Does the dream to be employed in games have to be absolute?

Working in the games industry can change the way you look at games...

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Does the dream to be employed in games have to be absolute?

In issue 247 pf PCPP, I wrote up twelve out of eighty-two independent games from PAX Australia, almost all of them being made locally. Having contributed to it, I had to skip over Mallow Drops, which won the Australian Game Developer Award for design at GCAP2015. In fact, when I heard it had been recognised thusly, my first thought was, “Oh no, which version of my music is John (Kane) using?” It wasn’t, “Congratulations, John,” which is totally what it should have been.

Amateur/indie game dev is weird for a bunch of reasons. Firstly, when I was working alongside Sunless Sea and testing my music in combat, I reckon I spent more hours killing one Auroral Megalops, over and over again, than I have in The Witcher 3 so far. (There’s less time for “playing” games.) It’s also something many people spend their entire lives doing, on and off, in one way or another, formally and informally, often for scant recognition.

As for me, I have fond memories of drawing my own Sierra style maps of imaginary worlds. And, I used to gift my dad little spy mysteries made with Adventure Construction Set. He actually played them, which was very patient of him, I’m sure. But, I was a time-rich gal who, like Christian Slater, found other 80s interests boring. Now, I’m an adult who loves Mr Robot, but with two kids who require constant food and gymnastics apparel. Go figure.

In recent years I’ve modded various games, indie and AAA, in a serious fashion and I even won Failbetter Games’ Worlds of the Season competition. In and of themselves, these things don’t pay well, if at all. Oddly, the more amateur success I’ve had, the more my confidence at being directly employed “in games” has been eroded. You meet modders/developers and realise that the people supporting themselves purely through game dev are rare.

At PAX, I was on a panel with the award winning John Kane titled, “Don’t Quit your Day Job: Making Games and Working Full Time”. The aim of the discussion was to highlight the creative freedom people can enjoy if they don’t rely on game development as income, as well as to discuss time management and some of the really difficult aspects of the process. My contribution centred on how to make game-related work mutually supportive.

Currently, I teach instrumental music in a primary school one day a week. This isn’t game related, but the hourly pay rate is good enough that I can drop off my kids, walk in with my saxophone, take home $350 and still get a coffee in before pick up. There’s no pressure at all. I’ve also started devising and teaching Sound in Interactive Media at the Australian Institute of Music to tertiary level composers, for two days a week this year.

Because I have a Bachelor of Music Education and experience teaching High School, I was qualified for this job, tangentially. My role with PC Powerplay means that I’m always playing games and reflecting on their music. I can easily integrate games into lesson planning, as well as interviews with developer friends and such. Games are a weird niche in a lot of educational institutions and people with knowledge/contacts are valuable.

As such, making games doesn’t have to be something you do all of the time, especially if your other work relies on engagement with games in other ways. There was one inevitable comment from an audience member at PAX which went “How do I reconcile the guilt of not seeing friends because I’m making games?” Well, I missed my eight year old son competing at the National Gymnastic Carnival interstate because I was starting at AIM. I get it.

Of course, for some people, working for a few years on a game could afford “proper success”, as a result of a combination of luck, good timing and the right idea. But, can you rely on this? How often does it happen? What are the costs of failure, in terms of mental health? Or, even success? But, these are questions for another article. (After The Witcher 3.) I’m usually a really optimistic person but sometimes reality needn’t be squashed. 

It’s school holidays as I write this. I don’t have to be, physically, at my school/uni jobs. My husband is a high school teacher. Presently, he’s at the beach swimming with our two kids and I’m writing this for you. Then, I’m going to polish snow music for Wildfire, by Dan Hindes. Where would I rather be? Nowhere. But, if you are working on your game projects, I hope you’ll consider ways to integrate and balance the many parts of your life. Take care. 

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