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Indie and a day job - making it work
by David Amador on 05/13/11 03:47:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


[This is a repost from my blog,]

A large percentage of the indie developers have to work on their project at night and/or weekends.
In order to pay the bills they have to maintain a day job. There’s no shame in that, many do it, I do it, not everyone can make a mega jump right into fame and fortune with a single project.

The rest of us mere mortals have to gradually build a fan base, learn from past mistakes, do better PR, etc.
Looking at successes like World of Goo, Braid, Trainyard, it all sounds so easy, everyone quickly makes such huge hype that it seems like they only have to finish the game and they are instantly rich.

But it isn’t, some of them started just like the rest of us, working at night till they had a lucky break.

I’ve talked a bit about maintaining motivation on another post but there’s more in that.

First of all there’s the problem with “getting into the zone” or “wired” or whatever you wanna call it. That state of mind where you are immersed into the project, no distractions. It can happen after half an hour or 2hours, but it’s usually very difficult to start right away. Steve Streeting has some interesting thoughts and tips on this.

You just got back from work, you’re tired, you have like 2-3 hours of spare time for coding. It gives time for doing a lot of work, the problem is that you’ll probably waste the first half wondering where you left, what algorithm where you working, trying to get back to that line of thinking from the previous day.

I waste a lot of time too but I’ve realized that leaving functions unfinished but with comments on how to write the rest helps out for the next day. You just have to convert that pseudo code into actual code, after a bit all starts to came back to you.
Making some notes on a notebook also helps, everything you think helps out catching up. Because most of the time when you need to stop is when you are really making progress.

Balancing a social life with this is hard, if you are really serious about finishing a game you’ll probably need to be doing this for several months, or even years, it’s too much time to be cooked at home. Don’t forget there’s life outside, discuss your projects with close friends, have them play and you’ll get feedback. Because if the project sinks you’ll loose much more. Also it’s a great way to have ideas. I never once had any good idea just by standing in front of the computer. Go watch some movies, read books. If you are working on the game with a partner drag him/her to the street with laptops. Working always at home isn’t that fun.

Get a job that won’t cut your wings but isn’t the typical “burger flipping” isn’t easy. If you end up working on IT or worse on a game company make sure not to jeopardize your game and job, most employers don’t like the idea that you are working on stuff of your own. They will tell you something like “You are a liability… because you would rather be doing something else”. So keep your head straight. If you don’t like the job, get another one, don’t hang on to it because you think you’ll be rich in a couple of months. You make have to stick with it for another whole project development before the indie thing takes off. Oh and get something that actually pay the bills in full, so if you start making some side money you can start saving.

Quitting work to stay home working on your game for a couple of months is also a viable option, but make sure you have savings for around 7 months and get back to work after 4. You’ll never know how hard it will be to get another job. It’s not an ideal system but I know people who make it work.

Working as freelancer is something else you can do, but from personal experience is too inconsistent, at least where I live. You can earn in a month money to support you for 3 months but then stay a bunch of time without getting anything to do. Good web development skills is handy, there’s always people looking for a website to be done.


[You can follow more stuff I write via my blog or my twitter @DJ_Link]

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Pieterjan Spoelders
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Working as a software engineer in mainstream IT myself I find (at least i have the impression) that it's almost impossible to do another (programming) job after 8 hours of working your brain for the company.. I could imagine it might be somewhat easier if you have a somewhat different job during the day though.

Evan Combs
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I would imagine so also. Preferably a job that doesn't mentally or physically wear you out.

Benjamin Quintero
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It also depends on your love of your craft. I have no problems working 8hrs and coming home to 3 more of my own code, but its not for everyone. Still, you can manage the brain drain by scheduling yourself to do mindless choirs (meetings, contractor phone calls, status reports, email sludge, face time with team) on days that you plan to go home and code/model/texture whatever. Conservative time estimates on your day tasks also cuts way down on crunch time and other draining stress points that cut into personal time. I rarely crunch anymore because I buffer my estimates for the obvious unknowns. This is a big part of your motivation.

Alexander Jhin
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Nice article! I also find todo lists, notes and stub functions very useful for picking up code again quickly. I would even go so far to say I've NEVER had a good idea sitting in front of a computer. Sometimes, during my coding time I'll actually go sit in a room without a TV or monitor with a notebook and draw the UI I need to work on. The room is pretty much empty, so for me to procrastinate I have to stand up and leave, which is just enough resistance to keep me working.

Finally, I have a separate todo list of small features that I know how to implement that can easily be done in an hour or two. If it's getting near bedtime or I'm lacking motivation, I choose one of those features because I know I'll get it done -- crossing anything off a todo list is a great motivational pickup.

Kevin Swiecicki
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One thing I find to help me immensely is to simply work on some of those old fashioned software engineering diagrams. CRC cards, class diagrams, sequence charts, etc. They all really help me to wrap my head around what I'm trying to do, and they keep me from coding all over the place leaving a unstructured mess. Oh, and I do these on paper instead of a computer, which really helps my brain from popping.

EnDian Neo
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For trying to get into the zone, I recommend the book "Getting Things Done", by David Allen.

Jeffrey Crenshaw
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"most employers don’t like the idea that you are working on stuff of your own. They will tell you something like “You are a liability… because you would rather be doing something else”. "

This is absolutely true, what I am about to say isn't anything against you David -- but this is also absolutely repugnant bullshit. Who the hell do game companies think they are expecting 100% devotion, crunch on a whim, complete emotional involvement in our modern era where employees are just cogs in a machine with no true creative say. Who on earth wouldn't rather be doing something else than their job in any field? Game development companies expect the game industry to be different because 'working on games is fun and not hard work'?? I would love to work in an industry that output something I was proud of, but the mainstream game industry fails to do that anymore. Until then, I'm going to work on projects at home because it's the only thing that gives my life meaning. Game Industry, get over it. If you want me to be enthusiastic about my job, then let's work on something that's not a gunmetal gray/muddy brown FPS or lame movie tie-in. If you want to dictate what I do at home, offer to pay me for those hours too (I will decline, but it would be a nice gesture). But game development companies somehow don't even have to pay you for crunch time, so that's probably expecting too much :/.


"If you don’t like the job, get another one"

If this was ever feasible advice, it hasn't been since 2008. It is not a worker's market, and moreso lately than in the past few decades it is a world of slavery, the lower class and middle class bowing to the whims of the upper class who decide how to cut the pie. The nine months of fear and desperation between my current job and my last one were more stressful than having a job, making me clinically depressed (went on meds for a while) and hating my life, which made it near impossible to focus on personal projects. Full Story: I worked on a contract project during those nine months, but I did spend the later half looking for full time work since the contract project was royalty-based with no upfront pay (and never shipped :/), so there was a lot of stress involved wondering when some stranger would finally decide that I am worth having a living.

Sorry for the mini-rant, I'm just really disgusted at the game industry/modern workplace in general and frustrated that I have no power to do anything other than mini-rant :/.

Rey Samonte
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Fortunately for me, I was able to get permission from my employer to work on games outside of work without worrying about ownership. I convinced them that working on side projects at home is a great way for me to learn new skills or solve new problems without jeapordizing my current project at work which should come as a benefit for them. The only thing I agreed on is that since this isn't normal practice and because they trust me, they don't want me to spread this to people in the office. This means no mention of any work in my LinkedIn or Facebook profiles in case there are co-workers who might stumble across it.

I think it really depends on what kind of relationship you build with the people in charge. You have to continue to give them your best work and not spend company time or resources pursuing your own thing. Building that trust is key which you prove through your work.

Jeffrey Crenshaw
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It breaks my heart to hear you say that you feel "fortunate" because you are allowed to do something you should have the right to do anyway _at home_ _in your own time_. Saying that getting to work on your own project at home is "fortunate" is disheartening, along the lines of "fortunately for me the mafia let me have an extra week before demanding I pay my monthly 'protection money'" or "fortunately for me, this POW camp I've been locked up in has working toilets". You shouldn't have to get permission from your overlords to work on things at home (as long as you're not stealing company IP or using their equipment of course). The truth of the matter is we need food, water and shelter to live, we are a "civilized society" meaning we get those things through trade and purchase, and we need jobs to get money for said purchases. It's a tough market right now, so you need to keep a job in the field you went into debt going to college for. If a job was optional, then _maybe_ (probably not) I would be okay with the workplace dictating what you can pursue in your own time. But since we need jobs, this kind of policy is unforgivable.

And, like crunch or mass layoffs as a reward for said crunch, it is never going to change if we all just accept it as "the way things are" in this industry.

Well, with that said, I'm glad you are in a place you are happy with Rey. For me, I work on small free games so I don't think there is a problem. I also don't really care, as I would quite literally rather die than let anyone tell me what games of my own I can or can't work on. I intend to break whatever laws/contracts/other arbitrary imaginary man-made dictates get in my way to work on the things I want to work on. Anyone who thinks I need their permission to do what I have been doing since I was five years old can go fornicate with a cactus :/.

Jeffrey Crenshaw
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"You have to continue to give them your best work and not spend company time or resources pursuing your own thing. Building that trust is key which you prove through your work."

I just want to add that this seems fair, but should be the case regardless of what you do when you get home at night. Clauses that prevent you from working on your own IP or that claim ownership over said IP do not protect the company any more than other clauses of basic courtesy do, and serve only to prevent employees from realizing their talents and becoming truly independent. It should be obvious why companies want you just barely paying bills every month so you continue to depend on them :/.

Rey Samonte
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I totally understand what you are saying and in many ways, I agree that we shouldn't have to get permission to work on personal projects. But that's the nature of the beast. I could have easily kept it to myself and I would have probably gone unnoticed. However, I also understand that there are laws that can deem a person's work at home be owned by the employer if my game is lucky enough to be profitable. Although that doesn't seem fair, it's better to play it safe and get something in writing before pursuing something that could potentially be profitable. You don't want to lose it if ever your employee feels it rightly belongs to them.

I don't think it's a matter of what is right or wrong but playing along with the rules or laws that are already established. When I signed the contract when I was hired, I agreed to follow their conditions as an employee. As we know, there's a lot that doesn't seem fair but better to be careful than to regret things later on. Crying foul doesn't do much for you.

I will continue to say I am fortunate not only because I was given permission, but because my work doesn't demand the "crunch" hours I was so used to working for about 8 or so years straight. On my worst day of work, I get out by 5pm which gives me plenty of time to come home and work. So for that, I will remain thankful because that is the culture my employer has built.

I think it's a matter of perspective and attitude. If we're constantly rebelling against our employers, we run the risk of bringing that attitude with our own personal projects and/or the people we might work with.

Jeffrey Crenshaw
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Sounds like things are working well for you, I'm glad for that. At the moment, things are working well-ish for me at my current employer (besides crunch, which has been relatively rare but pops up from time to time). But the fact that I have to keep this sort of "we can own _your_ work done in _your_ time, if you don't like it starve on the streets" BS in the back of my head in case I end up being funneled to a worse studio when I should just be able to focus on my games in my own time is unforgivable. Unfortunately, I can't think of a way to critically change this (and other unforgivable aspects of the game industry) by myself, and even though some "agree" with me I still feel alone (got laid off from my last job by standing up against unethical production practices, and of all the people that whole-heartedly agreed with me in lunchtime conversations, not a single one had the spine to stand up for me when I was being shown the door).

I can't be satisfied with the way this industry and this world is run to drain the souls of the weak for the tremendous profit of a few millionaires/billionaires, but I'm not famous or rich enough myself to do anything about it and I don't feel like a complacent life is a life worth living. (sigh) what am I supposed to do... the ability to live without the desire, or the desire to live without the ability :(. I just go home and distract myself with my games as much as I can, but that's not enough for the duration of a human life.

Whatever... some day, somehow, I am going to fix this god-forsaken industry, whatever it costs me.

Rey Samonte
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Yeah, I can totally feel your frustration as I've been there myself. It's definitely not fun and you feel like the sacrifices you've made is all for nothing. However, that's why we stay hopeful with our side projects and I truly believe we're in a transition that allows many developers to branch off on their own but we have to play it smart.

For me, it helps to view my day job as an opportunity to learn things I can apply at home. If I view my day in that regard, it continues to motivate me to work hard during the day. Not only does that benefit my company but it benefits me in the longrun. Of course, having to work crunch could drain you out some and I'm glad I'm no longer doing that. That's not to say I don't face challenges during the day that doesn't drain me out but developing games is never an easy task.

I'm sorry to hear your lost your job and no one stood beside you. I've gone through that myself where I felt like I had agreeable co-workers only to find out that when confronted with the issue, they are more than willing to throw me under the bus. Whether that was to make themselves look better or to belittle me in front of our leads, I'm okay with that. I am confident that those sort of things won't last very long before it catches up with them. As long as you stay motivated and don't let others break your spirit, you'll come out of it just fine. :)

Sean Currie
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"I was able to get permission from my employer to work on games outside of work without worrying about ownership."

That fact that this sentence even has to exist is deeply, profoundly disturbing.

Mark Taylor
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It is pretty much in every permanent contract that what you do belongs to your employer, but it is very unlikely any court would defend such a contract unless your employer could show you took IP materials home with you. Just because something is in a contract does not make it legally recognizable.

Tomasz Mazurek
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One trick that I have developed to get myself working efficiently under huge workload is to prepare a pen-and-paper todo list with your tasks. When you get to a task, if you think it takes less then, let's say, 10 minutes - do it. If not, split it into subtasks and cross it out. This way may not always be pleasant and fun, but let's me code even when I am absolutely exhausted.

For working on side projects at home, since I am working as a game programmer, I have discovered another trick. House chores. I have to do them anyway, so even though I feel tired, I do them right after getting home from work. It turns about that because these are largely mindless manual activities they let my mind relax enough to be able to code again, saving me the "unwind" time that I would previously just spend lying on a couch.

Dave Atkinson
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Good article. I work on my free time at home as well and this is all very true. Maintaining a social life is very important. I used to work with someone that was always "on" - he wouldn't go see a movie, he wouldn't hang out with friends. He always believed if you work harder than everyone else, you'll be successful.

I've learned over the years that you have to be HAPPY to be successful. If you don't love what you're doing, you won't do it. Get out and have some chill time with your friends. Relax. Watch a movie. Eat something tasty. When I do this I tend to be much happier to get back to work, feeling more much more invigorated and inspired. For me, if I don't maintain this balance my work starts to suffer and I don't get much done.