What do publishing an indie game and having a baby have in common?
Well, first of all, let me just say that I've done both. Yes, yes, thank you for the congratulations. It's been a lot of work, and it's name is Social Sessions. It's available on the App Store and Google Play. Oh, yeah, and my kid's name is Oliver. He's cool too. He's two years old. Also fun to play with, but not available in any online marketplace.
Okay, so, what do they have in common? It's that feeling. There's a certain feeling leading up to the event. It's that feeling that you can't really imagine what life will be like afterward. Like there's a wall in your ability to see into your future. You feel that things will be so different, you can't even imagine it. I also had this feeling before I graduated college. There are just so many possible outcomes, that to try to imagine what your life will be like just seems daunting and pointless.
In reality, this is probably more true for having a baby than it is for publishing a game, but they seem to share that feeling. When you're working toward releasing a game that you alone (or with a very small group of people) worked on for so long, all you can really do is focus on making that final push to completion. All of those final "To-Do" list items just keep multiplying, but steadily you march closer to the day when the list will have no more items on it, and you can click "Publish" on the App Store, or on Steam, or whatever.
Aside: I remember, at one point, months before release, I had a beta build of Social Sessions up on the Play Store, and I remember looking at the top of the page. The Publish button was there. It was just sitting there. I even hovered my mouse over it to make sure it was real. Yeah, I could actually click it if I wanted to. What would happen? Would the greatness of my game explode into the public eye? Would positive reviews start to flood into my not-quite-polished game? What was all this fuss about? I was going to keep killing myself for another month or two... when I could just click Publish right now? No... I pulled my hand away and quickly closed the browser and stared at the empty screen. (end aside)
But if we skip ahead a little, you'll find me here now. I released the game. It happened in due time (I managed to keep myself from hitting that Publish button out of sheer curiosity). I polished it and I was done. Sure, any form of media could continue to be iterated on, but you have to call it done at some point. When I published the last build a month ago, that was it. I was done.
So, that was weird. There wasn't really any fanfare. My wife was happy for me, of course; I'd checked something off my bucket list. My close friends were happy for me, having heard me talking about it for so long (nearly two years). But most of my friends and family are so far removed from game development, that it was hard to comprehend the amount of time and energy I'd poured into the creation of the game. Maybe if I'd printed out the pages and pages of code I'd written, and pulled the various versions from GitHub and published them all into a book, everyone could see how much I'd actually written to make this thing a reality. But to most people, the tiny icon on their phone pretty well encapsulated their understanding of the thing I had created.
So, life's big question: What is Life After Game-Release really like?
Well, first of all, let me tell you it's real. You don't just cease to exist, like some might try to tell you, and you don't just get reborn into another game release cycle (unless you work at a AAA game studio, in which case, this is exactly what happens). No, indeed, there is a light. There is more life afterward.
What you probably don't want to hear is that, in this next life, you're not rich. You're not famous. You don't get admitted into any secret clubs. You're still just you. People around you pretty much treat you the same. But there are a few things that are different. Let me try to list a few.
First of all, when you finally move out of "feedback mode" and into "done" mode, you realize how many people just want to give feedback! This was great a month ago, why is it so annoying now? (they mean well!). Well, I'm done with it. I made all the changes I'm going to make. Your feedback is hitting a brick wall!
Well, let me say: It's hard, but you still need to listen to people's feedback. One of two things might happen.
- What good is the experience of making your first game if you can't take those lessons-learned with you when you make your second game? Soak in that feedback, and let it knock around inside your head when you eventually start to work on your next project.
- You might find that there's one bit of consistently negative feedback which makes you realize that something is hindering your game's success. As much as you want to be done with it, you might actually need to dust off your development environment and go make some changes.
This exact thing happened to me. I released the first version of my game 6 months ago with some... just... really ugly art that I did myself. I thought that maybe people would see past the art and find the puzzles compelling enough to forgive. But that was naive for many reasons. So I decided that it was a big enough hurdle that I hired a freelance artist and basically recreated every piece of art in the game. Several months later, the improvement was huge, and then the feedback on the visuals was nearly always positive rather than negative.
The next thing is similar: you have to constantly force yourself to try to promote your game rather than just moving onto the next project. You're an indie: you don't have a marketing team. Turns out the world is not just going to discover your app on the front page of the App Store. You have to shove it in people's faces as much as you can. I'm not going to go into mobile marketing tactics here (there are lots of other great articles on that topic here on IndieWatch!), but it's something you'll find yourself doing for at least several months, and usually in the face of seemingly little results. It's an exercise in perseverance, but think about how much work you put into your game; you owe it to the game and yourself to put in the time to promote it.
And along those same lines, the next thing is that you have to keep telling yourself not to start working on that next project yet. I know that the only way you got as far as finishing your game is that you had the will power to tell yourself not to chase every new idea that popped into your mind. You managed to keep yourself on track and finish one idea long after you probably found that idea intriguing any more. Well, now you've finished the game, shouldn't you allow yourself to go chase down all those ideas?!? Let your imagination run free!?!
Well, yes, but you should really just keep a notebook of your ideas for later. Yes, your imagination will be running wild now with ideas for your next project, but you've got to take some time for yourself. You've been killing yourself finishing the last game. Don't forget what it means to live and just smell the roses for a little while. If even for a month or two, force yourself to not be in active development on anything. Spend the time you'd normally be developing on promoting your game, and spend the rest of your time with your family, friends, or neglected hobbies. Believe me... you might find valuable inspiration for your next great project in those times, rather than when your brain is in game development mode!
Another thing that you may or may not find fun (depending on your personality) is that you'll find yourself staring at a lot of charts (you did add an analytics package to your game, right???). It's a blessing and a curse that you can get up-to-the-minute feedback on how many people are playing your game. It's kind of like how the second hand on a clock seems to slow to a crawl when you actually pay attention to it. If you sit and look at a live feed of your downloads or game interaction, it can be a little depressing. Just try to stop yourself from checking the data every five minutes or you'll drive yourself crazy.
Obviously, your experience may be different. I can only speak for myself. Your dreams of striking it rich may be what's driving you to finish your game. If that's the case, then keep driving on; it's not impossible! But there's definitely a reality check that comes with finishing a game and, once the dust settles, finding that life kind of just goes back to normal. For me, it helped me to re-center. It helped me put things back into perspective. I had a family, I have friends, I have a job, and I have other hobbies. I will continue to pursue game development, and I've got some ideas for my next project, but I've got to keep it all in balance. Maybe Social Sessions will find some success yet, or maybe it'll be my 2nd, 5th, or 10th game that finally takes off.
I'll finish with a quote about enjoying every moment and not just racing to the end from the wonderful Ze Frank from his "An Invocation for Beginnings".
And god let me enjoy this. Life isn't just a sequence of waiting for things to be done.