Five Foundational Steps To Surviving As A Game Developer

A couple of articles ago I promised that I would not blow smoke or make this blog into a preachy, self help type of publication. That said, this particular article just has to get a little preachy to work. MBG blog is about getting into and surviving the business of making games, but in order to get to the juicy stuff, I need to discuss foundational issues that every person needs to think about. These issues apply to any type of business, but especially for creative, hits driven businesses like making music, movies, or games.

Even though many of you will think these issues are obvious and don’t need to even be discussed, I have to answer these same questions every day, in many different ways, and I’m tired of it. If I write them down, I can just point to this article over and over, and it will save me a bunch of time in the rest of my life. So, here you go, the Foundational Five, or FF for short.

1. Right Size Your Life. Ugh, the most preachy of the FF, but it has to be stated. Entire books are written about this (if you want a good one, start with Your Money Or Your Life), movements have been created, and thousands of web sites are dedicated to this subject. The bottom line is that you cannot live downtown San Francisco, drive a Porsche, have three kids, eat out every night, have Starbucks two times per day, charge up the credit cards, and live the way most of society tells you to. If you want this stuff, start coding in Java and go to work for IBM. But if you want to enjoy your work, feel creative every day, and make games for a living, you will have to pay a price.

1996 Geo MetroI used to drive a BMW M3, but now I have a $2,500, 1996 Geo Metro with 116,000 miles. I love it. I get 40 miles to the gallon, insurance is next to nothing, tires are the cheapest available, people make faces at me when they zoom by, but I can park it anywhere I want, and in fact I do, about two inches from the driver’s door of the big, huge SUV that just made the face at me:) Mark Frohnmayer, my partner at GarageGames gave up his car and rides a bicycle to work.

By far, the best Indie Game Developer “right sizing” story comes from Josh Ritter, the awesome programmer/owner of Prairie Games, who picked up his entire life and moved to North Dakota to save money. It worked though. He was able to stretch his savings long enough to reach the holy grail of many indie developers and create his own MMORPG, Minions of Mirth. MoM was officially launched a couple of months ago, and I think we will all be reading Josh’s success story next year.

2. Don’t Quit Your Day Job. Now that you have your burn at a manageable rate, you need to make sure there is money coming in the door. Your day job can be your standard 40 hour per week plus benefits job, but that will leave you very little time for making your game. Many developers take a stepped approach, and have a consulting business on the side.

CGY LogoWhile it is beyond the scope of this blog to help you with this side of your life, there are many, many options for creative, talented, technical people. Here are two. In another life, I own Cottage Grove Yamaha, which I call my real life business. At that business, we use computers, but only as a necessity, not for fun. CGY is about 30 miles from GarageGames, so I can’t call on GG people to help with my IT problems. In real life, computers suck, and need a lot of care. Sounds like an opportunity to me. The CGY website sucks. In real life businesses need somebody to help them bring up their sites, maintain them, and make them better. Yet more opportunity.

Getting too preachy again, but I just want to make sure that you are thinking this through before jumping off the cliff. It will take a long time to get your income streams flowing. Just make sure you can last as long as possible to allow it to happen.

3. Find a team of like minded individuals. I don’t like working alone. It is too lonely. I’m not as creative as when there are people to bounce ideas off of. I eat too much. I procrastinate. We started GarageGames without an office and worked that way for the first year and a half, so I have a good idea of how web based teams can work. This step is more about having a team than all working in one spot though. The team is the important thing.

I am constantly approached by programmers that say they can’t find artists, and vice versa. Designers and producers say they can’t find teams, yet I know there are many teams out there that need management, marketing, sales, and PR help. Future MBG articles will cover tips on how to find the right team.

I have always had partners. At Dynamix, I had Damon Slye and Kevin Ryan (see a little history of Dynamix here). Now, at GarageGames, myself, Mark Frohnmayer, Rick Overman, and Tim Gift have all been mutually pushing the rock up the hill for the past six years. The great thing about having partners is that there is never a time when the entire team is down in the dumps at the same time. In addition, the kind of ideas that turn me on take way more than one person to execute, so having a team is essential.

4. Innovate, but not too much. Finally, we get the stuff you are probably here for, and I’m going to pretty much short change you! Many, many of the future articles of MBG will focus on this step, so I don’t want to just cover this and have it be the last MBG post. The short version of this step is that I used to preach that the world did not need another match three bubble popper, Mahjong game, or card game, but all of those game types have continued to sell in the Casual game space, and are even beginning to be considered genres.

If you really are a game maker, you should have literally hundreds of ideas. Some will be innovative, some won’t, but there should always have some hook that makes a gamer want to play your game over the thousands that are on the market. What is that hook?

5. Create a portfolio of products. Any financial planner will tell you to create multiple streams of income. This industry is no different. Unless you are really lucky, one game will not bring you enough revenue to live. However, in a world with unlimited shelf space and a nearly unlimited customer base, your game can sell for a long time. Think about it, the number of shipped games compared to the potential number of players always rounds to zero. In effect, your game never ships! Marble Blast sells as many units today as it did the second month it shipped (we actually had a ship-in spike in sales), and that is without an update in a couple of years.

You need to keep ‘em coming. Every game brings you more opportunity, your company brand grows, your niche audience grows. Then, suddenly, you are making enough money that you are doing this full time. It IS your day job, and nobody can take it away from you. You own your IP, you own your code, you have a tight connection with your audience, and you can’t wait to go to work every single day. In fact, there is no such thing as a “day off” because this is what you do. It is you. And it feels good.

Sorry, way too preachy, but I couldn’t help myself:)

-Jeff Tunnell, Game Makermakeitbigingamesgaragegames

26 thoughts on “Five Foundational Steps To Surviving As A Game Developer

  1. Wow that CGY website really sucks ;).
    I think you should preach more. If you write from your own experience and keep it light-hearted it’s not preaching and I would like to read stuff like that.
    A thing about the first step: I live in an eastern european country so it is really easy to make a living here out of games because living is cheap.

  2. Hey… this blog was supposing to be about making it BIG (driving porches, spending money at casinos, owning yachts!) – now you tell us to start living frugal?? ;)

    Just kidding. Agree every point you’ve made. The point #5 sort of sums up the goal of (almost?) every indie out there.

    Altough I must mention Kai-Peter Backman ( who has successfully run his one-man indie game dev company – having just one game (which he continously updates…). At least he started his one-man show – and made it success, then hired a coder to assist in game development… This shows there are different ways to go.

  3. Don’t worry about the preachy/humble aspect.

    Hearing the story of someone who’s made it and what they learned is exceptionally valuable. It would only be preachy if you act condescending.

    Keep the dream alive!

  4. Excellent article. It was an especially good reminder for me right now. I’m just starting down the really-scary road of indie development, and wasn’t sure what to do about a day job – I was laid off recently. Reading your post was a good reminder to look hard for part time contract work while I’m figuring out how to get my indie development off the ground.

  5. Love the blog!

    Last year I right-sized my day job- from IT helpdesk manager (salaried, stock options, etc.) to IT Helpdesk senior tech. Ahhh… it feels so good to have actual time for doing game development again!

  6. I’m an aspiring game developer and my life is fairly humorously “right sized” at the moment as I attempt to get my company going. You can read what I’ve done in my most recent block entry: An Entrepreneur’s Evolution- Part IV at I’d love to hear what other people are giving up or going through to chase their game development dreams.

  7. Nice article. I think that a more detailed part 2 should follow up, I bookmarked your page.

    And yes, it is so true that designers can’t find programmers, programmers can’t find designers, producers can’t find good games, and so on and on…

  8. Thanks for the advice and insights. It is easy to overlook some aspects of reality when / if you are so focused on a dream, and likewise it is easy to forget your dream when your focus shifts to other aspects of reality. A balance between the two is needed, and this article you wrote helps to establish that balance. Thank you!

  9. Wow, just came across this blog and find it very amusing how the description of the game-dev's life is similar to my thoughts at the moment. Great blog! :)

  10. Thanks for the interesting post on this topic, I am sure plenty of people out there that are into game developing will find it very useful, thank you once again, just keep interesting posts like this coming.


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