If you’re reading this, you want to become a solo game developer. Or at the very least, you’re interested in what it would entail. First and foremost, it’s important to keep one thing in mind: being a solo developer means doing everything alone. It means you’re committing to doing what most opt to do with at least a handful of people. You’re doing all the marketing, crowdfunding, and launching.
That means whatever project you have in mind is going to take a while to complete. Depending on it entirely for financial stability is not an option. Some try, and find themselves in serious debt. Do yourself a favor and remember: following these steps might save you at least some of the stress of being a solo developer.
Start as a Hobbyist
Big accomplishments start out as grains of sand. Don’t slap on a title on a website and consider yourself a stable solo developer. Begin with some humility: begin as a hobbyist. This means you need a regular full-time job—if you don’t have one already. Once your finances are in order, you can begin making games for fun. Tinker around with models and shading. Tweak the lighting and practice your concept art skills. Do it all, and whatever you don’t know how to do, teach yourself.
There’s several resources for those starting out. Consider taking a few classes in your spare time, just to learn what it is you need to know to make solo game development a possibility.
Resume & Portfolio Building
To be taken seriously as a solo developer, you need the qualifications to back it up. Add those courses to your resume, and add any work experience that relates to the field. Make sure it looks sleek and neat, because recruiters don’t like to spend more than a few seconds at a time glancing at your resume. The more organized it is, the higher the chances of them even considering it.
But in an artistic field like game development, a resume isn’t enough. You need a portfolio filled with your best work. As a solo developer, this means including a little of everything possible. Write for publications and add direct links to these articles online. Add animations, concept art, and any sample projects you can add. It’s smart to even create some small games as examples of what you can do, even text games.
Secondary Revenue Stream
Once you’ve gotten comfortable making a few small games and crafting a portfolio, it’s important to keep your priorities straight. It’s easy to lose sight of what’s realistic. At this point, many developers get overly eager, and think they can simply turn their game development work into their primary means of income.
Stop it right there: make it your secondary revenue stream first. Hopefully, you’ve lined up full-time, stable work by this point and you have a way to support yourself. Life shouldn’t be placed on hold for game development careers. Think of these artistic careers as the “second career paths” people choose after working in a field they hate for a few years.
Keep making games, and keep marketing them in your spare time. But don’t leave the full-time job until . . .
Full-Time Contract vs. Full-Time Solo
. . . you’ve lined up steady full-time contracts. For a while there, it’s going to be tough. You might find yourself working full-time, and then getting home to work another few hours on a contract. Contract work as a developer means you get hired on for their project, and you take care of something they need you for. It’s good experience and portfolio-building. Sometimes you even get paid for it, and that’s more money in your pocket for your solo endeavors down the line.
Speaking of going solo, now is the time to consider it seriously. By this point, many aspiring developers have saved up quite a bit of money. Doing contract work as a developer helps, especially while working full-time. At this point, many switch to solo development, working exclusively on their own projects. The income is little to none, and it certainly makes all that money saving seem heavenly.
If you decide to do this, consider how long your project will take first. Hypothetically, say it takes 3 years, you should save up three years worth of income, at least, before jumping ship. This will ensure you have bills paid and food on the table, despite the lack of income. Keep development costs low, and you should have no problem.
Pro tip: If you do run into a financial wall, consider taking up a contract again, just to keep you afloat. Otherwise, remember that full-time employment is always an option. If you find your quality of life and mental and physical health are in jeopardy, it might be time to reevaluate priorities.
Factor in the Cost
Starting a studio of your own is pricey, even if you’re only equipping a studio for one person. As an incomplete reference, PAX East participation is about $8,000 total. Incorporation fees vary by location, but it’s roughly $500. PC costs shouldn’t be overly high to start. You don’t need the best equipment ever, but you need it to be good enough to do the job, so $800-900 is a decent budget. Eventually you’ll need to be mobile, so $1,000+ for a laptop. Add in the costs of an office chair, printer, mouse, keyboard, business cards, electricity, rent, etc. and you have yourself quite a few expenses to take care of.
If you honestly cannot afford it, consider starting from the ground up, using what you have. Rather than renting a space, opt for your bedroom. It’s smart to start from nothing anyway, so if it doesn’t pan out, you’re not invested in a separate space or anything. Just keep in mind, depending on how grand you end up going, it’s going to be more money. This is why most developers opt for starting a team. Especially considering all the work to be done! The problem there is that the more people you work with, the more the price goes up on things like equipment. Read this horror story from a real developer who started with $20,000 in savings, and ended up $35,000 in debt in three years.
Everything in Moderation
While the cost of making a game can be kept low if you’re willing to go solo and you keep yourself in check, making money off of indie games has never been harder. Realistically, becoming a solo developer isn’t recommended until you’ve established yourself in another job, worked toward a retirement fund, moved out of the house, and gotten finances in order. It isn’t for the faint of heart, and it isn’t for those unwilling to go several years living off of savings. Debt is a must for some solo developers, who gamble on making enough of a profit from sales to bail them out financially.
That doesn’t mean it’s impossible, however. It just means you have to play your cards perfectly, in the right order, and at the best possible times. It also means that you should be willing to admit defeat if it doesn’t pan out. After all, admitting defeat isn’t the worst thing ever: you can go back to a full-time job with a steady income and just make games on the side again.