Monday 8 January 2018

Looking back at 2017

So 2017 is all done and dusted and everyone reading this has made it to 2018, congratulations! It's also been a year since I left my last job and took up coding full time, so it's a good time for a look back. To cut a long story short, I started last year with a bunch of assumptions which mostly turned out to be wrong but wrong in ways which largely cancelled each other out, so the plan I started with is still pretty much intact.

Assumptions made an ass out of me

The plan boiled down to making my savings last a year while I made and released games for web and mobile. Hopefully I'd make a living from this before my savings ran out, but I was aware this was a long shot. By making HTML5 games in JavaScript (using the excellent Phaser engine which I really can't recommend enough) I'd hoped to improve my coding skills to the point where I could find work as a web developer if it became clear I wasn't going to make it in game development, and to aid in this I was also following the Odin Project curriculum to learn web dev. As I mentioned earlier, this plan relied on a series of assumptions, most of which turned out to be wrong.

Assumption 1: My savings would last a year

Pretty straightforward really,  I'd worked out what I tended to spend and factored in how much of that I'd no longer need to spend when working from home. It soon became clear that I don't spend nearly as much as I thought I did though and even without any money coming in my savings were good for 16-17 months. 1-0 to me.

Assumption 2: Coding might be too hard

I'm not sure if this counts as an assumption, but it was certainly a consideration. One possible way my plan could fail was if I just wasn't good enough. I couldn't make a game that would run in other peoples browsers, it would lag, it would crash and do horrible things to their pc/phone etc. Or I'd be able to put a game out there but the technical difficulties of various monetization methods would overwhelm my fledgling coding skills, it wouldn't work on games portals or with ad platforms and I'd have no way of making any money.
As it turned out, none of this came to pass. I certainly had a lot to learn, and I've encountered my fair share of problems, but it turns out I'm a decent coder. I enjoy problem-solving and I haven't come across a single technical issue that I haven't been able to get past either with a coding solution or by designing my way around it. Yay me, 2-0.

Assumption 3: I'd have a lot more time

For about 18 months before I quit I'd been working 30 hours a week and putting in another 10+ at home on web or game dev. Adding that together with time spent commuting and I assumed I'd be able to make games, learn web dev, teach myself Spanish, start playing guitar again, something something exercise and anything else you can think of, while also taking over primary childcare responsibility for my little boy. Obviously this was nonsense, I do about the same amount of work now as when I worked in an office, and the things I didn't make time for then I still don't make time for now. 2-1, damn you reality.

Assumption 4: If I could overcome all the technical hurdles and release a working game, I'd be able to make at least a small amount of money

My thinking was that if I could make a game I was happy with and release it in working order I'd make some money to supplement my savings, then I'd refine the process with everything I'd learnt for my next game and do a little better the next time. Rinse and repeat until I was bringing in enough to stop relying on my savings before they ran out completely. The idea that I could release a decent game and make no money at all from it never really occurred to me, but there's so much competition in gamedev right now that the most likely response to a new game is basically 'meh'. I'd say this was 2-2, but it's such a big flaw in the plan that it's more like 2-3.

Assumption 5: My only choices were making games for myself or doing web dev work as an employee

I'll go into this a little more later, but by the time I'd released a couple of games and got a decent looking website up and running I had something I could show potential clients who wanted a game making. It's client work that has really saved this year for me, in fact I make more in 10 minutes of client work than my own games made in 10 months. So, 3-3. everything still to play for.

The Year in Brief


I spent my first month working on finishing my first game, Super Endless Kingdom, polishing what I could and boosting performance. I also created the first version of the Rubble Games site and built an overly complicated site for Super Endless Kingdom using Ruby on Rails to lock access behind a password. This later proved to be totally unnecessary and I stripped out the backend and remade the game page as a static site.


I started(!) to think about marketing, I created this blog and the Rubble Games Twitter account. I struggled to get playtesters for Super Endless Kingdom prior to launch and wasted a few weeks waiting before giving up and deciding to push ahead with release anyway.


I released Super Endless Kingdom on Kongregate and it basically sank without a trace. I eventually got some feedback and made some improvements but it was too little too late. To date the game has 610 plays on Kongregate earning me (in theory) a grand total of 55p.
A few weeks later I released on Newgrounds, where things went much better in many ways. I got more useful feedback and a lot more interest. It got around 5x more plays and a much higher rating than the Kongregate release but monetization for HTML5 games on Newgrounds is almost non-existent. However the feedback was pretty postitive, which I really needed after a disappointing month, and the game was also featured as staff pick in the Phaser newsletter.


Having learnt a lot about what didn't work I set out to make a new game. This game would be made and released in under 2 months and designed with mobile in mind (eventually released in August as Zombie Cannon Attack!). However this was also the first month I'd had to deal with working through a lengthy school holiday and my productivity suffered while I adjusted.


As Zombie Cannon Attack! took shape I tried to find a way to earn from it. I contacted various games sites about the possibility of them licensing the game or sponsoring it but didn't get any interest at all so I decided instead to go for a mobile release on Android.


I spent the next few months getting the Android version ready using Cordova, much of the time was taken up getting plugins for adverts and in-app purchases to work. I added some polish to the game itself, but nothing that made a major impact on the way it played.


Zombie Cannon Attack! released. I've almost finished the Zombie Cannon Attack! postmortem that covers this in more detail, I just need to find time to edit it. In brief, while it did noticeably better critically than Super Endless Kingdom it can't be considered a success by any means. It's currently 'earned' me £2.85.


I continued with post-release work on Zombie Cannon Attack!, but by this point it was clear I wasn't on a path to earning my way as a gamedev. I started putting much more time into my webdev course.


I put Zombie Cannon Attack! to bed with a Halloween update and started work on a new project, but I was still concentrating more on learning webdev. I went down a bit of a blind alley with a prototype for a clicker/idle style game before eventually settling on my current project - a sci-fi shooter/crafter. By the end of the month I had a semi-functioning protoype.


I got my first paying gamedev work for a client and everything else was basically put on a hold. It's been a great few months personally and professionally, but as far as solo indie gamedev stuff goes you could be forgiven for thinking I'd vanished off the face of the Earth. I've had very little time to work on my own game, so I've had very little to post about on this blog and so very little to promote on Twitter etc. I'm hoping to spend a little more time on my own stuff, but as I'm writing the end of year round up for 2017 a week into 2018 you can draw your own conclusions about how that's going so far.

So, in conclusion. Can you make it as a solo indie with no professional coding experience? Maybe, but you need to bear in mind that all your assumptions are wrong and to make it you'll probably end up working for someone else.

Thanks for reading. If you want to keep up to date you can also follow me on Twitter.
My latest game, Zombie Cannon Attack!, is available on all these platforms:
Android (desktop download)
Gamejolt (web & desktop)
Kongregate (web)
Give it a try and let me know what you think, feedback is always welcome.

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