The Retrospect Chronicles – Month 6

It’s been a little over half a year since I decided to quit and start making games on my own. The ride’s been interesting, made a few mistakes and I’m halfway through completing one game, with another in the works. And it got me thinking… All this will remain a distant memory a few years down the line, and it does need to be documented. That way, I can look both on my d’oh moments, and those yay moments, and hold this faraway twinkle in my eye as I tell my story to whoever’s patiently lending an ear. Here lie the six months of my journey into an indie life.

The good…

  • Supportive peers: I don’t know if it’s because I’m in Bangalore, or if it’s the choice of being an indie game developer, but it’s quite heartening to listen to people cheer you on when you mention that you’re an entrepreneur trying to build a startup in games dev. It’s like a super-combo… you’re an entrepreneur… aah! That’s awesome! You make games?? WOOOAAAHHH!!! So yes, that’s one part of my intro that I enjoy putting forth. There’s a light tinge of embarassment as you know that there are no games out yet, there’s only prototypes. But you know that you’ll get there, so no harm done. You also have friends around you who almost ALWAYS ask you when you meet them – Hey man! How’s your startup coming along? Do you have a game that we can look at, is there anything we can help with?? That’s never failed to give me a morale boost.
  • Supportive game dev and startup network: If I wanted to wail about the games I’m working on, about how they’re whamming into dead ends… I have a brilliant bunch of fellow indies that I can talk to. They patiently play my game, while occasionally prodding me to play theirs… they invite me out for a cuppa, or in general (atleast one of them) yell at me for not bringing a game out yet. I’ve also been able to find a senior member from the casual games space, who’s kindly agreed to mentor me on matters pertaining to game design. There are quite a few things that he’s helped me improve, and made me think about. That’s been awesome as well! With regard to the Bangalore startup crowd, there’s tons of meetups that happen every now and then. So whether it’s listening to someone talking about what worked for them, or listening and helping each other with their problems… there’s something for everyone. It’s like a large group-therapy session. When one has all this, what more could one ask for?
  • ‘I answer to me’ syndrome: I can choose to work when I want, play when I want, loll around when I want… but apart from the first one, I don’t seem to do the others. Which honestly surprised me. I was quite certain that given the chance, I’d fool around doing nothing, and not worry about it. But if I do happen to waste an hour somewhere, I feel so guilty that I get back to work! Now this doesn’t mean that I work 16-20 hours a day, it just means that if I waste time… I feel terribly guilty, and I try to make up by catching up with some work. I never did that while I was working with a company before. Also, since I work from home, to get to work – all I need to do is drag up the chair to the computer five steps away from my bed. SHORTEST. COMMUTE. EVER!
  • Meeting kindred spirits: But the thing I like best is meeting people who’re like me, who’re either working on their own startups or sometimes, building startups in the game dev space. It’s very heartening to look around and see other people who’ve ditched the safe road to quit and make their own games. And we trade info about how we’re coming along, the tools that we use and what’s the games we’re trying to make. It’s always a very interesting form of ‘I’ve shown you mine, so now show me yours!’ There’s also this part of how I’ve come to work with collaborating partners – who’re all trying to build their own games-specific startups, and how we think working with each other will help us better our offerings and showcase our skills. Each time when I’ve come away from discussing with potential partners who’ve agreed to work with me, I have this insane high… where I feel that what I’m working on, and what I’m collaborating for, is worth it… because now, it’s not just me who’s working on it… there’s someone else who thinks it’s worth their time as well. It’s like an additional form of validation encouraging you, by signalling that you’re on the right track.

The bad..

  • Discouraging playtest sessions: Every once in a while, I’d proudly take the game out on my iPad, and try to get people to play the game. In all my time play-testing the two prototypes, I’ve never had problems finding people. I have randomly approached people at entrepreneur meets, game dev meets, coffee shops and sometimes bus-stops! And I introduce myself, mentioning that I need to have someone try the game out… and usually the other person has one of two responses – A bright-eyed look with a energetic ‘Yes! Sure!!’ or a nonchalant shrug  saying ‘Yeah! Why not?’. No one said no, not so far anyway. But they begin playing the game, and within a short while – they look up and they seem all confused, and they go ‘Am I doing this right?’. So far, that’s the only bad side I see to making new game types – People who play it don’t really get what they’re doing, since it’s a bare bones prototype. It’s not similar to any game they’ve played before, and the help screens are minimal at best. And so I wearily mention ‘Well, you could consider doing this instead…’ and then after describing what should be done over 5 minutes, they then start playing and they go ‘Aah… so that’s how it works’. I always make it a point to tell them “Guys, it’s not a mistake you guys are making… it’s just that I, as a designer, haven’t made it consumer-friendly enough.” It is the truth, after all! I cannot say how often the thought creeps up – Why don’t I just make a clone of a popular game, innovating on just one aspect of it? That way I get to build on my design skills as well. But, there’s that part of me that always goes – Maybe the next one. However, because of incorporating feedback for a prototype, when the next batch just ‘gets it’, it just takes you over the moon! :)
  • ‘I answer to me’ syndrome: Wait… wasn’t this just in the Good section? Well, yeaaah… but there’s a dark side to it too. You see, since I just have to step away from my bed and get onto my desk… I can also do it the other way around. So, there’s been umpteen times when you are just thinking of how you can make changes based on feedback, or what you plan to add next to the game – and you think, maybe a quick nap should help me feel less weary and my subconscious can do some work… and voila, you wake up four hours later. And your subconscious was sleeping too. That sucks. Sometimes, it’s just that you don’t feel motivated enough. There’s no one else working around you, no one to push you back up. And apparently that’s also a reason why people need co-founders. But that’s something I don’t feel ready about yet. Maybe later. For now, I have been considering visiting a co-working space in the neighbourhood, so hopefully that’ll make things better.
  • Watching your financial footprint: I always thought that if I saved up enough, I wouldn’t need to worry about the financial repercussions, and that I could just work without bothering about where money would come from. Surprisingly, I track every aspect of my spending now. I might have allocated myself a decent enough budget for the month from my savings, but that doesn’t stop me from asking – Do I really need to go out for a movie or dinner tonight? Is that extra coffee really necessary? And once a month, I take the time out to categorize my expenses… just so I can watch for any unforeseen peaks, or changing trends in the various categories of expenditure. It totally doesn’t help when you see your monthly savings balance going down, instead of up – as it used to, previous to my wondrous decision to be on my own.

The ugly…

  • Buying a Macbook Air: This is not Apple’s fault. This one’s entirely on me. When I quit, the first thing I was sure about was that I’d be developing games for iOS, and more specifically, for the iPad. If the game turned out be successful on that, I’d consider rolling it out on Android and Amazon. And if that worked as well, I’d think of other platforms. I remember thinking about whether I should buy a Mac mini + a laptop running Windows, or a Macbook Air. And I thought buying just the Macbook Air would be a brilliant decision. That way, I wouldn’t have to lug around a Mac Mini if I wanted to build for iOS if I went anywhere. Boy, was I wrong.Let me tell you why.If I was making games only for iOS, and knew Objective C/Cocos.. I’d be just fine. But I’m not that guy.
    I knew how to use GameMaker for prototyping and Adobe Flash for game dev. And I was quite certain that Adobe’s AIR offering would enable me to put out good games on iOS. What I didn’t consider was that these softwares are not supported on the Mac, or that the licenses aren’t cross-platform. The former meant that I couldn’t use GameMaker, because the latest and most capable version of GameMaker wasn’t available for the Mac. The latter meant that if I ever got tired of coding or designing on a laptop and wanted to hammer away on a keyboard with a wide-screen desktop PC, I couldn’t use the same Adobe license on my Mac. Adobe’s tools do not come with cross-platform licenses. Which meant if I wanted to use both devices, I’d need two separate licenses – one for the Mac, and one for the PC. And it’s not like Adobe licenses are cheap!
    (Luckily, in the first week of April – Adobe released their Creative Cloud offering in India, so I’ve been able to use that… which in turn has a cross-platform offering, unlike versions from before. So yay!)
  • Feelings of inadequacy: Because I’m now in my indie shoes, I realize there’s a lot I have to do which I could take for granted before. For e.g., previously if I wanted to develop a game at the earlier organization, I just had to put in a request for a graphic designer, a test personnel and inform marketing that we have another game in the oven. Now, I tend to find that even though I can find fellow game developers in the art and quality space, marketing is NOT that easy. There’s way too many things to remember and work on, if I’m to put my game out there. As it turns out, marketing is one of the biggest aspects of game development You have to reach out to relevant people in the press, consider various promotional activities, and ensure there are various elements available which you use to get more eyes on your game. And if you’re an engineer, like me, seeing this for the first time… you just suddenly wonder if that’s something you can do effectively. Can you really do it well enough, to ensure that all the work that you and your collaborators have put in is not botched just because it didn’t get out to enough people?
  • Unreleased titles: I remember solemnly telling myself – Joel, we’re going to put a game out there once every three months. We’re going to be all rapid-prototyping and Agile-developing and Lean-startup-ing, you get the drift. And here I am, 6 months down the line, standing with two prototypes in hand. And I remember thinking – two prototypes in hand is NOT worth one released title in the wild. And not a day goes by, when I wonder if I did the right thing by taking so long with play-testing initial versions of the prototype, instead of directly getting started with the product and testing THAT in phases instead. There are people around me who mention that I did the right thing, but it’s just that there’s a questioning feeling at the back of your mind. The thought behind the approach was to ensure that you didn’t come out with a product that was dead-on-arrival. It was all about ‘Can you make the game friendly enough to users?’, and ‘Can you build a bare-minimum tutorial that helps users understand how to play your game, without having to splurge on graphics for the prototype?’. And at the back of my mind, there’s the more scarier question – Right now, I don’t have a proper game out. So people still think of me as a person with potential. What happens if my game comes out a dud? What happens if I’m branded the ugly duckling who turned out to be an ugly duckling after all? Will I find players and collaborators who’ll still believe in my game ideas as much as I do?

That’s six months wrapped into a ‘small’ post. :)

I sincerely hope I’ll have atleast a couple of games out before another six months pass by. Thus far, 25% of the time and resources I’ve allotted myself for this journey has passed. So far, there’s been both good and bad… there’s been motivating times, and periods of demotivation. I was aware that all of this was a part of the journey of starting out on your own, but apparently I hadn’t steeled myself enough for it. Six months down the line, I hope to be more hardened by experience. Wish me luck!