Just ask Home creator Benjamin Rivers.
“You don’t really know how much time it’s going to take up,” said the Toronto-based developer, whose narrative horror adventure originally launched in the summer of 2012 and hits the Apple App Store today. “For a game that was supposed to be done as of last June, I sure seem to be spending a lot of time working on it every day of my life.
“I’m already thinking about next projects, but I can’t do anything because I have to mop up every spill and clean up every [Home-related] mess.”
Rivers was blindsided with chores following the launch of Home because he’d grown up with the consumer’s development timeline: The artist makes the game, the audience buys the game, and then the artist makes another game.
Developers are familiar with a more rigorous timeline. Thanks to DLC updates, patches, server maintenance, and everything else that’s become routine in the always-online era, it can be years before the studio moves on to something else.
So how do you spend one year refinishing a one-hour video game?
It starts with community management. After Home’s release, Rivers became a one-man PR team, interacting with fans and running a press campaign. Then he turned his attention to Mac and mobile devices.
While Home originally debuted for the PC, Rivers always hoped to port the game to iOS. Unfortunately, outsourcing the code to contractors was prohibitively expensive, particularly given some of the unforeseen complications with Home.
Thanks primarily to bad timing – Home is built in GameMaker, which didn’t introduce iOS tools until shortly after Home’s initial design had been finalized – Rivers has had to reprogram the entire game from scratch, a process that’s taken six months.
That’s what separates the independent from the triple-A. Rockstar Games has an entire network of studios that exist solely to port Grand Theft Auto to everything from the iPad to the Amiga. Post-launch responsibilities are delegated much as they are throughout initial development.
But an independent developer has to press forward while addressing routine issues that are often foreign to first-time entrepreneurs. There are educational benefits to that process – all the time spent writing and rewriting code has made Rivers a better programmer – but it could be a while before he applies those skills to another project.
“You have to wear all the hats,” said Rivers. “I check all the support emails and flag bugs and program and maintain admin stuff. The only thing I’m not doing is taxes. My wife’s going to help me do that, because it’s making me lose my mind.”
It’s not enough to be a brilliant artist, or even a gifted salesperson. You also need enough financial savvy to stay solvent while engaging in tasks that have little to do with actual creative design.
Nor is there any guarantee that Rivers will ever be compensated for the countless hours he’s spent reprogramming his own game. He only makes money if Home sells.
“Based on feedback and press announcements, I think it’s going to be worth it. But until that day comes I’m flying by the seat of my pants,” said Rivers.
Rivers is one of the lucky ones. Home became a bona fide indie hit after it debuted on Steam, a service that connects niche titles like Home with the larger niche audiences willing to try them. Though he won’t disclose numbers, the strong sales elevated Rivers’ profile to credentialed respectability and his new-found status as a proven developer generates enough attention to allow him to be confident about his future prospects.
“If no one played the game and no one gave a crap, I wouldn’t be working on it right now,” reasoned Rivers, adding that while he’s stressed about the iPad version, worrying about a successful game is preferable to not making one.
He’ll put up with the headaches in exchange for the financial rewards that elude many independent artists, as well as professional satisfaction following a week on the interview circuit at the 2013 Game Developers Conference.
“I feel like I’m a real person in this industry,” he noted. “It’s a lot easier to get people to talk to me now I’ve been published on Steam.”
Then again, that hasn’t necessarily made his life any easier. Giving an interview or writing a press release requires a unique mental energy because it’s simple to inadvertently say something regrettable.
He was caught off guard during GDC when he quipped during an interview that his next game would be a dating sim. The story got picked up, spreading at such a rapid pace that a humorous aside suddenly became an unofficial announcement. The unexpected (and uncontrolled) media surge has led Rivers to become more measured with his public profile.
“I don’t tweet nearly as much as I used to, and what I tweet has to go through a filter before it gets released,” said Rivers. “I don’t have 40,000 followers or anything, but people will take what I say and spread it around.
“It’s not like someone’s asking for my autograph when I go buy groceries. I’m still pretty much a nobody, but on the internet I sure am somebody.”
It’s tough to be candid when anyone is listening, which is why Rivers won’t elaborate on the potential dating sim. All he’ll say is that his next design will build upon the many learning experiences of Home, rehashing a year’s worth of bugs and emails and blunders to lay the groundwork for something new.
Despite everything, Rivers is encouraged. Sales of Home skyrocketed once the game debuted on Steam, which is how Rivers become a “real person” almost overnight even though Home is his first significant commercial game release.
Unlike comics – where Rivers has toiled away as a self-publisher of costly physical media – widespread digital game distribution provides marginalized or unknown artists with an avenue into the industry. Rivers has been able to build a higher profile in games because a major publisher recognized and welcomed his creative input.
Rivers also puts up with the challenges because he wants to. He made his game and he gets feedback because he solicits interpretations through Home (the credits conclude with a URL invitation) and through his website (SPOILERS). Sometimes that means fielding letters from people who didn’t understand Home:
“People who don’t like the game want it to be another game,” said Rivers, citing repeated calls for combat or a more linear narrative. “I’ve never had anyone who liked the game, but didn’t like the story.”
And sometimes that means he has to live with the knowledge that he’s unleashed a deranged murder mystery on an unsuspecting audience:
“I had a letter from one mother asking, ‘My son wants to know if there’s a way to end the game without killing yourself.’”
But most of the time, Rivers receives responses that validate his struggles. (Even the worried mother was more inquisitive than angry.) He hopes the iOS version will make it even easier for players to select a physical location that best complements the game.
“I’ve had families come up to me and say, ‘We took a laptop to the cottage and played in the middle of the woods together’ and I thought that was the best. That’s exactly the stuff I want to hear. I hope I get more of that.”
Connecting with fans on a personal level offsets the demands of entrepreneurship, even if it’s frustrating to be so busy with your old game that you don’t have time for the new one.
“Now that I know what’s coming, it’s even worse,” said Rivers about the iOS release and the management nightmare to follow. “I will support [Home] as long as I have to, but at some point I’m going to have to say enough.”
Benjamin Rivers doesn’t know when (or if) Home will be complete. Until he decides to move on, he’s going to finish the new version then go back to work.