Since establishing Space Monster Games Ltd I’ve been thinking more and more about the life of a full time game developer. Especially since I am moving further toward it and have seen one or two fellow devs taking the plunge in recent months.
I guess for so many people it must seem perfectly possible yet horribly daunting to break from the 9 to 5 and dive headlong in to a world without salary, annual leave and paid lunch breaks. At what point do you actually say to yourself that the time is now and you are just going to grab the bull by the horns and go for it !
I guess the younger you are and the less you have in the way of family commitments the greater the chance of you adopting this attitude. For most people though there is just too much risk attached to such a bold move.
What I want to do here is try to highlight some of the things that we might consider when looking at this new and exciting lifestyle.
I’ll start by making some fairly obvious assumptions.
First, that HTML5 and related technologies will strengthen such that they become a perfect platform for creating mobile web games.
Second, that mobile phones continue to move away from traditional or feature phones and toward touch screen smart phones. Furthermore that hardware / software vendors continue to support and accelerate HTML5 technologies that run against such devices.
Third and possibly most important, that the desire for mobile gaming continues to grow. As the market expands on the back of greater choice and richer technology so we can expect to see more and more portal operators / gaming agents appearing to serve that demand.
I am extremely confident that each of these three assumptions is accurate.
So assuming that there will be plenty of commercial opportunity what must you consider if you wish to become a full time HTML5 game developer. Well, quite obviously you need to consider how to be a developer. You need to maintain a healthy relationship with those that you rely on for your income and you need to ensure that you keep them fed with good, playable and reliable games for their audience. If you achieve these things you will not only be in business but the business will most likely come to you.
It’s how you handle the bits that you have direct control over that will determine your success as a full time developer of games.
Let’s start with a few pointers for the development process before we look at the commercial aspect. I will be deliberately succinct with my explanation of each section.
Strong and clear design
Sketch out your ideas. Dry run them in your mind. Hold the phone and imagine playing your game. Do some research. Look around at what the world is currently playing. Does your game fit the mould ? Would there be a perceived risk on the part of the licensee when taking your game. Be careful not to be too avant garde or you may well meet with resistance from potential licensees / existing clients. It’s probably worth playing safe whilst you establish your portfolio and of course your name as a developer of mobile web games.
Most important though make sure that your design is something that you believe in. Make sure you actually have some kind of a vision for how it will play out. Ensure that you have an idea for how it will look. This clarity of vision for the final product will help to push you through to the end of your development. It’s by no means essential that you share your vision but if it gives you added confidence to have a friend or fellow developer look over it then that’s probably no bad thing.
Establish a clear and realistic timeframe
When you are in total control of your own developments the hardest thing to do is rein yourself in. Trust me I am living proof of it ! You’re not answering to anyone but yourself and you have complete freedom over your working day, which is great. But it can also lead to your best intentions for a ten day development becoming fifty or a hundred days.
For the most part if you have a good, solid codebase from which to start I see no reason why you can’t be creating perfectly playable games within two to three weeks.
Providing your design is tight and you have enough in the way of a challenge to present to your game’s players you should be able to confidently set a perfectly workable timeframe.
Make sure that you have this deadline printed somewhere such that you can see it every day when you start work.
The next step is to create a rough schedule.
Scheduling is at odds with the freedom within which we developers like to operate. But this isn’t messing about anymore. This is your livelihood and should be treated as professionally as you would any other form of employment.
I would seriously recommend dividing your project’s work up in to three clear blocks: Design, Development and Testing.
Designing your game is obviously a lot of fun. Resist the urge to dive on to the computer every five minutes and instead sketch out some thoughts and ideas. If you work with a colleague use this time to bash out as many ideas as you can. Everything is relevant. Always of course have one eye on the practicalities of actually developing the things that you are dreaming up but NEVER throw an idea away. What may be unsuitable for Project A may be perfect for Project B.
Development boils down to Build and Debug time. It’s practically impossible to be clear on how this will work out in reality since in every likelihood you will need to debug as you go in order to have the game running. But my point here is simple: not everything about development is cutting new code. You will make mistakes and unless you account for the time it takes to fix your bugs you could wind up days over target.
As part of your development time you’ll need to factor in the production of any artwork in your game. Obviously if you are a one-man-band then this rather drastically eats in to your development time. On the plus side you take 100% of the revenue you generate. Most likely though you’ll want to employ the services of a game artist.
Be realistic. In my experience working with placeholder graphics doesn’t work quite so well as having a beautifully crafted sprite walk across the screen.
Agree in advance the schedule for the production of game’s graphics such that you have enough to visualise each stage of the game’s development as you work on it.
A firm relationship with an artist will stand you in good stead for future developments. There’s no room for prima donnas here. Be professional and clear about your requirements.
Testing of your game is a luxury but it’s also vital. In game development circles the release of untested software is right up there with the implementation of lousy controls or lack of respect for the target platform. You really need to become acquainted with your game’s code by running it, playing it and yes – breaking it. Rather than an exclusive period at the end of a game’s development lifecycle it’s probably a better use of your time to allow yourself a certain amount of time during your day to just sit and play the game and make notes.
Remember: open ended developments are dangerous and can lead to an incredible amount of feature creep. (Again I am living proof !) Your client will be drumming his fingers whilst you implement that fancy feature that ultimately adds little or nothing to the game. Be careful with your decision making.
DELIVER DELIVER DELIVER !
Don’t just spend your days and nights talking or thinking game development. Actually get and do it. Set yourself targets and as previously mentioned make sure that you give yourself enough time to sit and wade through bugs.
Nobody likes a coder that promises the earth yet delivers nothing.
Make good on your promises. Better still under-promise. Set the expectation with your client that your game will be a good one and then present to them something that is much more than they were led to believe.
This last point about setting your client’s expectations is vital and really should be underlined at least 4 times.
Although you may be working outside of a development agreement or formal contract you should treat each project as if you were. Indeed as time moves on and you become more established as a game developer you may wish to secure an advance payment and agree terms on the delivery of your software. This is not at all uncommon in freelance circles and something that I would certainly encourage.
Don’t forget, just because you are in love with the process of making games and are effectively living the dream doesn’t mean for one minute that your client sees your relationship as anything other than a business convenience. He is protecting his bottom line and is relying on you to deliver him the goods.
For many people the thought of being your own front man is terrifying. Not only do you have the responsibility of coding your own games you also have to wear the hat of marketing manager, business development manager, sales manager and countless other managers. But this really is not as daunting as you might think.
The key to success is in understanding your market and understanding your own limitations.
It pays to be able to step in to your client’s shoes once in a while. See the market from their perspective.
As mentioned earlier don’t be forever trying to create something that the world has never seen since your client will just see it as enormous risk. Take small steps. Slowly step back from an established design. Make a name for yourself as a solid developer and then consider smashing the mould open.
Don’t forget your ultimate goal is to generate money. Develop your position with your client such that the 8th or 9th game that you present to them could feasibly be the next Angry Birds. Once they’ve taken a few games from you they’ll see less risk in taking a punt on your unusual new game.
So how do you get clients and how much money can you ask for ?
This is of course the real reason why you’re reading this.
Talk about your games. Set up a blog and document the development process. Create something that Google will find rich in content and your potential clients will find with some good key words. Be careful. Spamming social networks with your own content could lead to you being labelled as a nuisance or irrelevant to the conversation. And that’s the point. Twitter for example is little more than a conversation. Don’t force the subjects every day, add to them. Add to the conversation. Social networks are a great source of relevant traffic and like-minded people. Learn from them and make new game dev aquaintances. In my experience this is vital to keeping ahead of the curve with technology and gaming culture.
Once you have your stall set out just ensure that you maintain it.
Write to your blog and remain relevant to your audience at all times. Become, in Google parlance, the authority. Set yourself up as somebody who knows what he/she is talking about.
HTML5 Gaming Portals
At the moment the most common route to market for your games is via an HTML5 mobile game portal. Such companies will look to your games to boost their own portfolio.
Whatever you agree with your contact at this company ensure that it meets your needs. At the moment it’s not uncommon to sell a non-exclusive licence for around 400 – 500 EUR.
Of course it’s all relative.
If you’ve spent 4 months on your game and it’s a 10 hour marathon game then you will want more money. And rightly so. But I suspect your market will be limited in that a) the market just isn’t ready for such a game and b) you’re targeting the wrong end of the available budget.
Contracts and licencing
Always have your own licence document ready.
Speak to a lawyer, understand copyright laws & typical licencing arrangements and have some paper work to hand.
That said you must also be prepared to sign the client’s agreements and have your own disregarded.
Let’s just say right now that THIS IS WRONG. But it is still how the business works.
As developer and producer of the game you wouldn’t normally expect to have to agree to the terms of the person buying your game, would you ? But if this is what your client insists on be prepared for a struggle if you yourself insist on thrusting your own paperwork before them before continuing.
Just as a pointer look for the clauses that relate to payment, ownership, distribution and your right to step away from the agreement. I wouldn’t sign anything that extends to beyond 12 months personally. But there are exceptions. You’ll quickly spot the companies that you feel comfortable with.
Rule of thumb: if in doubt seek the advise of a professional before signing anything.
In conclusion then the life of a game designer is a fun and exciting one. You will see rewards everywhere in the form of development break-throughs, player satisfaction and of course financial income. But just being a developer won’t provide you with a career in games. You need to wear multiple hats, at least to begin with. Of course as your bedroom outfit grows in to the next Rovio you will be able to employ people to do the stuff you’re not so keen on.
Above all have fun.