Every now and then I’ll get an email asking “do you have any advice on how to be a successful game developer?” This is weird, because it reminds me that I am a successful game developer – in my head I still treat this as a full-time hobby, and I’m just bumbling through.
But I am successful: Sokobond, A Good Snowman Is Hard To Build, and Cosmic Express are all profitable, and more importantly they’re appreciated by players and by my peers. My company has enough money to pay contractors. I pay myself a tiny salary but I live frugally so I still have personal savings.
So, do I have any advice? Not really. What worked for me may not work for you. Honestly, I don’t think what worked for me then would work for me now.
That said, I’d attribute my critical success to these things:
- I only work on games that I believe I can prototype very quickly. If a proof of concept would take longer than a weekend, I don’t make it.
- I’ve spent the last 5 years focusing on one genre and getting better at making that specific type of game. This involved commercial projects but also dozens of small free puzzle games.
- I have a tool (PuzzleScript) that lets me prototype ideas very quickly.
- I playtest early and often, without which I wouldn’t know what’s good (and can be focused on) and what’s bad (and needs to be reworked or removed).
- I was living off of savings and so able to work on these games full time.
- I’m fairly well connected, so some semi-influential people know and like me and are predisposed to like my work.
My financial success is modest, partly due to luck, and partly due to timing. I left my previous job with enough savings to live off for 1-2 years, and I intended to make games until I ran out of money – at which point I planned to get another job. I never expected to be self-sufficient from them and still find it hard to believe that I am.
I had these advantages:
- I’m an able-bodied cis white man and match people’s expectations of what an indie developer looks like.
- I live frugally and have no dependants.
- I’d been making games as a hobbyist for 5 years before leaving my job.
- In that time I’d made good connections within the indie game dev scene.
- Those connections gave me the self confidence to believe that I was somewhat competent at game design.
- I have a Computer Science degree from a good university which made me confident I could get another job down the line.
- I’m from a country which has free healthcare, and which doesn’t require me to repay my student loan if I’m not earning anything.
- If I ran out of money and failed to find a job, I think my friends/family would have helped me avoid poverty.
In order to be a “successful game developer”, first you have to define what success looks like for you.
Creative success and financial success are not the same thing, and neither is easy. If you’d rather just make things and see what happens that’s okay too – it seems to have worked out for me.
This rings very very true for me. (Apart from the “connections” part I suppose…working on it okay?!)