17 March 2011

Indie by Default - Part I - by Robert Madsen

      Posted 03/08/11 07:43:00 pm  

It's been a while since my last post. Part of the reason is becuase life has been a little chaotic since then! Unfortunately, I was laid off from my previous studio, and since then I've been working at starting an independent studio.  The way I see it, going indie is the only choice I have right now if I want to keep making games. In other words, it's Indie by Default!

This article was originally publised in the February 2011 issue of IGDA Perspectives. I will be reposing it here as a three part post so everyone can enjoy it!

In the computer world, default is the state of rest--that which occurs when nothing special is going on. It is the status quo. Over the last three years, it has been my experience that the default state of employment in the game industry is unemployment.

Since entering the game industry in 2008, I have had a wild ride. First, Dallas followed by lay off in less than a year…then a seven month job search…next Canada followed by layoff within a year…more job search.  You get it.  I’ve been unemployed about as much as I’ve been employed.  Of course, I knew the game industry was infamous for such instability before I ever decided to point my career in that direction. I also realize that there are thousands of others from the game industry who have faced similar or worse situations over the last several years.

When life gives you lemons...

The first time I was laid off, my entire focus was on finding another job. Seven months and 300 resumes later, I found another job as a game programmer. Looking for a job was literally a full-time affair. Eleven months later I was laid off again.

After the second layoff, I decided to turn my disadvantage into opportunity.  Given the current economy, I realized that finding another job would be a multi-month adventure.  This time, I wanted to do more with that time than just look for the next job. I also wanted to continue working at what I love:  making games.  After all, that’s why I got into the industry!

Before I entered the game industry I had been self-employed. My longstanding joke was that a self-employed person is just an unemployed person with a business card. So here I was “self-employed” again.  Since I already had some experience as an independent programmer, becoming an independent game developer seemed the next logical step.

I have to admit that having been self-employed for the last 15 made it a little easier.  I had a lot of resources to fall back on such as previous clients and online avenues of revenue.  Since I was already familiar with the ropes of being self-employed, I decided to spend about 50% of my time working for pay and the other 50% working on my game. Somewhere in there I would keep my eye out for promising jobs.

The opportunity of independence

Anyone who has been involved in making games for someone else has also thought of ideas for their own game. But there are real barriers to making your own games while you are employed for another game studio. Generally, as an employee, you must sign non-disclosure agreements and non-compete contracts that essentially block you from developing your own games. What’s theirs is theirs. What’s yours is also theirs. Being unemployed generally means that you are free of such agreements.

Another new resource you suddenly discover as an unemployed person is time. Now that you're not crunching 12 hours a day, what are you going to do with yourself? Catching up on the last three seasons of Lost will only take so much time! The key is to find a way to balance what is essential (such as making enough money to survive or looking for that next job) with what is desired (making games). 

I realize that survival and looking for a job can be a full time effort of its own.  However, with planning and discipline, you can make the time to keep making games.

Think about it: while you were working for the typical game studio you are already working 12 hours a day. Why stop now?

Being unemployed can be a great opportunity. First, there is a good chance that you are receiving some kind of short term support in terms of unemployment benefits. You may have the support of a spouse.  If you were smart, you saved up some money while you were gainfully employed. Second, even if you spend a lot of time on the job search, you probably still have more discretionary time on your hands than when you were employed. Finally, you are probably free of any contractual limits on your ability to make your own games. You've dreamed of making your own game…now is your chance!

That's it for part 1.  See you next week for part 2! R

Eric McVinney
9 Mar 2011 at 2:00 pm PST

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