The independent developer who left Australia to finish his game

Australia is a beautiful place, but it’s expensive to live in, and it’s not historically the most favorable country for video game development. But what if it was your home? What if you wanted to finish your game and just quit your job? Some developers can move in with their family, relatives or partner for a few years. Others would change careers completely. Ben Johnson, developer of Geneshift, did something else: he moved abroad.

This story originally appeared in May 2017. Geneshift has been significantly updated since that time, with a complete graphic overhaul, expansion of its map and sandbox mechanics, new single and multiplayer features, bots and more. A free demo for the game is available through Steam.

Discuss with Kotaku, the Sydney-born game developer explained that Geneshift Originally started out as a way to show off all the skills he had learned through his computer design degree. “I thought a game would be a fun thing to do that covers all the bases,” he explained.

Like many other newbie developers, he thought Geneshift would be done fairly quickly. But it took him a year before he could produce a demo, which was originally called sub-vein. “I have a few players from a Rock Paper Shotgun article and they just, well, some of them have stuck with the game ever since… they’d say ‘this thing here is broken, we need this feature’, so I could never really walk away from the game. “

It was 2009. Johnson kept cutting corners, fixing bugs, adding assets and tweaking features in his spare time. Five years later, Johnson decided he wanted to travel the world instead of working around the clock.

“I still saved some money to travel and wanted to finish the game,” he explained. “So I quit my job, I went on a trip, and then about a month after my trip, the game got the green light. [on Steam]. “

“I did the math with how long I thought it would take to complete the game, and how much money I had left, and if I went to a cheap place like Peru, where is it that I found myself. I had about $ 20,000 in savings at the time, which was enough to keep me in Peru for about a year, a little over a year. But of course it took a lot longer than I expected, so I turned to credit cards as well. But the decision was basically that if I get somewhere cheap I’ll be in an exotic location, I can learn Spanish – which I failed to do – and just try to finish the game properly once. for all.

So, after six years of part-time development, Johnson left Australia and started coding around the world. Traveling with friends for the first few months, he started out in cheap hostels. But spending his days coding in the common spaces quickly became demoralizing.

“I would kind of stay in a hostel – if it was a cheap country like Thailand I would try to code there a bit, but I found it really entertaining,” he recalls. “You don’t have your own room and I felt very antisocial. You sit on your laptop eight hours a day in the common area, and everyone around you is having fun.

So, after the first six months, Johnson moved to Peru. Sharpened by youth hostels, he found accommodation on Airbnb that would allow him to stay for a month. Rent: $ 9 per night. It’s a pittance compared to the rent all over in Sydney, where Johnson had lived, even compared to Australian hostels.

Image: Ben Johnson

And it turns out Peru is much more relaxed when it comes to long-term renters. “I just said to the guy, ‘I would like to stay a month and extend if I can,’ and he said, ‘Yeah sure sure, man. You know in Australia how you have to go through the retailer and commit to a six month contract and that sort of thing, but in Peru it was really very flexible. So I kind of stayed and kept extending it for a month at a time, I did it for 18 months.

A scribble of Geneshiftlevel design.

It sounds crazy until you do the numbers on the cost of daily living. Australian metropolitan cities are astronomically expensive relatively speaking, especially compared to less developed countries. For example, a meal in an inexpensive restaurant in Peru can go from $ 7 /. at 13 S /. (S /. Being sol, the currency of Peru), which comes to around A $ 5.34 at the top. Local beer can be bought for around 6 S /. ($ 2.46).

Numbeo has a practical table, and there is a comparison on Expatistan as well as.

Image: Expatistan

Neither site should be taken as a gospel when it comes to the exact cost to either city. And while those who work full time may not notice or be bothered by the expenses of day to day living, it makes a huge difference when you just quit your job to finish developing your game full time.

But as Johnson discovered, moving to another country has its own consequences. While he was able to immerse himself in development as much as he wanted – seven days a week, more or less – it also came with a sense of isolation. “I was traveling with my friends for the first few months and it was pretty fun and exciting. But once I moved to Peru I was really, you have no friends, no family… you really feel alone or isolated.

On top of that, he also made a mistake that virtually every studio in history has made at some point: he underestimated how long it would take to complete. Geneshift. Johnson saved about $ 20,000 before going overseas, which he said would be enough to support himself in Peru for just over a year. But the game took over a year, and he ended up staying there for almost two years, which saw him burn all his savings and rack up an additional $ 20,000 in credit card spending.

And that ignores some of the comforts you forget Australia has, like reliable electricity. “The electricity was cut once a week, so when those days sometimes came, everything was fine; if I was making music, I didn’t need the Internet, ”Johnson explained.

“But the other days… it was pretty stressful, not only because I was digging through the money on the credit card and couldn’t do anything, but I didn’t have anyone else to hang out with.” And also every time the internet shut down, I would panic a bit. By the time the plan was to launch [Geneshift] in Peru, and I was like, ‘If the internet goes down the same day I launched on Steam, I’m completely screwed.’ “

It helps when there is a dog nearby for company.
But not so much when the street starts to get flooded.

And for those who are planning to embark on a flash game development adventure, there is something else to consider: visas. Australians in Peru can stay six months the first time they enter the country, with visas for three months on each subsequent visit. For Johnson, that meant making border hops every three months – which meant every now and then he was faced with the prospect of not being allowed to re-enter the country.

“I had to constantly do border hops all the way to Chile every three months, and I was really scared of that because there was a chance I wasn’t let back. [into the country],” the Geneshift the developer said. “And I didn’t want to carry my stuff, so I kind of left all my clothes and things at my house in Peru, hopped on a bus, got off in Chile, crossed the border, I came back right away. I succeeded every time, but it was quite stressful, especially [not] speak spanish and all.

Fortunately, Johnson was not out of touch with everything. Although he hasn’t been in touch with other budding developers in Peru, he has received a lot of support from tutorials on YouTube and the game developer’s main subreddit, r / gamedev.

And you can’t really put a price on the overall experience, even though it comes with a lot of real costs. On the one hand, Johnson says he’s gained a much greater appreciation for his friends and family, which is understandable when you’ve been apart for so long. And he also acquired a greater love for Australia. “It’s good to be Australian: I saw people in Peru struggling all the time, and I had a little trouble with a credit card, but for the most part it was pretty good. And I knew that if I really needed it, I could get on a plane and have the safety of Australia, when a lot of [local] the guys got by on a day-to-day basis and they had nothing to fall back on.

genetic change
Image: Geneshift

It’s also a journey Johnson probably couldn’t have taken later in his life. He told me he had no mortgage, children or other responsibilities that would have tied him to Australia. Any of the aforementioned would have put a kibosh on the whole affair. And although Johnson had stayed in Australia and tried to continue working on Geneshift, the cost of living would have forced him to leave full-time development much earlier.

It’s been an incredibly long road for Geneshift, although Johnson doesn’t want to stop working on the game. How long that continues will depend on how the game is received, a gamble that every independent developer faces. Like Johnson told me, making indie games isn’t a great way to make money, but it’s a great way to get a new perspective on life.

Geneshift is available now on Steam for $ 21.50.

About Douglas Torres

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