An Indie CEO’s 2014: Fat, Broke and Victorious

Something happened this New Years’ Eve that hasn’t happened in an age here in Seattle. It was clear as a bell. You could see the fireworks, and not just a giant hazy balloon of smoke belching slowly out of the Space Needle. To truly view the spectacle – and not rely on a KING-5 TV diagram of How It’s Supposed To Work™ was a true gift, the very spirit of the holidays.

And, some other stuff happened this year, too.

On Eating, Keeping, and the Science Project in the Closet

I really have to hand it to mold. I’m talking the old bread-and-penicillin stuff, the fuzzy companion of modern storage and living, Seattle’s particular domestic nuisance right after those damn house spiders that show up every spring and scare the daylights out of me.

No, mold wasn’t making me sick – it just happened to infest and destroy the last third of my clothes that actually fit me, leaving me with one decent pair of slacks, a couple nice shirts and a selection of useless neckties, all reminding me that – in the space of two years since I went gluten-free upon learning I have Celiac Disease – I’ve gained fifty pounds. Fifty.

Seriously – look at this:

CharlesFat2014

Charles before, and after his Celiac Disease diagnosis. Some retouching used.

Am I really eating that much? Good lord, no. I’m actually just keeping it on. It’s trading one set of problems for another; ridding myself of twenty years of nausea and even less polite effects is worth that moment when I realize committing to fastening the waist button on my pants will slowly yet violently redistribute my organs, and resignedly chuck another perfectly good pair in the bin for Goodwill.

So thank you, mold, for wiping out the last reminders of who I was before I learned how digestion is supposed to work and started keeping on a few pounds. I feel better now than ever.

Prediction for 2015: Weight stabilizes, no shirts marked “model fit” or “trim” ever appear in Charles’s world again, a new apartment _not_ buried two feet into a swamp ensures mold doesn’t get the new wave of Al Swearengen-like fashion hitting the 2015 closet in the fall. Reminder to send thank-you to Ian McShane for “being there visually”, and a “being a prophet of the swayback style”.

On Security, It Being There, Then Not

It must be fascinating to watch company founders from behind glass. They do crazy things like spend all of their savings to launch companies, convince friends to work for them for little to no wages, use words like “disruptive” and “viral” without the slightest hint of irony, and do that thing where they groom themselves with their paws even though they don’t have any fingers. They’re like little humans!

If twelve years ago you would have told me I’d be bouncing around in this box of startup molecules I would have said you were crazy. “But there’s no stability in it!” I’d cry into my overlarge “Bluetooth” headset thingy that nobody dared wear for fear of looking like a complete ass.

Yep, I wore one of these things in 2000. It took two belt clips. Two.

Yep, I wore one of these things in 2000. It took two belt clips. Two.

Then I went to work for Sierra, and they folded. Microsoft Game Studios, and there were layoffs. Bought a house. It stagnated. Worked for XNA. Layoffs. Zipper Interactive; it folded. Back to Microsoft. XNA 5.0 canceled. Xbox One; layoffs. There’s no stability inherent in the system – I think I knew that instinctively but some part of me hoped it’d be different.

All along the way, I found a way to simultaneously stay useful and put myself out of a job. No anger, no resentment about it – partly because I’ve always been the one to walk away prior to stagnating. I realize now I was just in proto-founder mode. Everything was on shifting sand, products and teams and businesses never truly stable – some gambles worked, some didn’t. Might as well embrace the chaos.

I’m doing it again, with something I haven’t done in five years. Interviewing for a job.

(Thank God I’ve still got that one pair of slacks left.)

Wait! Doing that while shipping Habitat?

Yes. Because it’s the right thing to do: cutting costs, cutting the fat, finishing the game in true indie fashion. And, maybe because I’m crazy.

4gencyinsane

Habitat is coming at you like an orbital freight train in 2015, for PC, Mac, Linux, Xbox One and PS4 – and, it is going to be the wildest, most breakneck, most sleepless, most insane set of months I’ll ever have lived in order to get it done with my team.

And it’s going to make a hell of a story to tell at this year’s GDC. Feels like a fine thing to commit to for 2015, don’t you think?

Prediction for 2015: Habitat ships worldwide, rave reviews, money hits the coffers and promptly goes toward yachts and whiskey, anger at Charles’ GDC speech about running a game studio like – oh, I don’t know, a freakin’ *business*? – finally gets someone angry enough to yell “You’ll Never Work In This Business Again!” Charles makes checkmark on bucket list. Reminder to send flowers.

On Victory

With 2014 behind us now, I’m embracing the chaos – and indie life – again.

It’s been a hell of a year as full-time founder; it gave me the ability to build a company, travel thousands of miles, gain a following of tens of thousands of fans, and make Habitat, a game that turned from a crazy dream on paper into a thing that people want to buy (holy hell, who actually gets to do that?), and it’s just a few more Peter Jackson-esque trudges toward Mount Doom before we release our first big game on the world.

Brrraahhhhhggh!! You're Not a Real Indie Because Habitat Isn't 8-Bit BRAAAHHHHHGGH

Brrraahhhhhggh!! You’re Not a Real Indie Because Habitat Isn’t 8-Bit BRAAAHHHHHGGH

Almost there. I’m thinking about it and it’s blowing my mind. This past year I’ve:

  • Wrote the most and worst code I’ve ever written since Node.Hack and The Agency: Razor One
  • Read the first two chapters of as many schmaltzy business books as I could stand without explosively vomiting
  • Did enough QuickBooks accounting of my own business to feel good enough to turn the reins over to a real bookkeeper (who said “Nice job on these books!”, by the way)
  • Performed enough Pro Forma model magical realism rites in Excel every week that I’m pretty sure I can seance with the dead now as long as they’re also using Excel
  • Signed more paperwork than I ever have in my life (including when I bought that f#$!@$ing house)
  • Got mentioned in the New York Times (seriously, if this game doesn’t end up making some money I’ve got GDC’s 2015 talk in the bag: “We Made the New York Times and Still F$!@#ing Failed, a WTF Story“)
  • And at least for the time being, skated far, far too close to zeroing out the bank account. To all my friends and family who have sent financial artillery support, thank you, and I swear I’ll come rake leaves out of your yards in the fall.

I’ve made more left turns and called more audibles than I ever have in my life, and it feels natural, even when I’ve woken up in cold sweats, living the nightmare of not knowing tomorrow in a way I’d never be able to explain to my pre-founder self. But the hell with stability, screw a system, I started something. I’m a perfectionist and I won’t ever stop pushing myself to do better but in this time of reflection I ought to remind myself: I did a good job as a founder.

We’re kicking on the wartime emergency fuel pump to get this game done, and I also realize that the thing I’m proudest of is the thing I’ve always been proud of, everywhere I’ve worked. I’ve made a thing that lives on its own – as a founder, I’ve put myself out of a job.

I’m back to a designer, a writer, heck, maybe even a coder again (sorry Elbert, this is going to get ugly). When you’re in ship-it mode, you need those things more than you need a founder.

I’m proud to pick up a keyboard and serve.

Almost there. ALMOST THERE.

Prediction for 2015: Charles hangs up his founder guns for a few months, immerses in source code, string tables, stat tweaking. Gets another one of those 128-ounce “Exxon Valdez Collectible” Super Big Gulp mugs for cola caffeine fix, Habitat ships, Charles fails to notice, focused instead on conversation with invisible dwarf due to over 2,000 hours without sleep. Reminder in advance to thank Dr. Caspers for the replacement set of teeth due to “cola rot”, and whoever will administer the “Shipped It!” propofol shot. Good night.

Happy 2015, everyone. It’s going to be a hell of a year.

stayontarget

I Guarantee It.

 

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    The Indie CEO: On Ripped Jeans and Being Thankful

    As the chill winds tuck in to the coast and all of us here prepare for winter, I’m taking a second to reflect on the year’s work and the close of the conference season.

    Oddly, the most poignant thing I noticed about this last year would have been no more than a passing bother if it weren’t for the context.

    Ripped jeans.

    flateric

    “Wok – wok?”

    Ripped jeans. Exactly.

    It’s a weathered, separated, dime-sized patch just on the right kneecap; I noticed it while getting ready for the final day of Spacefest at the Museum of Flight, where I was scheduled to give a talk about finding and holding onto inspiration – even if, like me, you’re not a real astronaut.

    A patch like that doesn’t come from a sudden shock, a cut or puncture. It’s wear. And I figured out why.

    These jeans have been my constant companion through nine conferences, through 13,000 miles, showing our game Habitat to players of all ages, all over the United States. People sit down, keyboards and mice at the ready, and ask the same question: “So, what’s this game about?”

    And before I answer, I kneel down next to them.

    2014-08-29 15.18.10

    Even if they’re robots.

    So they can see me. Hear me. So my 6-foot-3 trunk isn’t looming over them, making them feel like I’m here to judge them.

    I did it without thinking about it. It was natural. Knelt down on that same knee, in the same jeans, and wore that patch down against the conference hall floors, in Redmond, in Boston, in San Francisco, in Los Angeles, in Austin, in Seattle. Everywhere I went. I must have personally shown Habitat close to fifteen hundred times in the past eight months.

    It’s been a life-affirming experience for me, personally. Talking directly to players – not lecturing them or just shuffling away to let them “figure it out”, has resulted in a lot of advantages. Candid feedback, useful suggestions, important questions, and – perhaps most importantly – a genuine connection. I get to see people figure out Habitat. They get it. Their eyes light up. They see the possibilities. And I know I’ve done something worthwhile with this crazy indie dream I’ve worked to make real.

    I have a lot to be thankful for this holiday season. We were a Kickstarter success, we have the support of indie publisher Versus Evil, we’re signed on with Microsoft and Sony for console releases; heck, we even got mentioned in the New York Times.

    But these torn jeans remind me that what kept me going – and what will help us cross the finish line – are the players. The believers, the supporters of Habitat. We’ve got our first set having launched in Early Access in July, and we’re working hard to attract more, building new features and reaching out every day. I’m encouraged by what I see in our discussion forums, and I won’t rest until we’ve delivered a game they love.

    The winter months are always hard for game development, but inasmuch as I can take a moment to reflect on where we’ve been, the sights we’ve seen – and delivered – I’m both humbled and energized all over again when I think about the players who have been our bedrock as we strive to make this game great, including those players still to come. Our Kickstarter backers, our early mailing list subscribers, our conferencegoers, skateboard winners, our forum denizens, our Early Access subscribers, our screenshot-takers, Twitch-streamers, YouTube video makers, Steam Workshop creators, our Facebook fans, Twitter followers, website visitors, YouTube channel visitors, Sony and Microsoft supporters, fellow Indie devs, 509th patchholders, Steam reviewers, press writers, reporters, bloggers, and podcasters of all stripes who have taken the time to play, believe, and be the spirit of Habitat.

    I’m thankful for you.

    2014-03-19 08.57.59

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      Habitat: Path to Success Keynote Talk at Indie Game Con

      It’s been a big year for Habitat, my company’s first major PC gaming title. Alas, for the readers of this blog, most of the discussion about the game’s development has been scattershot across various other sites including the game’s own Steam forums and several gaming blogs where we’ve done interviews – pretty much anywhere but here.

      However – I was able to bring my own personal take on the Habitat journey thus far to a gathering of indie game developers in Eugene, Oregon, just last week. The place was Indie Game Con, and my talk – the Keynote for the event and my first Keynote speech ever – was “Habitat: Path to Success“.

      Spoiler: The path isn’t a straight line. Hope you enjoy.

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        Letter to my Team About Kickstarter

        [The official Kickstarter for Habitat is starting in less than 48 hours. I wrote the following letter to my team about how we’ll go about connecting with our initial backers, and thought it summed up what I believe about Kickstarter, our community, and our journey so far.]

        Okay, fair warning: this is going to be weird. And I’m making my own shitty clipart with a webcam to break up this mail. But I want you to read this carefully. All of it. Please. This is our future here.

        Ready?

        Kickstarter projects share an important stat, as I learned from a post on LinkedIn:

        “Solo backers make up over 70% of the pledges. In a bit of a simplification, I take this to mean you can’t expect the Kickstarter community to provide more than about 30% of your pledges. The rest come from your own contacts and promotional efforts.”

        Our own contacts and promotional efforts, says the guy. And he’s right. And, this is good news for us. One of the largest benefits to being embedded in the industry as we have been is that network of contacts. We are not unknowns; we have the contacts.

        ks_post_1

        But those contacts will only support us if we ask them to. We need to ask, we need to rise to the top of the inbox because every one of our contacts is busy, overwhelmed, overloaded. They have a million jobs to do, people to satisfy, fires to fight and crises to manage because that’s life. In this crazy world, people are only going to respond if they feel an emotional connection to what you’re doing, what you’re building, and showing them that connection is your responsibility.

        So, as we prepare to launch the Kickstarter, I want you to get ready to mail the people you trust, who trust you, who want to see you succeed and love what you do.

        You all have these people – they’re your personal backers, your cheerleaders, your friend groups, gaming groups, your mentors and fellow dreamers and believers in who you are, what you’ve created in the past and what you’re doing right now.

        And understand: they want to hear from you, they want to know you’re doing well, they want to know that there’s momentum and excitement and energy and a future in what you’re building. Because we care for one another. With that in mind, I want you to begin crafting what you’re going to say to them.

        ks_post_2

        It doesn’t have to be long. It doesn’t have to be overly detailed. But it does have to come from you, and be true to who you are and what you’re doing.

        Another bit of wisdom in the numbers:

        “The current success rate for Kickstarter projects is 43.5. 81% of the failed projects ended at 20% of goal or less. Only 6.8% of projects that fail, do so with over 41% of goal.”

        What this means is we need to push like crazy to make that first 20%, then again to make that 40%. I think we stand a good chance of doing it, but only if we call in every favor, every helping hand, every person that believes in us.

        So when our Kickstarter launches at 10 AM PDT on April 2nd – and that’s less than 43 hours away at this point, I hope you’ve set your alarm – I need you to start mailing.

        ks_post_3

        Yes, it’s annoying to have to do. It can even feel embarrassing. But these numbers don’t lie. Kickstarter is about the people who believe, enough to open their wallets for the games – and more importantly, the people – that they love.

        It’s not begging. It’s not guilting. It’s inspiring these people to take action to help us realize what we’ve already worked so hard to attain. Ultimately you won’t be able to change people’s minds; what you will do is let them know you’re here, you’re making a stand, building something you love and inviting them to join us.

        Obviously you won’t be able to get to everybody all at once, but this 30-day marathon is made up of small sprints, and this first sprint – the first 72 hours – is critical to establishing a momentum and infectious energy that will help people we don’t know believe and trust that what we are doing is legitimate.

        That trust starts with people who trust us saying so, and backing that up with a pledge.

        ks_post_4

        (I had limited resources, this is a handshake with a backer alright? :))

        So get ready to reach out to them. Your personal backers – the people that believe in you – will not be upset to hear from you. I promise. They want you to succeed, and they’ll help however they can. If not in pledges, then in sharing your story with others who can pledge.

        We have an incredible story to tell. And after GDC and all the excitement our game generated I know it’s only going to get more amazing. The time has come to tell the story of us so far, and like my favorite Muppet CEO, get this first round of backers on our Electric Mayhem tour bus to Hollywood.

        Just like Kermit, we’re on a mission to make people happy. Let’s start with the ones closest to home, and they will help us reach the next step. Please get started on readying your mails and lists of contacts, and feel free to reach out to me with any questions you may have.

        I’m thrilled to be starting this journey with you. In less than 48 hours, we’re going to start building our family of people who want to take this amazing journey with us, starting with the lovers, the dreamers…

        And you.

        Get ready.

        -Charles

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          Indie CEO: Of Fear, Focus and Frogs

          On this Presidents’ Day, I’ve got one thought just endlessly pinging around in my neural jungle gym. It’s persistent, it’s insistent, it’s non-stop, and it’s this:

          Oh my God, it’s really happening.

          You see, we’re announcing our next game in just a few days.
          After that, we’re launching a Kickstarter campaign.
          And after that we’re going to San Francisco to show at Game Developers Conference.

          1

          The trailer might look a bit like this…

          And we’re going to live or die in public. In front of everyone.
          I’m excited and I’m terrified.
          And it got me thinking.

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