Life as a Hobbyist Game Developer

Author: James Fleming
Author: James Fleming

What in the world am I doing? This is complex and takes me away from everything else in my life. Is it worth it?

I have been creating games since 1998, and these questions continue to resurface. And while I have created games, none have been at the level that one would really be proud of. So, what is my goal then? At what point do I cross over the line where this is without a doubt fulfilling work and I can say, “yes, I have accomplished that goal in my life”? These are questions I ask myself, and the main realm of life for which I have struggled for years to find balance.

I’ve spent weeks working over 70 hours, researching and producing game assets, doing nothing but sleeping and eating in between.  My fascination with technology and gaming activities is still big today but nothing like the all-consuming preoccupation that it was.

I remember my first system was a Nintendo and I played it about eight hours a week. As a child, I dreamed of one day creating and modifying the games I played. I started working on games for myself in 1998 when I began learning JavaScript, and I picked up C#.NET 1.1 in 2001. Gaming was the sole reason I took up programming. So, I built my first game in 2003 (all assets and code were 100 percent mine). From there, I joined teams online — I like having people to talk to in a group environment — and worked within this group setting until November 2004 when I returned to working on projects for myself.

Around 2006 and 2007, the whole Microsoft XNA came into being. I really started to learn a lot of lessons during that time, not only from a game coding standard but also with leading a team. I have had many teams now, some consisting of only three people, others up to 49 (as of now). One person is simply not going to achieve the level he wants out in the gaming world in any timely manner without a team.

It has taken me some time to figure out on what level I would like to be with my game creation, and I’ve determined it is a game that any English-speaking person can play and enjoy — a game that will be more than a few-months-long trend. I would like to see our game played and developed to improve the quality over the course of three to five years. The type of game we are building requires more than one person. Simple arcade games, such as Super Meat Boy or Worms, are great games, but how much entertainment can one get out of these in the end? They were built, and then they were done, that’s it, no returning to re-work the games. You can not add any assets in later or make them more entertaining without redesigning them and building them all over again. I want our game to be different. Our game will get around this and will have the ability to add content in later, a feature much like World of Warcraft or Magic the Gathering Card Game.

The Life of Hobby Game Developer

Being a hobbyist game developer means you have another job, you are in school, or you have free time for whatever given reason. Most people who join our team do so without realizing the level of commitment they have to follow to keep up with the rest of the group. We are as active as we can be, but of course, there are those layover times when we are slow, waiting for something or someone.

Trying to balance our lives and still obtain our goals as hobbyist game developers can be hard. You have all these other responsibilities you have to manage and still be active. Oh, and let’s not forget there are deadlines you should probably beat for the sake of the team, right? Having a balance in this process is so important to your family, your team, and your job or school work. If I could, I would quit my job and have my family work on creating a game with me as a fun activity. There’s only one problem with this: Nobody in my family wants to create a game. Quitting my job does not pay our bills or feed us, either. Quitting anything is not an option. Learning when to say “that is enough for the day” is the best we can do. I believe if you were meant to work on something today, you’ll find the time to do so. Little Melanie, my daughter, may have a doctor’s appointment; her homework will need my assistance that day. I prioritize.

Outside responsibilities aside, I try to work and participate as part of the team a little every day. I can say most of the time I do at least something small each day. If I miss a day programming, I don’t worry because I know that for the past six months, I have worked hard (some days, I have even put in 10 hours). This is all part of the balance. If you have not seen the light of day for two or more days, then it’s time to take a walk outside in the park. It will help you clear your head even if you don’t want to go. I remember: Even doing something small for the day is still progress towards the goal.

Taking breaks is so important; I wake up each morning asking what I need to do for the team, for my family, for my friends. Then I weigh these goals and responsibilities and judge what is most important and what can wait. I put them together to balance time, travel, and money. I have gotten so good at this that I don’t even think about it anymore; I just do it. During my time away from my team, I can now think about other things and this shows progress towards a healthy balance.

If I solve a problem in my head while fixing the brakes on my wife’s car, I write it down as a note in my garage or wherever I am. If a pen and paper aren’t handy, I’ll text my wife odd programming stuff that she would never understand just so I have the note. These ideas grow and become real for the team, some good, others need a lot of work, but the ideas keep flowing. It is still rewarding to see what happens as a result and to know and figure a better way of doing things.

Time Management for the Hobby Game Developer

The hobby game designer’s day is long. When I am “done” for the day, and I’ve cleaned up after my job after working an extra four hours, I still ask myself, “is their enough time to do this task before bed? Am I too exhausted to do it right now? Do I have other responsibilities that I’ve left unfinished today?”

Measuring time and figuring out what to do next is a part of every thought process: school, kids, bills, or family — they all have a time element. If you don’t find the balance, your days’ and your nights’ tasks will overwhelm you and something gets dropped. And the thing to go first is usually your hobby.

Having your family on board with you is a good thing, for these reasons. They may not understand every little thing you do, but showing them and sharing an overview of your hobby is a good thing. I hope that this encourages my kids to dream big in some way and to aim to be great at whatever they choose to do in life. This reflection helps me put things in perspective, too, as to what I am doing and what I am trying to accomplish. I have had my wife tell me I was nuts because I was overextending my own capability to manage time. This is the strength that comes from family, having someone who is honest with you and gives you feedback.  Your family are the people who keep you on track.

Hobby vs. Lifestyle: Setting Boundaries

I am trying to stress that, with a hobby or anything else you enjoy doing, there has to be some sort of boundaries set up. Each day is a different story for you to write: There are times when I had a lot of sleep the night before and therefore I stay up an extra hour working on assets or communications for the team. In this way, hobbies are the things that keep you up at night, the activities that call you to use the day’s extra hour.

I’ll always have other things to do besides game design — the brakes on my wife’s car never fix themselves. But each day is productive inasmuch as I didn’t just come home and watch TV after work. Instead, I did something, big or small, that allowed me to take care of my family while meeting my game development goals in a time-healthy, balanced way.

My team will be there tomorrow. We’ll reconvene to enjoy our time together and the conversations that circulate around our shared passion. I think of game development now as a lifestyle and not just a hobby. And until my goals are completed, this is exactly where I want to be.

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