Monday, 27 October 2014

f(utility): Evaluating the Cost of Solo Entrepreneurship

Baby Mario in bubble with white outline

Stargazy Studios is an independent micro developer in the truest sense. I am the sole designer, programmer and business lead, with art and audio assets for my projects created by talented contractors. This structure was necessitated by my means and contacts when I started making games in 2009. However, after having operated in solitude, I would elect to work with colleagues in the future wherever possible.

The differences between working alone and working in a team extend beyond creative control, and are not obvious without having experienced both. There are notable solo developers who have made significant works, but their individual processes are rarely dissected. I suspect they will have encountered some of the negative effects of solo work that I have, and their knowledge would have been useful when I started out.

Any entrepreneur should weigh the implications of team size in their business model, so I will summarise my observations here for consideration.

To frame the following advice I offer context, by describing the specific work that I do. Game development is a broad spectrum of endeavour, which is defined primarily by the scope of the target product, and the tool chain used to create it. In my case, the majority of my time is best classified as research and development. This is because I was unable to find off-the-shelf tools to craft the game that I wanted to make, and have had to write my own engine to build it. This has been an enormous effort, and not one that I had originally envisaged undertaking.

I strategically chose industry standard technologies, such as the C programming language and XML data encoding, expressly to leverage shared code. What surprised me more than the dearth of code sharing in the game development sector, was that more general libraries, which I would consider broadly rudimentary, were missing from the public domain. I wanted innovative features, unseen in games before, so had expected to have to write some proprietary code. However, the only shared libraries that I have been able to reuse are OpenGL and LibXML, which comprise only a fraction of the functionality of a video game. Data structures, an asset management pipeline, dynamic storage of assets at runtime, rendering and pathfinding are all scratch-built features of my engine, which I am sure have all been written many times over behind closed doors.

What typifies an environment in which research and development takes place is the feedback bubble that encompasses it. The bubble contains only those who are working on a project, so all motivation must be drawn from introspective evaluation. This is why deciding a team's structure is so important. Until your process yields a product that can be evaluated and patronised by consumers, your feedback from external parties is nil. All energy expended between start to release is imperceptible to most people, either because the undertaking is unknown to the target audience, or because those who are observing the process do not have the domain-specific knowledge to parse it.

A practical example of this type of working environment is the academic research involved in attaining a PhD. Research areas tend to be highly specialised, perceptible only to those working in the same field, and individual candidates must conduct self-directed study for several years before submitting their theses.

In the case of a PhD, candidates have the support of their departmental peers, as well as their experienced supervising professor. This mentor-lead structure has evolved over hundreds of years in our academic institutions, refined to yield successful research. So, if adding members to a research team boosts individuals' motivation and success, then why work solo?

Complete creative control over a personal project may seem attractive, but I have found it to be outweighed by the effects of being the sole occupant of a feedback bubble. Feeding off of your own energy and enthusiasm for long periods of time is exhausting, and when you run dry, burn out sets in. Productivity suffers until you have rested enough to rebuild your motivational reserves, costing you an entrepreneur's most valuable commodity: time to market. In a team, individuals' troughs can be offset by other members' asynchronous energy levels, as the desire to perform in line with ones peers takes effect.

Also, unlike PhD research, making a game is a multi-discipline endeavour that lends itself to parallelisation. A team may attempt to make a game with a larger scope than a solo developer, even with the efficiency drag of communication and coordination. As the market only subjectively evaluates the final product, there is no regard paid to the resources spent to create it. The majority of consumers will not be aware of, or be concerned by, the size of the team that made a product. Limiting the scope of your output can make you less competitive in this marketplace, which is another argument for teamwork.

So, again: why work solo? In my case, and for a lot of other independent developers, it is not a choice. It is a matter of risk adoption. Unless you have access to risk-hungry entrepreneurs, willing to work for equity in your product, then you will need resources beyond most people's personal wealth to incentivise employees. If you have the skill set to make games in a small team, then you are highly employable in a range of well compensated technology roles. Game development, and other private sector entrepreneurship, suffers from not having the established support structures and ring-fenced funding of our academic institutions.

I graduated from college in computing with friends, and had worked in technology until I formed Stargazy Studios. I had many in my professional network with the ability to make games, but the issue was that they were of an age that they had begun to take on liabilities, making them risk averse. Salary-backed mortgages, and dependent family mouths are standard societal concessions made in your late twenties and early thirties. As I had no experience with game development, I considered it disingenuous to promise a suitable return to those who did not make natural entrepreneurs. Although new funding avenues have become available with which to pay regular compensation, these require a minimum viable product for application, and do not underwrite the crucial research and development phase of creating a game.

Start something early in your life, as soon as your professional circle includes those with applicable skill sets. Stay involved with organisations that naturally attract entrepreneurs: academic institutions, local interest groups, and co-work and hack spaces. Bootstrapping with fellow entrepreneurs, unburdened by personal liabilities, minimises start up costs, and the risks of failure.

Another way of reducing entrepreneurial risk is to have a successful track record. If you are an alumni of the traditional game development industry, then you are more likely to be able to form an independent team. Unlike the vocational skills attained through many higher learning courses, the only effective way to train to make games is by making games. In addition to being able to attract first round funding earlier, by being a better investment, your peers form a pool of experienced professionals who can be productive from day one of a project. Resultingly, the scope and success of games built independently by alumni teams is enviable.

Those who are young, risk-hungry and highly trained, combined with the veterans of a small, often employee-hostile industry, represent a sliver of those with something valid to contribute to games. However, for the remaining majority, we are unlikely to have resources to build a team.

So, without access to colleagues to bolster productivity and morale, what factors improve an individual entrepreneur's chances of success? They are the same as for those who work in a team, but are more acutely felt without augmentation. After several years of solo work and introspection, I identify the following key sources of sustenance during a project:


Every day you will be challenged to achieve technical feats, be creative, consume vast quantities of applicable material, meticulously execute clerical tasks, and solve problems made for you by others. This must be done day in, day out with the exclusion of any external feedback. No-one will recognise your utility until you have a product for them to consume. Going into a project like this, you must carry enormous personal reserves of energy, and an unyielding resolve to finish. You must believe in yourself absolutely, with no allowance for second guessing the value of what you are trying to achieve. There will be ancillary drains on your time and effort that will attempt to distract you from your goal. You must be single-minded and selfish, immediately cutting down the tendrils of procrastination or distraction as they sprout. Ultimately, you must do anything necessary to succeed.

A Community of Peers

No-one will truly understand the exertions of the process you are going through without being there to experience it with you. However, if the product you are creating is worth your time and effort to create, then it is likely there are others who are attempting a similar enterprise. Seek them out, and give each other support by offering understanding and aid in your shared challenges. When possible, demonstrate what you have created to your peers for valuable feedback, during what would otherwise be a drought. Solidarity and positive criticism are powerful forces for replenishing energy levels and improving productivity.

Unconditional Love

Friends and, especially, family will want you to succeed. Their emotional investment can be a source of motivation for you to finish your project. As well as any inherent trust that they have in your abilities, it is also important to explain your motivations to them. Without necessarily understanding the process required for its creation, they should be able to see the value in your envisioned product. However, be wary of time pressure exerted by those around you who do not understand the work involved. Continually being asked, “When will it be done?” is not a positive motivator. It devalues your exertions, encapsulating the groundless assertion that you are working too slowly. This is often unintentional, but as time spent on a project is the only perceptible metric to most people, expect it to dominate conversation.

Some days, you will undoubtedly feel beaten up by the seeming insurmountability of your task. Putting the project out of your mind and seeing friends and family can be an effective antidote to this. Remind yourself that it is possible to be happy without having to cross off another item on your to-do list. Also, observing that the wider world won't stop spinning on the basis of your success shrinks your problems. You can then carry the positivity you gain from being valued externally of your work back into your process.

Good advice always seems like common sense when read. Though, practically implementing it is non-trivial, as I found when I relocated Stargazy Studios.

Development was going well, and I had the experience of working solo from a home office for some time. I thought it would be trivial to move to another metropolitan area and continue my operations. However, I did not have the above factors in mind when I committed to a move.

The pool of entrepreneurial risk-takers in a society is small, and is even further diminished when considering a single, niche industry. There are two hubs where you can find a significant community of independent game developers in the United Kingdom: London and Cambridge. In relocating, I moved away from one of these to a city without an indie scene. The lack of peer solidarity, shared interest and positive feedback was further compounded by being distant from friends and family. Weekly meetings with my support network, familiar with my work, and invested in seeing its completion, became quarterly or annual.

In isolation, my energy levels were quickly diminished. This left me vulnerable when antisocial neighbours moved in next door to us, shortly after we had arrived. They destroyed my home working environment with their constant noise, which ate away at my productivity. Eventually I was so burnt out that I took a sabbatical to start another business. My confidence was completely undermined at the time, and I was unsure as to whether my inability to continue with development was a personal failing. I looked at the new business as being a potential transition if this was the case.

However, away from the tainted home office, I was able to recuperate and refocus, finding my energy return with a fresh entrepreneurial challenge. In this clean air, I realised that game development was the path that I wanted to take, and resolved to finish what I had started. Identifying our neighbours as the root problem, I moved into a quiet co-work space to resume Stargazy Studios' development. In the new environment I found my programming productivity return, which was a tremendous relief. The workspace provided a stopgap whilst moving house, where I re-established a professional home office, and was able to continue with my business unfettered.

The time lost to this distraction is lamentable, and was also avoidable. I should have identified our neighbours' disruption as unacceptable upon their arrival. Insisting on moving home immediately upon relocating to a new city seemed costly and selfish at the time, but now I see it would have been the right course of action.

I must continue to be vigilant, and find ways to bolster my energy levels so that I can take action when it is required.

Although the distance from my peers, friends and family is currently immutable, I am finding ways to improve my process to compensate. This is why I have decided to resume writing articles: to increase others' understanding of what I am doing, and to find solidarity with those who have had similar experiences. I am also open-sourcing the code that I've developed to plug the void in the public domain. This offers the dual benefit of allowing peers to avoid unnecessarily replicating my work, and for them to gain a deep knowledge of the challenges that I have overcome.

Without a fundamental change in the way that independent game development is supported, I feel that my struggles are due to be replicated ad infinitum. There are examples in other research-lead sectors of creating resilient environments to foster nascent entrepreneurial enterprise. In the private sector these take the form of incubators, and are prominent in the contemporary Silicon Valley startup model. Incubators offer startups operational resources, the experience and contacts of successful grey-hairs, and subsistence funding. Given that video game development is ideas driven, it is surprising that the asset-rich, pre-digital distribution era publishers have not invested heavily in portfolio-broadening think tanks such as these. It seems like the natural role of a publisher after the democratisation of game development.

At the time of writing, the incubator framework has started to emerge naturally in the independent developer community. Game development cooperatives are forming around prosperous indie studios who are willing to seed startups with their knowledge and financial success. I have always thought that this would be the future of the industry, as is solves many of the problems that I have highlighted with solo entrepreneurship. Mentoring, and a community of peers are baked in, resource sharing can take place quickly and organically, and cooperative members can work on multiple projects, avoiding burn-out and becoming invested in a wider product range.

It is my intention to eventually build such an environment. Great game ideas should be born, regardless of their creators' ability to conquer avoidable operational hurdles.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent article! Well-written, and packed with good advice.