Chapter 1: The Value of a Dollar
On a Saturday afternoon in a Mandeville canyon residential courtyard, I was conversing with one of my mentors about why game companies fail so often. After some careful thought, Nolan Bushnell set down his dry martini and made an aphoristic declaration: “A successful business should be focused on generating outcomes, not just ideas or intentions.” What he meant was that when you decide to build a product or start a company, you have to envision how to generate a real outcome as fast as possible. A real outcome is a finished product that puts money in the bank. If you are not dead set on getting money in the bank as soon as possible, you should not start a company. If you meet someone who is not dead set on getting money in the bank as soon as possible, do not go into business with them. You should always err on the side of pragmatism, especially when you are young.
If you want to make an original game, you need investment capital. Video games are an industrial art form and they ordinarily require lots of teamwork combined with lots of money to yield a successful result. In order to receive investment capital, you need to have already made money off of a game and proven that you know what you are doing. If you have not already made money off of a game, you will not receive investment capital – unless you have great connections.
The reality is that people do not understand how hard it is so make just one dollar doing what you love. It is a major achievement which takes time, experience, dedication, and repeated failure. Even the most creative or artistic person must confront the reality of having a solid revenue stream if he or she wants to get serious about having a lasting creative career.
The ultimate challenge in video game development is making enough money from your own games to continue to make more games without having to do contract work. Like any problem, it can be dissected and broken down into constituent parts. One part is that people do not have a basic need for video games. In order to sell a video game, people have to be convinced that they need it. Here are a couple of ways that someone could be convinced that they need to buy a game:
- Joe has a crush on a girl named Sally who likes a certain game called Fire Dash. Sally loves talking about Fire Dash, but since Joe has not played it, he cannot keep up the conversation. He goes home and buys Fire Dash just so he can have a better conversation with Sally. Sold.
- Wendy’s little brother has a birthday coming up. He likes video games. She asks a store attendant for a recommendation. The store attendant says Fire Dash is the perfect gift. Sold.
- Alex wants to be in the know regarding the latest indie games on the market. Fire Dash comes up on Steam as a top new release. Sold.
It is obvious that there is a market for video games. A huge one. But achieving the aforementioned sales scenarios in a saturated market is very difficult and almost impossible for someone just starting out. Selling even a few copies of a game is incredibly hard. Finishing a game and having it accepted by an online store is incredibly hard. Working on a game by yourself can be a deathtrap.
The first thing you need to do in your mission to become a game developer is join a game company and work for someone else. This is the first step in getting experience and making connections.
If you are not qualified to work for someone else, work for free until you are. If you cannot afford to work for free, save up money until you can. Every obstacle is a problem that can be broken down into constituent parts. Getting a job at a game company is about being in the right place at the right time and having the evidence that you are going to add value to someone else’s team. To provide evidence, have sample work, prototypes, and a CV ready at all times. To be in the right place at the right time, well, you just have to move to Los Angeles.
Los Angeles is without a doubt the best place on earth to become a gamedev. Given USC’s constant stream of newly founded game projects, AAA studios including Riot and Naughty Dog, and weekly networking events helping newcomers integrate into the scene, if you are not in LA and you are trying to become a game developer you should pack your bags and fly out tomorrow “Mulholland Drive” style because no where on earth is there better opportunity for gamedev success than here in Silicon Beach.
No matter who you are there is a niche for you in this city. With LA’s rich history in art and entertainment you find a lot different types of artists, writers, and musicians coming into the game world making LA’s games the coolest and best. Video games are just beginning to be recognized as an artform capable of self expression. LA is a breeding ground for this type of direction in games due to its booming indie game developer scene concretized by groups like Glitch city a game dev collective or the youtube celebdevs like YandereDev. However, LA is a brutally isolating and unforgiving place. Between the traffic, urban sprawl, cost of living, heat, and generally closed off social climate, Los Angeles is the type of place to chew up and spit out a newcomer who does not have the hustle and thick skin to endure the dramatic ups and downs that come during the acclimation period. It is for this reason that Los Angeles produces such incredible works of art. People constantly struggle to exist – whether the struggle is social, financial or psychological, many people here are suffering and the only way to alleviate that suffering is by working hard.
Spending money is an essential part of living in most big cities and to spend money you have to earn it. The differences between earning 20k, 40k, 60k, and 80k per year are quite different. You do not become comfortably independent until you are making between 40k-60k, and you do not really get to buy things you want or save money until you make more than that. This is just for taking care of yourself. If you throw another person into the equation it is another story.
The reality of money hits hard in this city, but it is important to remember that everyone started out broke and that successful people are not expecting you to be rich. Even if you are not making a whole lot of money, if you are passionate, humble, hardworking, well mannered, and fun to be around, you will find that helpful people will give you the benefit of the doubt. These people will provide you with the support to find your path and make money off of a career that you believe in.
As a creative person, it may be easy to say “I do not care about money, I am just going to be an artist and dive right into an ambitious project and hope that it gets picked up,” but the unfortunate truth is that you will most definitely fail if you have that attitude, especially in Los Angeles. You need money to survive and connections to achieve your dreams, you cannot do anything on your own.
There are a lot of ways to become financially successful in LA, but if it means working with people you do not like or doing something you are not passionate about, you will find yourself with a state of depression and regret. People with power will see talent in you and want to keep you around so they can get a cut when all of your work pays off. These people will employ you or even help you out when you need it most. But they will also hold you back once you are on your feet. Remember that just because people appear to care for you does not mean they do. You have to be skeptical of almost everyone and truly get to know people before getting into serious business. The worst thing that can happen is going into business with someone who you cannot trust.
Book Recommendation: “Genealogy of Morals” by F. Nietzsche, for a look into the history of good and evil, good and bad, power relationships, societal organization, and the study of asceticism and its effect on the individual.