16 July, 2016
When I ran my own game company, I’ll admit that I threw much of myself into the work. I spent nearly every waking hour for the first several years working on the business. If it wasn’t adding features to Meridian 59, it was filing tax paperwork, or mentoring one of my employees.
But, the important thing here is that I chose to work long hours. I owned about half the company, and if the company had seen great success I stood to profit from it. Plus, I truly enjoyed the work; it didn’t feel like a burden to bear, it was something I was happy to do.
But, what if I didn’t want to live my life entirely for work? What if I wanted to stop and smell the roses? Is there a reason why I couldn’t do so?
The overworked indie
I was talking with my good friend Dave Toulouse the other day. He’s a successful indie game developer who saw success overnight (read: after about a decade of working on different games), and he marveled at the attitude some other indie developers have. “I only have time to make games!” some lament. “It takes all my time to do development, business, and marketing!”
Both Dave and I were kind of perplexed by this attitude. If you don’t want to spend all your time doing this, then… don’t. Especially for some of the more successful indies who don’t have to worry about how to pay for rent, it’s entirely possible to take a break and not have everything fall apart.
So, even as an indie, it’s important to understand that there needs to be a balance between life and work.
The “crunch” mindset
Part of the problem stems from the the “crunch mindset” that pervades the traditional computer game development companies. Some company owners think it’s a privilege to be able to spend 80 hours or more per week making games. Making games, man!
Some developers who leave the traditional game industry to do indie development bring this mentality with them. They’re already used to working long hours to make games, and now they can rationalize that their work now profits them directly. So, why not?
And, this is fine in the short term. But, eventually you might want to do something besides stare at a computer screen. Perhaps even build relationships with people who aren’t also working on the same game.
Defined by work
U.S. culture tends to define people by their jobs. “What do you do?” is a common question that is rarely taken literally; such a question is often translated into “What career do you have, or where do you work?” Jobs define a lot of people, so asking what someone does is a quick way to get insight into what they do.
So, it’s hardly surprising that people throw themselves into their indie work, even if they don’t have the “crunch mindset” from working at large publishers or traditional computer game development companies. Being an indie game developer is not something you really do by half-measure. For most people, you’re either in it 100% or not at all.
And, to be fair, a new company does require a lot of work. Especially at the beginning, you have a lot of different things to juggle as you try to get the business off the ground. You can feel the specter of failure hovering just over your shoulder, waiting for you to run out of money before you get your game done and get income. This can be very motivating!
But, the you start looking at startup culture, and you see that you’re encouraged to throw yourself into it. Entrepreneurship is another thing rarely done as a half-measure. You either strive continuously to make your company a success or you run the risk of losing it all because you didn’t do enough to make the company succeed. Frankly, this can be a pretty toxic attitude that encourages long hours instead of thinking about how to make the most out of your time.
Marketed as the underdog
I think another big reason we see people throw themselves recklessly into indie game development is that it makes great marketing. A scrappy underdog fighting against the system who risks it all and becomes an “overnight” success is a story that has timeless appeal. We’ve seen this story play out again and again, with the indie game side of things being a relatively recent variation on the theme. In particular, Indie Game: the Movie glorified this theme.
This type of marketing tends to encourage people to take outsized risks. Even in Indie Game: the Movie, some of the developers went into extended crunch tT meet a looming deadline. Or you can look at the case of Brigador, a game that took over 5 years with seemingly little development plan and little effective marketing. This struggle became the centerpiece of their Imgur story, talking about how much time and effort went into the game and affected the health and well-being of the developers.
And this also tends to skew perceptions of how indie game development works. We saw Team Meat pour themselves into their game Super Meat Boy and come away millionaires. But, what about people who do the same and don’t walk away famous and financially secure? The person who pours their entire life into the development of a game can feel disappointed by the lack of success, when it seems like “make game, become millionaire” was the inevitable result of indie game development according to the stories and marketing.
A life outside of indie work is still not a sin
As I said, I spent a lot of time working when I ran Near Death Studios and worked on Meridian 59. To me, running my own company was an adventure. And while I wish it had seen more success, I don’t regret my time working at NDS.
But, here’s the part that doesn’t get so much attention: I still took time for myself. I had friends who kept me sane and took me out to dinner when times were lean. I had a supportive significant other who was behind my decision to start my own company. I went to conferences and conventions to talk to people and maintain contacts even if I didn’t always secure more business. I tried to balance out my work with stuff to keep me, personally, sane.
I’m sure sure some smartass will come along and snark that if I had just poured all my time into the company it could have been bigger. But, that person is full of shit and certainly doesn’t know the whole situation. And, plus, I don’t know what state I’d be in if I had just focused entirely on the company and not spared any thought for myself.
So, the lesson here is simple: you can still make games and have a life as well. The marketing story about people who throw themselves into their indie game and walk away millionaires is just a story, not a guarantee. At the end of the day, it’s up to you to make the choices that are best for you.