The good and bad of making your side project a day job
FunnerSoft's Lester Bloom talks about leaving ArenaNet after a career in AAA to bet on himself with VR tower defense game PlanTechtor
Lester Bloom has been working for AAA companies for decades. While still in school, he took a summer job at Microsoft, QA testing original Xbox games. Since then, he's worked for Nintendo, Take-Two Interactive (at the company's Cat Daddy Games studio), and until quite recently, ArenaNet.
But like many developers, he's always wanted to go indie. He even tried once, about a dozen years ago when digital distribution was just starting to reshape the industry.
"That didn't work out so great," Bloom said when speaking to GamesIndustry.biz last month. "That could be a whole other interview."
While Bloom returned to AAA development after that initial attempt, he kept his indie aspirations alive by working on his own projects on the side, recently under the studio name FunnerSoft. After putting in his time at the day job during the week, he'd routinely work about six and a half hours each Saturday on a personal project. There was just one problem.
"It takes forever to get anything done that way," he said. "Even the teeniest, tiniest project was taking forever to get accomplished... If you do the math there against a normal 40-hour work week, that means I get one-seventh as much done [on the side project] in my week. So it takes six to seven times longer to get anything done. If your game is being made by a single-person and you've got a year to make it, that's a pretty small game. But if you're only working 6.5 hours a week, now you're talking like seven years to finish it. It's hard to keep going for that long on something and just be confident that you're making the right choices, that it is fun, and it's going to be worth it."
"The hard part is having a 40-hour job--or more, because crunch in the industry is a thing--and then... trying to find time to spend with my family, and also somehow finish up this thing with the hours that are remaining"
So for years, Bloom didn't finish his side projects. Though he would set out in the hopes of having a commercial product each time, none of his projects made it that far.
"I've been in AAA long enough to ship a dozen games or something on a handful of platforms," Bloom said. "I know how to develop games and make games and ship games. But the hard part is having a 40-hour job--or more, because crunch in the industry is a thing--and then coming home, being a father and a husband trying to find time to spend with my family, and also somehow finish up this thing with the hours that are remaining. And then knowing that it's going to take forever. It's going to take so much longer because there are so few hours left after all that."
So about two years ago, Bloom decided he couldn't keep working like that.
"That was when I said I had to finish something," he said. "I've got too many projects here I haven't finished. I've got to actually finish this project, and the only way I'm going to do that is if I start to put more hours per week in."
That side project is a VR tower defense game called PlanTechtor, and it has commanded a significant chunk of Bloom's life away from the day job for most of the last two years. Bloom said he's been averaging about 26 hours a week on PlanTechtor, working full Saturdays and Sundays and stealing whatever extra hours he can during the weeknights. It's been the single biggest factor in helping PlanTechtor even approach completion (Bloom hopes to release it in the first quarter of 2019), but he admitted the grind is unsustainable.
"A regular day job making games takes up a lot of hours, and it's difficult to find a social life and be a game dev during certain portions of the year," Bloom said. "So then to throw in a whole other game project at the same time? It's a significant amount of energy and time... I don't think a person could do it forever."
Bloom certainly couldn't. He left ArenaNet in October, turning the side project into his day job. He said he was fortunate that he and his wife had bought a house in the Seattle market several years ago, as the housing market had skyrocketed in recent years. They decided to cash out, selling the house and moving across the state to Spokane, where the cost of living is considerably lower and they also have family to lend a hand when needed.
Bloom has also had the help of ArenaNet design director Isaiah Cartwright, who has provided design feedback and helped refine PlanTechtor's balance. Perhaps equally important, Bloom said it gave him a significant confidence boost knowing that someone with Cartwright's experience and expertise sees the same qualities in his game to make it worth working on as a side gig. Now PlanTechtor's shaping up for release, it ticks all the boxes Bloom says are important to him, and he still has fun every time he plays it.
"I can't walk away from this thing I want so much, that I put so much time and energy into, that my wife and kids have sacrificed so much for as well. I can't just walk away from it and not see if it's going to work."
"With this project, one thing's going to happen or another," Bloom said. "Maybe we'll be able to do full indie, maybe not. But my oldest kid's six now. At the time [I started on PlanTechtor], she was four or five and she'd come up to me and ask, 'Are you working at home work or away work?'
"A lot of times I would talk to my wife about it and say, 'Maybe I should just walk away from this, that it's insane and I've got the wrong priorities in life, or that I'm being too greedy in my career. Maybe I should just walk away from this.' And she would say, 'I'm not going to tell you what to do, but I think you know how you're going to feel five, six, or seven years down the road. You're going to always wonder what would happen if you finished that thing and released it, second-guessing and wondering what could have been.'
"And she was absolutely right. I have to take this shot. I have to try. I can't walk away from this thing I want so much, that I put so much time and energy into, that my wife and kids have sacrificed so much for as well. I can't just walk away from it and not see if it's going to work."
Bloom readily admits it's a scary proposition for a single provider for a family of four with a mortgage to put himself in this sort of position.
"It definitely changes when it's now my actual day job and will be what's providing my income," Bloom said. "Definitely, the stress is a little more real. When it comes down to it, I'll be shipping this early next year and it will be providing income for my family and I... We do have some runway. There's a certain amount of funds available to us to keep it going, but eventually that will dry out, and it will be the funds of this game that help fund the next project. And I want this to be a continued thing. I want to be able to keep working on my ideas and my games the rest of my career. I want FunnerSoft to be a thing that goes on for a really long time. But it does all start with the success of PlanTechtor."
But even if PlanTechtor doesn't pan out, even if this attempt at going indie goes about as well as his first one, Bloom's fallback plan is basically to return to AAA development, content that he gave his indie dream his best shot. And as a not insignificant silver lining to that scenario, selling his home is not just paying for him to pursue a career as an indie, it's also buying him more time to spend with his family.
"It sounds like I'm doing something wrong, but the reality is for about 18 months I was working about 70 hours a week," Bloom said. "Now I only work five to six days a week, for 10-ish hours a day. So I get a day and a half now with my family every week, which is a huge win."