How to make Games for a living
If you want to make a game, you probably want to make games for a living too. The sad truth is that this is a long and painful way, but it's possible.
The first-game-sucess Myth
To get the biggest myth out of the way first: you will not make a living off your first game, no matter how great your idea is. The problem is that the competition is big. There are hundreds and thousands of games that are released every day. Only the really good ones actually make some money. And even then, many just barely make enough to take care of the development expenses.
Absolutely no one learns a new skill and immediately gets rich with his first project, even if it's the greatest game idea in the world. Making games is a craft that has to be learned. As with any other craft, it takes years to master it. There is a saying that a game developers first ten games always suck. Everyone who even made it that far can confirm this.
So yes it's possible to make a living off games, but it takes a lot of patience to get to the point where you know how to make really good games. People see Minecraft and think that they get 50 million dollars by just making a game. The opposite is true, the Minecraft creator Notch made about 20 games before he got a big hit.
It's really hard!
The great-industry Myth
If your first priority is to make money, then you will have a hard time when making games. The rule of thumb is that about every other software industry is a better choice to do so.
If you start making games for a living without having any other source of income, you will get crazy. This is the major cause for burn outs and depression amongst beginner game developers, and it's always the same pattern:
- Person X quits Job and jumps into making games full time
- Person X releases first game without even making a dollar
- Person X gets scared, runs out of money, works even faster
- Person X burns out, gets depressed
- Person X gives up
Please do your sanity a favor and don't quit your job just yet. Not making money over a bigger period of time is not a fun thing to experience. Maybe just work half time but keep some kind of source of income until one of your games actually sells.
Another problem are working hours. Traditional software has a long life cycle, ten years are not that unusual even for a simple file commander. Now the great thing about it is that most of that time is spent for maintenance. Hence most of the time money rolls in while having reasonable working hours.
When making games, the life cycle is incredibly short. At first it takes a year of crunch time to make the game, and if it's successful at all, then only for another year or so. Game developers are just always working long hours with bad payments, which can result in health and money issues rather quickly.
Make a living by Freelancing
Let's talk about how to actually make some money by making games. The first possibility is to do freelance work.
It's actually pretty simple. Go into one of the major game development forums and find a project that is looking for members and pays them while working on it (and not just after its released). The good news is that there are quite a few of them at any time. The bad news is that there are a lot more people trying to join than there are open positions.
The only way to continuously find paid freelance work is to have an exceptionally great portfolio. Make yourself a little website and show five or ten high quality games that you made. Show that you have the patience to finish polished games and you will find work soon.
Now while this all sounds rather easy, there is one big downside to freelancing. As soon as the game is finished, you have to find another project over and over again. What if you don't find one and don't get any money for a month? What if you don't get any money for a year? Freelancing can be a fast way to get some income, but it can also be incredibly frustrating and stressful.
Make a living by getting into a Company
Another approach is to find yourself a job in a established game development company. The kind of place where you get paid enough, have some safety and still have some free time every once in a while.
But the question is, who wants to do that? Who wants to end up taking care of someone else's game's quality assurance or bug fixes all day long? At that point it's just the same as in any other software industry, just with the difference of getting paid less.
But yes, there are also some stories where things turned out quite well. Working on a Renderer, leading the programmer team or being the CTO can be a lot of fun.
But keep one thing in mind: in order to get into a good position like that it almost always involves the painful way through university and years of unpaid internships.
Make a living by running a Business
Another interesting and even harder approach is to run your own business. You create and sell all your games on your own. This is the dream of most beginner game developers, and it's definitely a great thing to do.
But as with all great things, it's hard to get there. Selling your game on your own website involves a lot of knowledge about marketing, security, web development, databases, taxes, law and a certain sense for business. The alternative is to sell it on other platforms like Steam, but getting into that is incredibly hard.
While things like the open source movement or giving out all games for free are nice things to do, they are also horrible business ideas. If you want to make money, you have to sell something. You have to learn how to hire people, what to pay them and when to let them go. You have to learn how to lead a team because you won't be able to do it all on your own. You have to get used to the possibility that you end up worrying about business more than you worry about making games.
If you are running a business, your #1 priority is to make money. Otherwise the whole thing won't work out.
The good news is: you can learn that. The bad news is, you won't learn it in books or on websites. You have to get yourself out there and try things out. Find out how advertising based sites like Kongregate work and how much your game can make there. Find out how to spread the word about your latest release. Find out how to build a fan base and how to run a serious looking website. Read about PayPal's instant payment notification system and set it up. Read about how other people managed to get into the Steam store and contact every single indie game store there is. Experiment with the prices and find a good accountant and give your lawyer a call some time. Or if you can, run another kind of software business to get some experience.
A lot of people will tell you that it's impossible to make games for a living. And the truth is that usually you really are better off in any other industry. But if you really believe in yourself and if you really work harder than everybody else, if you dedicate your life to it then it's most certainly possible. You might not get rich, but you might be able to get paid for doing what you love.
At the end of the day, that's all that matters.