On Game Development as a Hobby

One day I was looking around on GameJolt and saw a Fireside article by a developer called @jacklehamster, entitled: “That time I chose to leave my gamedev passion on the side of the road; A story about my love and hate relationship with game programming.” It’s about his romance with game programming: his sections are entitled, “It was love at first sight,” “The younger years,” “The breakup,” “Missing my first love,” “An unstoppable passion,” “Fear of commitment,” and “The way I see it.” Maybe this article touched on me because I was still fresh from a breakup I did not want to happen, and any inkling of romance could make me miss it terribly. But for whatever reason, this article (a very good one I encourage everyone to read) seemed to inspire a lot of thought in me, particularly about his need for game development to be a career, and his slight aversion to leave game development as “just a hobby.”

Personally, I’d consider myself very new to making games. But the dream of making games has been with me ever since I first met them. Yet I cannot think of a time where I ever truly wanted game development to be a career. I suppose I was always an indie hobbyist at heart (which makes this time in gaming history perfect for me).

I would say my first game was Age of Empires, which we installed on a basic, barely function computer we gave to my Grandma Miller. When I first played it, when I was less than 10, I loved it. Unfortunately, my parents were serious about that T rating and would not allow me to play it until I turned 13. I don’t think they realize that their ban on Age of Empires may have fueled my transformation to becoming a gamer, since every game I would buy from the store or borrow from the public library was a game that I hoped would be like Age of Empires. None of them were, and every time they weren’t I was disappointed, but my passion for games really was fueled by searching for that hit I could never get save for a few days out of the year (and by few, I mean less than 5). I was always looking for that high. (And now these days I hardly ever play RTS’s; irony, anyone?)

When I couldn’t play Age of Empires, I would try to make it up. I would try to invent Age of Empires games that I could play, or make models of the game’s buildings or figures from paper. I would maybe try a pencil-and-paper equivalent. In church, my brother and I would take the tithe envelope and pull it apart so the blank inside was exposed, then draw our armies and engage in wars on paper while the pastor preached. We would build massive lego armies. A soldier was a 1×2 yellow brick on top of a 1×2 blue brick for me; my brother would use a 1×2 red instead of a 1×2 blue, and for some reason there were always more red bricks than blue bricks so he always had the larger armies. Then we would build bases and tanks and engage in calamatous engagements that resulted in massive explosions, legos everywhere, and arguments over superweapons and their effects (for the record, my YOUNGER brother was always one step ahead of me in army size and development so somehow he would usually win the wars).

Naturally, I always wanted to make computer games. The key word, of course, is wanted. See, unlike other fancies such as writing stories, drawing, or building models, there were significant barriers to developing games. My dad was a computer programmer and that gave me access not only to his knowledge but also old college textbooks or software. But he did not make games. Making a game in Visual BASIC or *shudders* QuickBASIC is not very easy, especially since that is not what that software is designed to do, and all the books available to me on those languages were about how to make BASIC work for business applications. Games are usually made with a C-based language (even GameMaker: Studio’s scripting language is very C-like), and I didn’t learn C until I really plowed through one of Dad’s old textbooks when I was a sophomore in high school, and I would struggle at points and found myself spending more time on those projects than I had expected. Let’s not forget the limitations to obtaining the art, music, or engines necessary, along with learning them, and I was not about to buy GameMaker even though it did exist back then. There were always technical or financial or skill limitations that I could not overcome, so making games was always a dream and never something I could actively explore, unlike other hobbies.

For whatever reason, I decided early on I did not want to become a programmer. As much as I loved video games, making them was not something I wanted to do for a career. I didn’t want the same job as my Dad; I hoped for something better. This was especially true when Dad lost his job in 2011, and our family has never recovered from that; if anything, we are worse (Dad is now a bus driver). Dad never seemed to really like his job (he only took it because he needed some way to make money when he lost his newspaper job a few years after I was born), he didn’t make much money (or perhaps that was just the crippling credit card debt that eventually lead to bankruptcy last year), and since the language he learned is old (COBOL) and no one seems to be willing to keep him on long enough to train him in a new one (oh, don’t get me started on the training debacle with DWS), life has not been good. None of that for me, please. I’ll pass.

Strangely, the career I am pursuing in my studies is data science, which is tied at the hip with both computer science and statistics, but moreso the former. Still, it’s more than just programming; programming is a tool available to you to solve a problem and is a part of your job description, but not your entire job (or so it seems). I am perfectly content with that.

So my relationship to games will always be a casual. For me, game development will always be just a hobby. I am happy with that, and don’t expect that to change.

Why? Well, as a hobby, I can make whatever I want whenever I want, and can quit at any time. I don’t need to make a game for a paycheck. I don’t need to design for the largest possible audience; I can cater to whatever niche I like. And when I make a game, I can be happy with little successes. If I ever made $200 a month from a game, I would be ecstatic, while if it were my day job, I would be very depressed; you can’t pay bills on $200 a month.

On top of this is that a job is a job, even if you are doing something you love. There will come a point where, when you come home, the last thing you want to do is anything gaming related. I enjoy math and statistics, but I’m content to leave that as my day job, and things that are more fun will stay fun.

Let’s not forget, of course, how brutal the gaming industry is.

As an indie, there is the consolation that, unlike many other hobbies people try to make a living from, there seems to be a number of barriers to entry for gaming that help prevent game design from becoming something like novel writing, where everyone has the basic capability to tell a story so there are far too many. Making games and programming and creating game art are more difficult skills to acquire, although they are becoming easier with time and changing technology.

I’m very happy getting a stable day job and not having to worry about the success of my gaming endeavors. In fact, that may result in better games. I can experiment to my heart’s desire; I don’t need to worry about whether I will lose my home if a daring idea flops. I can also test my abilities and not fear failure, all while going at my own pace.

I don’t want to disuade anyone who feels they have to be in the gaming industry in order to be happy. I just want to say we should be happy to be living at this time where making games has never been easier, and distribution has never been more favorable to indies. If you want gaming to be career, go for it, but be glad to know that you can now do quite a bit just as a hobbyist, and enjoy it too.

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