"Going Indie" pt. 1: The importance of "validation"
Published 2 years ago
"Going Indie" is a series of articles intended to be a sort of repository of the experiences and lessons learned in my (ongoing) journey to become a game developer, with a focus on the human - rather than the technical or business - side of the experience
After co-founding a company (an irrelevant to this article tech-related business) ten years ago, and after getting my feet wet with Unity with some (fortunately paid!) simple non-game related projects (and some basic, "feeler" gaming projects), I finally decided a couple of months ago to pursue my lifelong dream of start making games full time.
With no prior game development experience, no real budget to speak of, and no other resources than myself, the tools and equipment I have "amassed" over these last few years and sheer willpower, I "founded" (such a big word!) my very own game development studio - a "one-man shop" as "indie" as it gets.
In this instalment, I offer a lesson I consider one of the most valuable I learned, and one I wish someone had taught me back when I started considering the idea of going at it. I really hope it serves its purpose.

Going Indie is most definitely not for everyone

Leaving college, a company or a steady job to jump into the deep, unknown and potentially freezing waters of the game development industry is not something everyone just "does" or can do. As inspiring as those "dropped-it-all-and-became-successful" stories you usually come across are, most of us are under a unique set of circumstances that makes taking such a decision really difficult, and although I am a sucker for a nice feel-good story as the next guy, I am actually aware (unlike many) that such stories reflect the exception, not the norm: only a tiny fraction of those that take such a radical approach do indeed succeed.
Why? Well, for starters, not everyone has a partner (wife, husband, boy/girlfriend) or parents that accept and understand the rationale behind a decision to "abandon" a somewhat sure pay check (or drop from college, or whatnot) to "make games".
And no one can blame them - it's totally normal and understandable for someone who cares for you to think "this is a bad idea", and in many cases, they are absolutely right. The risks involved, the uncertainty and the high probability of watching you fall into failure are a heavy burden to lay on their shoulders, especially in those cases where there is a dependency on your income.
Also, there is the most important factor: the "you" factor. "Going indie", an expression I'll use often to refer to the whole process I'm trying to document here, is very hard and demanding work. Most of us don't really have the discipline and determination needed to make it all work.
Even worse: as was my case at the beginning, some of us will even "lie" to ourselves to justify the decision we are making. I had no real plan, no backup money, nothing - but I desperately wanted to do it, so I came up with all kinds of justifications to compensate for a lack of evidence that supported my decision.
And please, don't think this is all I can come up with. There are as many possible considerations as there are sets of circumstances - I am just committing to those I think could be the most common, and restraining myself from creating a downer of an article no one will care about.
See, I'm not here to discourage any one from following their dreams - quite the contrary: if anything, I am just trying to make chasing them easier. This the most valuable lesson I learned in this whole adventure, and sharing it might actually help someone else avoid the pitfalls and traps I encountered (or made for myself), all the while helping me cement these conclusions even further into my mind.
And help, hopefully, comes in the form of how I dealt with all of the above once I understood I was in a bad place: validation.

Ask yourself the hard questions

It is my very personal (but also very strong) opinion that you must ask yourself the hard questions before making any big decision, and more importantly, you need to be able to get honest, truthful and unbiased answers to them; you shouldn't rely solely on instinct, or the so called "gut feeling", or whatever opinion you may have formed in your mind about the subject or even about yourself; these are not irrelevant, but I don't think they will reveal to you the whole picture.
If you are still reading (thank you!), by now you must be asking: what are those hard questions? I'll give you some examples of the ones I asked myself (albeit later than I should have): do you really understand what you're getting into? What are the implications for you, your family and close ones? Are you really willing to make the sacrifices needed in order to keep the lights on?
More so: do you have the knowledge to actually do this? If you don't think so, do you have the time and resources (and the WILL) to put in the needed hours to learn? Are you aware of the scope of what you need to learn about?
Those are not easy questions to answer, and there are several ways to get answers to them. I won't pretend to be wise here, showing everyone the path to enlightenment through some sage advice - because I couldn't be farther from being that guy.
What I will do is share how I got my answers, and hope that it might help you find yours while avoiding the traps and pitfalls I fell into.

Make yourself validate your decisions

As mentioned before, instinct and gut feeling are important (of course!), but you should not rely solely on their advice to move on. More often than not, we have a tendency to think very highly of our own views and opinions, and many of us demonstrate a strong bias against opposing views and ideas, blinded by our beliefs and values expressed through our own way of seeing the world.
My personal experience and that of many others I've talked about this is that the most effective results are achieved when you get the validation yourself, whereas people tend to dismiss more easily validation coming from other sources, especially from friends, relatives or even loved ones.
There are many ways you can process your decision making and validate your decisions yourself; you might want to go and "take a look around" to see what you can find. I can only offer you a glimpse into what worked for me, and of course, your mileage may vary - wildly.
I am a firm believer in the "proof of concept" philosophy, instilled into my work and life ethos by my long time business partner - a much wiser guy than I'll ever be - especially as a method to come up with potentially alternative views and opinions myself, instead of relying or expecting them from someone else. I have learned (the hard way) to trust this method, and I make a very conscious effort to contradict my strong tendency to act impulsively by trying to apply this philosophy to each big decision, both on a work and personal levels.
Proofing a concept is not a hard methodology. It has no defined steps, it is not a recipe, and you don't need to make charts, spreadsheets or even necessarily write anything to have a go at it - and that is the beauty of it.
A proof of concept is more common sense than anything else, and we do it most of the time, even if in a sort of "unconscious" way. To illustrate the idea, let's say you pass by a shoe store, and you see some sneakers you like. Do you go inside, ask for a pair and buy them blindly? Most likely, the answer is "of course not". You ask for a pair that matches your size, you try them on for fit, comfort, etc., and if you still feel like it, then you buy a pair. Right? Of course! Who in her/his right mind would buy a pair of shoes without trying them on first? Right?
I think you get the idea now. "Trying the shoes on" is, in the end, a proof of concept. Don't let the expression "proof of concept" fool you into thinking it is more complex than that - it is most definitely not.
With this in mind, please think about this: why would someone in her/his right mind would not do this when facing a life changing decision, especially if it affects others? Right?
When I decided to "go indie" and start making games, I didn't necessarily ignore this principle - I just cheated. A lot. There were some questions about my ability to take a game development project from start to finish that I underestimated on purpose, because I wanted so badly to make games that I was (even if subconsciously) willing to, as mentioned before, lie to myself in order to justify my decision.
I rationalised aspects of the process as "easy" or even "trivial" without any grounds to do so. And I assumed that being dedicated, putting in the long hours and what not would compensate for any misjudgements. Boy, was I wrong (more on that later).
In summary, I didn't validate my answers.
I won't go too deep into my process because I don't want to "contaminate" yours with my own experiences (since everyone is a different case) but what I can do is give you the major points I tried to validate (when I finally actually did it) and the impact this had on my professional and personal life.

Coming to terms with reality

A very short time after blindly throwing myself into game development, believing that everything was going to go according to my own assumptions, I was recalled back to earth quite, er, "vigorously" by several realisations. The following list of affirmations is not in any particular order, mainly because it is hard for me to consider one more important or "heavier" than the others, but these were the things I believed when I started:
  • I understood the whole process of creating a project with Unity;
  • I trusted my abilities to do proper 3D modelling, especially UV unwrapping and mesh optimisation;
  • I always thought my coding skills were above average, and I was sure I would absolutely master C# in a few weeks and I didn't really believe in best practices;
  • In my mind, it didn't make much sense to start with something really simple; I thought: "If I pretend to make a living out of this business, I better start working on something that has selling potential". That meant I went for a really ambitious and complex project, with a huge scope that was very much out of my league and available time frame and resources;
  • I believed that I was capable of just getting from a regular, office-hours job, to a self-managed, uncontrolled and overly flexible, stay-at-home work schedule.
I was dead wrong about all these assumptions, and most importantly, I was in denial about most of them, and it seemed like there was no way out of the hole I dug myself into.

A better course of action

I am a VERY lucky person. I say this because I have something most people in this kind of situation has not: support and help from someone trusted and with the right experience. In my specific case, support came in the form of a sit down with my business partner that made me come to my senses, admit that I was indeed wrong, and then do something about it right away.
Again, not everyone has this kind of support "at hand" - and this is one of the main reasons why I am writing these articles: I hope they provide at least a glimpse of support for those who need it.
After being slapped in the face with the cold, wet hand of realisation, I had two possible paths to follow: sulk in my misery, feel sorry for myself and abandon the whole game dev idea, or accept my mistakes, get my head up and work on solving the real problems.
The way I did it - and still do - was through the philosophy of proof of concepts I mentioned earlier. I sort of decided that a good way of going through all my erroneous assumptions quickly and check out the whole picture, so to speak, was actually do a very small project from start to finish.
Being a small project doesn't mean it is not difficult, or complex, or does not provide enough information or answers - all it means is it should be something you can manage to actually do, something that will at least make evident the gaps in your capacity to progress at a fair pace. I chose to do a replica of a simple arcade game, with a couple of twists that would force me to use techniques and resources I was not entirely (or at all) familiar with, and that was not really meant to be published: the whole idea was to actually finish the thing in a reasonable amount of time, i.e.: proofing the concept that I was indeed able to carry the project to its conclusion.
Here are the insights I could gather from that experience:
  • I was under the obligation of really investing time in understanding and properly planning the project and its scope;
  • It made me realise I needed to learn to properly go through the whole 3D workflow - from correctly creating 3D topology, to UV mapping and texturing, etc.;
  • Since my code looked good to me, I invested some time in going through every article, previous Unite video sessions, available training sessions, etc., on Unity's best practices - I cannot emphasise enough how deeply important this is. You need to stand in the shoulders of those who had previously gone through the hardship to spare yourself the troubles. As good a coder as you might be, if you don't take advantage of these best practices, you'll probably end up having to do more work, you'll create inefficient code and generally will make your life more difficult;
  • The relative simplicity of the concept of the game I was implementing allowed me to start seeing results and testing the first prototypes myself in a couple of days, and gave me the confidence to show it to a few critical eyes in merely a week after starting work on it; doing this was one of the most eye-opening experiences of my life, and all my (then new) assumptions were challenged in different ways by each individual point of view. These play tests, done by friends and family while I watched, led to some radical changes in gameplay that I wouldn't be able to foresee by myself, and generally made the game better for everyone, and infused me with much needed enthusiasm to keep going;
  • I made myself work under a schedule, keep "office hours", go out of the house-office every day at least for an hour (mandatory!) and generally keep an eye out for my health and physical state; if find this the most difficult thing to do with discipline, as every time I sit down to work on something exciting always makes me forget the world around me and the needs of my body.
At the end of about 7 weeks, I had a final product, one I could proudly show around, have people play and continue using as an ongoing learning experience. But all I learned during the process makes actually having the final game pale in comparison. It set a baseline standard for future projects, made me think better about how to tackle them and, in general, made my life better.
By no means would I pretend to have the hubris to think I am done now, that I have all the answers I need and that I will always be able to come on top of any challenge thrown at me - quite the contrary: I am now aware of my limitations, I have accepted that I will need help going forward (and to not be afraid to ask for it), but above all this, I know have the tools I need - and the courage - to ask myself those hard questions, apply my previous lessons learned to find the answers I need and keep moving forward.
I have proven myself the concept of proof of concepts. I hope you can find your own way, and if any of this very verbose diatribe helps, I am very glad it could be of help.
And thank you very much for reading!
Please feel free to comment and make suggestions. Maybe you are more interested in some topics of this subject than those I am planning on covering, but I'd be more than glad to accommodate anything that can be of use to as many people as possible.
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Vitor Enes
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