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2013 was my first year attending GDC (Game Developer Conference), despite being out in San Francisco for Flash Game Summit these last few years. GDC was incredible, and a lot bigger than I had anticipated, but something quite unexpected stood out even more for me...
Two Sides, One Coin
While I expected GDC to mostly cater to the "core" gaming scene (consoles, PC, etc), there was a very significant "indie" scene. While nobody can deny that there have been some major indie releases in the last few years, such as Braid, Limbo, Minecraft, FTL, and more, I didn't expect GDC to pay much attention to these games.
Due to this newly formed indie scene, GDC now had two sides, at least in my eyes: independent developers, and the traditional developers who work for larger companies. Both sides are absolutely amazing, and each is essential to the gaming industry as a whole. While I've known for some time that there's both the core members, and independent game developers, seeing it first hand at GDC really made me think about where I was, and what I wanted to be.
Working for a Company
As most of you probably already know, GDC is swarming with recruiters looking to grab new members for their respective companies. Before GDC even started, I met someone of the sort while meeting other developers at the unofficial "Pint Night" game developer gathering (everyone meets up at the Zeitgeist bar on the Friday before GDC).
This person wasn't actually a recruiter, just someone the same age as me who had recently joined the company and simply loved his job. He talked about everything, from an average day at the office, to his starting salary. If I had met him at GDC, I might not have bought everything he was saying, but I met this guy while drinking among friends and having a great time. He planted a seed in my head - one that continued to grow through my entire trip.
Another exciting encounter I had, regarding the "core" industry, was at the Riot Games booth. I spoke with one of the writers for League of Legends, and told him about what I currently did in the industry, and where I thought I was going. I shared my frustration with the Flash games market, and explained how my games were too hardcore, and didn't fit with the business model of simply being a glorified advertisement. After a decently lengthy talk, he expressed his shared opinions, and said that my motivation and determination were exactly what the industry needed.
Now, while I can't prove that this wasn't simply part of his job to recruit new team members, I'm quite sure that he was genuine in his assessment of me, and honestly saw the passion within me. While this talk never ultimately lead to me working for Riot, over even pursuing a job there, I found a lot of gratification in hearing someone from a company I look up to praise me and my opinions. To continue my metaphor, I consider this conversation the watering of the seed planted earlier.
These encounters got me thinking about working for an actual game company, rather than staying indie, and how that could benefit me. The first major benefit: stable income. While it's possible to earn a steady living as an indie game developer, it's not easy. I've had my fair share of moving back home, living with too many roommates, and so on. If you ever attempt to go indie, you must make sure you have savings, perhaps a part-time job, and above all know what you're getting yourself into, as it's not as easy as some have made it out to be. Needless to say, a solid $75,000 a year paycheck (with benefits) is an extremely tempting offer.
While on the topic of finances, there's also the comfort of a stable future. As an independent game developer, I currently have no life savings, or any real backup plan. Another bonus, is that there's likely a relocation to the San Francisco area, which is a perk on its own (if you're into lots of sunshine and beautiful cities). Lastly, a great opportunity that arises, is the chance to gauge my abilities by seeing how others in the industry do things. I have no idea where I stand as a programmer compared to devs that work for the various studios out there, and I wouldn't mind knowing.
To my surprise, GDC was swarming with indie love. Outside in the streets, people were handing out hundreds of "100% Indie" T-shirts. At the main entrance of the West Moscone building, Super Hexagon was on display for everyone to see.
At first I thought I was seeing so much indie work because I had an "Indie Summit Pass", not a "Full Access" pass, but it turns out that this was the main building where almost everything was taking place. On the GDC show floor, there was a rather large area just for displaying the works of indie developers, the IGF Pavilion. This area was booming with attention, which I found quite moving. I thought it was amazing that the works of tiny teams were being showcased within shouting distance of the latest CryEngine technology and other colossal companies.
One of the most inspirational indie events for me was the panel presented by Colin Northway, of Northway Games. For those of you who may not know him, Colin is the creator of Fantastic Contraption, and more recently Incredipede. Colin did a talk on how he created Incredipede, and how he lives his life as an indie developer - that's what grabbed my attention.
Colin and his wife, Sarah, literally travel the world making games. They've spent the last few years just moving from country to country every few months, all while developing games from wherever they're staying. They book locations for months at time for extreme discounts, and are always careful to ensure that even the most remote locations have a stable internet connection to allow them to do their work. To me, this is an absolute dream come true. Colin stressed how doing what he does is actually more affordable than living in a big city like San Francisco, and backed up all his claims with some pretty sound logic.
The most amazing quality I've noticed in indies is their ability to always stay motivated, and to always find a solution. During the middle of my trip at GDC, my friends and I found ourselves on our way to the Secret Black Fedora party, hosted by Notch, creator of Minecraft. When we arrived at the location (on time mind you), we were amazed to see that the line already had thousands, yes thousands, of people waiting. We found our spots in line, and attempted to see if we'd make our way into the show.
After an hour or so of waiting, and a few debates on whether seeing Skrillex live at this party was even worth it, we eventually decided to bail, and make the night interesting on our own. As far as I'm concerned, only people as amazing as those I was with that night could have bailed on a seven thousand person Skrillex show, gone back to the roof of the hostel they were staying at, and ended up having a better night. We had eventually settled on grabbing some drinks on the roof, which soon lead to some great conversation with our new acquaintance Molly, a fellow developer from the Netherlands. Molly ended up showing me one of her first games, Watch Out For The Bear, which lead to the creation of the joke,
#BearJam, our alternative to the Notch party. While it may just sound like a game jam in text, the conversations, drinks, and laughs we all had on the roof that night will forever be with us, and it's the personality of indie developers that made such a night possible. I honestly don't think we could have had any more fun at the party, and I'm kind of glad things went the way they did.
Since the first day I entered the game industry, I've been an independent game developer. I've always loved being in complete control of how a project is being shaped, and it's one of the most enjoyable aspects of what I do. I love having an idea, and having the ability to actually make that idea come to life, exactly as I see it. Working in small groups has always worked well for me, as I like a lot of attention, and recognition for my work. Being among other indie developers at GDC was an absolutely amazing experience for me, and one that far exceeded my expectations of GDC as a whole.
After an amazing week and a half in San Francisco, GDC had finally come to end. I had spent hours upon hours talking with developers of every kind, from independent studios, all the way up to the champion designers for League of Legends. I was both physically and mentally exhausted, but my struggle wasn't over, as I had a lot on my mind.
Did I want to accept the offer to go check out a local game company's headquarters and line myself up for a possible future there? Did I want to stay in touch with the countless recruiters I had spoke with, to pursue a possible career with someone I already knew? Ever since my Pint Night experience where I heard such good things about a local company, I had been wondering what my life would be like if I just tossed aside my "indie pride" and decided to take a job for a major company. I've always struggled financially, I'm not a huge fan of winters in Vermont (where I currently live), and I love San Francisco...
I spent my last few days in California up in the mountains about three hours from San Francisco. After a lot of relaxation, a few days of game jamming, and a number of hours not entirely sober around a bonfire, I ultimately decided that I wanted to remain an indie. While a lot of things influenced this decision, I think that I owe a lot of thanks to Colin Northway for his incredibly inspiring panel. The freedom Colin and his wife have, the complete ability to live their lives exactly as they want, is what ultimately changed my mind.
While I could easily enjoy a life in the city, with a stable income and nice apartment, I wouldn't want to sacrifice my freedom to develop what I want, and live where and how I want - it's just not who I am. I would personally rather live on the beach in the sun with a few dollars in my pocket, then be locked up in a cubicle working on projects out of my control, eight hours a day, five days a week. This definitely isn't a major concern for everyone, but Colin's talk hit the nail on the head for me, and I'll likely never forget his panel.
While a lot more than this happened to me at GDC, this was the most important experience. But even though I've made my decision, I realise there are absolutely no true answers to the questions I asked myself. The answers entirely depend on the person, and only they can figure them out.
I learned a lot about the game industry - and myself - during my week in San Francisco at GDC, and I highly encourage anyone interested in development to go. I'd even go as far as to say, I found myself at GDC.