Many thanks to Armaan Sandhu for sharing his inspiring experiences on taking the leap from the safety of full time work, to the uncertainties, hardships, but ultimate moments of euphoria and fulfilment that can come from following your dream.
Before I begin, I should point out that I live in a country with a very low cost of living, and I’m pretty young, so a lot of the things I’ve done make sense for me, but might be “bad advice” for people in other situations (don’t do something of this sort without carefully planning for it, and preparing for all the ways it can go wrong).
That said, a lot of other things should apply to most people making a game! Also, I haven’t made the next big RPG single – handedly. It’s a side scrolling 2D (story driven) adventure game, and the link to it can be found at the bottom of this post! Anyway, here’s what I’ve experienced and learned during the past 1 year.
I’d always wanted to make video games, but since the game industry was completely non-existent in my country at the time, I decided to do something else. I chose Architecture, and within a year I knew I didn’t like it. During Architecture, I fell in love with film making. I made a lot of short films and music videos during those 5 years, and intended to enter the film industry after graduation. Which I did, and worked on a TV show for a few months, and I realized I hated the process of making films. But that taught me a lot about myself – I realized I was happiest when working indoors, on a desk, preferably in front of a screen, and with (preferably) a small team. Making films was none of that, which is why it didn’t work for me. I still wanted to tell stories, and emotionally move people, but I wasn’t sure anymore which medium would work for me.
So, I decided to work a regular 9-5 job in a small architecture firm so that I could take some pressure off myself and figure things out. Again, I learned a lot. This was intended to be a temporary job, so that my next risky move could be a lot more well planned out than my failed film adventure. I realized what I needed was financial freedom, so that I could spend most of my time creating something using my medium of choice. I was now beginning to get into the entrepreneurial mindset, and was thinking of a product/ industry to start with.
Another friend in a different location was unsatisfied with the 9-5 life as well, and we decided to team up (around October 2016). He suggested we make a game (he’d be the programmer, I’d do the art and story) but I thought that was too risky if our aim was financial freedom. From all I’d heard, video games are a bad idea if you want to earn money and be stable. But then I suddenly realized that I didn’t have skills in any other business – I couldn’t start selling mattresses or offer some service – I know nothing about those and it would take me years to learn anything.
Video games were actually the best bet for me as, without realizing it, I had learned a lot about design, analysed them for fun, and knew a lot of what was going on in the industry. Making an indie game had also become far more accessible than it was in 2010 when I’d given up on my dream. Also, my experience with films, music and other art forms, along with my need for creative self-expression meant this was the perfect line for me to get into. It also allowed me to fulfil the need for which I wanted to make films: Move people emotionally and hopefully change their lives.
We got started, but my friend wasn’t super committed (also, we were in different locations and he was giving exams for higher studies). For me, it was everything. I needed to do this so I could switch from a job I didn’t care about, to doing art full time. We stopped communicating, and after a month of no contact (December 2016) I took it as permission to go solo.
Have an EXTREMELY dedicated and reliable team, or work alone
It is far better to work alone than to have team members you can’t rely on. If they’re only half into it as you, and if they’ve got other things going on for them, chances are they won’t work as hard as you might need to on an indie game, especially for very little short-term rewards. This is obviously a bigger problem in tiny teams which consist mainly of friends teaming up to make something in their spare time. It’s deadweight that can drag you backwards – get rid of it and you’ll be much more efficient. (He did pass those exams though, and got into a good university. He’s also helping me spread the word about the game, so all’s good between us! 😉 )
There’s always a way
After this, came the biggest game changer, that allowed me to make a game by myself without any programming knowledge. I switched engines, went from Game Maker to Unity, and got myself a shiny new asset that allowed me to do this: Adventure Creator.
I won’t blame you for being skeptical about an asset that allows you to “bypass” programming, but it’s worked for me. I do plan to learn programming later (for my next games), but for this game, Adventure Creator is perfect.
We see a lot of people that want to make a game but don’t have a team to work with, and many artists that need programmers. Common wisdom suggests an artist can’t make a game by themselves, but if you dig deep, there are solutions! There’s always a way, and if you really want to make a game, you’ll make that damn game.
Preparing to quit the job
From January 2017 to May 2017, I worked on the game in the evenings and during the weekends. The plan was to quit my job after I’d completed one year. I built up my savings and continued my small side business – selling t shirts online on Redbubble. I mostly spent that time learning the software and writing the story, and designing the game. This was a difficult time – I was extremely tired after my job, and I also had a lot of chores to do around the house with my flatmate (cooking, cleaning, buying groceries etc). I had also gone through a breakup during November 2016 (around the time this game was being thought about with my friend) and that affected me for many of the months that followed.
I remember one evening in March 2017, I suddenly couldn’t do anything, and just dropped myself on the sofa. I told my flatmate that I had no energy to even eat dinner, and I didn’t want to move. I did absolutely nothing that night, and I fell asleep hours before my usual time, without eating dinner.
Progress after that day was quite slow, I guess I had burnt myself out. The general malaise continued for months after that, and my productivity, motivation and desire to make art fell to an all-time low.
I was still excited about quitting my job and working from home though, so that kept me happy. I kept making tiny amounts of progress on the game, while also trying to fix whatever I was internally going through. For the next few months, I dived into the trenches of my psyche and identified a lot of issues with myself, and faced a lot of my flaws and fears. I read a bunch of good books, found people like Jordan Peterson and Alan Watts, and came out of that period a hundred times stronger and wiser. I also read a lot of postmortems, and that inspired me a lot.
On 31st May 2017, I quit my job
Woohoo! It was gonna be tough figuring out how to work by myself, but it was gonna be good. Then came June, and… I lost all my data in a hard disk crash. I lost everything I’d worked on in the engine, but worse, also the complete story and script. Cue another phase of depression. I came out of this one quickly though, and accepted I had to rebuild everything, and make it even better this time. Lesson learned: Back up your data!!
From August to December 2017
I got into flow, figured out my way of doing work, and got a lot of good work done. It’s been 50% heaven, 45% forcing myself to get back to work, and 5% lying on the bed staring at the ceiling and wondering if I’m doing the right thing (the figures are possibly a little optimistically skewed, but oh well).
Here’s the core of what I learned during this period of working as a full time solo dev
Understand your strengths, and make something around that
This may be obvious, but it’s worth stating. If you’re an artist, make a game with good art as its highlight. If you’re a good writer, make a story driven game. You get the idea.
Understand yourself, and why you want to make a game
Game development can get hard, especially if you’re working alone and earning nothing while the rest of your friends are. You might feel like you’re falling behind, and these thoughts are a feast for your fears. (Also, don’t compare your life to anyone else’s. Just… don’t do it).
It comes down to understanding yourself – Do you want to make games because you enjoy playing games? Or do you want to make games because you’re a creative person that loves spending hours working hard on projects anyway, and you love video games as well? Video games are a medium for creativity, and all creative work can feel laborious, frustrating and demotivating at times. And yet it’s more frustrating for any artist to not do that creative work. Understand yourself and figure out what you’re into, and making games can be great.
Don’t always make programmer art, if possible
This is something specific that I learned while working on my game, and might not apply to all games. My characters were represented by white circular sprites in the beginning and levels were quickly drawn lines and boxes. The more and more I worked on my game while it looked like that, the more worried I felt about it. I then made some good art for characters, implemented some color theory, and added in animations. And just working on it everyday while it looked like that was a great confidence booster, which is really important when developing a game!
Your social life will probably suffer
I guess this is true for anyone that works a lot of hours by themselves. It can get lonely, although it’s turned out to be less of a problem for me than I’d expected. I’ve tried to keep this in check by meeting my friends once a week, and it seems to work for the most part. If possible, I’d definitely like to work with a great team next time, to beat the loneliness problem.
Passive income is a life saver
Especially if you plan to quit your job! I think it’s much safer, financially and sanity – wise, to have some source of income coming in every month, as opposed to living off your savings. Not only does it make sure you’re not gonna burn through all your savings, but it also keeps you feeling good about yourself. The “I don’t even have a job omg what am I doing with my life, is this the right thing to do?” attacks will happen much, much less frequently. Selling designs on Redbubble was my source of income.
Marketing is hard
They weren’t lying, it’s hard to get word out about your game. I’m still trying to figure this one out. Wish me luck.
A lot of fears holding you back never actually come to be
I was worried about the upcoming discussions around what I do for a living, when meeting new people or old friends. Surprisingly, most people have been supportive my decision (even family and elderly people).
The way you work might be unusual
In the beginning, I followed a lot of good practices – made a daily time table, gave myself specific work hours, started work early in the morning, weekends off, mailed myself each day’s progress etc. Eventually, I realized none of that was working for me.
Now I get up and I don’t start work until about 10:30 in the morning. Keeping it simple, I write down/ refer to my agenda for the day and just start working. I stop for meals, gym and for when I feel like taking a break. I realized my best work happens between 9-12 PM, so I don’t force myself to stop at night. So, the way you work might be different from what’s usually suggested. Try to listen to what your body and mind is telling you in terms of this, and try to follow that instead.
There will be some very, VERY good days
I’ve had many days during development that can basically be described as heaven. Those days are full of energy, meaning and fulfillment. This is the reason why many of us decide to do this, to make a game. You’re in complete “Flow”, and all you can feel is euphoria. I caught myself smiling for no reason on some of those days. This state happens more often when the challenge of the task you’re doing and your ability to handle the task are at a perfect balance. Check out Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book “Flow” to read more about this phenomenon (It’s an excellent, life-changing book btw).
There will be many shitty, meaningless days
And that’s OK. Both heaven and hell are allowed to exist in your life, it would be naive to expect it to be good all of the time! Ride the rough times, and acknowledge them. Some days, about once a week or two, I just don’t have the energy or enthusiasm to work on my game. I start the day off trying to work, but realize it’s just not happening. I then spend some time on the bed, do other things/ do nothing and begin to feel even worse about it. It’s all a part of the process though, but it’s useful to know why it happens.
Most procrastination days happen due to a lack of a clear agenda
I noticed that most days that I lacked motivation happened because I hadn’t planned out what exactly I was supposed to do or work on that day. It would be a very vague task, which I’d mess about with, and then get demotivated because nothing was happening.
Getting back to work
Two things get me out of this feeling – one is, watching video game related videos – either commentaries/ analysis on why someone thinks a game is great, or how it changed the industry etc, or even “making of” features of games. This gets me quite motivated to work on my game. Another thing that is probably the purest solution to all this is – get back to work.
If I can just figure out what I should work on, and force myself through the painful first minutes, I’m able to catch momentum. Then I often realize that the only thing stopping me from working was me, and the assumption that “I can’t work today”.
Of course, if you continue to feel terrible despite that, it might be because you really do need a break. This is rare, but if it happens, I take it easy for the rest of the day and don’t work if I don’t feel like it. This usually goes away in a day or so.
Also, here’s a great video that I go to when I get thoughts of giving up: Go all the way – Charles Bukowski.
Catch the balance between procrastination and burnout
Working too much causes burnout, working too little causes depression. Burnout also resulted in me not being able to work, therefore working too little, and getting depressed about it. Add to that the previously mentioned things about no social life, no relationship, no job and an unreliable income, there was plenty of stuff for depression to latch on to and keep me there.
So be aware of this, and keep a balance. Try to have other things in your life, but don’t slack off too much – because productivity usually relies heavily on momentum.
The most important thing – Take small daily steps over long periods of time>
This is what has allowed me to get a lot of work done. Just keep working, and try to make tiny amounts of progress if you don’t feel like working. It all adds up over time. This might be more relevant to solo devs facing a mountain of work in front of them, and this is definitely what allowed me to get things done. Small daily steps over long periods of time.
Is it worth it?
Only you can answer that for yourself. I’m not sure how all this sounds, but someone might ask “Why put yourself through all this? What makes it worth it?” For me, it feels so much more meaningful and fulfilling than the alternative. I find it really hard to work just for the money, to earn and survive, if I don’t believe in my work. I realize I’m fortunate to be young, supported by my parents and not be weighed down by any loans or debts – and if a situation is holding someone back, I respect that.
But I know which one I’d choose when purely comparing the struggle of following a dream (and the sacrifices that come with it – being poor for years, losing social standing, fear of failure) vs going for the safer, more stable option of a job I don’t like. Both come with pain and difficult times, but one of them comes with moments of euphoria and fulfilment.
I worked a job where I earned money and was doing something similar to my friends, but that life had no goal, no meaning. It was always on to the next day, rinse and repeat. If you’re able to keep a day job that you enjoy, and make a game during your spare time, then that’s perfect, and maybe I envy you ;). But that didn’t happen for me. So figure out your situation, be logical and practical as and when required, but just don’t follow the path that gets created between all the things you fear and want to avoid.
Another interesting thing I noticed – If you actually do like the process of your work, the sacrifices and the hardships don’t really hurt. People (including me, before I started) get scared when they hear about how difficult and frustrating making a game can be, but the thing is, even when you go through all these situations which are technically difficult, it doesn’t feel bad. The hard times feel like they’re worth it.
So, in a way it’s an empowering struggle over a draining and depressing sense of safety and comfort and wondering “is this all there is to life?” It’s one life, and yeah that’s a very cliched thing to say but it’s so true. You’re gonna die someday, and then none of it will matter, so you might as well go out there and do what you want. Heck, thinking about your death might make you realize that gamedev isn’t what you want to do either! The important thing is to think about all this and get rid of fear, if that’s what’s holding you back.
If you read all of this, thank you! I tried making this as short as possible (but didn’t really succeed).
Here’s the Rainswept trailer…
I’d love to hear your feedback on it!
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