pretty much every studio in history has made at some point: he underestimated how much time it would take to finish Geneshift. Johnson saved around $20,000 before heading overseas, which he calculated would be enough to sustain himself in Peru for just over a year. But the game took longer than a year to complete, and he ended up staying there for almost two years, which saw him burn through all his savings and rack up another $20,000 in credit card expenses.
And that’s not factoring in some of the creature comforts that you forget Australia has, like reliable electricity. “The electricity would cut out once a week, so when those days happened sometimes it was OK; if I was making music I didn’t need any internet,” Johnson explained.
“But other days … it was quite stressful, not only because I was going through the money on the credit card and couldn’t do anything, but I had no-one else to hang out with. And also whenever the internet cut out I’d freak out a bit. At the time the plan was to launch [Geneshift] in Peru, and I thought, ‘If the internet happens to cut out on the very day that I launch on Steam, I’m totally screwed.'”
And for those who might be thinking of going on a whirlwind gamedev adventure of their own, there’s something else to consider: visas. Australians in Peru can stay for six months the first time they enter the country, with visas lasting three months every subsequent visit. For Johnson, that meant doing border hops every three months – which meant every now and again, he was faced with the prospect that he might not be allowed back into the country.
“I’d have to constantly do border hops down to Chile every three months, and I used to really dread those because there was a chance that I wouldn’t be let back [into the country],” the Geneshift developer said. “And I didn’t want to carry my stuff, so I sort of just left all my clothing and stuff at my house in Peru, hopped on a bus, went down to Chile, crossed the border, came back straight away. I got through every time, but it was pretty stressful, especially [not] speaking Spanish and stuff.”
Fortunately, Johnson wasn’t disconnected from everything. While he didn’t come into contact with other budding developers in Peru, he got a lot of support from tutorials on YouTube and the main game developer subreddit, r/gamedev.
And you can’t really put a price on the overall experience, even though it comes with many real-world costs. For one, Johnson says he gained a much greater appreciation for friends and family, which is understandable when you’re apart for so long. And he gained a greater love for Australia as well. “It’s good to be Australian: I saw people in Peru struggling all the time, and I was struggling a bit with a credit card, but for the most part it was pretty good. And I knew if I really needed to, I could hop on a plane and have the security of Australia, whereas a lot of [local] guys were getting by day to day and they had nothing they could fall back on.”
It’s also a journey that Johnson probably couldn’t have taken in later life. He told me that he didn’t have a mortgage, children, or other responsibilities that would have tied him to Australia. Any of the aforementioned would have put a kibosh on the entire affair. And even if Johnson had stayed in Australia and tried to continue working on Geneshift, the cost of living would have forced him out of full-time development much sooner.
It’s been an incredibly long road for Geneshift, although Johnson doesn’t want to stop working on the game. How long that continues will depend on the game’s reception, a gamble every indie developer has to face. As Johnson put it to me, making indie games isn’t a particularly great way to make money – but it’s a great way to get a new perspective on life.
Geneshift is available now on Steam for $21.50.