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!