Last April, I released my first financially successful game allowing me to be a full-time indie dev, March of the Living (MotL). My story isn't one of overnight success but one of 9 years and 14 released games in the making. It's the kind of story you probably won't read in the press because it's lacking some dramatic element to it but it might be a story other indie devs might relate to.
There are many ways to be successful. Some only want to make games appreciated by people and don't care that much about money. Others might release a big hit allowing them to release a few games not making much money in the upcoming years and they still can afford to keep making games full-time anyway. Others might release a game acclaimed by the critic. Others like me release a game that doesn't make much waves and make just enough money to last until their next release.
So I'm not a starving indie but I'm not exactly a rich one either. It's true I'm sitting at home all day long working on concepts and prototypes but I also can't fund alone that great idea I might have (or that "okay" idea I might need to work on before time runs out).
By now you might think that I'm not really appreciating what I have achieved, that maybe I'm not even happy about it. Don't get me wrong, I waited for this day for 9 long years while having to also focus on a day job like many indie devs but this success I achieved opened my eyes to a whole new world I maybe wasn't prepared for or even expecting.
When I look at the work I've put in MotL, the budget required to produce it, the revenue it created and how long I have before needing to release another game at least as successful if I want to remain a full-time indie dev my head starts to spin a bit.
For having released quite a few unsuccessful games over 9 years I know very well how hard it is to make money with your games but when I see that my first successful game gives me until the start of 2017 to repeat this feat... It's a bit scary. How can I achieve again the same feat that took me 9 years the first time in now only a few months. Surely I learned a thing or two that might help right?
Indeed, I learned how really difficult it is to achieve the kind of success I achieved as moderate as it might be. When I compare MotL results with other games I think are cool but did worse (thanks to SteamSpy that is generally not far from the truth for comparing my own results there) I realize how impossible the odds appear to be to make just one year worth of salary with a game. Even if MotL isn't a blockbuster it had the right concept at the right time with the right publisher and the right collaborators. Because of this, it all fit together nicely and created the result I'm currently enjoying. The thought of having to reproduce all of this once again, otherwise my journey as a full-time indie dev will stop, can be a source of anxiety.
I see how difficult it was to achieve the moderate success I had and at times it seems impossible to repeat this feat no matter how much I believe in me. I need the right idea at the right time, executed the right way and all of this before running out of funds in a future not so distant. I don't fear to go bankrupt, I just fear of losing part of what I have achieved by having to go back a few (or many) steps.
It wouldn't be the end of the world if my next game doesn't meet success and I'd probably be able to get a nice day job again but if this is the attitude I adopt I fear I might just not feel like trying anymore. I might as well take the money I made, spend it on fancy stuff and travels, call it a day and then go job hunting right away.
So the anxiety is a source of motivation to find the right project but then I also know I don't have that much time to figure it out. In a perfect world I'd spend as much time as needed to explore concepts, release prototypes and get feedback until one project springs some solid interest but time is limited. This is what I've been doing for the past 3 months and one by one I've seen all my "great" ideas and prototypes being rejected either by myself (sometimes you just realize an idea isn't that great once you see it for yourself), feedback from others or publishers.
Maybe in some naïve way I thought that the day I had financial success I'd be able to release one or two games that might not do well over a few months or maybe a year and still be able to remain a full-time indie dev until I'd find the "right" project to work on. I know now that the bar to achieve this is much higher than I ever thought it to be.
It wouldn't be honest to pretend that I don't question myself about the whole situation. Becoming a full-time indie dev surely got me a lot of joy but the lack of freedom for my next project to "fail" also brought a lot of stress I never experienced before. I thought I knew what it would be like but I guess that you never really know until you're there.
To help to process this I often think about how it all started. Last year, after working for the same company for 15 years, I received a Skype call from my boss telling me they were letting five people go and that I was part of this group. I always thought I was "safe" at my day job (you never know but after 15 years you can't help but to feel safe a bit I guess) so it was quite a shock and a big source of stress. It was the only employer I ever had so I was completely lost about what would happen next. Before looking for another job I checked if I could get a game project funded and it worked! This is what got me to MotL and the success I'm currently enjoying.
So this little story about this day job I lost helps me a bit to deal with all of this. Back then, I didn't know what would happen when MotL would be released so I was already updating my resume, ready to go look for a job. I guess that the situation is similar right now. I know that I have 6-7 months to work on a game, release it and then after I look for a day job unless I'm "lucky" again.
It's easier to say than to truly accept though. I have ups and downs, sometimes worrying about what will happen and sometimes being really optimistic about that new game I'm working on. The worst times are when I surprise myself hoping I would have had even more success to buy me some freedom to fail and then I hate myself for not being able to enjoy what is happening to me.
So yes, it crosses my mind that maybe this is not a life for me after all. Maybe I should indeed find myself a day job, enjoy the money I made and take the time I need to figure out what is the "right" game to work on next. Maybe I'll get used to it and have a good laugh about it in a few years or maybe it's the kind of anxiety I will never be able to deal with. I like to pretend that I know myself pretty well but I must admit that I'm exploring a new territory of my personality here and that I don't have all the answers to the questions passing through my mind at the moment.
I'm not really looking for answers from others as it's a process I need to figure out for myself based on my personality, what makes me happy/unhappy and what I can deal with. It's different for each person so there's no single truth here. All I know is that just writing about it helps to put things in perspective and who knows, maybe someone else in a similar situation might find something in this post that might be of some help, if only to know that they are not alone.