Dark Acre Year Zero Report

by Jack

365 Days Solo Indie: A Post-Mortem

First, a brief timeline of events that led to Zero Yero:

  • July 2002: Epiphany on the beach during a working holiday in Beppu, Kyushu. Decision to “somehow get involved in the game industry” made.
  • August 2002 – January 2003: In-depth analysis of game industry. Interviewed dozens of professionals and started curating and consuming RSS feeds solely dedicated to gaming and game creation. To this day it’s the only news I consume.
  • February 2003 – February 2004: Completed MBA bridge courses part-time to gain a better understanding of the art of business, after identifying a disconnect in the industry between executive and creative arms of game companies.
  • March 2004 – October 2008: Promoted to “business English instructor” at Berlitz Japan, Inc. Spent nearly every paid minute of work having conversations with some of the top entrepreneurs, established executives, politicians, and myriad others in Tokyo from various fields.
  • May 2004: Decision to enter Vancouver Film School (VFS) made. Cost of tuition and living calculated. All extraneous expenses stopped and nearly 90% of income banked from this point forward.
  • January 2005: Application to VFS submitted. Accepted shortly thereafter to enter their Foundation Art and Design program from October of that year.
  • July 2005: Enrollment in VFS deferred to October 2006 save more working capital.
  • 2006: Shifts in game industry mentality and emergence of independent game development “superstars” put heavy pressure on post-graduate path. Decision made to go independent upon graduation from VFS.
  • August 2006: Enrollment in VFS deferred to October 2007 save more working capital.
  • June 2007: Enrollment in VFS deferred to October 2008 save more working capital.
  • June 2008: 3-months notice given at Berlitz Japan, Inc, ending a near 10-year extremely lucrative career and leaving what remains as the most comfortable working environment on the planet. No tears shed.
  • October 2008 – October 2009: Attended VFS’s Foundation Art and Design program. Graduated with honors.
  • October 2009 – September 2010: Attended VFS’s Game Design program. Left early after meeting graduation requirements to found Dark Acre.
  • September 24, 2010: Dark Acre Game Development founded in Vancouver, Canada.

The chronicles of what followed can be found on the pages and posts of this website.


Facts and Figures

Financials

All values in Canadian dollars, year total/monthly average

  • Administrative Costs (incorporation and licensing): $2,074.06/$172.84
  • Billings (how much I felt my time was worth): $40,380.00/$3,365.00
  • Delivery (postage): $9.81/$0.82
  • Donations (made to charities/NPOs): $49.23/$4.10
  • Entertainment (business meals and events): $124.08/$10.34
  • Hardware (dev machine upgrades/peripherals): $876.33/$73.03
  • Marketing (press releases/advertisement): $182.50/$15.21
  • Memberships (IGDA, DigiBC): $48.00/$4.00
  • Phone (business land-line): $360.00/$30.00
  • Rent (percentage for home office): $1,200.00/$100.00
  • Research (“competitors” games): $893.04/$74.42
  • Software (development applications): $2,153.01/$179.42
  • Utilities (electric): $240.00/$20.00
  • Food: $1,620.00/$135.00
  • Rent (actual): $10,800/$900.00
  • Total Cost Minus Billings: $20,630.00

I hope that’s of some use. I live extremely frugally, in a low-rent apartment, but I’m able to do what I love and (discounting the “actual” food and rent) the first year of independent development cost me less than $10,000. This is exactly in line with the projections I made in 2006.

Had I earned what I felt my time was worth, I would have seen a profit of roughly $20,000. That would have been enough to take on a partner. I feel it’s an important exercise for any independent to value their time and make these kinds of calculations. Far from discouraging me, it motivates me and sets reasonable and attainable goals that help drive production.

Results

Primary Game Projects:

  • Project Zero Zero: Announced. Two backstory lore-books written and published, one audio diary recorded.
  • Project Zero One: Deployed after 55 days of development as free-to-play.
  • Project Zero Two: Shelved after 39 days of development.
  • Project Zero Three: Deployed after 71 days of development as free-to-play, 367 plays and 2.70 rating on Kongregate.
  • Project Zero Four: Shelved after 81 days of development.
  • Project Zero Five: Announced. Delayed twice. Development ongoing.
  • Project Zero Six: Announced. Development ongoing.

Ludum Dare 48 Entries:

  • LD48 #19, “Discovery”: Completed. #89 Overall.
  • LD48 #20, “IDtGA,TT!”: Completed. #13 Overall, #9 Graphics, #6 Audio.
  • LD48 #21, “Escape”: Completed. #123 Overall, #2 Theme.

Writing

  • National Novel Writer’s Month 2010: Completed, unedited and unpublished.
  • Tale of the Madeus, Solarus I (novella): Published for $0.99, 12 sold via Amazon.com/.uk and 2 via iTunes.
  • Ambia, Solarus II (novel): Published for $0.99, 4 sold via Amazon.com/.uk and 3 via iTunes.
  • Parlow’s Choice (short story): Published for free, 26 downloaded via iTunes.

Total Combined Earnings from Games & Writing: $10.57
Amount Paid: $0.00

It was a lean year, but that was part of the plan, completely acceptable, and par for the course. It is entirely reasonable to expect no profit for the first five years of any venture and a hit-driven business is, more often than not, an all-or-none kind of venture.

We’ll see what Year One brings.


What Went Right

1. Focus, Drive, and Determination

It’s very hard to reach the launch of a dream that had been more than 8 years in the making and not fly out of the gates at full steam and filled with energy.

The first few months were explosive in terms of learning and development. The initial schedule was very tight and demanding, and I buckled down and relished every second.

I was very eager to prove myself, and that momentum helped push me in the right direction and keep me motivated.

2. Early Release

While a very crude and amateur attempt at game-making, Project Zero One: Above and Below represented perhaps the most critical action I could have taken, which was drive to release early. That entire process of executing on a concept and then dealing with the public reaction to it was so important for understanding my weaknesses and how much more work I would have to do, that I wouldn’t trade that for anything.

If there’s once piece of learning/advice from all of this, it’s get your first game out the door ASAP, and worry about making your 40th game the best it can be.

3. Single Engine Focus

I love Unity 3D. Over the course of Year Zero I was sorely tempted to stray into other territory, and for a time I did. I played around with UDK, Corona SDK, and even the recently-free CryEngine 3 Sandbox.

I even toyed with Objective-C/XCode. All of these proved to be distracting from the main goal, but dabbling in them helped me to appreciate my strengths and the advantages of the main engine that I had chosen for my work.

4. Ludum Dare

There’s be a lot written about the importance of game jams, and I’m not going to dispute any of it. They are of absolute and critical importance, as they give developers a chance to actually finish a project for a change. Stan Lee said it best when he equated game-making to “miracles”.

There are so many jams out there now, and you don’t even really need an excuse to run one yourself, but entering a high profile one like the Global Game Jam is a great opportunity to get out and interact with other developers and simply have a good time.

I had to choose this particular battle carefully. Jams take time, distract from primary projects, and are extremely draining. As a solo developer I felt that the Ludum Dare 48 best fit my situation, what with it being a solo competition and one that happens only every few months.

I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the organizers and participants of the LD48 for all their hard work and support. Without them, the current primary project “the Child” would never have been.

Donations to support the Ludum Dare site and operations have been recently re-opened, so feel free to give until it hurts.

5. Writing More Than Just Games

If you’ve been following along, you’ll know that I’m also hedging my independent career risks by engaging in science-fiction/space opera writing. Having that second outlet to go to worked wonders in keeping me energized for the game projects, particularly once I started to get tangible and published results.

Self-publishing books follows a very similar business model to games, in that the content is delivered digitally and much the same promotional tactics are involved. Plus, if done right, they can compliment each other. It’s definitely proven lucrative for authors and their game tie-ins, so why not go from the ground up and write the fiction for my own games? Certainly, it’s a lot of work, but that’s what I’m here for.


What Went Wrong

1. Too Much Plainview

My initial attitude out the gate was pretty brutal. I felt a bit like Conan, alone on a battlefield swarming with enemies, and all I had was my wits and a half-sharpened battleaxe with which to hew necks and split sinews. I was taking on the world, and I was doing it my way. Liberating, but I walked too far to the right of the line and fell into an abyss of independence that would take almost the entire year to crawl out of.

There’s a value to the fine quality of hard-nosed determination, and being a person who gets things done. It goes too far when that attitude comes at the expensive of potential relationships with others in the field. I was so focused on doing my own thing that I neglected many who were within reach for even just friendly conversation.

“Who has time for friends? I’ve got games to make!” As Breakdance McFunkypants would advise his good pal Lee Taxxor, NOOB MISTAKE!

Striking the right social balance is critical but also extremely difficult. Compound the generally anti-social nature of the business of games with the often stoic and taciturn nature of being an independent and you’ve got a recipe for misanthropic self-destruction.

The solution isn’t spending more time on Twitter, Facebook, or in bars, either. I believe the trick is in engaging people where they live, asking the right questions of the audience, and building up relationships over time through conversation.

Dark Acre’s Year Zero was a one-sided spew of content, and I’ve resolved to change that going into Year One. The only real goal now is to make more real friends.

2. Not Enough Down-Time

6-day work weeks, 17-hour work days, the bulk of that time spent indoors absorbing vitriol from social networks and news sources, and more often than not head-to-desking in search of solutions to new and exciting challenges was a recipe for psychological damage.

I’d read several articles about game development and depression prior to starting out, but I’d thought I was different. I thought I was somehow tougher, or stronger-willed.

I was wrong.

There’s an old joke that the entrepreneur is the person who works 16 hours a day to avoid working 8. I think that in many cases driven people can’t help but push themselves to their breaking points and beyond in pursuit of their visions. I know that was my mentality coming into Year Zero. It took me tearing myself away from everything and running off to Tokyo for a couple of weeks to fully appreciate just how much I’d been over-working myself.

So, a second key point here: take time out. Even if you don’t feel like you can, financially, you have to for the sake of both physical and psychological well-being.

3. Too Much Soc-Netting

Social networking is important to independent developers and producers. Absolutely. But a line needs to be carefully drawn between how much time is spent developing those networks and how much is spent actually building stuff.

With the new and improved model of development on the Acre being “make something, make something more, make a few more things after that, and then talk about them”, there’s going to be a marked movement away from constant broadcasting on the soc-nets.

It might seem like an overwhelming temptation to develop as big a network as possible, but this is potentially counter-productive. I’m firmly of the belief that with social networks an “if you build it, and it kicks ass, they will come” attitude is best. That bolded caveat is of utmost importance, though. People like good things and, in this day and age of direct communication with creators, they’d like to get to know who made those good things.

So the logic is pretty straightforward: make good things, people will want to get to know you. Everything else is, unfortunately, blowing hot air.

4. Unity Professional License and Incorporation

This is a hindsight one, and it’s not a terrible loss but it does still rankle a bit.

I spent a fair amount of time and money establishing Dark Acre as a corporate entity, and now must spend more time and money maintaining it with fees and taxation. As I haven’t really seen any sales from the games, being incorporated hasn’t helped much. It may have been wiser to wait until I was more established as an individual, but it’s hard to tell. I could very well have written a hit novel right off the bat and having the corporate structure would have helped tremendously, but that didn’t happen.

Also, with the Unity Pro license, I have yet to use any of the features of it in any of the games I’ve made, and that includes the Child. I could have waited on that as well.

So am I advising you not to incorporate nor get the Pro software license? No, but I am saying they may not be as important or as necessary as you think. That’s just something you’ll have to SWOT out for yourself if you’re considering them.


Enter Year One

It’s going to be business as usual around the Acre as I continue to pursue the goals set out in the original 5-year plan.

The only major change is that there’s likely to be less frequent updating of this blog. I’m shifting the development tracking to a more formalized internal journal structure that I can then edit and release later in post-mortem form on a project-by-project basis.

I’ll still be putting out in-progress videos and screenshots, most likely through the YouTube channel, Twitter, and Google Plus. So you’re welcome to follow any of those channels if you want to have your finger on the Dark Acre pulse.

I’m really searching for personal contacts with anyone who’s interested in sharing their experiences. Not just about game development, but about anything. To that end I really encourage you to get on Google Plus and start up a conversation. I’m just as keen to know what you’re doing, so please Circle me and let’s chat.

That’s all for now, and I used to close these with “see you in seven” but now you’ll have to be content with “see you when I see you”.

Thanks from the bottom of my heart for following these words and deeds, and here’s to another challenging and exciting year from myself, Jack Nilssen, and the Dark Acre.

Excelsior!