Life as an Indie Dev Family

So what’s it like taking on the challenge of starting an Indie with a family to support? This is our experience of nearly 5 years of Indie life with 2 kids, a dog and a mortgage.

Starting Out

In October 2010 we came to the conclusion that our Shoot ‘Em Up Kit, which had been an evenings-and-weekends project for about 5 years, would never be finished unless we could devote more time to it. We decided to start Tall Studios and concentrate on developing it full time, funded by a mix of savings and contract work. It would have been an easier decision if it was just the two of us but we had children of 11 and 13 to consider too. We debated whether it was unfair on them to leave regular paid work for the long hours and uncertain income of an Indie start-up but decided that we could minimise the risks and there were a lot of advantages, and that we would always regret it if we didn’t try.

The Good Bits

Firstly, and mainly, it’s fun. I got a Sinclair ZX Spectrum in the early 1980s and from the start I enjoyed making games even more than playing them. Recently I’ve been building sample games with the Shoot ‘Em Up Kit and I’ll happily carry on into the evening as I’m enjoying myself. I couldn’t say that about my previous jobs programming payroll software and water control systems. While we are working long hours, we are in control of our time. We work from home so although we work into the evening and at weekends we can have a break for a chat when the children get in from school or we can take the dog a walk on a sunny afternoon. We’re around for school events and homework help too. As the children use social media a lot they have been a good source of advice – they use platforms we had little experience of. It is also very useful having resident play-testers! Going out together to the Manchester Indie Drinks nights and events counts as working. It’s a great chance to share experiences and skills, and it has led to some good contract work. The children have learned a lot about running a business (and living on a budget!). Now they are older we can go off to evening events and leave them to look after themselves, getting homework done and making their own dinner – good practice for my daughter who will be at university next year!

The Bad Bits

Uncertain income – both our incomes depend on the company. We have funded development by taking on short term programming contracts but it’s a balancing act as contract work slows down development. We have tried to keep our budget as low as possible without it affecting the children and hope they won’t feel in the future that we cut back too much. It has always been a priority to have a family holiday every year, although this has usually been a UK cottage rather than abroad. Plans for exhibiting the Shoot ‘Em Up Kit at shows don’t just involve making sure the latest build is stable and we’ve got all our kit together. We also have to arrange for someone to stay with the children and make sure there’s packed lunch food in the house and clean school uniform. This is coming to an end for us now as our children are old enough to leave alone, to be replaced with worry over what state the house will be when two teenagers are left for 3 days! Maybe we’ll keep up the childcare… With us working together from home there is no boundary between work time and family time. We can find ourselves sitting up in bed at 1am discussing improvements to the user interface, or just trying something out if there’s a quiet half-hour on Christmas day. There’s no such thing as time off. We always make sure we respond quickly to emails and forum posts which means that our first priority when looking for a holiday cottage is WIFI (this suits our teenagers perfectly of course!) and if we go for a family day out we need to keep a regular check on emails and twitter.

So are we glad we did it?

Definitely! It has it’s stressful times but we have had much worse when John was working crunch at other developers and he was never home. There is uncertainty, but bigger companies aren’t immune from that – John has worked for several that have shut down, and it’s hard to relocate for another job when you have children in important years at school. The children are happy too. We ask them every so often if they would prefer it if we went back to ‘normal’ jobs and had a higher, more reliable income but every time we get an immediate ‘No’. They feel involved in the company too – the pencil-and-paper spaceships in our latest trailer were drawn by my son and my daughter has helped out on our stand at exhibitions. Even my mother has been involved providing childcare, dog-sitting, food parcels and even cleaning the house for us when we’ve been rushing to meet a deadline.

The Future

This year will be a year of milestones – we’ll launch Version 2 of the Shoot ‘Em Up Kit this spring, Tall Studios will be 5, our eldest child will be an adult (gulp!) and we’ll have been married 20 years. It’s an exciting time for us and we’re looking forward to it. We have plans to expand the Shoot ‘Em Up Kit, getting it on to other platforms and adapting it for other genres. Oh, and our son wants to go into game development so being a child in an Indie Dev family clearly hasn’t put him off!

I’m a big fan of Artificial Intelligence in games.  One of my most memorable moments in gaming was in a game called Wolfenstein 3D, by id software, when I was flanked by an enemy soldier who came through a side-door and killed me.  I quickly learned that this was just a coincidence and that the enemy just used a random door, but the desire to create intelligent opponents stayed with me.
 
In 1999 I had the opportunity to work on a PC game to commemorate Pac-man’s 20th anniversary.  The AI in the original Pac-man is impressive in both its simplicity and its effectiveness, and I have great admiration for the programmers of the original as they created an amazing game without the tools games developers rely on today.  But I thoroughly enjoyed building upon the AI of the original to create opponents who could pursue the player, but also make ‘mistakes’ convincingly so as not to look stupid when it was really giving the player a chance.
 
After working on a few more titles, and contributing to a couple of books on AI, I had the opportunity to specialise in Artificial Intelligence and worked full-time on the AI systems for Ubisoft’s Rainbow Six: Vegas and Microsoft’s Hydrophobia.  It was amazing to be able to concentrate on AI systems to make convincing team-mates, enemy and civilians.
 
I really wanted everyone to have a lot of fun creating AI with the Shoot Em Up Kit but the challenge was combining ease of use with flexibility.  The solution was to provide a series of core AI behaviours, such as Chase or Fire, which each have a small number of settings to tweak, and then allow these to be combined to provide more complex behaviours.
 
Team behaviours are also supported so that enemy can be grouped and work together on a common goal, and NPC Generators allow AI characters to be spawned when certain conditions are met (time, proximity, maximum number, etc.).
 
With this range of tools I hope everyone will experience the thrill of seeing characters come alive and the strange sense of satisfaction when you are defeated by your own creation.

The recent Livingstone-Hope review addressed the need for better education in technology.  Since this report a number of developers and hardware manufacturers have stated their intention to address this issue.  In the case of Sony, this seems to be part of a wider strategy to try and get the Playstation 3 and its Move controller into schools.
 
ICT is being criticised by many for having become boring and irrelevant to school children.  Yet many of these kids will choose to spend much of their evening using technology such as videogames, websites and social media sites.
 
Products such as the Shoot Em Up Kit contain a lot of educational aspects and can help people to understand concepts such as co-ordinate systems, vectors, physics principles such as velocity and mass, and the Behaviour editor allows people to build behaviours using logic and sequencing.
 
I know teachers try really hard to make subjects accessible, relevant and appealing to the school children.  So perhaps the videogame industry needs to do a better job of educating the teachers as to what tools are available to them.

The games industry in the 1980s thrived from the technical achievements, imagination and diversity of games created by people who were dubbed 'bedroom coders'. Companies such as Codemasters and Blitz started out as kids creating games in their bedroom, as did ground-breaking titles such as Manic Miner and Ant Attack.
 
Over the years the accessibility of creating games has died away. Videogame graphics are powerful enough to require artists, coding requires learning complex languages and knowledge of a range of technologies, and game audio is often played at a higher-than-CD quality.
 
As covered in a previous blog, the size of team and the duration of a project can lead to frustration by the developers. However, such a large investment of time and money also affects creativity. Ideas are rarely quick to try out and budgets and schedules affect the decision to go ahead with an idea. It can become very tempting just to go for a feature you’ve seen work in another game.
 
The indie scene, with Flash and iPhone games, amongst other technologies, has been a move back towards the bedroom coder. But we hope the Shoot Em Up Kit will allow artists, designers and audio designers to experience the creativity of making their own games. Removing the requirement for programming will hopefully see the term 'bedroom coder' replaced with 'bedroom developer'.
I have been working in the videogames industry for almost 14 years now and have had the privilege of working with so many talented people.  However, the size of team required to make a typical retail game now runs at over a hundred staff.  Needless to say the more people you have working on a project the smaller the contribution an individual makes.
 
With a large team of creative people there are always a lot of suggestions made for every area of the game, often conflicting, and so the designers need to keep a tight rein otherwise the game will lose direction.  And to see your ideas pushed aside and the game you will be working on for the next 18 months move in a different direction is frustrating.
 
I think the rise in the number of indie developers is partly fuelled by these frustrations.  Games developers want to make games, not be given a list of models to build.  Smaller projects allow that.
 
The Shoot ‘Em Up Kit is proving to be popular with games developers for their own projects as it allows designers, artists and musicians to work on areas which interest them using the same tools they use at work.  Games developers, in my experience, are bursting with ideas and to give these creative people an outlet can only be a good thing.
Hi, my name is John and I'm the lead programmer at Tall Studios.
 
I've been working on the Shoot ‘Em Up Kit since its conception and have been responsible for a lot of the design.
 
I have worked in the games industry full-time since 1997, working as a Lead Gameplay programmer and, later, specialising in Artificial Intelligence.  A few of the games I've worked on include Rainbow Six Vegas for Ubisoft, Hydrophobia for Microsoft, and the little known but award winning Pac-man: Adventures in Time for Atari, which is still probably the game I am most proud of.
 
The concept for the Shoot ‘Em Up Kit dates back way before Little Big Planet and other games with user generated content.  The Shoot ‘Em Up Kit was created in response to some friends whose kids enjoyed designing games on paper but had no way of making those games.  There was plenty of software which allowed you to program your own game, but that's no good to a 9 year old.  When I was a teenager there was the Shoot ‘Em Up Construction Kit, created by Sensible Software for the Commodore 64 and Amiga computers, but there had not really been anything since.
 
User generated content has since become quite a popular feature within games.  We extend the simple level building by allowing anyone to create their own artwork, music, sound effects or shader effects to give an unprecedented amount of possibilities for creating games without programming.  People can use the same tools as the professionals, their cheaper or freeware equivalents, or a pen, paper and scanner.
 
It was great to see the ideas my friends kids had drawn on paper, but I can't wait to see them playing on-screen.