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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2 Comments

  1. Kudos for the courage to follow your dream, You are the backbone of innovation, of invention. It’s a tough road, one that’s full of disappointments, of highs and lows, but if you really believe in yourself, your intelligence, and your drive, you will succeed. Remember that Rome wasn’t built in a day, but it survived a heck of a long time (roads built by the Romans still exist today in Great Britain),and propelled the world ahead with its ideas and energies. Remember Bill Gates and Paul Allen who introduced the “Internet Generation.” They believed, and they accomplished. They didn’t give up. Grandma D

  2. Hooray! I gained a lot of weight once I discovered my lactose intolerance, too. And starting a company… scary! You’ve come a long way and done amazing things. Good job!

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