Being a indie game developer dad

I could never go and work in an office for a corporation again whilst my kids still live at home, and probably just never again anyway.

Working in an office

The relationship I had with my family (wife and two boys) whilst working in an office doing game dev was the worst it’s ever been. I basically saw them at breakfast and then went to the office and maybe saw them just before they went to bed depending on how late I worked (plus travel time). Occasionally I got to meet my wife for lunch because both my boys were at school and my wife is self-employed. Of course I got the weekends with my family but I was often tired and unmotivated to do much.

Also my wife was left basically bringing the boys up on her own during the week and I began to realise that they desperately needed me around more as a dad for a different perspective on things, plus I wanted to see them of course – something that amplified after my father passed away.

I’m sure that if you are not a parent then working in an office is probably fine as long as you can still find time to spend with your partner and to do your hobbies. If the company you work for is progressive enough to allow you to work at home sometimes/quite often and allows you to have some flexibility in your schedule to deal with family-related issues that regularly crop up then that would of course be great, but I wasn’t in such a company/culture (although they did help me out when my dad died.)

It can also be awkward working with people who don’t have kids who just don’t understand that your family comes before your work and what responsibilities you have outside of the office. Plus, and this is sad, I’m sure many dads think it’s normal and acceptable to go to work all day and hardly ever see their kids…Some would say they have no choice, but I disagree, there is always choice of some kind if you look hard enough. [EDIT] A friend has reminded me that in the US if you work for a company you’ll get health insurance and that without it you are screwed. This is certainly huge bummer and no doubt would put many parents off going indie as paying for your family’s insurance costs a fortune. Not so in Canada or the UK or many other countries fortunately.

TL;DR If you are a parent, working away from home sucks. Don’t do it!

Working at home as an indie

Before I worked in an office I worked at home as an indie. That was a conscious decision that I made when my first son was 3 and my second son was 6 months old (before that I was an IT consultant and spent lots of time at home as well). Whilst working in the office I remembered the good times of being able to see my kids, help my wife with stuff, and just generally being around. So eventually I left that company and went back to being indie again and it’s just so much better! :-)

However, of course the flip side is that:

a) I get interrupted at home a lot
b) Income is variable and there is no certainty etc.
c) I seem to work best in the afternoons and evenings which is when my family wants to see me.

I’ve gone through indie crunches where I’ve hardly seen anyone, and I often work at weekends (due to being busy and also because I enjoy it), but then other times when my family really needs my help, like if they are all ill with the flu or something, I can be there for them.

It’s definitely not a good idea to set up hard deadlines as an indie parent because some poop will mostly likely hit the fan and force you to make tough decisions. For example: on the day I was supposed to be shipping Spring Bonus for PC/Mac (it had to come out by Easter Sunday) I’d had 1 hour sleep the night before due to testing and then my wife got super-ill and I had to rush her to hospital (it turned out to be cancer) and then go and get the kids from school etc. It was one of the most horrible and stressful days of my life trying to balance everything. Luckily she is fine now and the game shipped and has done well, but it was not easy at all.

I also like doing the school run. If you are a dad and have not dropped your kids off or picked them up from playgroup/school on then you are missing out on something really important. Don’t let your wife hog this cool thing that will give you memories you’ll never forgot.

Also my wife works at home and so we get to go out to lunch, for romantic walks, and to Ikea when we feel like it. This is obviously good for our relationship ;-)

Btw, sorry that I’m just writing from a male/dad perspective – I would love to hear more indie mums/moms posting their thoughts too!

TL;DR You still have to balance your work/home life when working at home as an indie, but it’s definitely better for parents.

Let me know your thoughts in the comments, thanks!

12 Responses to “Being a indie game developer dad”

  1. James S Says:

    I’m an Indie Dad. I’ve been at home for 14 months. I’ve been working as a Web Designer, trying to design my first indie game, and also raise my 2 kids (9 and 7 yrs old). It has been a constant struggle to find the time to do everything that my family needs (my wife works at a corporation) and still earn some income while also making time to write code and make graphics (week nights mostly).
    The hardest thing for me about this life is the constant juggling act that I do every week. I am responsible for watching the kids before and after school, cooking, shopping, cleaning, web design, and building my game. I put those in order from most important to leas in order to give you some idea of how hard it is to find time for my indie game.
    I feel like it is something that you can achieve, but it is definitely an uphill battle. For anyone who is thinking of taking this road, I would caution you that the best thing you can do to keep moving forward is to set aside blocks of time for the things that NEED to get done, and also for the things you WANT to get done. Then, leave EMPTY blocks of time near the week’s end so that you have time to catch up on the things that got missed, or so that you can spend those on the things you WANT to do that week. I keep Fridays free completely for family emergencies, trips to the store, etc. If nothing comes up on Friday, I have a free day for building my game.
    It has been the most rewarding year of my career so far. I get to follow my passion, and I don’t miss my kids growing up. It’s truly the best of both worlds, as long as you can handle the time management.

  2. McFunkypants Says:

    I live the same life and feel very strongly the same way as you, Jake. Working from home presents a few challenges: energy, the necessity of working after bedtime because daytime often has family demands, and the old “I wake up at work” feeling. These minor issues are far outweighed by the advantages.

    I get to spend time with my 2 year old son. He will not be a toddler for long, and no amount of money or prestige could entice me away from these precious and fleeting times of pure joy. I’ve never had SO MUCH FUN in my life, nor have I ever been happier.

    Think about it: if it is a sunny day I can drop everything on a whim and go to the beach to enjoy throwing rocks into the ocean. If there’s a problem, health-related or otherwise (I know exactly how you feel – went through the same thing with my wife) then I can focus my energies on what is clearly more important: my family. I can be around, not just to help, but because being around the people I love makes me happy too.

    No parent should ever work at a crummy corporate job – I feel sorry for those who do but acknowledge that not everyone’s as blessed as those of us few stay-at-home-dad-indie-gamedevs, but let me tell you – if you DO have a choice, the wise choice is to work from home. It is the best life. It is FUN.

    If you actually choose to work in an office, you are missing out in your kids’ childhood. They don’t stay children forever. The game industry dads I know who work in offices barely know their own children. The wall of stiff discomfort and lack of intimacy and connection is clearly visible anytime I see them with their families. To work in an office instead of home is like being jailed – stolen away from the very people you care about most, all in the name of the almighty dollar. A clear perversion of priorities. A cowardly retreat to the safety of a cold lifeless cave. An unhealthy way of life that only those forced (eg. Americans without healthcare) should ever have to endure. Office work is a sad and shallow life.

    Working from home as a gamedev is the healthiest, most responsible, most enjoyable way to earn a living. It fills my heart with song. These last two years of being a work-at-home dad (and occasionally missing out in work in order to spend more time with him) will never cause me a nanosecond of regret.

    When you’re lying on your deathbed, you will remember summer days at the beach with your kids. NOT crunchtime for some deathmarch AAA sequel, or how big your bonus was that year. Life is short. Don’t waste it in a stale office when you can be spending your very finite time on this earth with your loved ones.

    Christer McFunkypants Kaitila

  3. Grey Alien Games Says:

    Wow thanks so much for your posts guys! You know I totally agree of course :-)

    This lifestyle does have it’s challenges and is not the norm in modern times but it is perhaps becoming more normal – at least I hope so for the sake of all the future kids who will get to spend more time with their parents.

    Some people have talked about having their own office not at home and I can totally see why that could be good. It’s somewhere to go to focus and even to take a break from the sometimes crazy manicness of family life. Also if your family needs you, you can drop everything and go home. The same goes for if it’s a nice day and you want to go outside :-)

    Many devs I know have got quite young kids and are enjoying seeing them grow and develop. My boys are older (11 and 9) but I still find it super-valuable to be able to see them and guide them through growing up (including getting them to help with chores and go shopping and learn cooking), especially as this is the sort of age where peer pressure becomes a really big thing. Plus it’s pretty cool to be able to say “Yes” when your kids pops in your office at 5pm and says:

    “Do you want to play Knights of the Old Republic 2?”, or “can we have a 3 player Minecraft and pizza night?”, or “shall we watch Red Dwarf?”

  4. Clay Says:

    I also tried this, with an experience similar to what James S describes. Sadly, the variable income was too much of a stressor and I now have to go back to work at a corporation. I’m dreading it. Trying to find a job was awful. I’m really sad that it didn’t work for me and I am going to miss my daughters very much. I wish you all better luck.

  5. fhd Says:

    Thanks Jake, very encouraging post for me :)

    I can absolutely relate, I was lucky enough to find a very flexible company where I can work from home most of the time, and I seriously cannot imagine how I’m ever going back to an office and fixed schedules. I don’t think I’ve ever been this happy before, being able to go out with the kids when it’s nice, seeing them grow and learn (they’re 1 and 2, so there’s a lot of growing and learning going on) and supporting my seriously stressed wife.

    I really do feel fortunate being a programmer – we’re in high demand and many of us are good at communicating, so it’s not that hard to find a job where you can work remotely without becoming self employed. But there’s a downside to that: A company usually expects you to work some fixed amount of hours per week, no matter how flexible it is. So when the kids are sick for two weeks, I still need to perform, I’m being paid. I can either take a full day off, or figure out how to get the hours done. Nobody is looking at how much I actually work of course, but it’s still my contractual obligation.

    I’d prefer being self employed (and working on games, duh), so my wife and I are trying to built a game making business (maybe indie, maybe not, not our number one priority) on the side. Our kids are 1 and 2 years old, so that’s horribly difficult :) Should we ever be fortunate enough to build a sustainable business and hire people, I’m absolutely determined to let everyone work remotely.

  6. Grey Alien Games Says:

    @Clay: Sorry to hear that it didn’t work out for you. At least you tried and did have some quality time with your daughters. I hope things work out for you going forwards.

    @fhd: Sounds great that you have found a flexible company, thus proving to me that they are out there! :-) I also hope you manage to set up your own company one day too. Best to make sure you have maybe 18 months minimum of savings before you do that though and then work on something small! Good luck.

  7. Simon Says:

    Yup Very much in the same boat as FHD got a job Aug last year where I work remotely doing biz dev stuff for the dayjob and it’s been awesome. My 3y old is a blast to and I love it. And the 15 year old, is fun to play Arma and other things with when he’s not playing the standard mopy teenager role :)

    Luckily I’ve got a spare room that we converted into the ‘work’ office and that really is a life changer when it comes to working from home. Being able to ‘Go to work’ really is an important mental distinction for me.

    I’ve found that if you don’t separate out the work area from the play area you start being unable to differentiate the two and in the long run your work will suffer and the family time will as well.

    My daytime job is pretty rigorous with time tracking and client billable hours and that does get hard to deal with. But seeing as over half the company is remote employees it seems to actually be a good way to do it. Just stressful when you don’t make your hours.

    Hope to make a living doing gamedev at some point, but since I’m the source of steady income and insurance (wife is photographer and that’s been spotty lately) (Crappy insurance for family of 4 is essentially a second mortgage where they add $100 to your bill every year) I’ll be happy with being able to supplement the income at some point in the next few years.

  8. fhd Says:

    @Jake: Yeah, there are quite a few remoting opportunities out there these days, at least outside the game industry. If it turns into a trend, the game industry might actually follow. In 10 years or so :P

    Good point with the savings. Our plan was to basically get a few games out there and see if we can build a sustainable game business on the side, but you’re right: With 18 months worth of savings, we can go all-in for a while, and I can do some contracting to fill the holes. Acquiring 18 months worth of savings will take a long while though, don’t really think it’s possible if we don’t release a handful of decent selling games first.

  9. Grey Alien Games Says:

    @fhd Yep acquiring a large amount of savings is tough. I know people who’ve done it with good jobs who are single, but as you know having a family costs a lot. The most I ever saved up was 6 months of savings when I worked at Big Fish Games and I made sure I shipped a game in that 6 months and lined up so other stuff as well. First time I went indie was without any savings and it took me 18 months before I made any real money. I supplemented my income with IT work and my wife was also working. It’s certainly a good idea to try and ship a game whilst working full-time in a paid job if you think you can do it, but progress on the game will be slow and you’ll be tired a lot. I tried it and that’s when I decided to go full time instead.

  10. Grey Alien Games Says:

    @Simon: Glad to hear it’s working out. I also have a spare room in the hours that I use as a home office so I can go in, close the door and focus. The boys still come in and ask me things but at least it’s not the same as the distractions that would occur if I worked in the kitchen or living room or something. We made sure the house had a spare room when we bought it as by then I was already working at home as an IT consultant.

    The whole health insurance things sounds horrible. For all its flaws the NHS is a wonderful thing.

  11. YuanHao Says:

    Not a dad yet, but very interesting read nevertheless. I, of course, have the same trouble with friends, family, and my other responsibilities — sometimes it’s hard to stop developing to do other stuff, but we do have to prioritize.

    I have a serious question, how do you manage for example to divide your time between devving, IT consulting (as I do marketing consulting too and have my own business on that), as well as friends? When friends tell me to meet at 7 o’clock, I’m usually one hour late haha :/

    Will follow your example. Cheers :)

  12. Grey Alien Games Says:

    I don’t do IT consulting any more, I did that in the early days when my games weren’t making very much money. The difference in working for yourself is you can stop when you want but it’s harder when you are an IT consultant on-site somewhere and the job is not yet done…