Sometimes, I use “Finding my way” to describe what I’m doing. I’ve been in that state for a while. It’s kind of a being-in-limbo mode, which is not really great, but it’s also a deliberate move which I want to explain.
First of all, I should note this is very much NOT how to run a startup. My own first venture I approached very differently.
My friend and I (the founders if you will) were so financially pressured from the getgo we just jumped at opportunities, made some decent choices along the way and never looked back. We tried the self-financed path without knowing what that actually means, we just knew we didn’t want to borrow money (and VC’s were not a big thing in Germany). So the pressure was solely coming from ourselves to pay rent, food, etc. and stop pretending to our parents (and us) that we are still studying (heaps of praise for the open German college system where you do not have to finish at a specific point in time).
But retrospectively I’d say the financial need was a really good guide for the early decisions you need to make in any startup. We were able to make quick decisions and test them just as quickly, which was great. Financial metrics are merciless and very black & white and while that can be horrible from a lot of angles, it is a crisp metric to test business decisions against. If you tell me you make a lot of decisions in your startup based on financial needs, I’m happy, will give you a hug, invest in your business, look forward to seeing you again next year, etc ;)
For myself, with my second venture, I’m doing something that is potentially nicer but also harder at the same time. I’m broadening the factors that make me decide if I’m doing ok.
My Perfect Startup, V2
Here are some of these factors and how they match with where I’m settling right now as Indie Game Dev.
1. Generally liking my daily work
I don’t think there is a job where you love every minute of doing it, every day. Game Dev has its ups and downs, but every phase is very challenging, diverse and creative. It often does feel like going where no one else has gone before. Works for me.
2. Having a chance of impact
Software always impacts people. Last week, my AC repair guy told me how much he wishes there was an app that would help him do some basic repeating math tasks he does with every inspection. Making such an app would impact some people, make their life better, let them go home earlier, etc.
For games, that impact can be huge. You can literally bring joy to the life of thousands of people, including those going through tough times in their life. And if that is not good enough, you can go deeper by adding a layer of social messages to your game and be a small part of what makes society change over time. This is an inherent element of the open creativity we have when making games and the large outreach some games achieve. The potential is great and that works for me.
No need to elaborate on that. Exploring Mechanim today, Blender tomorrow. Make a game, write an article, lecture to students. So many amazing options. Works for me.
4. Making Money
As I mention above, I really like that element being part of the mix and I’m glad my first startup success was “mediocre” enough I still need to make money. I do know people who made enough money to never have to work in their life and some of them are really unhappy (no game devs among them, just to be clear). I also know people who are uneasy about submitting to financial pressure and I really want to put that into perspective. On a basic level, making money is about survival and hence a strong motivator. Nothing wrong with that. Enjoy being motivated, take it from any source you can. Making money starts to be more problematic when the primary driver isn’t next months rent anymore, but greed.
From a financial perspective, games are tough, as it is such a hit driven business. But even without going all the way to contracting there are some options mentioned above that also make money and can be fun to explore. And if a game you make hits target, the financial upside can be significant and rewarding. Works for me.
Balancing is hard
These are just a few angles, most of them gravitating around the idea of being happy with what you do. When I made PyroPainter, I fell back into a mode of weighing the financial outlook heavily, thinking I could create a more steady income base with an app instead of a game. That backfired when I reached the point where the release went well enough to give me the outlook of constantly updating the app to claim a strong position in its niche, but bad enough to not be an instant success. If you don’t have all your heart in such an app and you don’t have the massive financial pressure to motivate you, you are not in a good spot.
I could have anticipated that earlier in my Indie career, when my kids games got somewhat successful but I so did not want to end up making kids games all the time and started to look into other areas. I should have written up some of those criteria I mention above and make more deliberate choices, instead of making a simple linedrawing game, shelving a complex zombie game and fall into the trap of making a novelty app with PyroPainter afterwards.
I’m not sure I could have done that back then, though. When you read stories about entrepreneurs, this is a recurring thing. First success is often driven by being at the right place at the right time and doing a couple of things right, but it is rarely planned. Planning the next steps instead of going with the flow is hard.
Right now I’m glad I have given myself time to explore this and allowed room for correction, even though I painfully realize how planless that might look like from the outside. It’s comforting to know that the search for the right spot that I’m doing across categories is quite common within the game dev category itself :)
Right now, settling on Game Dev feels right. It’s the most challenging and creative category in Software. I feel I finally really click with the tools I use (Unity). The Indie scene is diverse and open. The industry is very alive, welcoming yet not shy of confrontation. Like fighting bloody fights on the forefront of equality and inclusion issues while many other industries I know are still debating whether this is a thing or not.
Million Miles Away From Home
The decision to settle in this industry is correlated with our move out of California, buying me time to work on this in earnest. Which I thoroughly enjoy whenever I find time while still settling in our new place.
This felt like a good milestone to summarize my journey since I quit my job/last startup so far. I hope the one or the other finds it inspiring, no matter where in your entrepreneurial life you are. Please share what is important for you when trying to decide if your job/startup goes the right way.