In the middle of July 2013 I got back to France as unemployed (I was working in Japan before, to make some iOS games). Unemployment in France, if you worked long enough before getting in this situation, is a good opportunity to start a new company as you are paid a part of your previous salary for some time (15 months for me). I decided to focus on my own projects to prepare myself to make a living from them.
I already knew the time necessary to setup a project that I could live from would be longer than a year so I focused on getting enough momentum in these projects to be able to continue later on good bases.
Now I reached the end of this period and it’s time for learning from my mistakes. Maybe it will be useful for others.
[EDIT: I added some short notes because this big raw and actually incomplete post-mortem wasn't clear enough on some points, in particular the information I omitted on purpose,
or the fact that I'm not feeling bad at all, just "could do better" kind of mindset. These edit notes are marked like this message. ]
[NOTE: I'm sorry it's a bit long and I couldn't re-read as many time I wanted, but I really need to switch to something else now]
1. Initial Goals
1.1. Setup a playable (but certainly unfinished) version of NetRush which I would be able to show to some people.
NetRush is the second version of a game I’ve initially made with a friend around 12 years ago, when we were still in high school. At the time after 9 months we got a playable multiplayer game,
buggy, cryptic and with a lot of fundamental game design and ergonomy mistakes, but still with a lot of unexploited potential. Few years later I decided to rewrite it on spare time (I had a job)
but with the goal of reaching a sellable game quality. I had to do it alone (I got a bit of help from different people but no real permanent team) and I learned a lot, but at some point
after some years of development, I had to choose between continuing developing NetRush or switching to Art Of Sequence. AoS is not a game project but is still very important to me.
AOS is technically a massive “multi-project” so it took me several years to get several of it’s sub projects to a working state, but it still need a lot of work to be usable by the intended audience.
However, I still want to do NetRush. So in June 2013 I decided to reboot the development of NetRush and make it my main project, AoS becoming my “spare time” project. Working on both is, in my experience, not really possible (as some old posts here explained) so I decided early to allocate most weeks to NetRush and some weeks to AoS.
Thus, the most important goal for my unemployment time was to get NetRush (or more precisely, a 4th version of the game) to a point I could at least show it.
For such kind of game, which require an unusual architecture, it would take too much time for one person to complete even with most features cut (I focus only on the core ones), but I least wanted to get something to show to allow me later to :
- begin talking about it;
- maybe start an alpha funding;
- maybe submit it to the IGF (in the optic of at least have some expert eyes on it for feedback);
But more importantly, to be able to show the potential to anyone who could be interested in joining me to continue the development.
1.2. Release a first version of AOS Designer (from the Art Of Sequence project).
Meanwhile, the most important sub project of AoS, which is currently named AOS Designer but will be renamed later, really needed a lot of work.
Getting it to a usable state was possible even if I didn’t allocate all my time on it, but getting it to a “useful” state was clearly unrealistic. So I set my goal to getting AOS Designer to
a usable state and start releasing regular updates from there, maybe reaching usefulness in the following year.
1.3. Release a multitude of small games (through One Game A Month) for training and getting used to release often.
As most creative people I sometime tend feel like a failure because I can’t achieve, for example, tons of small games in a short time. But in the same time I’m always frustrated by
attempting making small games just for making small games. It’s partially a hurtful perfectionist mindset but also an admission that I’m not really good yet at releasing stuffs.
I know I take too much time even on small things, but I also have done some projects in an impressive short time. What I really lack is both regularity and being able to show
stuffs. Which is why when in December the One Game A Month project was initiated, I registered and tried to prepare for “training” regularly my game making and “release often” skills.
1.4. Take care of my health (aka sport).
This one is obvious: I reached 30 years old in 2013 and I really felt the need to take more care of my body, at least by doing more sport and being more aware of what I eat and drink.
1.5. Learn to make games totally alone (code + graphics + audio + all the rest).
This one is a bit obscure but the idea is related to a tendency that desperate me but that I need to overcome: whatever the project, until it’s already
almost finished, nobody will understand enough of it to be motivated to contribute. That’s true both for games, tools and comics projects I’ve done.
One part of the problem is that I tend to try things “on the edge” either technically or more often on the design and pacing side. The other part of the problem
is that these projects are often correctly considered too personal to involve other people. This is not true for tools, like AOS, but it’s true for games, even if
I do feel the need for having a team. So instead of losing time trying to convince people to work with me, I think it’s better to train at being good at
finishing things alone. I did it before, so I should try to find ways to get back to that mindset. Code is not a problem for me, audio is but I’m very interested
in composition, graphics are half a problem as I need more practice, marketing should be ok though I need to prove it, and maybe some other skills I want to learn,
at least on the long term.
The goal was not to be an expert in all fields, but know and practice enough to make small games all by myself, with minor or no input from outside.
1.6. read a lot of books (most of them I already have).
I got tons of still unread or partially books piled on my desk that are really really interesting but I wasn’t able to read a lot before.
Most of them I got to help me improve on the previous goals, some of them are pure curiosity or entertainment.
As I was able to organize my time more freely, I dedicated more time to reading.
1.7. Be ready to create a company as soon as it make sense.
That is, be informed and knowledgeable of everything necessary to start a (software focused and really, in the end, artistic) business in France,
so that I can jump in creating a company as soon as a project begins making money (even if I’m not full time on it at first).
2. What went right
As a mostly pessimistic individual, this part is a bit hard to dig in, but necessary to help me appreciate how much work I’ve done in this period of time.
2.1. NetRush technical fundations went better than expected.
This version of NetRush, in some perspective, might be the most technically interesting project I’ve ever done.
Not because it’s more complex than, say a “small” game, but because it have a fundamental design that makes you think in different perspectives than usual game development does.
The client/server concurrent architecture works well and game-specific architecture features shows that I was right on the overall code design.
To my great surprise, the code is manageable as long as you follow project-specific mindset or design rules.
One thing I regret a bit is that I have no idea if someone else would follow my code. I suspect that more than half of it is trivial, but some parts
might need more documentation. Anyway I don’t have anyone who have time to provide code review so I have to rely myself few months later and
get back to refactor some parts sometime.
The good thing is that there is no apparent technical roadblock to get the full game working.
2.2. AOS Web Player, validate that AOSL works, so Art Of Sequence really can solve the problems.
In summer of 2012 I realized that before going further with the edition-tool part of AOS, that is AOS Designer sub project,
I really needed to have a concrete proof that the format on which the whole project would rely on was sound.
In Japan I met someone who had enough skill in programming languages and formats to give me interesting feedback and
peer review that I got confident that AOSL, the common format on which all AOS projects rely, was designed to meet it’s goals.
However, without some kind of interpreter, it’s still hard to prove that a format do reach it’s goals. I also got contacted to
produce an demo along with a paper to submit for the asian Siggraph conferences. So I worked hard for several days to setup
didn’t understand at all what it was all about.
But the demo does prove that AOSL solves most of the target problems.
It was also necessary to allow me to use the player inside the edition tools later.
2.3. I Learned a lot!
Clearly 2011, 2012 and 2013 are the years I learnt the most skills ever (which corresponds to my efforts to spend more time on what actually interests me).
I just regret not being able to learn more about more artistic skills like music, or get any practice at all (by lack of time basically, as I’m doing too much as you noticed already).
I did some comics but not on a regular basis.
2.4. I met a lot of people in digital narratives, games and programming domains.
I managed to meet more people than before through conferences and other local events.
I will not get into details but 2013 was/is really reach in interesting meetings for me.
2.5. Getting better at scheduling my project (in particular NetRush).
My planning and time scheduling skills got better than before, more realistic.
Obviously it’s not yet perfect as I still sometime tend to just not follow the plan, but I regularly review scheduling and
managed to get several NetRush milestones in time.
To continue improving on this skill I need to find ways to be more regular on my working schedule,
as I often fail to work several days from 9 to 19, and just slide progressively to night and then early morning work.
At least I get work done regularly but it would be less depressive to feel good working instead of feeling like I was doing crunch time.
I’m not really doing crunch time (right now) but still feel like I do, sometime.
2.6. Physical shape & Sport!
I’m going to Kung Fu sessions twice a week. That’s really more physical than it sounds.
All in all I got better health, but I think I could still get even better with more efforts, which for now I couldn’t provide.
[EDIT: Some people assumed that I decided to do less sport, while I what I meant is I just can't do more at the time (by lack of time and money). I do intend to do more sport.]
2.7. Got far better at limiting procrastination.
Through the preceding years I learnt a LOT about procrastination and productivity. I’m still reading books about that these days.
However it’s not always easy to find yourself not procrastinating, so I developed some personal tricks (everybody have different it seems) to help.
Among things that works, switching to Trello was really a good idea to manage my workload – it’s both simple and just enough complexity to focus on getting things done and have a quick overview of the project.
I also got used to use a separate Chrome session using a different email for when I’m in working mode. That sesssion don’t have the passwords registed for social websites
and other websites that are just procrastination. This is a simple blocking way to stay focused on only the part of the web that is related to my work (mostly stackoverflow, technical docs and my work mailbox)
I also learned a lot more about virtues and vices of isolation, which is the one thing you need to understand from all perspectives if you want to tackle productivity problems.
2.8. Ready for business.
Other than the actual important practice of building and managing a company, I did everything to get up to date, knowledgeable and ready to build a company.
Building a company in France is clearly a challenge in the first years at least. I managed to prove to several specialists that I had a clear idea of what I wanted to do
and some of them telling me I’m apparently aware of all there is to know made me a bit more confident that I am ready to build one.
However, for several reasons I want to totally avoid having external funding. So among the alternatives, one is to get income from my projects before building a company.
It’s possible but takes a lot more time than other options as you still have to spend most of your spare time on the project to reach a state the income is enough for your to live.
Others have done this so I know it’s possible and I’m more inclined to go this way than any other. As you’ll read in the following points, I didn’t manage to get NetRush to
the point I can get money from it, even a bit, so I’m not building any company until I reach this point.
[EDIT: I also read "Lean Startup" book on the recommendation of a friend. I highly recommend reading this excellent book for anyone interested in starting a company.
However, it helped me clarify, as I suspected, that what I want to do is not make a company/startup - I strictly have no interest in making a company.
If I wanted to make a startup, I would have taken a different approach. If I had tons of money I would make my games for free.
(I will not go into details about this, it's long to explain, discuss and I could write a heavy book about it easily). ]
3. What went wrong
This one is a classic among people working at making games or anything creative in an independent way and trying to make a living of it.
Around my 30th birthday, I totally lost any productivity. I could barely look straight at a text file without wanting to do something else.
I think I even spent at least one day doing exactly nothing.
I was aware of the depression issue among my fellow game devs, so I was also aware of simple ways. The most effective one being to take some
vacations, go somewhere totally different and come back some time later.
I did that and it was a bit better.
However, it’s still insanely harmful, mainly because while you’re mentally strugling, projects don’t go on.
It’s true mostly when you work alone, which is one of the reasons that makes me think that ideally I should work with a teammate.
Depression and (necessary) vacation basically cost me a bit more than 2 months of the time I had.
[EDIT: I made voluntary omissions about the reasons that lead to the depression. They are not related to my projects and are private enough that I don't need to expose them here.
Note however that I noticed several time through years that I get low on moral each time I can't just focus on NetRush development (either because of crunch time at work, or because
something else is bothering me and forbidd me to focus). It's not the projects that depress me, it's when I can't focus on them. There are some projects that depress me when I try to work on them
but I never talked about them here or anywhere public. ]
3.2. One game a month / short games – no release at all.
One of the things that got me in depression mode was certainly the OGAM January failure I reported then.
When I sucribed to One Game A Month I decided that I would allocate only one weekend a month on it.
What I was forgetting at this p0int is that I wasn’t good at game jams yet (I’m still not really good yet, but I’m working on it).
So when went the time, each month, to make something small, I got more and more depressed because I couldn’t
manage to stick working on a small game without it having some qualities for me to focus on.
Basically, I’m having trouble focusing on shit.
It might look a good thing but it’s actually the most harmful way of thinking about your work. As the book I’m reading these days says,
it’s a perfectionist mindset, and it’s just wrong. Basically I was trying to do something very hard without noticing, without first trainning
progressively to get it right. Making small games is not really the problem for me, it’s accepting to do something that will certainly be bad
that is. Actually, I’m ok if NetRush don’t work financially, as long as I get the game I am looking for. But when I focus on some small game ideas
I tend to feel that there is so much things wrong in the design that it’s not worth spending time on it. Which depress me and makes me face a big wall.
I’m learning now to just forget about all this and focus on producing the thing once I decided to do it, whatever the quality of the results. I believe
it is very easier when you have at least one teammate to give you perspective on the project, and motivation to finish it. It’s far harder for one person
alone and a bit isolated from any creative community.
Anyway, I stopped trying to make games for One Game A Month around May, and instead put more work into NetRush.
One thing I’m working on these days, is to do a bit of small experiments each Saturday, allocating 8 hours to do “something”, either learning or a small project
or a part of a small project. I call that “octojams” but so far I’ve been doing this alone, so it’s not really a jam. The important point is that
even if I’m still working hard on NetRush, it don’t contradict that I need to learn to accept experimenting with shitty projects.
Same thing with comics. I still have a hard time with the second system syndrome, both in games and comics, but I’m working to progressively ignore
I suspect I could be able to start the One Game A Month challenge somewhere in the beginning of the next year, but certainly not before.
3.3. NetRush isn’t far enough to be showed.
Basically, I had to work on the foundations of the game before getting into graphics, audio and the editor of the game.
So far I’m still working on graphics and navigation (more on that in another article).
This one is not really a surprise since I spent too much time on depression and AoS to fulfill my plans,
but it made more clear for me what is needed to reach the showable version.
My current planning would be accurate if I was continuing working the was I am right now, however in the coming days I’ll have to
take a full time job (or missions) which will hurt my productivity on all my home projects.
Again I regret not having teammates on this project, in particular because it’s not a small project, but also to help keep the work steady.
I’m happy that I reached this point of NetRush development, even if I would have preferred to be faster.
[EDIT: the prototyping part of NetRush have been done years ago. The first playable version of this iteration of the game is not done yet
and is long to get to because of the fundamental design of the game. Basically, it's normal that it's long to develop, because it's an
unusual way to make games. (which is part of why it's both surprising and interesting to work on this project) ]
3.4. AoS failures: visual editor isn’t showable yet, lot of work but few results, not enough time
Basically, I couldn’t manage to get AOS Designer in shape to make a first release. There is still one month before the end of the year but
I can’t see how I could find time to do it.
I’m ok with this as I really can’t work on 2 projects at the same time.
In accumulated, I work 4.5 months on AoS, one months in 2012 and the rest in the beginning of this year.
Half of it was not actually production but mostly setting up communication, working on getting the message more clear and less noisy.
The other half I spent on AOS Web Player and on re-architecturing AOS Designer to allow some features to be implemented.
The re-architecturing took too much time and in the end didn’t work as expected, so I need to make another important change to fix it.
That change is possible to be done in a few days but right now I can’t find the time for that.
Once the change will be done, I will be able to setup, after a bunch of weeks, the first usable (but not useful) version.
So basically, I did a lot of necessary and unnecessary fork and almost reached my goal, but as I don’t want to interfere too much on
NetRush’s development, I can’t do much more right now.
3.5. The cost of big project switching is bigger than the cost of small project switching.
This is something I partially knew but not with these kind of projects.
You see, in the previous years I acknowledged that the time to switch between a big a smaller project is expensive,
so I tried to avoid such switch as much as I can.
However, the cost of switching from one massive project to another, even if you do it only once or twice a year, is insane.
Switching from NetRush to AOS in the end of last year, and back from AOS to NetRush around April-May, was difficult.
These projects are different but really require all my engineering power and deep thinking (which might point to a problem of complexity, but
once a week is passed it feels like they are actually simpler than I initially assumed).
I regret not being able to have any contributor to Art Of Sequence to make my life easier on this project and basically make the cost of switching
less expensive (as I wouldn’t have to re-learn everything into the project).
3.6. moving, administration, familly financial problems, trips in Paris
The usual stuffs: French administrations are clearly the most unproductive systems I ever experienced (along with one Japanese bank…),
I had to move from a friend’s house to a flat-share, I had to manage different familly problems.
These things are time consuming and often unavoidable but I suspect several problems were possible to avoid totally.
Anyway, life sometime totally sucks…your time.
[EDIT: Again I am omitting details because they are private and unrelated to my projects. ]
3.7. Couldn’t accumulate money.
Due to different problems (including familly ones) I couldn’t accumulate any money in this time. It’s clearly not a good thing.
[EDIT: Same here, details are private.]
3.8. Working alone is hard (but I really want to be able to do so – it’s a very big challenge)
This is a recurring theme for me. As I can’t easily find somebody to work with me, with different reasons depending on the project, I’m
still looking for ways to be able to do things alone. But I’m totally conscious that it’s not the most productive way of making things.
So far it’s an unsolved problem for me, but it’s also impacting my moral. I’m considering moving closer to some game-oriented community,
maybe in Lyon, but to this day it’s only an idea, I don’t have a real project right now.
[EDIT: Some people assume that I don't work on other's projects, but I did, regularly. These people are totally missing the point. Working on other's project is nice while working but is depressing
afterward, when I realize the energy I could have put in my own project instead. My projects can't be done without someone working on them, and I really want them to be done.
It's actually while working in other's projects that I realized that I was not happy with that.
The problems of not having a team is that people having time, will and skill to work on my projects are not legion. ]
3.9. Too much variation in my work hours.
I already mentioned this before. Basically I managed to work a bit more than 2 weeks at a regular daily schedule, but if one day
I have to change my schedule, it’s really hard to get back on track.
I’m not sure how to make this better, other than trying to sleep more regularly.
I suspect that working in the same place I live is not helping, but for now I can’t easily do another way (I tried several things to fix this).
3.11. Unable to read as much as I wanted, learn music, do some graphics; also I miss making comics.
All in the title.
[EDIT: the last two points are actually "easy" to fix, by budgeting time. I did that but still didn't manage to get more than 2 weeks at a steady pace,
simply because of events that I just can't control. I still have some things to fix on this side of things but I'm getting progressively better at budgeting my time.]
Here I’m avoiding the word “fail” because it would assume that I’m abandonning some of these goals, but I am not. A year is not enough for all this clearly
and I still have positive data that suggests that I’m getting progressively better (but too slowly to my taste yet).
Also, the book on procrastination and productivity I’m reading right now says that perfectionist tends to see things in black or white, while I know
that success (of any kind) is really only about keeping working until you reach it.
- 1.1. Setup a playable (but certainly unfinished) version of NetRush which I would be able to show to some people. - NOT ACHIEVED IN TIME
- 1.2. Release a first version of AOS Designer (from the Art Of Sequence project). - NOT ACHIEVED IN TIME (though there is still 1 month to get this one done)
- 1.3. Release a multitude of small games (through One Game A Month) for trainning and getting used to release often. - NOT STARTED YET
- 1.4. Take care of my health (aka sport). - OK: IN PROGRESS
- 1.5. Learn to make games totally alone (code + graphics + audio + all the rest). - NOT YET THERE
- 1.6. read a lot of books (most of them I already have). - HALF OK ( more regular schedule for reading would help a lot)
- 1.7. Be ready to create a company as soon as it make sense. - OK: I KNOW EVERYTHING NECESSARY TO START
Basically I missed my most important goals but I managed to get a lot of work in them, so it’s only a matter of (precious) time the unachived goals done.
As I’m swithing back to getting a job to live and continue working on my projects on spare time, I’m still happy to have tackled very complex issues that I would had
trouble to do in only a few hours at night.
What would I change if I could do it again
1. Focus on one “big” project for at least 8 months without switching, no interruption. Very small project work only on weekends, when I feel like it.
2. Get up to date with Unity for prototyping and little games – actually this will not help the mental blocks but might at least help the productivity timing for some projects.
3. Have a team for NetRush – although I don’t think it’s possible before I get a playable version first.
4. Find a way to isolate myself better, but still be able to see people sometime (a close indie game community would be cool).
5. Find a way to earn money to be truly independent (freelancing or something else that don’t totally get in the way of my projects and isn’t against my ethics).
6. Find ways to be more prolific (without killing myself) – I’m working on it right now.
I consider that this year wasn’t as positive than the last one, but at least helped me get the foundation for a better time coming.
[EDIT: I mentioned a book I'm reading right now, about productivity, perfectionism etc., it's this one. It's very helpful. ]