What an interesting year this has been… In November last year I left my full-time job because I wanted to take some time off from the exploitative environment of corporate-driven game development. My plan was simple -- spend a year working on a game, living off my savings, recovering my "mojo" in the process.FREEDOM
My first order of business was creating a simple UI system as I was not happy with the UI solutions present in the Unity engine at the time. After about 3 weeks of development, NGUI was born and released in early December.
It was very simple at first -- exactly what I was aiming to create. It was a tool I made for myself -- for what I needed and nothing more. Releasing it on the Asset Store was mostly an afterthought because I thought that if I find it useful, maybe a few others will as well. The initial reception was surprisingly positive, but everyone who tried NGUI inevitably wanted more: more widgets, more tools, more example videos, more tutorials… and so I, inspired as I was by the fact that people actually liked it, was happy to oblige.
Fast forward a month -- NGUI was now earning me more than my previous job. I was thrilled -- who wouldn't be -- and kept working on it. Sure, it delayed my original plan of working on a game with a friend, but it was fun and profitable, so I didn't mind. A month later NGUI reached the #1 spot on the Asset Store, and two days later it was finally pirated (I'm surprised it took this long!), resulting in the first day of the 4-figure daily income. Weird, huh? I soon learned of two different people who pirated NGUI, but liked it enough to actually go legit and pick up a paid copy. Now that… was awesome.
The whole "piracy is good for business" thing gave me an idea of releasing a free version of NGUI for people who just wanted to try it out without having to pay for it upfront. It was a risk, with a potential of blowing up in my face. After all, why would people pay for it if they can just get it for free? Surprisingly, the sales were not affected at all, and varied from the previous week by only about 0.5%. To make this even better for other developers I decided to also release a version of NGUI that can be included freely with other packages, opening up NGUI to be used in other people's Asset Store-bound work, free of charge. While there was no immediate effect on sales, I'm certain it proved to be a positive force in the long run.
Once NGUI was feature-complete, roughly 3-4 months after its release, I was finally able to go back to my original plan of working on a game. The idea of which game to make was changed though -- from an open-space based exploration game to a fast-paced naval combat game instead. This change was due to the naval game's smaller scope. In retrospect, I probably should have stuck to my original idea, as it has a broader appeal and a more welcoming target audience… but that's not how I saw it back then, and so Windward
Now, it's worth mentioning that by that time NGUI was earning me more than 3 times the amount I was getting paid at my full-time job, and all I had to do was keep an eye on the forums and answer questions -- something that was taking roughly 2-3 hours a day, giving me the rest of the time to work on Windward… and work I did -- 100 hours a week for 7 months straight.
Now, some of you may think -- "that's insane!" -- but it really wasn't. To me it certainly didn't feel like work -- it felt more like a hobby. I was doing what I wanted, working from home on a project I enjoyed, all the while earning a steady income from a side-project that I maintained alongside. Dream come true, right? Well, not exactly.
Unfortunately the more I focused on Windward, the more I started to resent having to support NGUI. After all, it was never supposed to eat up my time and attention, and some of the more frequent requests people wanted -- such as a built-in font solution and the depth / Z issue fix was out of my hands. The problem was in Unity, and I had no contacts within it that would help me fix the problems. Plus, I was keenly aware of the fact that Unity were working on a better UI system themselves, so NGUI always felt to me like a product that was destined to meet its end sooner or later -- the end that seemingly kept getting delayed, which frustrated me more.
I was also sincerely hoping that Windward would get a following of players, a community, and less importantly -- start paying the bills roughly 6 months into its development. Unfortunately, that never came to pass. In the first 7 months, Windward sold 68 copies of the game, even though it was featured on an assortment of game-related news sites. By that point I had hired two others to help me work on it, so it was costing me a good $2800 a week, not including my own time, which was obviously considerable.DISAPPOINTMENT
Understandably, I was growing increasingly concerned about its future. The game itself was pretty solid. It had multiplayer, a variety of ships and maps to play with, equipment, talent progression, a built-in IRC chat… it was even playable freely throughout its lifetime. And yet, it never succeeded in drawing people in or establishing a community of more than a pair of players at any given time. At the end of its 7th month of development I was tempted to call it: it simply didn't seem worth working on it anymore.
In the end, after 8 months of development and as of this writing, I have sunk about $71,000 into its development, not including my own time, and have sold around 100 copies at $7-$10 each, earning me roughly $800, with a final net loss of about $70,000.
Meanwhile, NGUI was still earning me 3 times of my previous job's pay… 11 months after its initial release.
Looking back at the stats (which I've tracked daily), even the simple Game Starter Kits that I've put up on the Asset Store over a year ago, and spent roughly 2 weeks of my time on, have been pulling in about $700 to $1500 a month. That's a gain of roughly $13,000 for something I created over a year ago and barely spent any time on… versus a loss of $70,000 for 7 months of my time working 100 hours a week.
Needless to say, after going over all the stats and seeing the quiet reception I got on Steam Greenlight and Desura, it was not that difficult of a choice for me to put it on hold and work on something else.CHANGE
Curiously enough, around the same time I was mulling over what to do with Windward last month I happened to get an email from Steffen over at Unity. He was curious what my plans are and if I'd be interested in making a change. At first I just chuckled at it -- after all, Unity can't possibly pay me what I already make just supporting NGUI, let alone what I can make if I was to focus on making more game kits and other useful packages. But… I figured, why not, let's meet and talk about it. So we did.
Originally my stance was neutral -- there was no reason to work for "the man" again. As I kept thinking about it more however, I realized that I simply wasn't happy with how things were -- both with NGUI, and with Windward. Windward obviously wasn't working out, and with NGUI I had to create a lot of "hacks" to work around Unity's limitations -- such as checking transform position / rotation / scale changes every update for every single widget. These kind of hacks negatively affected performance and resulted in a UI that was slower than it could have been. Then there were feature requests that I simply couldn't address, such as unification of Z and Depth properties that were causing frustration for users working with multiple atlases.
In the end, my decision came down to one simple question: was I happy with how I left NGUI, or can I do better? The answer was the latter. No, I was not happy, and I most certainly can do better, given the low-level access to the engine. Working for Unity I would have that access and more.
And so I've accepted their offer. I start on November 1st.
It certainly has been an interesting year…