Well, I've officially run out of money. (long pause for reflection)
This seems to be a common struggle and problem with indie game developers, and I'm not any different... Do I blame myself? Who else and what else is there to blame other than myself? Of course it's my fault.
I had about $500,000 at my high point. Today, I have no more than $1,200. What happened? Well, about five years ago (has it been that long?!) I went to Afghanistan as a military contractor working for the US Army as a senior software developer at the headquarters. I was initially paid $61,000 per year to work for General Dynamics as a junior field technician, but my project manager knew I was a developer so he sent me out to fill a much needed gap. I worked for GD in Afghanistan for about six months. One of my co workers worked for another contracting company called "Trace Systems". He was paid very well and his manager worked in the building and came by every week to check up on him and make sure he was well taken care of. My manager on the other hand, had no idea who I was or what I was doing. I never, ever heard from him. My initial contract was going to be six months and I had no intention of staying there, but the officers liked my work and saw my value, so they wanted to keep me on staff if possible. I told them I'd stay on for a year if I can get paid better. So, they made it happen. I quit General Dynamics and switched to Trace Systems, who paid me $240,000 per year to work in Afghanistan. For that kind of money, I can do that for another year. Afghanistan sucks. The mountains are brown, the air is dirty, the ground is brown, there are very few trees, it's just brown dirt and rocks everywhere you look. And the sky is filled with brown smog. I lived in a plywood shack with a quarter inch of wood between myself and the elements. We got shot at by rockets and mortars. The closest one landed no more than 200 feet away from me one night. You're never safe. My day to day life was pretty much, eat, sleep, work. I worked seven days a week, twelve hours a day. I oversaw three unit rotations. Winters were freezing, summers were roasting hot.
Towards the end of my 18 months, I was very burned out. I was tired of it all and became pretty useless. Even though my contract said I had to work 12 hours a day, I effectively only got about 2 hours of work done at best because I was so spent. It depressed me. I honestly wanted to keep working hard and pushing myself to fulfill my contractual obligations, but I felt like I was at the end of a marathon and I was trying to sprint for another mile. Nothing but a long break would fix that. It was time to go home. The whole time though, I was taking all of the money I earned and I put it into an investment account. I invested ALL of my money into Tesla Motors when they were at $55 / share. A few weeks later, they jumped to $92/share and I had made a couple hundred thousand dollars for doing nothing. I thought to myself, "Why do I work so hard to make a few thousand dollars a month when I can invest and make a couple hundred thousand?". Well, it turns out that I just got lucky with that particular stock pick. I invested all of my money into a solar power company and saw myself losing and gaining tens of thousands of dollars. It became an obsession to track the stock ticker symbols and read the news about these companies to try to figure out why the stock price went up or down.
My intention was to leave Afghanistan with $200,000 in the bank which I could use to fund my game development company. Instead, I left with about $350,000. That was a stroke of luck. I continued investing when I got home, and gradually raised my capital up to $550,000 at the highest point. I believed that, based off of the money my stocks were earning, I could afford to hire an artist to work for me. I was generous with his pay because I could afford to be. The plan was going to be to continue growing my financial portfolio and use a portion of the proceeds to pay my artist. Some days, I'd make a couple thousand dollars and think to myself, "Well, I just raised the money to pay his wages for a month." Ideally, that would have been great if it worked that way forever. However, all it takes is for one or two bad stock picks to demolish your savings. That happened. I invested in Fannie Mae, thinking they'd bottomed out at around $3.50/share. They went all the way up to $6/share and then crashed to around $2/share. I lost over a hundred thousand dollars in one day. Damn. But I can make that back, right?
The expenses of running a business with zero income will eventually drain all of your money. Every month, I had to spend about $8,000 to keep things running. My artists monthly wages were in the range of $4,000 per month. My office rent is $800 per month. My own apartment rent is about $2,000 per month. Then I've got bills, food, insurance, and a few other costs. I also spent money on computer hardware and computer software. I wanted to do everything right and legally, so I paid for all the software we use. Zero piracy. Everything is licensed. Zero risk of lawsuits in that regard. So, my stock portfolio would go up and down over the years, but it trended downward more often than it trended upward. I realize now that my investment strategy was very shitty and I should have invested in an index fund. On top of that, my investment portfolio had to give up $8,000 per month in order to keep my business afloat. Some days, I would see a months worth of savings evaporate. Those were bad days and I experienced a spike of adrenaline as my anxiety rose. Doubts became more frequent. What if I can't make it? My business focus was to keep my burn rate as low as possible and make my money last as long as possible. I saw my business as another investment vehicle. Unlike with stocks, where the value goes up or down at random, I myself can directly control the value of my business. That, combined with my belief in myself and my abilities as a developer, make it a pretty good investment, right? Maybe.
At about the $175,000 mark, I started looking for other investors who would be interested in sponsoring our game company. That turned out to be a huge waste of time and money because nobody was interested in investing. Nobody gives a shit about us or what we're doing. Investing in a game company is like playing roulette. No wallets opened up. I would spend several days creating and refining a pitch, practicing it, and looking at our financials. Most of it is just speculative bullshit, as with any other start up company trying to raise funds. Why would anyone believe in us? Or in me? It's not enough that I believe in it or have put all of my own money into it. Generally, nobody touches game companies. I kind of gave up on investors. But that's okay, right? I don't know, maybe I'm just an idiot. Maybe I should have spent 80% of my effort trying to court stingy investors instead of trying to build our product? One thing I have kind of learned though is that investors don't want to hear the cold hard truth. I have a really hard time lying or sugar coating things. I think everyone has a right to know the truth, whatever it is, so that they can react the best way they can.
Anyways, I initially worked on a real time strategy game where you controlled a wizard who could cast spells on a battle field. Think of Total War meets Magic the Gathering. I think the concept is great, and with a lot of work, it could be really fun. I had planned to build the game in XNA using my own game engine. A month after I returned from Afghanistan, I began working on my own game engine. I poured about 12 months of effort into it. It was HARD. But I got a rough 3D engine working with moving troops, AI, spells, and a decent user interface system. My software engineer instincts were throwing up red flags all over the place though. The biggest one was saying, "You're a victim of the 'not invented here' syndrome." and "You can never ship with this." and "Want a new feature? That's gonna cost a month of engine development time! That's $8,000. Is it worth it if you can't ship it?". Yes folks, I spent 12 months on this. I'll be the first to officially say that I'm an idiot and I should have realized my mistake a lot faster. Eventually, I was convinced by the following argument: You are ONE man. No matter how talented you are as a programmer, you will NEVER create an engine which is anywhere near the quality of the existing engines. They've got engineering teams with dozens, if not hundreds of talented engineers putting in effort to build the underlying infrastructure for making games. Stop reinventing the wheel unnecessarily and use an engine. Any engine is better than your own -- it makes sense from a business perspective. Divorce your baby and do the right thing. So I did. I picked up Unreal Engine 4. At the time, using it costed $20/month. That is SO cheap compared to spending $8,000 / month in operations costs creating my shitty XNA engine, which should never be shipped. At this point, I had about $275,000 in the bank, so not all was lost.
A little over a year ago, Virtual Reality started becoming a thing. I went to a UE4 meetup and I tried out an Oculus DK2 for the first time. I played an early version of "Technolust", where you just walk around a spaceship room with an android who is constantly looking at you. I did this in the back of a noisy bar, but once I put on the headphones and head set, I almost forgot I was still in a bar. My critical side looked at the experience and art assets. Undoubtedly, it was pretty well done. But I thought I could do WAY better, if I tried. I decided to think about it long and hard before diving in. I don't necessarily want to just abandon a project I'd been working on and spending money on for over a year simply because something new and shiny comes out. I wasn't keen on repeating my mistake with the game engines again. I'm not exactly sure when it happened, but Facebook bought out Oculus for $2 billion. The hardware was workable. A big company just made a big bet on it. The hardware and experience was transformational. It changes things. I decided that I would just buy an Oculus DK2 for myself and try it out and see for myself whether it's worth developing anything for. I mean, it only costs $450. Compared to my monthly expenses of $8,000, that's a drop in the bucket, so why not? I figured that if VR is going to be done right, it also needs to use hands. I had learned about the Leap Motion device when I was in Afghanistan. I put in a request to get the early developer kit version sent out to me out there, but that was totally ignored. I was a nobody (still am). But, VR done properly needs hands, so I bought a leap motion to go with my VR headset. I'd figure out how to make it work, no matter what it takes. If I can build my own fucking engine from scratch, surely I can figure out how to make hands work. In comparison, it should be trivial.
So, the DK2 came in March 2015. I hooked it up. I tried out some demos over the week. They were all mostly "meh...not impressed". Someone posted online that they spent a weekend making a VR game using leap motion, where you can throw fireballs at barrels, and it was the most fun they ever had.. That intrigued me. I couldn't find it anywhere online. I figured that I'd spend a weekend and build my own. No problem, right? And hey, throwing fireballs at barrels is kinda interesting, but also would get boring kinda fast. What if... there was something that moved towards you slowly and you had to destroy it with the fireball before it got to you? It would create a bit more tension and keep things interesting, right? And what creature behaves like this? A zombie! So I bought a zombie asset from the UE4 online asset store and created my fireball throwing game in a weekend. It was pretty cool! I showed it to my artist, and he was disappointed that I didn't include him in it. I wanted to ship it, but it was rough. I decided that I could afford to spend a week polishing the game and then shipping it, and I could include my artist to make it look pretty. But... the game needed more work. More than a weeks worth of work. Maybe two weeks? Maybe three at most? We could afford to waste a few weeks on a fun side project, right? And if we released it, we'd kinda be more important. Well, that was the initial plan anyways. Enter, feature creep!
We were looking at a month. Then it turned to three months. The game progressively got better and better. We borrowed a lot of assets from our other game. We went to a VR meetup group here in Seattle put on my "Chronos VR", and gave our first public demo. The game play worked, but it was still shitty. It needed more work. But seeing the player responses to a working VR game which I hatched out of my own imagination was super encouraging. People fucking loved it. But I could do better. So, we put in another three months worth of work into the game. Then PAX came to Seattle. I really wanted to have a booth at PAX to show our indie game to people, but alas, I missed the deadline to submit a build in May (I was in Las Vegas with my girlfriend visiting her family). But hey, we're like... three blocks away from the PAX convention center, and right across the street from Benaroya hall, so why not put a bunch of sandwich boards on the sidewalks to advertise our game to PAX players walking by? VR was becoming HOT, and people were willing to stand in line for hours to try it out, so I imagined we'd have a line out the door too. Well, that was a very wrong assumption to make. I had built three sandwich boards out of plywood and created a bunch of laminated posters to glue onto the wood. The total cost was $300 for three signs, and quotes from professional sign builders were double that. I also pulled in my girlfriend to help with the logistics and marketing of all this. She is really good at sales. She can sell ice to an eskimo. She stood out on the street and pulled people to come up to our office. When she was working, she'd bring in about 10-15 people at a time. When she stopped, we'd get about 1-2 per hour. Obviously, the sandwich boards failed to do their job. Nobody gives a shit about what is written on a sandwich board. They just ignore it and walk right by. Interesting. Over the course of the weekend, we had 150 people try out our latest build of the game. It was still kind of shitty by my standards, but the response was great and showed me a lot of problem areas I needed to focus on and improve. Watching people play your game is the best user feedback you can get. I wrote a bunch of stuff down and spent another few months refining and improving the game. Money is getting more tight. We were getting below $100,000 in savings now. It's time to either shit or get off the pot. Ship this damned game or fail.
As you know, we're still not ready to ship and we're broke.
A few months ago, we ran a steam greenlight campaign for our game. We were greenlit in ten days. While a big part of that is due to the novelty of being a VR game, the rest of the appeal was from the game concept itself and our high production values. We accelerated through the ranks and hit #31. We were on track to hit rank 15. That was a very encouraging indicator of our chances in the market, once we released. Still, no funding. Valve was kind enough to finally send us an HTC Vive Pre for free. The moment it came, I hooked it up and started developing support for it. Room scale support is an entirely new can of worms to develop for. There are problems I faced in design and concept I've never had to deal with before. Like, measuring the height of the player suddenly becomes game play relevant. Figuring out how to prevent players from physically walking through obstacles in VR was tough, but I got it. Then there's the whole locomotion problem. If your world is large and expansive, but the play space is the size of a living room, how do players move around in a large open world by walking around in their living room? Without teleporting! I solved that too. If I can write a game engine from scratch, solving these problems shouldn't be any harder. Still, nobody cares. The proof is in the pudding. You can talk about this stuff till you're blue in the face, but what really, really matters is shipping a product. Show, don't tell.
Adding room scale support and solving these really tough problems has caused us to take a few steps back in order to take a step forward. Why support the Vive? Why not just launch for the Oculus and add Vive support later? I wonder that myself, but really... the answer is simple: because hurling fireballs from behind your back in a room scale environment is fucking cool. And if the VR market is going to be 50% Vive and 50% Rift, then we would want to support both. Why turn away potential sales? Well, that has also costed me about a month ($8,000). The game doesn't work yet. Now I have no money. Damn.
This week I had to have a hard conversation with my artist. I told him I'm broke and it would be hard for me to pay him going forward, but that I'd make every effort to pay him for his work. How? My dear gracious girlfriend is going to be helping with the finances. She is bending over backwards to raise money to fund our development by going to fairs around the pacific northwest and selling hair products. We're also watching a half dozen dogs in my apartment every day (piss, shit, barking, everywhere... ugh). And we co-operate a ranch bed and breakfast which barely breaks even. We also moved in together to cut costs by sharing them. She tells me she's not going to let me give up on my dream simply because I ran out of money. That's a fixable problem, right?
Currently, as it stands now, the game still needs about 3-5 months of development work. Maybe more? It's impossible to accurately predict these things. We have to finish this thing and ship it. If we sell it for $25 per unit, we need to sell 61,150 units to break even. That seems like an impossible number to reach. We've recently come up with a long term plan for the game as well. I decided that our "game" is more of a story telling platform and that there would be many different stories being told on it. Each story is released as a series of three chapters, and we release one chapter at a time. The proceeds from sales would fund the production of the next chapter. And each series is sold separately. $25 for first game, maybe $15 per additional story? or maybe a bundle deal? Each of the stories would be very different, but seen from the vantage point of a different character. And they would be intertwined. VR is beyond just a head set, beyond just adding hands and input, beyond just telling a single story, it is a way to experience first hand, the amazing stories and lives of interesting characters. This is part of our vision for the future of VR -- we just have to shut up and finish building it. Right now, nothing is more important than shipping a quality product I'd be proud to put my name to. We'll get there.
I had a bit of mentorship from another CEO a while back. He told me that I should expect to "waste" 50% of my funds. It's not avoidable and it doesn't mean I'm a bad manager of money, it happens to everyone starting a company. You waste money going down dead ends in order to find out that they're dead ends. I didn't really believe him, though looking back now I admit that he was right. We spent a lot of time and money finding our way to the final product we're going to ship. In that process, I built a game engine from scratch. Mistake. I invested money I now realize I couldn't afford to lose. Mistake? I started building a game, which we then abandoned. Failure. Now we're finally building the product which we believe will work. There will be more mistakes and failures in the future. But that's okay. These are all a part of the required process to move forward.
Anyways, just because I ran out of money doesn't mean the adventure is over yet. The show must go on! Once we ship and start making sales, I'm going to be very wary about growing. You don't want to outgrow your earnings, no matter how financially safe you think you feel. I need to learn how to make our business financially self sustaining. We have to survive before we can thrive.
I know its a long shot, but if you know any rich saudi prince who wants to invest or sponsor us, let me know.