Anton Strickland

Defining Success As a Game Developer

I've been making games for a long time now, and I've had experience as both a hobbyist and as a full-time developer... twice. I started out as a hobbyist while in school, went full-time after graduating, then had to become a hobbyist again while working a 9 to 5 job, and now I'm full-time again. My goal has always been to make this a full-time career, to have a successful video game business. Have I achieved that goal? What have I learned?

Well, how do we define success? Is it a success to finish a game? If so, then I became successful when I programmed my first game in middle school. Or if we count pen and paper, I guess I would've been a successful game developer in kindergarten. Maybe it's when you actually release a game to the world? I guess I did that in middle school too, but it was a fan-game. And then I made another fan-game in high school that got really popular and people loved it. So if success is making a game that people enjoy, I accomplished that in high school.

What about making an original game that people enjoy? I guess I accomplished that in college with Detective Butler. But I didn't charge any money for that, so maybe that still isn't considered successful. I spent more money on making it than what I got back. So in terms of a business, that wasn't a success at all.

Since then, I've been looking at "a successful game business" as one that can consistently produce profitable games. It's kind of assumed that a profitable game is one that people enjoy, because otherwise why would people buy it? But a profitable game does not need to be unique or original. And yet all the time, I concern myself with trying to make games that are exactly that. I want to innovate and create interesting things that I've never seen before -- that no one has ever seen before! But it's actually not profitable to do that kind of thing. You're spending your time and money to take a massive risk. Why do that when you can follow a formula?

I find it interesting that if you go on certain Internet sites, hobbyists will often say that they are totally fine just making their game in their spare time while working a different job, and are totally fine if the game doesn't sell well. I guess that's what makes it a hobby for them, sure, but I think it's disingenuous to take any advice from them too seriously if you're trying to make it as a business. Because if you treat game development as a hobby, then you are doomed to make a game that doesn't sell.

If you're a hobbyist, you spend 90% of your time building the game, and only 10% (if any) marketing the game. Any other business will have these numbers flipped, spending 10% of the time building its product/service and 90% of the time trying to sell it to people. But the hobbyist game developer enjoys the process of building more than anything -- sometimes it seems like some developers are even afraid of finishing their game, or else they won't know what else to do with themselves. Perhaps these developers should look into some kind of payment model where you can still sell the game while it's in development, like with early access games, or MMOs that constantly receive updates after launch.

Furthermore, if you are spending 8-10 hours of your day working some other job, that's 8-10 hours per day that you've missed out on either building or marketing your game. When I tried to do both at the same time, I could only do 2 hours of work on my game per day, and I was already so exhausted from working elsewhere that whatever I did accomplish wasn't very good. It's no wonder why solo hobbyist projects take multiple years for a single game.

Hobbyists will often peddle this classic line of advice: "don't quit your job until your game has made enough money for you to support yourself from it" but that will almost never be true. It's like a self-fulfilling prophecy. As long as you're treating it like a hobby and making it a low priority in your life, it's not going to be capable of making you enough money to quit your job. You must have a business plan: a clearly defined outline of what the game will be, how long it will take, and how you will earn money from it. And you must also market toward your audience early on, so you had better know everything about your target audience too. And then you must follow through with everything -- don't change things just because you get bored, or you'll lose progress. Don't bother re-drawing the art you made 2 years ago or re-factoring your code to make it cleaner. Just get it done.

For that matter, try to make a game that won't take 2 years to make. Your skills will definitely improve in 2 years, and you really will want to redo everything. But if you had made some smaller games over the course of 2 years, this would've happened naturally. You could've sold those games individually while being proud of your progress. Instead, you look at the one game that you still haven't finished, and regret putting so much time and effort into assets that don't represent your current level of skill. You feel like they don't represent you anymore, and that hurts -- because you poured your creative soul into this project, it was supposed represent you! And now it doesn't. So it needs to be updated.

But over time, people change. You've changed. So you'll always be playing this game of catch-up.

Unless you learn to just move on.

If you are trying to make a great piece of art, then sure, takes as much time as you want. Do whatever you need to do. But you will not make money from this, unless you were already well-off at the start. If you already have connections with people in the media who can get you on the front page, then of course you can take as long as you want. But if you're trying to be a business, then there must be a time where you say "that's enough" and ship it, perfect or not. Then, if it didn't go so wel, you can learn your lessons from this game, and move on to the next thing. Or if it did do well, you can stay on this game and keep adding DLC and milking it for all it's worth.

If I wanted to consistently produce profitable games, I should stick to creating only certain kinds of games. I've thought about this a lot, and asked myself what the most profitable kinds of games are. The answer is pretty simple: free to play games with user-generated content and in-game purchases. It needs to be free so that people try it out, it needs to have user-generated content so people come back often, and it needs to have in-game purchases so you can make money every time they play. That's about it.

However, as for the actual game itself, you probably shouldn't make anything too complicated. You don't want to spend a bunch of time working on a game that nobody wants to play. So how are you going to know if the game is fun or not until it's finished? The only way to know is to copy what has already been done before. You can't innovate here. It's too risky.

But if I can't innovate, that's pretty boring, and I don't want to spend my time being bored. The whole reason I make games is because the innovation is a fun creative exercise. So in addition to being profitable, I add on the extra requirement of needing to have a unique and original idea. I mean, plenty of profitable games had unique ideas, right?

Look, there is one giant, fundamental contradiction in this line of reasoning. It's thinking that you can have any control over whether your game is profitable. That's not for you to decide, that's for someone else to decide. People don't care about the input -- only the output. Does the game look fun? Then they'll buy it. Was it fun? Then they'll leave a good review. It doesn't matter whether it took you 5 years or 5 days to make the game, and it doesn't matter whether you spent your life savings on it or used free assets. The only thing that matters in regards to profitability is how people react to the end result.

And then, on the other side of things, is the innovation. You can control the innovation. You can decide what your game is like, and what it's not like.

As a hobbyist developer, you always start out from an innovation standpoint. You tinker around with interesting ideas to see where things lead. But that's the kind of thing that leads to a 5-year long development cycle. You want to create something interesting, but as a one-person team, it takes you forever to get there. And then once you get there, it might not be any fun at all. Or at least, you have no real way of knowing.

But if your goal is to consistently make profitable games, then you can't afford to waste 5 years on an idea that won't yield any results. It's better to spend 5 weeks per game and roll the dice until one of them becomes a hit. In order for that to happen, you can't take too many risks though. That really complicated gameplay system you were thinking about isn't even worth prototyping. You just need some pretty animations layered onto a really simple game that's already been done before.

So, that's all there is to it. You take a simple yet popular game concept that has already been done before, make it look new and shiny, and then sell it. Rinse and repeat until you've found something that works, and then keep pumping out DLC. This is in direct opposition to the hobbyist mindset, almost a form of blasphemy. No true hobbyist would dare sell out like that!

But that's where I am now. Like I said, I've already made fun games as a hobbyist. And it makes sense when you're young. But as you get older, you learn things, and you take on more responsibilities. So with all the responsibilities I have now, and with the lifelong goal of running my own video game business, does it make any sense for me to continue to act like a hobbyist developer? Of course not.

Again, if you simply enjoy it as a hobby, then that's fine. You do you. But if you're up for a greater challenge, try making a game that earns more money than it took to create it. It's almost an entirely different experience.

There is far more I could say on the topic, but I hope I've made it clear that success is a subjective word. Like any open-world sandbox game, life is about setting goals and achieving them. If you've accomplished the goals you've set for yourself, then you've succeeded. You've grown as a person. And then you can set greater goals.