Saturday 2nd, August 2014
This is the story of my journey to becoming an Indie Game developer. It is also a story of addiction and recovery.
For those that don't know me, my name is Nicholas Bilyk, I go by Nick but enjoy being called Nicholas because it sounds fancier. I am a fancy pig, and this is my life story as a game developer, abridged.
I've been a developer for a long time. Professionally for twelve years, and as a hobbyist for longer. For better and worse, I've always been a gamer. Video games have always captivated me. My parents might blame my uncle for introducing me and my brothers to the Atari, but in truth it was their fault even before that. My father was a programmer before me, bringing home computers and other interesting gadgets to play with. I remember playing Funnels and Buckets (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mfnV47vLsmk) on the PC. Actually an earlier version than what's in the video, the one I played was just in green and white. Before I was ten, like so many other programmers, I learned how to program QBasic because of the games Nibbles and Gorilla.
I never was an achiever in school. In fact, I barely graduated High School with around a 1.0 GPA. There are many reasons for this, but I think the biggest reason comes down to being unwilling to grind on things that didn't interest me. My grades tended to either be As or Fs, depending on whether or not I was interested in the subject. Throughout my career, I've found that my story is not unique, and especially those that are riding the cutting edge of technology have had problems traveling the beaten path.
Hardcore gamers in particular often share a common trait that they are split between being unable to pay attention to things and having hyper focus. Spend some time online looking at some of the amazing things gamers have done inside virtual worlds to see what I mean. The same people that can recreate the Taj Mahal in Minecraft with perfect accuracy might be failing geography in school, and may be considered lazy and undisciplined. I think the mindset of “gamers” would be very interesting to understand.
I bring all this up, not because I'm trying to change school systems or anything like that, I just believe there are many kids out there that have a common story, and may be branded a failure over and over again for years, and I want them to know that life outside of academia is very different. Those that fail school may become very successful, and those with a perfect GPA may yet struggle. I'm not saying it's okay to coast in school and fail classes, I'm just saying that if you're smart and work hard, there are many ways to find your niche in life.
After High School, I had a very rough time taking flight. I fell into a gaming addiction, and more or less failed at everything I attempted. I was playing Warcraft 3 more than 70 hours a week, driven by the lure of the pro-gaming circuit. I felt like if I could be the best, I would be a somebody. I didn't work, I didn't go to school, I didn't socialize, I did nothing but game. I made it to the top 100 in the ladders, having played over 3000 games, at the height of my gaming 'career', I played for SK Gaming, a league in Germany, with a sponsorship to play in the world cyber games in Europe with the condition that I made it to the top 32 and had a 60% win ratio. At the time I was living off of unemployment, and did nothing but game. Then my internet went out and remained out for weeks. I lost my sponsorship and couldn't make it back up the ladder in time. It was the beginning of a chain of events that would get my life back on track. At the time it felt like a disaster. It was like everything I had been working towards was lost. In truth, I was never quite good enough to make it as a professional gamer, at the time even the best of the best had a hard time making a living, and their sacrifice to stay on top I now believe would not have been worth it. At the same time as my internet went out, I had also run out of unemployment, and my roommate moved out. I was broke, and had no option other than to move back home with my parents. I hated losing my independence. I felt ashamed of my failure. My parents allowed me to live with them on the condition that I no longer played Warcraft 3. I accepted their condition, but my addiction and depression soon led me to World of Warcraft. This was in a sense, hitting rock bottom for me. It was all the problems I had previously, but add in the loss of my independence and no hope of becoming a professional gamer. I have thankfully never done drugs in my life, but I can honestly say that games have been as damaging to me as if I were on heroin. On the verge of being kicked out and nowhere to go, I had no other choice but to go cold turkey and get a job. I found a job with the phone company as a customer service rep. I actually enjoyed the routine of it. Unlike school, when I came home from work I never had to think about work. I could disconnect and relax. The customer service job had a lengthy training course for several months, and then the job suddenly changed to sales, which had yet another lengthy training course. So it was about 7 months of this training before the actual job even began. When the training ended, there was a one week trial where you had to meet certain sales numbers, where if you made them, you got to keep your job, and if you didn't, you were sacked. I did not meet the numbers, and while I might have many disparaging things I could say about the phone company, they helped me get out of the hole I was in. Also, during this time, without gaming weighing me down, I rapidly developed my skills as a programmer.
My dad pulled some strings with his connections to get me a job as a contract developer for an e-learning company. This is the second time my father did this for me. The first opportunity he gave me I ruined on account of my addiction. For the first time in my life, I felt like I was starting to succeed. I had a social life, I started dating my wife-to-be, and I was making enough money that I could move out of my parents' house. I had my independence back.
My skills and reputation as a web developer grew, I was soon able to make my own way without my father's help. After a few years of working as an employee, I decided to switch to freelancing. The freelancer, the entrepreneur, and the independent game developer all share a common attitude, somebody who wants to make it on their own steam, and has either the arrogance or stupidity to believe that they can. For five years I worked as an independent freelancer. Several failures along the way, but for the most part it was a success, and I was happy.
Three years ago I took a job at Riot Games as a Sr. Software Engineer. As you can imagine from my relationship with Warcraft 3, I had always wanted to work for Blizzard Entertainment, and when Riot came along, it was like the hip new Blizzard. When I joined Riot, there were about 150 employees, now there are over ten times that. I am going to intentionally gloss over the three years I worked there, even though this may be one of the more interesting parts of my story. We'll just say that I enjoyed my time there, but I always have, and always will, beat to the sound of my own drum.
Early this year, at the end of January 2014, I was sacked from Riot. It was pretty devastating, but I was in good company, as I was let go with several very respected colleagues. I teamed up to make an Indie game with Nate Austin. We worked together for 3 months on a game of his designs, which at that time I decided I would rather make a game by my own imagination. That move may prove to be a mistake, as I am losing a talented co-worker and his amazing artist wife (the one who drew my piggies). However, I feel that over the last few months both of our games have been progressing very well, and I am feeling optimistic.
Taking on such a large project is in a sense a leap of faith. I currently have enough savings to financially last me another 15 months, but at my rate of development and learning, I expect this game to take closer to 24. My hope is to get far enough that my momentum will somehow take me the rest of the way.