Note: This was written in response to Gamasutra’s call for blogs about game funding.
I funded my indie game career from my own savings.
It’s weird to talk about “funding” myself, as if this were a well-considered investment instead of the long shot that it is. I figure that the odds are stacked against new indie game developers, even if my goal is just to become self-sufficient instead of “making it big”. But I know that this is my dream job, and when I went indie (about 8 months ago), it was obviously the best time to take my shot.
After graduating college in June 2011, I got a job as a Technical Design Intern at Sony Santa Monica, working on God of War: Ascension. When I finished my three-month internship, Sony offered to let me stay as a contractor for the duration of the project.
I liked the studio and loved my coworkers, but just then, out of the blue, I got another job opportunity. The CEO of a small, technical government contractor in Virginia discovered me through a contest that I had entered three years previous (the Imagine Cup), and he ended up making an offer. I could have the title of Lead Game Designer, and they offered nearly double the money that Sony would pay. They didn’t usually make games, but it was suggested that they might someday work on educational game projects, and that was enough to make me accept.
I was earning a salary in the high five figures. Also, out of sheer luck, the company was located within driving distance of my parents’ house. I moved back in with them, thinking that it was probably a temporary arrangement, and thus found myself making a lot of money and living extremely cheaply.
At this point, I hadn’t yet made the decision to go indie, but I was tuning into the indie game world and was rapidly coming around to the idea. When it became clear that the new job was not scratching my game design itch, I eventually settled on a plan: I would keep living with my parents, save up as much money as I could, and prepare to go indie. (I had another reason too; my girlfriend was happily living and working across the country, in San Diego, and I wanted to move to be with her.)
I worked there for about 13 months, primarily doing UI design. By the time I finally quit and went indie, I had saved up enough money to live cheaply on my own for about 3 years. That’s a very long runway for a new indie, although, so far, I feel like I mostly wasted time and became the poster child for not making money on the OUYA. On the other hand, a game that I made in college (and a separate company agreed to develop for mobile) was released on Android and iOS, and was featured by Google on the Play Store. Thanks to the revenue from that old game, I’ve actually made more money than I’ve spent since going indie.
I’m usually a risk-averse person, the opposite of the stereotypical startup entrepreneur. I don’t know what lessons other people looking to fund their own development should take from my story. To complicate matters, I’ve glossed over the enormous amount of privilege that made this possible for me (most obviously through the lack of any college debt). Beyond that, all the events that were partially out of my control (winning the Imagine Cup, getting the surprise job offer, having the option to live with my parents, being featured by Google, etc.) all felt like strokes of luck, though I suppose I could quote the adage that “luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity”.
Even then, though, I’d have no right to call this a success story. At least, not yet. I’ve only released one game since going indie, and so far it doesn’t seem that it will be profitable. I’m having lots of fun and feeling very fulfilled, but as long as I’m still living off of my dwindling savings, that happiness looks almost like irresponsibility. I can hear the clock ticking, slowly counting down. If I can make it work, though, I think I’ll be in excellent shape. After all, since I “funded” myself, my success would be all mine to keep.