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Can you travel the world while making video games?

Sarah Northway has found her passion for creating and programming video games, and has been able to turn that into a full-time income that allows her to travel the world! In this interview, we dive into how she has achieved this lifestyle, and one deviously simple productivity tip that allows her to finish her projects.

How did you start programming video games?
(was it just for fun in your spare time?)

I started making video games in high school, just for fun of course with no intent to ever publish (or even show ANYBODY) my games. I wrote short stories and painted in the same way, just for fun. It was fun getting better at programming, writing, and art, but I wasn’t thinking about a career.

In college, I finally took programming seriously and made games every chance I got both for school and for fun. I still didn’t think I’d ever sell one though! At the time (2000) indie games didn’t really exist, and the only games company in Canada that I thought might hire me was EA’s sports division (70 hour weeks working on FIFA games? yuck).

Were you already traveling when you made your first successful game?

My first successful indie game – actually the first game I ever released on my own – was Rebuild 1. I wrote it after my husband and I quit our jobs and took off traveling. It was a Flash game on portals like Kongregate and Armor Games, and I made money by selling sponsorship (an ad that shows when the game loads). At the time it seemed like I’d made a ton of money for about 3 months of work.

What steps did you take to make your game a success?

The important thing – the thing I’d never done before, was to actually finish, release and sell the game. All the games I’d made before were for fun, and the final polishing – writing the tutorial, fixing all the bugs, making buttons animate when you click them – is less fun than the early prototyping and development work. Also selling games is stressful and horrible: What if everyone hates it? What if they don’t want to pay for it? Well if I never release it I won’t have to find out, so that’s what happened with most of my hobby games before Rebuild 1.

Do you continuously make games to fund your travels?

Yes, my husband and I funded 5 years of continuous travel through sales of our indie games. Between us, I think we wrote 8 games during that time. But some games actually lost us money, which was an important lesson: not every game is a hit, so we need to make enough money off a hit game to cover those losses. Just breaking even isn’t enough.

How do you usually schedule your tasks between making games and traveling?

I’m terrible at schedules, which is one of the primary reasons I like being self-employed. No bosses, no deadlines, no commute. Especially while traveling, it’s great to be able to spontaneously take an entire week off to go sightseeing, or get into a groove and work from dawn to dusk day after day (it helps if you are somewhere remote and there is nothing better to do!).

I do have trouble with motivation sometimes near the end of a project when the work gets repetitive and dull. I’ve found it helps to save some fun work for those times – especially something totally different from art or writing instead of programming.

I also find it’s helpful to set long-term goals for myself, like 3 or 6-month milestones, and to continuously check and update a features list (I just use a plain text file) to see my progress. I order the features by how important they are to the game, with pie-in-the-sky stuff down at the bottom. As I get closer to those milestones and have a better idea of how long the remaining features will take, I cut the ones at the bottom.

Do you have any tips/advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?

Hmm, one productivity insight… well personally, I can get tired or frustrated of working on one thing for a long time. I’ll find myself browsing the web more and getting easily distracted.

What helps is to stop, put it aside, and work on something totally different for a few days. If it’s a physics bug I’ve been banging my head against, I’ll switch to server code, or brainstorm a new feature, or even work on art or writing if I can.

I don’t always have this luxury (sometimes a bug needs fixing asap), and it can be hard to put something aside when I desperately want it to be done, but I usually come back to it later with fresh eyes and more energy.

If you’d like to travel while self-employed, try to stay in each place for 2-3 months (often 3 months is the tourist visa limit). That way you get to know a place, and also get a little bored of it which will help motivate you to work. It also makes rent far cheaper than paying for hotels by the day or week.

 

You can check her out over at Northway Games

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