This will be a bit personal. Some explanation of this website’s recent change in title seems warranted, however it would be impossible to do so without providing some personal and historical context.
For the first year, this content was created for a site called GameDevLessons. The site is now, as you have probably noticed, called HobbyGameDev:
Why the Change?
I removed the “Lessons” part because, although there is content here to help people get started, that is only a small part of what I write about. The other 60-80% of my writing is project retrospectives, game design philosophy, interviews, motivation/compromise strategies, on the cultural and intellectual value of videogames, and so on.
People coming here looking for lessons were finding that only a fraction of the content met their expectations.
People that might well have found value in the other writing here weren’t coming, because the name was implying something that they weren’t looking for.
How “Lessons” Got There
GameDevLessons was originally envisioned as a site to support giving private lessons in videogame development. That didn’t scale well – I spent more time trying to find qualified, paying clients than actually teaching – so I instead started adapting my lesson plans, strategies, and example source code into 10-20 pages of online content each month.
This reached considerably more people, quickly in the thousands instead of in the dozens, then the tens of thousands, then…
This gave every reader total flexibility to advance at their own pace, dig into outside material when necessary, and experiment at their whim, with my content playing a supporting role instead of trying to serve as a core driver.
This also this enabled me to focus on explaining videogame development instead of getting tied up in the search for students. And I could focus exclusively on game development, instead of answering questions about microtransactions, advertising dollars, in-app-purchases, and other things that I do not know very well, and in reply to which my answer was generally either “I don’t know,” or “I don’t care.”
Everyone wins! I was gleefully fulfilling my purpose.
I just made $0 doing it.
So, I instead covered my costs by developing videogames. My time dabbling in corporate game development as a technical game designer left it pretty clear that I wouldn’t be happy going back to that sort of environment. Good people, good games, but big projects move like glaciers and demand specialization – I’m restless and insist on having my hands in everything, so I turned professional indie.
Alas, that’s not as freeing as it sounds.
Inherently, part of the challenge with big company videogame development (as it seemed in my narrow time at EA) is Internal Customers – designing something to satisfy a manager within the company (executive producer, lead designer, director, etc.), and just hoping that the Internal Customer’s sense of value is closely tuned and calibrated to match those of the end users. Unless your end user is making six figures, or your executive producer is a teenager, there’s a decent chance that this isn’t the case.
Although NY publisher Sonic Boom did offer helpful feedback and support for the games that I developed for them, they were great about leaving me with enough latitude and creative direction so as to avoid the challenges of Internal Customers. This gave me a chance to focus on making things for players instead. Developing videogames directly for the players presents a different sort of challenge, though.
What I learned in the process was that just as Internal Managers can formally become Internal Customers, what are literally the External Customers – the players – tend to informally become External Managers.
And there are a lot of them. Hundreds of thousands of them. If you’re really (un?)lucky, there are millions of them. Just like internal managers, they all ask for contradictory things, and if you don’t try to make them all happy they can cause you trouble.
Did I mention there are a lot of them?
Hobby Game Development
I introduced the word “hobby” to the site’s title because, even though videogame making was how I stayed ahead of rent, that wasn’t where I started, and it wasn’t what made me happiest or most productive. I started as a hobbyist. I made ~4 games/year for 10 years (plus 7 months making 200+ experimental gameplay projects) before there was money attached to any of them. I loved making those games.
With the lone exception of Alice in Bomberland (published by Sonic Boom), my favorite projects have been those that I made for free, working with no budget, paying no attention to demographics or monetization strategies or customer expectations. The projects where I woke up excited one morning, had something blurry in mind that I couldn’t wait to bring shape to, and blasted together over the next few days, weeks, or even months on end of sleepless nights.
Since commercializing my efforts – and despite giving those my very best effort and attention – I have not been as happy with the work that came from the process. Players responded well to Topple (published by ngmoco) and iZombie: Death March (published by Sonic Boom), although I prefer playing Burn 2 or Battleship 88.
Had commercial videogame development been where I started, I fear it would have poisoned my work. It throws me off. It messes up my mojo. It disturbs my force. There are people that can do their best work when money is involved – certainly to succeed in doing so enables a different level of marketing for visibility (here it succeeded for Topple), and funding for collaborative art support (here it succeeded for Alice in Bomberland and iZombie Death March). And yet, doing those projects made me feel drained, not invigorated. Frustrated, somehow, more than proud, even when the resulting work came out well.
I worry what the long-term effect might be on my work if I continue to rely on commercial game making.
I realize now that my best game making may always be what I do on the side for free.
Celebrating and Evangelizing the Hobby
I choose to celebrate these hobby projects, to encourage others to develop hobby projects, to focus first and foremost on what is being made.
Rather than worrying about the commercial success (or lack) of it, see the freedom as a blessing: to not yet have had such a massive success as to be wary of taking risks on the next project, to not yet have worked yourself into a corner of needing to make changes you disagree with on account of internal or external customers asking for them, to really and truly be free to do whatever you wish with your ideas and your projects.
There’s a very special level of freedom in what we do for free.
Because even if one of the games takes off commercially, even if one of them winds up pulling you briefly into the spotlight, you may just find yourself scrambling on the side to still have an outlet where the work can purely be yours, and not 7/8-ths whatever past customers are demanding, nor 7/8-ths what must be accounted for in the company’s interests.
feelforit is my favorite iPhone project that I’ve made, and Transcend is my favorite iPad project that I’ve made (no iPad? Curious what Transcend is? Full play through video / or try my full in-browser port). I’m even more excited for the upcoming release of Tumult [update from the future: now also available free in-browser]. Each of those projects took me less than a week to develop, and didn’t cost a penny.
I’m not anti-money, although I realize it may sound like that. I’m just increasingly anti-designing-around-money. Burnit followed the same tiny schedule, lack of budget, and reckless disregard for customer expectations as those previously listed projects, and after I left it free for nearly a year to wind up in many people’s hands I experimented with putting a price on it. It’s doing alright – and meanwhile, I feel better about making money from what I thought was worth making, rather than making what I thought was worth money.
Likewise, from time to time, I experiment with pricing on my various other app store entries (the self-published ones are the crazy looking ones). None of my hobby projects were designed to make money – that much is clear from how odd they are – and though I struggle about placing any restrictions on who can play with my hobby apps, I have to remind myself that I am always giving so much else away. In light of my writing, my experimental gameplay projects, my PC freeware, and the countless copies that I give away free of every iPhone project, asking a fair cost for a few of my better received work doesn’t seems too crazy.
The other consideration in this regard is that people treat and think about things differently when they pay for them – I’ve read every book that I’ve purchased at full price, but I confess that I have finished very few of the books that I’ve come upon for free or in $1 street sales. I think that part of the reason the general public never paid much attention to great freeware games is because there’s an assumption among them that what is free must be worthless, or at least ought to be given lower priority in their lives than what they spent money on.
I wonder how much more attention and focus someone gives an app that they spend a few dollars on, compared to one that they download in a 20 app free download spree? If I get only a trickle of downloads with a price on it, but that trickle of downloads translates to people actually playing with it, then I greatly prefer that scenario over the one in which of hundreds more download it daily, only to let it gather cyber dust, played once then buried pages deep on their phone never to be thought about again.
Paying the Bills
There’s not much real money in this approach, because my self-published experimental hobby projects don’t look anything like what my 200,000+ external managers ask for. These don’t shine from months of polish. A bunch of them aren’t even games in the traditional sense, just real-time interactive thingies, perhaps “videogames” but certainly not “games” by any definition – I was likely, in part, rebelling against the literal concepts and structured rules that modern gamers have come to assume and expect. A lot of them are bottom-up design to the extreme, raw and abstract, even though the market for that style of gameplay (outside of puzzle games) mostly dried up decades ago. For my hobby projects, I’m ok with that. Even proud of it.
Pro-Tip: most of the “gaming” money is in the gambling industry, anyway.
Reminder: so long as projects can be made for $0 – and it has never in history been easier to make such incredible things in such short periods of time without spending any money – our creative work does not need to be constrained by what we can turn into a business.
Although I’m still considering a small game contract or two on the side, as a career move I’m in a multi-year process of transitioning out of professional videogame development into research and teaching.
Whatever work I’m doing, I’ll still be making videogames as a hobby. Look forward to even more absurdity, diversity in purpose, variation in style, and risk taking than I was able to do when videogame creation was my profession.
Hobby videogame development is free. Free to do, free from external pressures, and often (though not always) free to share. Professional full-time developers – their employers willing – can do it on the side. Anyone anywhere can do it on the side. It’s about making something worth making, to be played because it’s worth playing, bringing new things into existence because we want them to exist.
If there’s a smaller audience for it – whether a circle of friends, a dozen people across the globe with peculiar tastes, or even just the project’s author – is no matter, and to trouble the mind with such questions is to lose sight on what’s important about videogame development as a hobby.
The less I worry, the faster I work, and the happier I am with the results.
Architecture and Pillowforts
Commercial videogame development is architecture.
Hobby videogame development is making pillowforts from anything in reach.
If you’re spending money on making your pillowforts, or stressing out over how to make money from your pillowforts, you’re doing it wrong.
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