3 Mistakes Preventing You From Making a Living From Games
How to avoid them and pursue your game development career
I’ve been working in the games industry for more than 13 years. I founded my own gaming company in 2012 and was able to make a living from it. There has never been an easier time to build games than right now. However, that doesn’t guarantee that you will succeed in the games industry.
I talked to many game developers throughout my entrepreneurial journey, and some mistakes were preventing them from making a living from games. Those mistakes repeatedly appeared for me, but they don’t have to happen to you.
You want to make art (not money)
There is a discussion about whether games are art or not. I believe they are, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t think about how to make money. There is nothing wrong with wanting to have money, and being rich won’t turn you into a bad person.
People have an image of a starving artist in their heads when we tell them that we want to sell our art. It’s hard to make a living from art, but that mainly happens because artists think their art will sell automatically. They need to think about the whole process.
Before making a game, it is essential to plan how you’re going to make money with it. Is it going to be premium? If it is Free to Play (F2P), are you going to monetize with ads or in-app purchases (IAP)? What platform(s) will you launch your game on? How will people find it? How much money is a success for you? How many users playing or downloads do you need for that?
By answering those questions, it will be easier to build a successful game. If you only think about making money after building the game, it will be almost impossible to make that happen. Thinking about money before building the game helps you plan the whole process properly and increases your chances of success.
Whether you are working alone or in a team, you must understand the whole process of making a game. It is much more than just building it.
At my gaming company, we developed F2P games, and we focused on IAP to make money. Knowing that was our plan from the outset helped our game designers think in terms of features that would allow our players to have fun and also spend money. Building a F2P game is very different than building a premium one.
Our games were available on Facebook and mobile devices. We knew that we wouldn’t make games for consoles or Steam, for example. That focus helped us to build the right game for the platform we were working with. Users could only use the mouse or their fingers to play.
Having a clear platform on which to launch our games also helped us acquire users to play them. More users meant more money being spent on IAP.
You don’t care about processes
I had a mentor that said that ideas are like assholes, and no one cares about them besides you. Having the idea for a game is just a piece of everything you have to do. That’s why it’s tough for someone to invest in just an idea. Building the game is the difficult part.
You may wake up one day and feel inspired to work on the game of your dreams. After a few days, you’re tired, and your inspiration is gone. At this point, many people give up on their dream or start to procrastinate to finish their game. Starting a project is easy. Finishing and launching are hard.
Artists don’t like to think about processes. They usually prefer to have creative freedom and build things without any rigid process. That may look cool, but having no processes isn’t productive. Thomas Edison said that “Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.”
I agree that rigid processes are tedious. You don’t need them. What you need are processes that facilitate your day-to-day operations.
Many people think that they lack motivation when what they really lack is clarity. They believe that they need more willpower to finish tasks. The problem is that they don’t have a plan for it, so they wake up each day wondering how they will feel. You will never finish a game if you don’t have a proper process facilitating your decisions.
At my gaming company, we had daily meetings to talk about the progress of what we were doing. It wouldn’t last more than 15 minutes. That incentivized us to be clear and direct about what we were saying. We had processes for building levels, updating and analyzing the games, acquiring more users, just to name a few.
We also worked with goals and deadlines. All of that helped us get things done faster without overthinking and overcomplicating everything. Parkinson’s Law is the saying that work expands to fill the time allotted. Put simply, the amount of work required adjusts to the time available for its completion.
Processes are so vital that I had a person responsible only for that–a chief operations officer (COO). I also had a chief creative officer (CCO). Building games isn’t just creative work.
You try to be good at everything
Building games is a multidisciplinary process. Depending on the game you want to build, you will need engineers, designers, testers, and marketers. It is hard to be good at everything.
In his book Managing Oneself, the management guru Peter Drucker said that “One should waste as little effort as possible on improving areas of low competence. It takes far more energy and work to improve from incompetence to mediocrity than it takes to improve from first-rate performance to excellence.” Unfortunately, I see many people trying miserably to do the opposite.
I believe professionals should focus on T-shaped skills. That is a metaphor used in job recruitment to describe the abilities of people in the workforce. The vertical bar on the letter T represents the depth of related skills and expertise in a single field. In contrast, the horizontal bar is the ability to collaborate across disciplines with experts in other areas and to apply knowledge in areas of expertise other than one’s own.
That doesn’t mean a professional should try to be an expert in game design and testing or programming and 3D modeling.
I received many CVs from people saying they wanted to apply for jobs in completely different areas. How is the person supposed to be good at something if she didn’t have a clear focus for herself?
During my gaming company’s interview process, we asked candidates about what they wanted for their careers and how they planned to get there. We automatically disqualified the candidate if we were interviewing for an engineering role, and she answers that she wants to work with 3D modeling. We were looking for professionals that wanted to keep growing in their areas.
We didn’t have specialized roles, though. We used a generalist approach. What that means is that we had Full Stack Developers (game features, back end, tools, etc.), Game Designers (levels, monetization, etc.), and Artists (animation, UI, illustration, etc.), for example.
At some point in my company, we had two teams with an artist in each one. One of the artists was specialized in animation, while the other was specialized in UI. If the team of the UI specialist had an animation to make, he was the one that would work on it, even though he was not the animation specialist. What he could do is ask for help from the other team’s artist. That incentivized the professionals to improve as a whole.
That worked for us because of the games we built. The situation may be different for you. The main point is to not try to act like ducks. They do not fly well, they do not walk well, they do not swim well.
Building games and making a living from them isn’t easy, but it is possible. You can find ways to improve how you work by paying more attention to it.
Don’t try to be a starving artist hoping for your art to sell by itself. Think about how you plan to make money and use processes to help you daily. Also, specialize in one area and have people around you working where you’re not good at. Building games is teamwork.
The games industry is already bigger than the movies and sports industry combined. We can achieve much more if we start avoiding the mistakes I listed here.