Before I became homeless in the fall of 2016, I had been jobless for over three months. That hasn’t happened for over twenty years. I left my last job for reasons I feel strongly about. Nobody’s employment status should be threatened when they refuse to work longer hours. Especially when they have worked for over ten already. But it happened. On a daily basis. And to make things even more wrong, those that were lazy and slow were allowed to go home hours before.
We talked with the manager and regional manager, expressing our concerns about supervisors threatening us with our job. After a couple conversations, we knew neither the manager or the regional manager would do anything about it. Within three weeks, four of the hardest working people left. Including myself. Running into the other three people around town, I learned our last employer was giving each of us a bad reference. Even though we had given a two-week notice and maintained our level of energy during working hours, we were being kicked in the balls.
My already dismal finances were shrinking on a daily basis and for the first time in years, I was starting to worry.
During this time, my estranged wife had taken my two children to go live with her while she traveled with Ringling Bros. Circus. I had worked for Ringling Bros. for sixteen years, and this is how we met. I wasn’t happy about them going back there, but I understood the reason. Things were looking pretty grim. My already dismal finances were shrinking on a daily basis and for the first time in years, I was starting to worry. My children’s mother had helped me out a little here and there. Paying for my car and insurance payments, she had just about enough of that.
My oldest daughter had returned for a couple of months so I could help her with school. This gave her mother a bit more incentive to help out in the money department. Needless to say, it didn’t last long. Near the end of October, just days before my birthday, my daughter went back to live with her mother. And I was officially homeless. At least I still had a car to my name. At least until they repossessed it.
During the short time my daughter was living with me, I had started to get an itch. In the years previous, I taught myself to write screenplays. It was a creative side that I absorbed to the fullest extent. I became rather good at it. The few screenplays that I did manage to finish, several contacts on an online writing forum had given their approval. But the one thing that held me back from sending out any of those screenplays for submission, as I believe holds back many people from doing certain things, was self-doubt.
I’m not an artist. I wouldn’t even be worthy enough to hand Da Vinci his brushes, and art, or should I say sprites, cost money for someone to make.
It was ingrained into my psyche. Maybe it was from being raised by a mentally and physically abusive drunk, truck driving step-father. Or maybe it was just me, afraid of putting myself out there and letting the world tell me that I honestly suck at something that I truly enjoy doing. Either way, those screenplays would never see the inside of a mailed envelope, much less being attached to an email.
But here I was. On the verge of becoming homeless. Restless even. I needed something, anything, that I could release this built up creativity with. My old laptop died months before, and with it, my screenwriting software. I had messed around a little with gamedev before, even started working on a platformer. But that was then. I’m not an artist. I wouldn’t even be worthy enough to hand Da Vinci his brushes, and art, or should I say sprites, cost money for someone to make. I had it then to spend, but not now.
As a screenwriter, it’s our job to find a fresh and original way to tell that story. This holds more true for video games.
A couple days before I found myself homeless, I had started to play some simple mobile games. Mainly the type where you roll or drop a ball. But they were all the same. Tilt your phone to drop down from ledges, or follow along predetermined paths. Numerous installs later, I started to catch on. They were all clones of each other. Yeah, they did have very different backgrounds, music and soundfx, but the gameplay was just the same. In Hollywood there is a saying: every type of story has been told before. There is nothing new. As a screenwriter, it’s our job to find a fresh and original way to tell that story. This holds more true for video games.
Think of how many different FPS’s, RPG’s, Platformer’s or Driving games there are. They’re all the same. Pull a trigger, level up to get better armor, start left and end right, push the gas and follow the course. The truly breathtaking difference between the games in each of those categories is they each find a unique way to differentiate themselves. Take for instance, dare I say it, Angry Birds. It’s like any other game where the player must aim, launch, and destroy. But the originality of the gameplay made it spectacular, and the company behind it rich. But soon after, clones of Angry Bird’s started popping up, and still do to this day.
The first few weeks living out of my car was depressing. Not only was I homeless, I desperately needed a creative release.
For this reason, Roll A Ball was created. I wanted to make something original. Not just another rolling ball clone. But I had a life-changing choice to make. I was still facing being homeless, thanks to the bad reference from my last employer. Hell, even fast food restaurants weren’t interested. Days before I was about to be evicted from the sleazy motel I was staying in, I made a choice. Right or wrong, I would stand by this choice. Because maybe, just maybe, I finally was ready to tackle this self-doubt thing that had been holding me back for all these years. For me, it was now or never.
The first few weeks living out of my car was depressing. Not only was I homeless, I desperately needed a creative release. But I had promised myself, no matter what, I would finish this game and publish it for the world to pick apart. One small problem. In order for me to create the next Angry Bird’s of ball rolling games, I needed internet. I tried going into some fast food restaurants that offer free wifi, but not only was that wifi spotty, it got expensive to purchase food that would allow me to just hang out. Then it dawned on me. STARBUCKS!
On my very first visit, I could feel a sense of pride wash over me. I got more done that day than I had in weeks. It was still a bit expensive. A house coffee costs just over $2, and refills were $0.54. Then someone told me about the app. If I purchase my coffee with the app I get free refills. Awesomesauce!
Over the next month, things went great. I had the basic gameplay, sprites, and mechanics down. It did take a few days to teach myself certain things. After all, this was the first real attempt at creating a video game. Still, I was proud of myself. Then it finally happened.
The only problem, where to find a safe place to sleep.
I was at Starbucks feeling all full of myself. I had just overcome my very first bug when a stranger ran in and told me that someone was towing my car. I knew this day would come. I ran out, leaving my laptop, my phone and my grande house coffee there on the table. I was able to grab the things I thought I would need the most. Clothes, deodorant, phone charger, only the bare essentials. I went back and continued to work on my game.
That night, the reality of being homeless hit me like a ton of bricks. Was I really up for what was about to come? Again, no matter what, I could not allow myself to start something and not finish just because I thought it would be inferior to any and everything else out there. The only problem, where to find a safe place to sleep. Although the area that I mostly stayed around was safe during the day, at night it takes a bit of a dive. And not only having my worldly possessions in my backpack, it also held the most valuable one, my laptop.
I was at the point of no return. I knew that this, my very first Indie Game, would never become a million dollar game. But maybe, just maybe, it could put a little coin in my pocket so I could sustain myself. Even if I was still homeless, at least I wouldn’t have to rely on others to save me.
There are a lot of tourist areas here in Orlando, Florida. So I made my way to the biggest one around. An area called I-Drive. On one hand, it’s a very safe place, day or night. Police activity is plentiful. But this created a problem. Because of the large police presence, it was difficult to find a spot to sleep at night. Officers were always telling me to move on. I know they were just doing their job, so no hard feelings.
Over the next several weeks my game was coming along. I was about seventy percent finished, but again, major problem: my bank account was nearly zero.
But this became exhausting. I’m not sure if it was the cold temperatures during those nights (I live in Florida! Anything below 65 degrees, I’m freezing), or from the 6-7 cups of coffee I would drink during the day. Or maybe it was the pack of cigarettes I would smoke to help keep the hunger pains away, either way, I would sometimes be up for 2 – 3 days straight. I got a bit of a scare one night. I noticed my heart racing. This, after I had been laying down for about an hour. I was counting around 105 beats per minute. Nearing my breaking point, I was almost looking forward to the heart attack that was sure to follow, and I would have welcomed it. Needless to say, no heart attack came to save me from myself. But the Starbucks just opened, so off for more coffee, and free wifi.
Over the next several weeks my game was coming along. I was about seventy percent finished, but again, major problem: my bank account was nearly zero. One thing I promised myself: I would never ask a stranger for food or beg for money. That’s not me. It’s not that I thought I was better than your average homeless person, it’s that I have no one to blame for my situation other than myself. Thankfully, I do have a couple of great friends. One of which is my children’s mother, and she has helped immensely with loaning me a few bucks here and there.
I soon moved to the Florida Mall area in Orlando. It’s not as safe, but there are a lot more places to find a spot to sleep without getting rustled up by the police. I found a spot behind a small building that was being renovated. It was still cold concrete, but at least my exhaustion would take over and I could at least get a few hours of sleep. I spent the next month or so waking up around five in the morning. I didn’t want anyone coming in to work on the building and discovering a homeless man sleeping on the premises. Things were coming along fine. If you take being homeless out of the equation. My game was almost completely finished. Almost.
Over a week’s span, I had been stumped by a major audio bug in my game. One that turned a decent game into a pile of shit. Everyone that I chatted with on the forums I frequent had no idea what it could be. They really liked my game, except for that damn bug. This was the second time that I felt defeated. I scolded myself over and over for becoming such an idiot and allowing myself to believe that I could actually create a mobile game.
Sometimes the smallest, dumbest thing can break your whole game.
To think that I, the one that always starts a creative project only to stuff it into the trash bin because I know in my soul that no matter what I do, it will always turn out to be a piece of shit. To endure the sleepless nights, the hunger, the cold, the whispers from strangers behind my back, and sometimes even in front of my face. It was more than I bargained for.
This was the last day. If I couldn’t figure out this bug, I knew I would do what I always did. Realize that I was actually what my step-father always said I was, a worthless piece of shit, and completely stop whatever I was working on. I had asked God for some help breaking this bug for the last day or two, but none came. Maybe he actually knew what I was too naive to face. I went outside of the Starbucks to grab a smoke and to try and clear my head. After a few minutes, I went back inside. Defeated for the last time. Before I shut down my laptop, I looked over my code. Line by line. And there it was.
Sometimes the smallest, dumbest thing can break your whole game. There was a word in the code that was repeated a few times. In every instance, it started with a lowercase letter. But in one spot it was capitalized. Could this really be it? I corrected the letter and prayed while I waited for the build to complete. If my game ran, I was awesome. If not, step-father knows best. With the game now built, I was about to install it on my android phone. Moment of truth. At that moment I got a call from my children’s mother.
The day before she had closed on buying a condo in Winter Park, a suburb of Orlando. She told me I could stay there while she traveled until the Circus shut down for good in May. As long as I agreed to move the over-packed 2,000 cubic foot of storage space we had and make small repairs to her home, I would have a place to stay and a roof over my head. With me being totally over my stupidity, I jumped at the chance. The first week staying there was with no electricity, but I was accustomed to that, so no biggie. I immediately tried my hand again at finding a job. I still needed wifi and thankfully, there was a nearby Starbucks. While filling out online applications, I tested out my game. No-go. There was still a game breaking audio bug.
Over the next couple weeks, I did some small repairs on the condo, filled out numerous applications and looked over my game’s code. Without even thinking, I deleted a few lines of code that were duplicated elsewhere, built and ran my game. And there it was. My very first Indie Game, Roll A Ball went live on the Play Store on February 12, 2017. I almost cried when I clicked on publish. The pain, the hunger, the sleepless nights, the humiliation… It all seemed worth it at the moment. It was like being a proud parent all over again.
Now, not only do I have a home to stay in, even if it does belong to someone else, I actually have a game in the Play Store. And yeah, it’s not going to reach a million downloads, hell, it may not even reach a thousand, but at least I have overcome something I never could before. I have a finished, creative product on public display for the world to pick apart. This has been the most grueling, emotionally painful, dumbest thing that I have ever done. And I would happily do it all over again. Because I am now, an Indie Game Developer!
And I love STARBUCKS!