Posted on the 7th of March 2017
10 Years ago, I made the decision to start a games company. 10 years! I never imagined I would get to this point and to celebrate, go buy my games – I made them all 80% off to mark the occasion: http://store.steampowered.com/search/?developer=Xiotex%20Studios%20Ltd
Up until 2007I had worked as a coder for many different games studios and a pattern was emerging – working in games was not a stable career. In all the places I had worked when things don’t quite go right or a game comes to the end of its development redundancies happen. Thankfully I had always managed to avoid the redundancy rounds but many of my colleagues had not. It was getting rare to find somebody who hadn’t at some point been made redundant.
As a coder on a project you’re often in an odd position, especially if you’re not in a management role. It’s far too easy to see things going wrong but be powerless to change it. I’ve seen that far too often. I always equate it to seeing a train wreck happen in slow motion right in front of you and the most you can do is be a spectator. It can be frustrating. The worst thing about it is that your fate is in the hands of somebody else. That’s not something I was ever that comfortable about – I hate being out of control. This would be a huge factor in my finally making the break later.
Reading the above paragraph back to myself and it reads like the games industry was a terrible place all the time and it wasn’t. There were some great experiences and I got to work with some amazing people on amazing projects. If your setting out for the first time into the games industry and you’re wondering about going full indie or working for a studio first to get some experience, then I fully recommend going the studio route first. Chances are you’re going to have a great time too.
It was while I was working at Lionhead Studios on the console version of The Movies that I had met Cliff Harris. He was the lead AI coder on the PC version but he was also an indie developer making his own games on the side. Towards the end of the PC version Cliff left Lionhead to go full time indie and we kept in touch. Every now and then he would message me to tell me how many copies of his games he had sold that day. It took me a while to make that break but Cliff was the main inspiration for it.
I wasn’t quite ready to make the break but it was my ambition. I always had a plan though and to achieve this plan I needed to get some first-hand experience. The best way to do this was to go and work for indies that were an inspiration to me. I was incredibly lucky to land a role at two of my heroes in indie game development – Introversion and Pom Pom. Introversion showed me the importance of innovation and community while Pom Pom showed me the importance of not caring about engines but that the game was the most important thing, especially finishing them and getting them out there.
In March 2007, I finally did it and decided not to go hunting for the next role but to work on my own games and sell them. That’s when the fun started. I knew how to make games but I didn’t have a clue how to sell them. Things like Steam Greenlight didn’t exist and getting on a console as a small indie was impossible. That didn’t stop me though. Cliff was selling his games through his own website and I was going to do the same thing. For the next two months, I set out to make a game engine which was newbie mistake number one, the second newbie mistake started to kick in during month number three as an indie.
I’d left being a full-time employee without building up enough money to keep going as an indie. In retrospect, I should have been saving up in preparation but I hadn’t. I should also have gone into lean start up mode and cut down on my costs but I had been well paid as an employee and adjusting to a leaner lifestyle wasn’t something I had expected. By month three the money was running out. If there’s one piece of advice I always give out to people thinking of going full time indie is make sure you have a lot of money in the bank to keep you going while you make that game.
Money was running out but fate stepped up to the mark and I started to get calls from companies looking to hire me as a contract coder. This was ideal, I could get an income while not being tied down to a full-time position. I was still working for my own company and that made all the difference to me. Yes, the income was dependent on the hiring company but my boss was me, nobody else. I had a professional responsibility to the company I was supplying services to but my fate was under my own control. Fail or success was finally completely down to me.
I’ve released something like 14 games during the last 10 years, none of them have been what you would call a hit but they did provide a modest income. The rest of the time I supplemented the lack of funds by doing the occasional contract job. Not only did they keep my company running but they also helped with the isolation that comes from working on your own. It would take until 2013 before my big break happened.
I was sat in a coffee shop in London talking about my latest game with the journalist Will Freeman. This game was called ‘So Hungry’ and it was all about being homeless. It was inspired by my recent trip to GDC where I was asked to speak. While out there I was shocked by the levels of homelessness in San Francisco. Somehow the conversation had steered away from So Hungry and onto the topic of Will’s love of arcade Shoot-em-ups. I was also a fan of this type of game and it got me thinking. So Hungry was stalled currently. Nintendo had shown an interest and sent me a WiiU dev kit to make a WiiU version but the game was made in Unity and Unity for WiiU was a long way off being ready. I decide to take a few weeks out and make a shoot-em-up instead.
Over the next two weeks I made Blast Em! for the PC. I wasn’t expecting to do much with this game other than release the source code so people could see there was more than one way to make a game using Unity. It was going well and the game was fun. I showed it to Andy Payne who was the CEO of the publisher Mastertronic and the next thing I know they want to show it to Valve to have it published on Steam. I wasn’t at all convinced it was a game suitable for Steam and initially resisted this move. They convinced me to let Valve make that decision and I agreed. I’d built in analytics so I could tell when the game was being played. Somebody in Valve played Blast Em! over 400 times in three days. The next thing I know Valve gave it the greenlight and it was going to be published on Steam.
Sadly, Mastertronic eventually folded. Before they did the made sure that each game was handed back to the developer along with a developer account on Steam. This means I don’t have the historical data for the sales of the game but going by SteamSpy, not that I think SteamSpy is completely accurate, there are 105k owners of Blast Em!
Blast Em! was the first time a game had provided enough income to allow me to work for a while without having to supplement with contract work. I now have four games on Steam and another one coming out in approximately a month.
It’s been a hell of a ride these last ten years but looking back at all the good and bad times I must conclude it’s been completely worth it. I’m not rich but I am running a business that’s keeping itself afloat. Best of all – I love my job!
Have I mentioned that I’ve discounted all my games by 80% to celebrate the 10 years as an indie? No? WOW, you would have thought it was the first thing I’d mention, okay, here they are, go buy them: http://store.steampowered.com/search/?developer=Xiotex%20Studios%20Ltd
Done it yet?
While you’re there follow me on twitter: http://twitter.com/xiotexTweet