This is a guest post by Rachel Presser of Sonic Toad. Check out her website if you are interested in learning more about freelance work, game development and marketing!
“Is this game EVER going to come out?! When does the part where I get to solely focus on game-making come in?” is a phrase I’ve probably uttered numerous times throughout my career.
Notice I didn’t say “career path”. “Path” implies that it’s something trodden by many feet all striving to reach the same destination. I liken my fondness of career paths to my growing up with old school adventure games: a linear path that seems safe despite the dead-ends that can easily happen. It appealed to me when I was younger, far less so now. Adventure games were a new and bold undertaking back then so it took a while for game designers to really develop a knack for things, like making sure that you didn’t get dead-ended if you forgot to pick up that moldy block of cheese in the dungeon or something.
Compare that to today’s adventure games where we have branching narratives with multiple endings, more diverse characters and casts, hard-hitting topics and themes, and flicking dead ends off of the design process like unwanted boogers. Like those old school adventure games, career paths have their nostalgic charm which barely apply in modern society anymore. Or for the games industry in particular– in a totally different manner.
Back when I graduated high school not much longer after 9/11, we didn’t have game design programs in schools and all these other things that seem like mind-blowing dreams come true to people in my age bracket. “Indie developer” hadn’t entered our lexicon yet, you were known as shareware back in the 90s and the shareware world was having a difficult time reconciling with the awkward teenage years AAA/frontline gaming was experiencing. If you wanted a games career, you basically had to have a graphic design or comp sci major and go to California or Washington to try shouldering your way into AAA studios and repeating this process every six months.
I was inadvertently stuck in a dead end as far as career paths were concerned because none of those options seemed to be it for me. Well, that’s why they’re paths opposed to journeys of varying roughness that can turn into the modern branching narrative where you have more choice over what happens throughout the game. Many people who are also on the older end of the Millennial generation feel this way whether they work for someone else, have their own ship, or some combination of the two. But the path to a games career isn’t always linear.
And are you ready for the big reveal? It doesn’t have to be.
You have more options available to you than seeking a job or giving up everything up to go indie. The paths to these are also not always as linear as “go to school, get a job at a studio, then see what happens”.
You’ll hear the following in the games world frequently:
“Don’t quit your day job.”
“I wouldn’t bank my future on an indie game.”
“You’re angling for an investor or a publisher? Can’t you just get a job and make games on the weekend?”
There’s definitely a ring of truth to these statements. It wasn’t terribly long ago in my games career continuum that getting a game onto Steam meant that an indie developer had hit the big time and had a guaranteed meal ticket. Then the clusterfuck known as Greenlight came to pass and got the axe a couple years later. Now discoverability on Steam is a huge problem and SteamSpy just ground to a halt. I covered the stats on how much media is released annually compared to games on Gamasutra: are there really “too many games” in an increasingly noisy world? Or does the question become, “Why is it only games that only seem to get this stigma since no one says there’s too many books, films, or other media that’s been around a lot longer?”
Nevertheless, games are a risky business. But taking calculated risk is good.
You’re indoctrinated to think otherwise.
Look at how much of our society is built on assuming every person under the sun has a job, that self-employed people can’t possibly exist unless you’re either severely struggling or you’re a millionaire. (It can take a while to reach somewhere in the middle, which is the reality for most professional hustlers like myself.)
Yes, betting it all on one game and having little or no income coming in is definitely a position most people can’t afford to be in unless you got a spouse or parent willing and able to support you until your release date. But given how I spent the middle of 2014 applying to over 500 jobs with a 1% success rate at getting interviews, I figured that there had to be more narratives to this whole indie developer thing that hadn’t been discovered yet. Because I did the whole “have a job while you run a game studio” thing and it didn’t work out for several reasons. I’ve been job-free since mid-2014. I got my sign to leave the tax law field when the very last interview I had resulted in a job I lasted precisely one day at.
After the joyous rebirth I experienced and the novelty of leaving the financial industry wore off and financial reality started setting in, I started a second business which wound up exploding to the point that my old studio and new game ideas took a backseat.
It Started With a Dream
Doesn’t it always? Most of us can pinpoint that moment we fell in love with games and it spurred that urge to make our own: to tell a story, to entertain, make a statement, provide respite to someone who badly needs it.
I didn’t have the easiest formative years, something I’d later find in common with my peers in the punk and hardcore scene then many of the people I’d also meet in the indie adventure game scene. Games were my ultimate escape. Playing those classic adventure games and numerous obscure Mac shareware titles made me want to make my own and also gave me an appreciation for not just early indie developers but niche media in general.
Games weren’t my only form of escape. Music, movies, books, commercial and underground radio, and TV shows all in various levels of renown and obscurity: I wanted to give all of them a shot in some way.
Sonic Toad Media was born in 2015 and I never imagined it was going to lead to things like traveling the country getting paid to rant and living out so many of the dreams that games put in me when I was really young. But it all went down in a completely different manner than I envisioned. My business is called Sonic Toad Media, not Sonic Toad Games, not because of the tiresome respectability politics when it comes to telling people outside the gaming industry that you participate in it, but because games aren’t the only thing I create. I write, make e-courses, developed an interest in streaming media as I watched it evolve, had hardcore bands and will come back to it someday (currently pursuing a retrowave/darkwave album as a soloist!) I’ve given so much different media a try, some that I stuck with and others I decided weren’t for me, and love seeing all the exciting new developments in digital media and the endless possibilities in creation and distribution.
So…keeping it limited to just to games seemed disingenuous. Concretely speaking, it also meant diversifying my risk and literally doing whatever I want.
Life By Your Design
For most people, they want to go freelance or start a business because of having more control over one’s life and time. And we live in a world that’s highly interconnected! Not barring areas where access to high-speed internet isn’t guaranteed, it’s gotten easier than ever to take your work anywhere. Today’s phones are more robust than the computers I trained on when I was a bright-eyed bushy-tailed young thing (that was a time when communications would come to a screeching halt if you went across the country, let alone left it.)
This is just partly why “have a job while you work on the game” didn’t work for me. It was too restrictive. Economically speaking, it put all the eggs in one basket so that when I lost my job, I was totally screwed. I couldn’t even get unemployment because I had to tell the state that I owned a game studio and they disallowed it! So when I wasn’t even guaranteed the same protections as other workers like unemployment comp, I really saw no incentive to look for another job once I was mentally exhausted after 500+ applications.
Then in terms of what the job could do for me beyond a paycheck: well, I was going from shitty tax office to shitty tax office. This is different if you’re talking about a job in game dev, media, TV, or maybe an unrelated field you’re passionate about whether you see some crossover to games or not. But I was in an unrelated field that literally wasn’t doing anything for the career I wanted. It was just a paycheck.
It wasn’t security.
People tend to think jobs are synonymous with security, but they’re not necessarily. If you get the axe during a round of layoffs, or your new manager doesn’t like you and you’re fired, maybe you’ll luck out and seamlessly go to another job. Or it could take an untold amount of time to find another one even if you’ve built up a solid amount of contacts and got friends with leads. Either way, even if you’ve got a great job that you love and has great co-workers and pay? You can still unwittingly wind up on the chopping block. Especially in this industry where funding is often as secure as a boulder being held in place with dental floss. At the end of the day, you don’t have control over what goes down.
But security isn’t just about having money to pay bills. Security is the result of control.
Control over your time. Control over what you charge. Who you do and don’t work with. If you’re finding that you can’t hold down a job and just don’t seem to click with it? My advice is to get started building a following and forming some kind of online presence. Whether it’s all-business or a mix of business and eccentricity like mine. Because putting yourself out there by being searchable, as well as having some kind of presence in meatspace and building up countless relationships, are what give you options. Options for different types of work, different industries, even different kinds of passive income and ways you can parlay your skills in a manner you never imagined that you would. Check out my Gamasutra piece on professional networking to see what I mean.
With both the active and passive income streams I formed with Sonic Toad, and knowing that several options were always around the corner and I had control over my time, I hadn’t quite achieved the dream of working on games full time: but I DID build a life by my design.
One where I can just buy a bus ticket on a whim to stay with a friend or in a hostel in a different city to get a change of scene since most of my work can come with me. Where I can stay at home if I’m super busy or go anywhere where I can set up with my laptop if I’m dying to just leave the house for a while. A life where I can hit the gym long after the 9-5 crowd leaves then see a movie at 2PM on a Tuesday to avoid weekend crowds, and don’t have to instantly say “no” to things like game jams abroad, non-game conventions, and causes I care about because I’d only get so many vacation and sick days.
Most of all, it’s a life where I can get to work on my game and other creations and go to game dev events without having to get up early for a job the next day, or worry about what will happen if I lose that job. I have two slow periods during most years, so I do my best to work on my own stuff in that time. Because knowing that there’s other clients taking the place of one that I lose and other income streams to try? There’s so many barriers that just come down in terms of believing in your own potential: creative, entrepreneurial, and otherwise.
So hey, I didn’t bet it at all on one horse in terms of riding everything on one game. I get to be a full-time dev in short spurts. But it works for me. I stagnate doing the same thing for too long. I’m working towards my goal of doing more creative than business and marketing work, but I love helping game devs and other creatives decode the business and financial end of things and empower them…so it also works!