My Bumpy Road To Game Development

I really wanted to blog about Xcom 2 which was announced during the week and has me super-excited, but I thought it was a better time for this one. My blogs are usually opinion pieces on games or tech. Today I’m going more personal and autobiographical. After being told that the subject matter here would make for an interesting talk (I’m still going on faith on that, dear reader) I applied to give it at State of Play 2015 in DIT, Dublin. It wasn’t picked (thankfully, because there were some really great talks on that night)  but what follows is more or less the content intended for that.

So last Tuesday (June 2nd, 2015) I got this in the post. It’s a confirmation from the Companies Registration Office in Ireland that the indie games studio name I registered is unique, approved, and now mine. This means I’m a sole trader, trading under the name RetroNeo Games. I’d sent in my application a week before.

I won’t say I’d always wanted to start my own business as I was usually happy if working for a decent employer, but I had been open to it if the right idea came along too, so I was now well-chuffed!

I’d already bought the .com and reserved the Twitter and Facebook handles (all that is coming soon) so it was a real enough idea to me already, but the confirmation was sweet! As you can see in the picture, the form was actually approved on May 30th. This was huge for me. A real “ha! fuck you!” victory moment, and I’ll tell you why.

May 30th is one year on from the lowest I’ve ever been in my entire life. On that day in 2014 I wanted to die, very sincerely, and it took a while to level out again. I was in a new job in a Tax/Accountancy firm in Donnybrook and had just that week made the move from Greystones (90 mins commute each way) to an expensive apartment 10 minutes walk from work so I could have more time to study entering the final stage of my Chartered Tax Adviser exams.
I liked the new job. It was permanent with upward mobility and challenging work. I was getting on okay with people. Being outgoing. It was good. I went in to work a bit hung over (not the bad part) as the night before the whole office had been celebrating. The guy who’d done my interview (and phoned to offer me the job before I even got home that day) 6 weeks before had been named Managing Partner after his dad retired and all was positive as he spoke about how he wanted to grow and expand the firm. I was thinking this was great because I soon wouldn’t be the last-in and prone to be first-out at any moment as had happened in previous jobs when funds were low. Plus the guy who liked me was now in charge, basically.

That afternoon he fired me.

No reason was given. I’d never had a tiff with anyone. I hadn’t gotten a single complaint about my work. I know I hadn’t done or said anything stupid at the work party. They knew I’d no plans to travel or move jobs. I was solid. And I wasn’t even the last-in any more as a younger guy (also named Kevin. Considering our manager was a third Kevin, it was a very confusing room to work in) had just been hired. I was totally shocked. I agonised about what it could have been for months, but I never found out. Legally they don’t have to give a reason until you work somewhere 12 months. It was mental torture. Whatsmore they knew I was moving house that very week and chose the Friday to tell me (as firms often do). I had murder-suicide revenge fantasies for weeks. Months! Every time I pass the office on the bus line since I still want to burn the place down.

 Hm.. needs more petrol.. Probably click the picture if you feel like this too often though.
Hm.. needs more petrol.. Probably click the picture if you feel like this too often though.

That might seem extreme but everybody’s different and context is everything. To me I lost a lot more than a job. It was kind of the loss of all hope to me. One year before that firing I’d been unemployed and decided I needed to study again (already had a Commerce Degree) if I wanted a stable job. I’d already tried a year in Australia so that was no longer an option. I was thinking of going to Pulse to study games for two years but it was very expensive and not too likely to end in a job. In the end I chose the “safer” option of studying tax for 2 years, building on from my degree, instead of starting a new one. This would cost €5000 approx for all 3 parts, assuming I didn’t fail and repeat stages (50% do by the way).

So from mid-2013 to mid-2014 I treated tax study as my day job (apart from 4 months where I did temp work and studied in the evenings), and took lectures on the weekends (only time they were on). This was kind of rough because I saw very little of my friends on the weekends that year, and they were mostly working during the week (in mostly temporary jobs, typical of our demographic). I stuck it out though, got the 2nd highest results in Part 1, and passed Part 2  (way harder) first time (50% fail, remember). All that time I’d been applying for Tax Traineeships and I think I did six interviews until eventually I got the job in Donnybrook. I couldn’t get into the bigger places because I didn’t have a 1st in my initial degree, and I’d interviewed with most of the Dublin firms who were hiring already (they typically won’t interview someone ever again) so I was running out of places to go and thought that this (extremely boring) “safe”  course that I’d spent my savings on wasn’t going to pay off. So getting the Donnybrook job felt like my last chance. Annoyingly I turned down two interviews that were offered while I was working there. After I was fired I had one more offer for (the hated) Job Bridge version of the same job elsewhere, but even the Law Society of Ireland advise not to take them, saying it’s demeaning to the profession, particularly after you spend thousands on your education to be the skilled applicant that they want, just to work for free. I wasn’t about to work 60 hour weeks in crunch time, after spending thousands to be the ideal candidate, and then studying on the weekends for no money.

Further, the house I’d just moved to was also the first place I’d lived alone with my partner in nearly three years. For financial reasons we’d lived with friends or entirely separately over the previous few years, and so that was another thing snatched from us with that sentence “we just don’t feel you’re the right fit for us” (whatever that means). I won’t say I’ve had the worst recession by any stretch, but it’s definitely been rough. I’ve been 6 hours a week part time, emigrated, lost several jobs, been mostly un or under-employed, failed to get a permanent visa in South Australia and heartbreakingly had to leave a great job and life, got and had to give up two adorable puppies after that, lived separately from my partner, moved home, and for the few months of work I did have I was often commuting around 3 hours per day. I’d already moved house 6 times, twice that year, with 2 more to come because of the firing. There were more personal concerns also that I’ll spare us all. People have it worse, I know, but I was finally out of all of that, and for no given reason it was taken away. 

 Ishi and Weiler. Simultaneously the two most loving and boldest puppies ever. Now with a garden and family of their own.
Ishi and Weiler. Simultaneously the two most loving and boldest puppies ever. Now with a garden and family of their own.

So I spent the June bank holiday weekend catatonic in bed. I eventually set up my computer and played some Hitman and Max Payne 3 to focus my mind away from the dark places. I’d cancelled the house warming, talked to the landlord and prepared to move house again.

Once I was lucid enough to concentrate again, I downloaded and started taking tutorials in Unity3D. I figured I should have just followed my heart in the first place, because look at where my head had left me. I’ve always been a big gamer and wanted to make games, but everybody says that, don’t they? It’s not smart to do that, is it? Well I figured that since the next most attractive option at that stage was looking out the balcony at the ground three floors down for hours and hours, I may as well remember that the ground will always be there and spend some time doing what I’d always denied myself. I was going to learn how to make games, and finally see if it was for me. Money wasn’t a factor because there seemed to be no alternatives that were going to pay me anyway.

I really got into it! I found that I loved the magic of bringing something to life on the screen. It satisfied that same creative side of me that had loved playing in a band or running a burlesque show, neither of which I’d done much of since moving to Australia in 2011, three years previous. Also, I loved solving logic problems in the scripting. In school I’d loved French and been fond of Maths and Physics so language and logic seemed to be things for me and I took to programming Unity games in C# like a duck to water. Not that I or my career guidance teachers had ever copped this back in school. I realised immediately that I should have done computer science in college instead of business. I’d certainly be working now if I had. But there was enough online material that I could keep teaching myself and so I kept going. A family friend told me that I didn’t need to go to college to study game design if I worked hard on it myself and made games! I’ve a very nagging ‘sensible’ voice in my head that had never let me get into games, but the hard fall along with that advice and a newly discovered passion for something silenced that voice. I’d stay up past 4 in the morning, having made games all day, to continue making games.

I’d finally found what I wanted to do with my life.

 It's never too late, but it's only getting later
It’s never too late, but it’s only getting later

For the second half of 2014, I was a man on fire. I spent every waking minute learning all I could to catch up on years of “wasted time”. They say education is never wasted, but the €4k and 1 year I spent learning tax was definitely wasted. Ask me anything. I can’t remember it now. I put everything I was learning into a single project, pretty much. A top-down space shooter. I called it “Sons of Sol” which was a sci-fi universe I’d invented myself and started writing a novel in while unemployed in 2012-2013 after discovering that Disney were throwing out all the Star Wars canon that I was such a fan of.

I loved making games but I’d nothing to show people. I’d months spent on a single okay piece of a game, but had never finished something. If you’re a victim of this, make sure you get over it. The single piece of advice I hear most often for aspiring game developers is to “make games and finish them” and I have to fully agree. Try out Cow-Spiracy for a fun example of what you can do quickly. I made it in 48 hours with a friend.

In November 2014 I went to my first DubLUDO event with a couple of friends I already knew from the scene. DubLUDO is a regular-enough meetup of Irish game developers and was probably the closest thing the game dev community had to an organised structure in Ireland until Imirt was founded last month. At it I heard Brenda Romero (with husband John Romero) speak about game design documents, which was an issue I was then agonising over. Suffice it to say, she put my mind to rest. I also learned from others just how much she was doing for Irish game developers (I won’t detail, but it’s a lot!)  and she’s now on the provisional board of the aforementioned Imirt, which aims to promote Ireland abroad as a place for game development and represent for the community as a whole. I was very impressed and am ever-grateful to her and everyone who’s championing Irish game development. It gave me faith to start my own business, but we’ll get to that.

 Click for Fulbright article. And here's  Brenda's Twitter  and  John's Twitter .
Click for Fulbright article. And here’s  Brenda’s Twitter and John’s Twitter .

The community I met at DubLUDO and that I’ve come to know over the past few months are so friendly, accepting, and alive!! It’s invigorating and it pulled me further and further from the dark place. There’s a real buzz about the scene which gives me hope for the future. For my future and the future of Irish game development, which I hope are closely linked.

At the community Christmas party I met Paul Conway (the one in BitSmith making Frank n’ John, not the one working on Darkside Detective and doing art for Gunman Taco Truck with Romero’s son Donovan, though both Pauls are lovely, and all those games are awesome). Anyway Paul#1  gave me the advice to start this site and throw a few games up on it as a portfolio. Short but finished games. Paul’s advice helped me to no end. He gave me a focus. A direction! A week later ended 2014, and though I’d had the lowest point of my life in that year, I didn’t kick it out the door as I had with 2012 and 2013. Both rough years. But things were finally looking up.

In January 2015 I did the 48 hour global game jam, and started attending 1 Game a Month jam hosted by Colm Larkin who’s making Guild of Dengeoneering. (edit: you quickly see how in Ireland everyone knows everyone and chances are they’re working on something amazing and artistic. Small, talented country!)

These jams helped me fill up my site and all games can be played here. I also “finished” my original prototype for Sons of Sol in January and moved on to learn how to make other types of games. It’s also at that link.

 Claire's anniversary present to me with my game's spaceships on them! That's what support looks like. If you're wondering, support tastes like cupcakes.
Claire’s anniversary present to me with my game’s spaceships on them! That’s what support looks like. If you’re wondering, support tastes like cupcakes.

In the meantime all these great Irish games above (and Onikira too) are coming out this year, bodies are forming, the iDig games-music festival (with Video Games Live) happened in March and is becoming annual which in turn has copped Enterprise Ireland onto the viability of the games industry, and it feels like such a positive time to be an Irish indie. All these good vibes and the knowledge that I couldn’t possibly go do anything else with my life now has rescued me and given me the confidence to start my own business. I can’t thank the community enough for getting me here. To where I’m happy and alive again. I absolutely have to thank my partner Claire here too, because without her support and confidence this past year, I wouldn’t likely have stayed the course.

During the first half of this year I set about applying for Irish welfare’s Start Your Own Business scheme, which gives you guaranteed welfare income for two years while you set about your business, subject to the approval of your business plan. Mine was approved in May and the same morning as the meeting I had for it was the morning I thought of the name RetroNeo Games. The remarkable thing was that that day (I was told it was very likely to be approved), I stopped identifying myself as unemployed-with-a-hobby and started identifying myself as an indie game developer. That’s my job now!

I’m going to make “Sons of Sol: Crow’s Nest” as RetroNeo Games and I’m going to give it no less than everything I’ve got! This post has been the first half of a story. The next two years might make it a triumphant success story or just a sad, boring one. If you want to follow its progress though you can follow me on Twitter, or bookmark (site coming soon).

I know I could fail. I know I have to steel myself against the possibility of a huge let down and further financial hardship, but at this stage, I’ve survived worse, and I can’t look back now!

This is what I want to do with my life, and no fucker in a suit (note: I’ve nothing against suits. I like suits) is going to stop me!