Dev Blog: How to Stop Worrying and Just Make Stuff

It's been a while since my last post, and in that time I've been through a good number of ups and downs. Job hunting is a slow and difficult process, but that knowledge doesn't prevent it from being an exhausting daily routine. On top of that, I've been wrestling with an onerous mental roadblock that was preventing me from allowing myself to take some risks and use my time in the best way possible. The question I've been struggling to answer: Is it okay for me to start thinking of myself as an independent game developer?

It seems like a fair question. I've never sold a game or helped make one that went to market, so how do I know that I can succeed in a game-development career? And what will my friends think — the career-track ones, the successful ones, the ones with houses and families? Will my parents take me seriously, or will they think "did our son really abandon a perfectly good job at Facebook — Facebook! — to be a bum and indulge in his childhood fantasies?"

It's hard enough to start developing a new skill set, but it's incredibly hard to give yourself permission to take a big risk to do something you believe in.

That's where this post comes in. It's the culmination of a tough couple of weeks where I've been asking lots of questions, worrying about lots of little things and eventually coming to some conclusions that I can work with. I'm hopeful what I've got to share here will speak to anyone else who's struggling not just with external pressure (imagined or otherwise) but with their own fears about making the right choice and having what it takes to follow through on it. Going down any path of independence is inherently risky — there's little in the way of precedents and safety nets — but it comes from a place of real significance and value.

So if you want to follow some wild notion but you're struggling with taking the plunge, read on.

* * * * * *

Today marks the end of a long month spent in housing limbo here in Seattle. Thanks to the generosity of family I've been able to have a place to stay for the last few weeks, but living out of a suitcase for a month still finds a way to wear you down. Fortunately, we move in to our new home tomorrow, and I've already got some pretty grand designs on what my new workspace will look like.

Currently, the biggest downside of being a houseguest is I don't have a place to set up my desktop computer. I'm eager to hit the ground running with my latest GameMaker game (something Spencer and I've been spending some quality time brainstorming recently) but unfortunately, GameMaker: Studio — the latest version, and the one I own — isn't available for OS X. Bummer.

Fortunately, I've found ways to keep myself occupied. Most recently, I finally figured out how to correctly code a little project I'd been kicking around: the Fez Translator. You'll probably remember just how enamored I was with Fez last year. My memories of the game have begun to fade, but I still remember the thrill of deciphering the game's numerals and alphabet. (If you haven't played Fez, you probably shouldn't click that link.) This is a broken-as-hell, barebones alpha release of a little project I'd started to see if I could teach myself a whole lot of JavaScript that I'd forgotten over the years, and fortunately, it seems to work.

After wrapping up the basics on the translator project, I realized JavaScript was actually a pretty good fit for the style of game I'm making. Actually, it might be even easier: I can build a working model, distribute it freely for feedback by handing out a URL, debug it easily with my browser's developer console and then, if I'm satisfied, build it into a more robust game in something like GameMaker. Looks like I'll be okay without Windows for a while longer!

Progress in skill development aside, I've also spent a lot of time nailing down some important documents for me to track my progress against. Given the uncertainty of the job market right now as we're heading into the holidays, I'm trying to be cognizant of two uncomfortable truths:

  1. Hiring slows down at most companies in November and December
  2. Fewer job postings = fewer potential opportunities = less time I can productively spend job hunting

In short, the amount of time after which I'll receive diminishing returns from applying to jobs is shrinking to even just a couple hours per day. So what to do with that time instead?

I tried panicking. Panicking's no fun, though, and it only gets worse over time.

Then I tried feeling down on myself. That's also a bad idea with an abundance of free time, and it drives anyone you live with absolutely crazy. Sometimes it just takes time to stop feeling like you're not good enough, and sometimes it just takes a good night of sleep. But trying new things and talking about the things you care about helps even more.

So now we've arrived at the present day and my current strategy:

Get organized. Make stuff. Learn everything. And put a game up for sale within a few months.

Presenting...

Nick's Rad Advice

for ~

Aspiring

yet pretty damn well terrified

Indie Game Developers

  • Feeling worn down by fruitless days spent applying to jobs? Guess what: You already have a job. Your job is to make things. You can do that right now.
  • What kinds of things? GamesSpritesMechanics. Scripts. MusicLevels. Tutorials. Programming exercisesPathetic cries for help on stackoverflow. Hell, it's even a good use of time to cobble together the odd blog post every now and then to help others in your situation.
  • You need a plan. Make a plan. It shouldn't be permanent or set in stone, but it needs to have a clear end goal with steps for how you'll get there and milestones to check your progress. In my case, I've made a plan to ship a game for sale by March 1st. That's how I'll be spending my free time when I'm not job-hunting. I've never sold a game and I don't know how I'll make something that's worth selling by then, but I have plenty of time to figure it out. And besides, not knowing how to make games is where everyone starts out, because...
  • The only way to learn how to make games is to make them. Anyone can make a game. Find a stick outside and throw it over a fence. Congratulations: you win. Did you miss it? (Maybe your throwing arm just isn't what it used to be.) Well, sorry — you lose. And like that, you just created a game. When you look at development in those terms — starting small, staying simple, asking questions — everything follows naturally.
  • Is there a specific kind of game you want to make? Learn how it was made. If you love Skyrim, good news — Bethesda basically has a comprehensive toolkit that'll enable you to make your own Skyrim within Skyrim, Xzibit-style. And it's free!
  • Actually, so much of this stuff is free: toolkits, music composers, sound and sprite libraries, physics engines, entire development tools. All you have to spend out of pocket is your own time.
  • Running out of ideas? Losing confidence? Talk to other people. There are tons of aspiring and established indie game developers out there who recognize your struggles and have plenty of valuable input and experiences to share. Join a forum, start a blog or hop in a Google Hangout. Honestly, you can even just talk to me — I'm always happy to help.
  • When all else fails, go for a walk. Get some coffee, enjoy the weather, get some exercise. A short reprieve can work wonders.

What I've reached the point where I realized I needed to level with myself. I'm optimistic I'll find the right job sooner or later, but the majority of my time should be spent making things. I've always dreamed of going independent; now's the time to do it. It could end at a moment's notice, and frankly that would be wonderful (it's amazing how comforting a steady paycheck can be) but right now — like, this moment — is the best time in my life to head out on my own and make things I'm proud of.

So there you go: Nick Cummings, Independent Game Developer. Who saw that coming?