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Part-time indie – Making the best of the time available
by Dave Toulouse on 10/28/13 01:21:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

Sorry to disappoint but you won't find here an easy to digest and easily spammable top 10 things to do here. Context is needed and it would be dishonest to take such a shortcut.

One of the biggest obstacles I face being a part-time indie is exactly doing this thing part-time and it ain't getting easier as I'm getting older. I'm slowly starting to accept my current situation for what it is and try to come up with tricks to make the best of it.

What it used to be

I used to have a 7 PM to 11 PM schedule on weekdays to work on games. Every single day when getting home I was rushing the boring day-to-day stuff (cooking, eating, cleaning, walking the dog, etc.) just so I could sit in front of the computer at 7 PM to get as much stuff as possible out of my brain and into code until I was too exhausted to continue. It was okay for a while ... A few years later, still no good results to be seen anywhere, I had enough.

A bit less part-time

This is the point at which I guess most people either give up or come up with some big plans to fund their game development activity. Giving up didn't seem like a productive idea but coming up with some business plan with investment and major life changing decisions was way out of my comfort zone. So I came up with a third option. Not a perfect one but one matching my low (some might say too low) risk tolerance. Going from a 5 days week of work to a 4 days schedule. It's not an option available to everyone but working for the same employer for over 10 years do helps to negotiate stuff like that. I'm not doing a full week of work in 4 days so it's really a 20% cut from my paycheck. It may appear trivial compared to people quitting their job but that's still a decision that requires some adjustments. The trick is to never check what this 20% cut means over a year ...

More time != more efficient

At first it seems obvious. With more time you can do more. It's math. Well not quite ... When working strictly on evenings whatever work you can get done seems like proper work that needed to be done. You're racing against your body before it gets too tired so the first task you see seems like the one task to be completed today. At least that's how I felt I was working when I suddenly had a full day to put on my game projects. I realized that I had no clue how to plan my work. I was just spending hours trying to get from point A (idea of a game) to point B (releasing the game) as fast as possible like I was doing when working on evenings. Releasing a game takes time, a lot of time and I just couldn't see the end of it. All this new time available and I was still going nowhere fast.

Chasing a tortoise

That's how it felt and the tortoise was winning. Part of it is that I was (and maybe still am sometimes) still rushing to finally get 1 damn game to get some kind of success to get the wheel spinning. When I started this madness in 2007 (just to make it clear I have worked on various games here, it's not 1 project going on since 2007) it didn't seem all that difficult to achieve really. I came to realize it wasn't but was still hopelessly running toward that goal. Yeah yeah, it's a marathon, blah blah blah ... There are some things you hear over and over but won't mean anything until you're ready to hear them. Having your face rubbed in "first release, first success" news too often doesn't help to see clearly. Sometimes I'd sit in front of the code and then wonder "why isn't this game finished yet?". There was still a ton of stuff to do but in my mind I was already trying to turn this half-completed project into a release. All the code was in my mind but I had yet to actually write it and I was wondering why it didn't look like that idea I had in mind. It's a weird feeling to describe really. I'm not sure I fully understand from where it comes from.

Okay so having more time was part of the answer but not all of it. Maybe I needed to relax a bit and stop being so anxious about the release that is still so far away. What about aiming to finish specific tasks instead of always going after the release? Actually why not care about the release at all. I don't have a deadline, I won't run out of money and I've been doing this for relatively quite some time without tasting victory so I can probably pull this off anyway.

It all starts on Thursday in the evening

I sit on the couch, take a pen and a piece of paper and write some specific tasks I want to get done for the week. Friday is my day off from my day job so Thursday is the perfect time to do this. I'll have a full day to attack the biggest chunks and the rest of the week to do the trivial stuff. I don't try to get the game ready for release. I just try to define tasks for the next week believing that eventually I won't have anything new to write and the release of the game will sneak up on me.

I limit myself to 1 side of page. If I fill the page then I stop there. It's plenty of work for the week and if I finish before then maybe I'll allow myself to waste some time on other stuff. The point being to not obsess over the project ... too much.

These tasks can be anything that can be done with the current build of the game. It can be anything from adding the next system to improving the appearance of a button but I avoid as much as possible big tasks that depend on another task I just wrote down that isn't completed. These tasks will be for next week so that way when it's Thursday again I can say "okay this list is done, time for a new one".

Limiting the number of tasks you have to work on helps to keep things in focus and to avoid to rush stuff you think is less important. If I have too much stuff on my list then maybe I won't do such a good job with that new button I want to create. Not being an artist it's quite easy to dismiss too rapidly things you're not that good at.

Of course defining the end result at the start of the project is important so you have a good idea of what you have to do to get to it and to avoid adding too much stuff that wasn't part of the original plan. Writing tasks for the week is not improvisation. You have to navigate within the initial plan you (should) have built before coding anything. What if you realize that something you planned doesn't work or have this cool idea you really can't ignore? Well that's what Thursday is all about. You don't do anything that's not on your list to make sure you take decisions with a clear mind as far as possible from the keyboard.

A project will evolve from the original vision so the goal is not to prevent that but to control the process. Not doing so will really result in a project that never ends. Working on precise weekly goals will give you more time to think about your new idea and it's quite possible that this additional time will allow you to realize your idea ain't that cool after all.

This is exactly why I've taken a short break to write this post. To prevent myself to add an unplanned feature on my current project. To take some time off to think about it and see if it will be part of next week's list. Does this simple way to do things really work? It seems to fit me so far. I'm satisfied by the work I get done and see progress. Is it difficult to let go of the obsession to work toward the release of the game? Oh yeah ... Is this method good for you? I don't know, you tell me.

 

Machine 22 is a one man independent game development company run by Dave Toulouse.

This post also appeared on my blog: http://www.over00.com/?p=2346

Twitter: @Over00
Google+: https://plus.google.com/106749281306155952000


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Comments


Matt Marshall
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Seems solid. I am in a similar situation where I have a part time job and lots of free time...it's difficult to stay focued when you don't HAVE to be. Having a list basically creates a deadline, the second part is actually DOING the list within that week as best you can.

I have been pretty complacent for the last few years and I am just coming into my productivity again, however it's up and down with motivation and tasks etc. It's hard to stick to it no matter what, but I think it's important to build up the constant development endurance to keep on moving forward.

David Klingler
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It sounds like you're being very careful about how you think about the tasks involved in development, and that's good in my opinion. However, I worry that you may still be too anxious about reaching release. Perhaps being more iterative would help. I think that your techniques with the list will work for you, but I also think it's important to keep a clear vision about the current state of development for the game. Stay balanced, Dave, and you'll get to the end at some point. Since you still have your main job, you really only have personal deadlines (as far as I know), so don't put too much pressure on getting to release.

I work with task lists too, and I agree sometimes it can be uncomfortable when it feels like release is far away. As Matt said in his above comment, "development endurance" is important, and it's brought by a balance of things in your life. When I was working on my first game, I completely ignored having balance, and it ended up hurting my health and the game drastically.

If your methods for making progress work for you right now, then definitely continue. Still be aware about how you can adjust details of scheduling, though.

Good luck on your game, Dave.

Mihai Cozma
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Very nice write-up. I love the line about not counting the 20% off your pay-check for a year :)).

I do roughly the same, except I do have to freelance a lot (can't afford to take a day off) and also sometimes work Saturdays, but I do keep a list of things to do. The difference is I plan only to the next commit to source control, so my list is quite short. I plan 1-2-3 things that I consider do-able and important and then go with those, I can keep motivation up much easier in this way.

Dylan Williams
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great article. ive found sitting down and planning even if its just for a bit is so important. i work full time, but i eat at my desk while working every day, and use the half hour or hour i have for a lunch break to sit in an empty conference room and draw/brainstorm/plan. just this consistent little time of drawing, planning, makes the following evening when i come home and write code/make art so much more productive. otherwise its pretty much just come home and stare at a blank screen. i use that small break at work to fuel excitement for that evening of development too. i don't have a laptop, so i never actually code during the lunch, only draw in a notebook, but that separation is so important, because i'm the kind of person who just wants to get up and implement the stuff as soon as i think of it. but its good to be forced into a situation where i can only plan.

Dusty Hunsaker
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It sounds to me like this project's scope is too large. Starting in 2007 and working part-time for 6 years on a game to only have it half finished is a REALLY long time. It sounds more like a hobby than something you want to release, especially because you "won't run out of money." The thing is, now it's costing you 20% of your paycheck and it has already cost a crapload of your free time. I understand you may be able to live comfortably off 80% of your income, which is really nice, but it's still costing you in terms of earlier retirement, and paying off loans (if you have any). This is, of course, until you sell the game and cash out, which, in my opinion, should happen sooner rather than later. Setting deadlines helps prioritize and avoid feature creep. How much playtesting have you been doing? What if the things you have spent 6 years working on aren't even fun? What if you have to change or kill major features? These are all important questions for someone who wants the option to quit their dayjob and develop video games instead. If that's not the goal, then perhaps this IS a hobby and I'm looking at this all wrong. That's just my $0.02.

Dave Toulouse
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Nope it's not a single project since 2007. I started making games in 2007. I've put a link to my website but maybe didn't make it pop enough so here it is, you can check my previous projects here: http://www.machine22.com

My latest and most successful project to date is Bret Airborne which was featured on Indie Royale a few weeks ago: http://www.machine22.com/bretairborne/

Dusty Hunsaker
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Ah, I went to the page of the project. Your link to your site in the original post is broken (looks like there's a rogue comma in the url) and there was no navigation on the project page. of course I COULD have just manually typed the url, but that's madness! Either way, thanks for the writeup.

Dave Toulouse
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Oh thanks, indeed there was a sneaky comma in the URL.

Kujel s
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I work a day job and on my days off I work on my projects and I too make a list of tasks I want to complete on a coding day (though I make a short mental list instead of a paper one). This method works for me but it does take awhile to get much done (especially since my days off are seperated :( ).

Just keep chugging away and you'll get to the end and release your game.

Michael Uzdavines
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Very encouraging and helpful post, thanks for taking the time to write it. I'm in the same boat, running a law firm while trying to make a game. I've been doing the evening thing, too, which is working as well as you described. Good luck with your game, it looks really promising!

Eric Robertson
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Similar to your situation, I negotiated with my employer to go from full time to 30 hrs a week (I remain on call 24/7), and that allowed me to get back on track.

I also do lists after lists, but for a slightly different reason. I find if I spend enough time designing I can save even more time by predicting and eliminating unneeded work.

I do something like this:
Step 1: Write up what I want to do in this portion of the game (to be done over next two weeks or so)
Step 2: Cut out anthing I trim out that is not absolutely needed
Step 3: Re-write it up again
Step 4: If nothing can be stripped out, start coding.

We part-time game builders need to plan more to save our precious hours for the must have lines of code.

Example: Recently, I was working on my "Friend List" for Werewolf Online and originally thought I needed a window showing all my friend invites, and a second showing all my current friends. I decided later I can do both in one window by just having some friend entries say Invitation by X. This saved me 8 hours of work easily, and resulted in less UI for the player to fumble through.

-Eric


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