I wrote this letter in the middle of January. I wanted to share it at the time to hopefully inspire some anxious, aspiring game developers to pursue their dreams. It got lost in the excitement and stress of Cold Iron's Jan. 30th release, but Matthew reminded me about it this morning. If there's a dream in your heart but you're worried that everything might go wrong, please read on.
As a game developer and a hapless masochist, I spend a lot of time lurking on online forums. Sometimes, as one new to the industry does, I delve into game dev advice threads. They all tend to make the same points: making games is hard, selling games is harder. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here. They dwell on all the things that can go wrong, and they never remember to mention all the things that can go right. So I wanted to tell my story, which I'm certain is the story of every average game maker or musician or author: a person whose dreams were dashed against the rocks by the dangers we're all taught to fear, then saved by chance encounters with people I never would have expected to factor into my life. These unexpected, unwitting heroes are my "dream team". They're people who have no idea how they changed the course of my life.
Just after noon on November 6, 2015, I'm e-mailing journalists begging them to write about my first published game, Star Billions. It isn't going well. There are so many compelling mobile games backed by TV ads and App Store features, so I'm feeling like a minnow in a shark tank. At this point I've contacted more than 200 journalists and received just 2 replies.
I decide to try something different. I log in to Gmail and send Polygon's Justin McElroy an e-mail with two links. One link leads to the game's press kit. The other link points to Jimmy Buffett's "Math Suks" on YouTube. Why not? Nothing else has worked, and I have nothing to lose. A week later, I receive a reply that says it's a cool idea for a game. Holy shit. In the same week that I was ignored by blogs with fifty readers, Justin McElroy took the time to write back.
For as long as I can remember, I've wanted to make games. My earliest memory is playing Dr. Mario on Christmas morning. I spent my teens making music because of Nobuo Uematsu. I spent my twenties wondering what the hell I was supposed to do with that. Now my thirtieth birthday was rapidly approaching. I thought that the stars of indie game development were either kid geniuses or industry veterans with years of experience. I was neither. I made Star Billions with my younger brother not as a serious attempt to make a living, but as an effort to cross an item off my bucket list in the eleventh hour.
Like so many others, I felt intense pressure to find a grown-up job and sort out what I would spend the rest of my life doing. I thought I'd find the answer in Boston that December. A friend from college recommended me for a statistics job at Harvard. I could leave my rural hometown, make a decent living, and impress people when they ask what I do. It was, in many ways, a dream job.
But it wasn't my dream.
I walked from office to office as part of the five hour (!) interview process, nervously flattening the creases in my "good pants". I wasn't afraid of rejection. I was afraid that I would get the job and have to say goodbye to my childhood dream. My wish to fail fostered a George Costanza-like confidence that led me to inadvertently nail the interview. I was offered a better position than the one I had applied for.
Then something incredible happened. I started getting texts about Star Billions appearing on Polygon. Justin had written an article about it. I'd expected to sell ten copies. By the end of the first day we had sold thousands. At $2.99 minus Apple's cut, that would have been a failure for most studios, but for me it was the first gleaming step on the Yellow Brick Road. I wasn't in Boston anymore. No, I was a game developer. I was so star-struck that I even believed Peter Molyneux had tweeted about the game (until my brother pointed out that it was a parody account. It didn't matter! Anything was possible in this new world.)
I called the interviewer at Harvard to turn down the job. "What changed your mind?" he asked. What was I supposed to say? "Taako from The Adventure Zone wrote an article about my game, so... now I have the validation I needed to pursue my dream." Awkward silence. "I'm pursuing another opportunity that better reflects my goals." Message received.
Star Billions was never a big success, but our meager sales and kind words from players kept us going. Asher Vollmer (the brilliant creator of Threes) was a fan. On days when the game didn't sell a single copy (there were many!) the approval of cool people like Justin and Asher kept us from giving up. The game's engaging story and cute animal characters also resonated with the furry community, an angle I'd never considered before. Although the game's sales were poor, we received incredibly touching fan letters. When I felt down about my career prospects, I read those letters. I wondered whose lives I might have unwittingly touched the way that Justin and Asher and a few pseudonymous furries touched mine. I realized what fragile things dreams are.
It's been more than two years since that fateful day when "Math Suks" put into motion a series of meetings that averted my career in statistics and set me on a path to living my dream. There's more to the story. Our next game was made on borrowed hardware. We pitched it as "The Devil's Duel" to Tim Schafer at E3 and he misheard it as "The Devil's Stool". That accident led us to ditch the title and eventually rethink the entire story. We ran out of cash near the end of development before miraculously winning HQ Trivia six times between November and December. Now we're weeks away from launching Cold Iron on PC and PlayStation 4. It's a VR game about a tragic gunslinger and a demon-infested gun. I couldn't be happier or more excited with the twists and turns my life has taken.
It hasn't been an easy life. The misers on game dev forums are right about how hard it is for an independent studio to make and sell a game. It takes a lot of long days and sleepless nights. For Cold Iron, we took three weekends off in all of 2017. Our serendipitous trivia money has dried up, so we're pinching pennies until release day. Cold Iron is off to a better start than Star Billions, but it could still bomb just as hard. There's enough that can go wrong that it's a wonder anyone tries. The reason I do is because I know how bizarrely, how inexplicably, how unexpectedly things can go right.
To my dream team: thank you!
I met some of you face to face. I spoke to some of you online. Some of you don't even know I exist! But you changed my life, and in doing so, you taught me a lesson in kindness and humility.
To anyone reading: We're all in this together. If there's anything I can do to help make your dreams come true, let me know. It's the least I can do.