I would rather be happy...
Published 2 years ago
From wealthy programmer to impoverished game developer --my journey
Four years ago, I was miserable. I hated my job. Dry programming made great money -- and I was good at it -- but I could barely drag myself to the computer each day. Hating my work was poisoning every aspect of my life. My wife was threatening to divorce me if I couldn't find a way to be happy. I needed a change; then one day I discovered Unity. Suddenly I knew what I wanted to do. I was actually shocked by the intensity of my desire to develop games. It felt good to be exited about something. This wasn't something I wanted, this was something I needed. I quit my job.
My hands were shaking the first day and I had a pit in my stomache. Could I really do this? I was afraid to tell people I was trying to develop games. I felt foolish. Especially with a wife and two children to support. I had been a successful programming consultant for a decade. If we were thrifty our savings might last a year.
My first game, Toybox Racer, would be a racing/track-building game for iOS. I had never attempted game development before. With a solid background as a programmer, a physics degree, a passion for games and good artistic skills, how hard could it be? A working prototype took a month. I then bought a Mac Mini and iPod touch and tried my game on a device: one frame per second. It took another five months to optimize and flesh out, and then release to the App Store. Toybox Racer was not a financial success. I felt sick and terrified. Without a significant source of income, Digital Opus wouldn't survive. I had enough remaining resources to gamble and spend another six months trying to make another game, but I was disheartened and pessimistic. 
That is when I read a Gamasutra article by a developer who was bringing in a resonable income from the Unity Asset Store. Perhaps there was a different way to make money from Toybox Racer. There were a number of reusable components that I had created for the game that could be isolated and released as independent script packages.
In the summer of 2012, I submitted my first package, Ramp Brush to the Unity Asset Store. It only made about twenty sales per month, but this almost covered the rent. I remember being absolutely elated receiving my first review:
I doubt the author if this comment knows it, but this was the spark that lit the fire that got me through the long night. Over the following year I released five more assets: Ramp Brush, Crater Brush, Mesh Baker, Mesh Baker LOD and Mesh Master. Between them, my Unity Asset Store packages were bringing in just enough income to survive. This was an immense relief. However, I had not set out to be a middleware developer. My goal was to exercise my creativity, and to build my own games. Maintaining and supporting my script packages took half of my time. I could focus the remainder of my time on game development.
In the fall of 2013, I developed three game prototypes and decided that the most promising was an asteroid mining economic sim. After a month of work it was becoming obvious that there was nothing distinctive or exciting about the economic management component. However, the game had a unique navigation system. Players could conserve fuel by tethering to asteroids and space debris. This mechanic was challenging and strangely addictive. My children loved it. Their friends loved it. Other aspects of the game were dropped and I focused my efforts on the momentum-based gameplay.
In late October of 2015 I submitted EVA Infinity to Steam Greenlight and IGF. The game still needs a lot of polish, but initial feedback has been very positive. One of the best things about enjoying my work is that it is not just about the end product. The process itself has been a blast. I love Unity. I love Blender. My artistic skills are far stronger than before, and steadily improving. Best of all, I feel juiced and perpetually challenged by this field of work.
I am still working solo in a small home office. My 'studio' should more accurately be called my 'basement'. But I like my life. I am excited about my work -- in fact, I intensely enjoy it, which is something I couldn't say four years ago.
Ian Deane