Malcolm Sparrow takes a long hard look at a life in the industry, and tries to decide if it is all really worthwhile...

“In games, no job is truly safe”

Ten years. Not that long by some standards, I know of many more who’ve served longer terms – and not counting any big industry names (I don’t know any). But, ten years is sufficient to build a genuine, honest, justified, hard bitten, cynical outlook on the grand, money burning machine that is the "Games Industry".

In my time, I’ve had the joy and pain of too many roles, too many jobs, too many studio’s and too many house moves to be anything other than "hard bitten and cynical".

Choosing to move around is one thing – being forced to by studio closure after layoff after studio closure is entirely another. The emotional stress worrying about what’s next, your family, the money worries, the loss of career progression – of having to keep re-proving yourself every new job.

It would wear down a millstone quite frankly.

I often look at my CV when pitching for a new job and consider the experience I’ve gained, the variety of roles I’ve had, and see it as a very good, positive thing – interviewers and agencies say the same.

I’ve worked for the small boys, and the biggest boys, and yet I still see the same pattern everywhere – in games, no job is truly safe – not mine, nor those poor suffering souls around me. So when I look at my CV and take comfort in the experience, I wonder, how could anyone survive this career – and still stay in the games industry? Still want to stay in the games industry? Surely they’d be mad?

Well, yes… but not entirely.

To understand my madness, you must know that I cut teeth on ZX81, then Spectrum, +3, ST, A1200, PC et al, making them do things they weren’t originally intended to do – 4096 on screen colours on the ST, that kind of thing… you know the story surely, it’s probably the same as yours if you are 30+something. (Well, unless you had a C64 – but let’s not go there!) The point is – games are in my blood. There are now special areas of my brain dedicated to generating game ideas, improvements – new designs for code, problem solving… and once it’s in there, it’s a non-stop creative force that you can’t shut down. I know, I’ve tried.

Knowing this during my “nothing else to do” University years, I laid my dastardly plan for small scale global domination back in 1996 – when I saw the Internet as this superb vehicle for online sales and distribution, self-published games – downloadable content, the chance to eliminate the massive retail/distribution/publisher cut of your profit margin! If only I’d had a wad of cash, I may now be as rich as Google… or bankrupt!

But, being no savvy business guru, and a techie at heart, I chose to write my own cross-platform capable, universal game engine – more to acquire coding skills than anything else, and then I graduated, entered IT, then a stroke of luck got me into the Games industry (my dream!) and from then on I spent my working day doing the bidding of others, and every spare minute I could "working"… and “working”, and it’s a mute testament to the patience, faith and trust of my wife that I’m still married.

The rub is – I never felt comfortable being outright open about my secret double life… not all the time anyway. Financial commitments and security meant I needed to keep my career "safe" and always worried that being too open and public about things would maybe make employers think I’m a flight risk, prone to drop a role at the slightest sniff of a personal project taking off. But, perhaps that was just a little paranoia of mine, justified given the potential risk of becoming "unemployable". In reality, my secret double life made me more employable – as I was gaining skills and experience wholly outside of the remit my full time roles allowed me to explore. Employers take note – “extra-curricular activities” should be entirely encouraged if the individual is insane enough to want to partake! Not everyone who works for you intends to steal your codebase/art/designs/ideas/software licenses and make garage-borne cheap clones from them… they might make much better ones…

Upon having been made redundant yet again, I reached “that point” – again – but finally this time. I’d reached it before and sidestepped it – sometimes there is no choice but to keep going even though you know it’s bound to fail. But, this time – I’d had enough. I wanted out. Although I still (stupidly) wanted to make games, it would be from “outside” the industry career-wise. I needed stability, security… even if it meant writing accounting systems for banks… (the horror!).

Perhaps I sound ungrateful? Far from it – how many people in this world can say that they have the fortune to have had a job they chose to do? Not had to?

Fate chose then to offer the ultimate olive branch compromise – a short game project as a temporary contract only, on iPhone – for a small mobile/IT company… coincidentally I had not long completed porting my engine to iPhone… what luck! A path out into IT, yet still using my existing skillset! How could I refuse?

I jumped, gladly.

The contract led to a full time role at the company – Ops Manager. Out of games at last! I could finally look to the future in the more stable, more secure world of IT! Hurrah!

You know what’s coming, right?

Fortunately, so did I. You can’t miss the signs once you’ve been bitten – especially so many times. Sadly it was a couple of months earlier than I predicted. Please leave now, everyone… so now I had been laid off from two industry sectors – ever so slightly annoying.

So, as the third kick up the ass is the charm – I set up properly this time, hit the recruitment agencies as a gun for hire, and started talking to Digital Marketing Agencies about end product work for their clients on iPhone/iPad/iAnything… I was sick to death of some unknown, faceless accountant being in charge of my mortgage payments – and ultimately the roof over my head. If anyone was going to screw up and cost me my house, it would be me from now on – at least then I would be able to see it coming a long way off!

The Lone Gunman, the sole trader, the wannabe Indie… ultimately I want to be none of these things. A small versatile group of individuals and small companies / studios – all in league to do mutual business wherever plausible – that’s my vision. It’s already begun – and shows strengths that outweigh any weaknesses (so far).

But, baby steps – first things first – work, and that old toxic vitality – money.

The one key rule to securing any form of work is “be flexible”. Take on anything you can get (yet within reason), and then worry about how to do it afterwards. It’s a damned strong acid test – you either get it right, and learn valuable new skills, gain clients, expand the portfolio – or you fluff it up spectacularly and learn this isn’t really for you after all.

Trial by fire, kill or cure, steel cahuna’s, you get the picture I’m sure.

Ultimately, it comes down to flexibility in all areas. You can fix your rates and demand that from the recruitment agencies, sure… and then wonder why no-one calls back. I prefer to ensure I cover the minimum I need, and aim for the maximum the market can bare – and happily settle somewhere in between. As long as the rate relates to the effort required for the job at hand, you’ll be fine. A straightforward code consultancy is less daily effort than producing an entire product – so match your rates and expectations accordingly, and you’ll have an income, and a happy client – just make sure you deliver.

So, now – I’m in a position to control my time myself, do whatever projects I see fit (including my own) and as long as I can ensure a bank roll to self-fund when needed, I’m set. Taking on a good contract and only drawing what you need, allows you to bank valuable cash for dry times. Dry times are when I do my own personal studio projects (shameless plug : already shipped one – Slam! on iPhone, more in the pipe, I thank you!…) but you are always on the phone, always chasing emails and prospects… it turns out business development and PR truly are vital full time roles guys – don’t let anyone tell you different.

Sure, it sucks sometimes. Nearing the end of project with nothing else signed leads to questions like “Is this a dry time coming up? Should I look to contracting? Are there any going? Should I wait and see, or start now?” or at the lowest – “Do I give up?” Remember the one key rule when that question pops up… “Be flexible”.

To survive “dry” times, you might have to take a contract that has to be on-site – you’re away all week, eating far too many "pasta meals" to be healthy to keep the expenditure down (expenses are all well and good, but that’s your profit you’re eating… not someone else’s!), and talking on the phone to home – a lot… “long term, long term”… you have to keep reminding yourself, sometimes hourly. But, if your partner isn’t of the same stoic mindset – it’ll break the hardest / strongest relationships – the strain is immense, never underestimate that.

On the opposite side of this coin, landing a work from home contract is the Holy Grail to me – but this isn’t as easy as it sounds! You really have to have a particular mindset and discipline for this to work. You have all the distractions of home – comfort, food, TV, family, the ability to “just pop out to the shops”… it’s nothing like being at work – and that is the problem! Working from home really isn’t for everyone, and that’s never a criticism – it’s just plain simple truth. Keep focus on the task at hand, and remain painfully aware that someone still expects delivery by a certain date, and is entrusting you to be responsible and ethical about how you go about it. Screw up with a client, and there’s no disciplinary process – no verbal and written warnings before the sack. If you’re lucky, you may just lose them. If you’re unlucky – better hope you took out a solid Professional Indemnity policy when you started!

Self-discipline, dedication, task management, and a partner who understands why you’ve just asked them to shutupandpleaseclosethedoor… these are all vital components to success when working from your office/study/bedroom/living room.

Risks vs Reward

Risk? Everything – of course! Income, credit rating, home, kudos, career, marriage/partnership… But by this point, my biggest personal risk was to my sanity – the cost of not trying would have undone me I fear…

The reward – at it’s lowest possible value, is knowing that when I could seriously take the chance, I did, and come what may – success or failure – I could have done nothing more to try. That, I think, is personal job satisfaction beyond value… sadly, that alone doesn’t pay any bills.

Eve’s Apple anyone?

So whilst my long term aim is self-generated, self-funded, super games…. in the meantime, the bread and butter is delivering bespoke products for clients on hot new technologies, and of course, I really have one thing to thank for my current standing – Apple. Without iPhone/iPod Touch – I’d have either risked all and possibly earned nothing doing my own "thing" due to having no funds to invest in the projects (the risk of any Indie) or returned to the industry full-time, on it’s terms, spending every spare minute “working”, awaiting the next closure, the next mortgage protection claim, and so on (now how cynical is that?).

Opportunistic? Hell yes. Just have a bail out plan in case the bail out plan fails… remember, if you’re a programmer, your a problem solver – solve the problem, and have alternatives on standby.

The "new era"’from Apple allows me to consider short hard fast projects, good pay (better than before in fact!), and still work toward my ultimate Indie goal – without the level of risk, or compromising any draconian IP clauses with other studios. Sure, it’s no train ride forever, it’s incredibly important to realise that… it’s also appreciated that Apple is not the only fruit, Android – and perhaps once again soon Microsoft Mobile abound ready for picking. This is a good thing, as even though I will not bite the hand that feeds, I am under no illusion about Apple – it truly is Eve’s temptation – offering all that richness, but at a long term price… not dissimilar to Microsoft!

And what of the huge pre-existing mobile Market? Too much for me I’m afraid – too many hardware platforms and OS’s to cater for, and too many to test. Developing is the easy part, making sure it runs on target is a whole other logistic nightmare. In the “take anything, work it out afterwards” ethos, I recently quoted on a simple flash port, just to the Sony Ericcson range. Two thirds of the total project just to do build, asset wrangling and testing logistics – easy money you may think? Not for this muppet, thanks anyway!

So where next? Obviously iPad is “hot” – stupid volumes of sales making me wish I’d bought Apple shares again – and iPhone 4 set to turn over the mobile market again… Apple is where it’s at for sure, for now… but Android is taking chunks left right and centre, and Microsoft are a bit miffed no doubt – and will muscle back in, hopefully… in my opinion, we need a little diversity – not only for healthy competition, but a few major OS platforms are supportable by a developer (even a small one) when planned for correctly, and serves to increase the potential user base for your products. But hundreds of minor, bespoke, hardware specific variants – as happened in the pre-iPhone mobile arena is just out of the question.

And of course, who knows what’s around the corner? Well, some may have an idea on a little of the big picture… watch the mobile platform space is all I can say.

Malcolm Sparrow is the managing/operational/development director for Mak Software Studio, an indie studio and developers of the iPhone/iPad title Slam!

He has worked in the industry since 2000 for studios like EA Canada, Sega Racing Studio and SCEE, and has been coding since the dawn of the ZX80.

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