Freelance, burnout, and Double Turn: 4 Years of Inwave Labs
I discuss burnout, anxiety, and depression throughout parts of this post.
Today marks the 4 year anniversary of starting Inwave Labs, my indie game development studio. It's also just under 3 years since I launched my first game in early access and about a year since I picked up the broken pieces of it.
If you're stumbling on this and you don't know me: Inwave Labs is basically just myself, Kenny Goff, trying to make some cool and fun stuff part-time. I released my first commercial game, Double Turn, last year. I didn't do everything on Double Turn alone and I want to avoid portraying myself as a lone wolf solo developer persona — I worked with great contractors and collaborators — but Inwave Labs and the day-to-day of maintaining Double Turn is just me.
I wanted to take the time to reflect on these 4 years, in part because of the anniversary, but also because I'm starting to think about the next projects and I think this first phase of Inwave Labs really started with prototyping Double Turn and bookended by Double Turn's release in November.
This post will mostly be about running Inwave Labs but also a bit about Double Turn, since it's a major piece of what I had been doing all these years.
Year 1 - Bootstrapping
I started Inwave Labs shortly after leaving my first job doing web development in a tech startup. I left after months of being burnt out, and in my time figuring out what my next steps were, I picked up some freelancing jobs and was really liking that work. I also had a small game prototype I lovingly called "Punch! Kick! Fight!" that I was having a ton of fun working on. It was a fairly simple local multiplayer platform fighter game.
It was a perfect storm for me, I wanted to do game development since I started progamming in high school, but through college and beyond gravitated more towards web development. Not that I didn't like game development anymore, quiet the opposite. I just that I liked making my own stuff and having the freedom of "indie" development, even if that meant having a "day job". Another big reason was that didn't like the crunch culture that I heard so much about from horror stories at lots of studios that turned me off of wanting to start my career as a game developer — I ended up burning out anyway. So it goes. I used this time to try out my own thing: I took on freelance work to pay the bills, and on nights and weekends or in between clients I would build out my games. Inwave Labs was born.
Quick aside on my background for correct framing on my own status and privilege in being able to do this: I had built up savings while at my previous job so I could leave with months of runway. I also had loving parents who were ecstatic to have me move back home for the first time since I left for college 7 years prior. I opted to not renew my expensive lease a few months into freelancing and instead lived with my parents rent-free for 2 years. My burn rate during that time was essentially just my student-loan payments plus smaller bills like phone and software.
I also had some good word of mouth referrals from some college friends vouching for me who happened to know some people looking for contract programmers, so I lucked out on getting work right away. I took a small WordPress job fixing someone else's mess and then a larger web app project that would keep me going for months. That web dev client ended up having more work after that project so I ended up doing really well for a first time freelancer. I had steady project pay and didn't have to jump around to clients constantly. Most importantly, I felt good and work on my prototype game now called "Double Turn" was going super well and was now rocking a super fun pro-wrestling theme that helped drive a lot of the design direction.
For months this was cruising along, and then I finally hit a point in Double Turn where I felt really confident in the core game loops and had to make the call: do I release it as a small free or low price game with shitty programmer art and even worse programmer music, or do I really double down on my goal of making this a game I knew it could be? After some budgeting and chats with some great folks, I made the decision to really give Double Turn a full go and hired Phil Giarrusso as an artist and Orb Soundwerx for music and sound. It was a pretty small budget from my savings and we couldn't do something as large as say Rivals of Aether, a mainstay in the genre to this day, but I could make something good and really polished even if small.
At the time this to me was the big step that took me from aspiring indie or hobbiest to a professional developer. It seems silly in retrospect but finding great people to take my money and really fill in the parts of the game that I knew I couldn't do well enough myself was a major milestone. I had worked with friends to do music and bought some off-the-shelf tracks for some flash games in my college days, but this felt different. I was super proud of the work Phil and the team at Orb Soundwerx did, I remember being super hyped up after seeing some early character sketches from Phil on the verge of happy tears seeing this game become more and more "real". I think if there's any success Double Turn had it's in most part due to their great work in making the game more than just a janky prototype on my computer and being truly viable as a game people would pay for.
This was also when I learned about another important part of working with collaborators: paying them! I genuinely truly loved this. I only wish I had a larger budget to work with them more. As someone has been on the other side of contracting, it felt really wonderful to pay people for their great work and I tried really hard to be easy to work with and pay timely if not immediately when I saw an invoice. I highly recommend Square Payroll if you're able to use it (at the time it was only US and only some states), it was very easy to set up paying people and manage all the tax stuff.
Biting off more than I can chew
While that side of it was going really well, I started letting my hubris get the better of me. In late 2017 I was trying to work out the plan for Double Turn's launch. I was on a pretty tight budget and more content wasn't really possible. We were able to build just enough of the game that I would feel happy finishing it, but I still knew I wanted more and that players would want more. I had run a Kickstarter in the past and had a bit of a bad taste in my mouth from that still plus Kickstarters are really really stressful so doing another one wasn't my idea of a good time. I opted instead to do Steam Early Access, and set my sights to that new goal. I had a clear scope planned for the early access launch but I really wanted to do more: if we did well enough I could fund more content. Spoiler alert: don't run early access like this, even if you're happy with the current amount of content and not expanding the game, system updates and regular maintenance is not going to sustain an early access game. Later that year I also ended my client work to focus on Double Turn until the launch. I had about 5 months to work on it full time.
The first major mistake I made was I planned out the early access to launch with nearly all the budget dried up. In retrospect I should have launched the early access earlier with less of the game finished, but I was really worried about making sure the game was "good enough" for early access. I think I ended up making it harder for me to adjust to feedback in EA though, because so much of the game was going to be done.
Unfortunately, against my own better judgement, I took a hail mary that ended up being the thing that would eventually burn me out and kill a lot of the momentum of both the game and Inwave Labs: I decided to implement online multiplayer.
I felt like I needed to make up for the smaller content scope, probably due to my own self-doubt. I spent a week building online on top of what I had and it was not perfect but it was alright and almost playable. And all it took was a week. I figured if I worked out the last bit of polish over a few months, surely it would be production ready. (It never was.)
A terrible technical decision, far too late into development.
Year 2 - Burning out
Just as I had hit 1 year of Inwave Labs, I was about a month away from releasing in early access on Steam. The art was mostly done and the music was mostly done. No budget money was left unaccounted for, but I had some months runway to pay bills until I needed to find other work. It was basically down to the wire at this point.
I went to GDC for the first time ever in March 2018, 3 days after Inwave Labs turned 1 year old. It didn't go so well. I had multiple panic attacks in GDC. I didn't know anyone and I felt really self conscious about the game. The imposter syndrome was strong: I wasn't a game designer, I'm a web programmer, a fraud. My heightened anxiety prevented me from meeting anyone, talking to folks, or even showing the game, which I carried around in my backpack on a laptop and 4 USB controllers.
What hadn't really hit me until I was lying in an Airbnb bed in San Fransisco in the middle of the afternoon during GDC listening to S.O.S. meditations trying to calm down: I was already burnt out... again. This time it wasn't bad work life balance or unrealistic startup pressures or something else external. It was me doing it to myself.
I had let a lot of things really build up:
- Pressure of everything riding on one Early Access launch
- Lack of confidence in my system designs or my combat design
- Fear that I did too little too late in terms of hype building and community building up-front
- Feeling like I didn't playtest with enough people
- I was nearly out of money and if I got major feedback I couldn't do much about it unless it was purely technical
- Waffling on whether or not to do online
It all just came crashing down and I just tried to make it through the rest of GDC as best I could and take advantage of talks and walking around the showroom floor, hoping maybe I can kick myself out of the depressive spiral.
Early Access Launch
I got home from GDC and struggled through the last month of work before the April Early Access launch. It didn't do well at launch. A lot of my worries were coming true.
- I didn't have enough pre-launch buildup or community support
- Online bugs were so rampant that in launch week I had to move from Steam P2P online to old hosted servers, that was slower but more stable, but cost me $15 a month to host and had it's own issues
- Some of the feedback required core systems or combat changes I couldn't do in part because it would require too much art rework but also because I had a certain vision for the combat and was too stubborn to change that (I think differently about it now but thats a design rabbithole I won't go into here)
- I did early access "wrong": the general consensus is that you should do early access if you could release a steady stream of content updates, something I couldn't deliver on
I think the saving grace of the EA launch was the amazing few people who did stick around and ask questions and play builds and give feedback. I am forever grateful for those folks who took a chance on Double Turn. Because as much as I consider the Early Access a failure, it wasn't 0 people playing, I had some sort of player base, even if small.
After two months of bug fixing the burnout really caught up to me and I just went silent. I really didn't mean to it wasn't intentional. It just became too hard to work on (multiplied by online complexities) and too emotionally draining to think about. It was clear I wasn't making back my small budget anytime soon so I got back in touch with the an old client, who sure enough had more work.
Unfortunately fast forward a few months into that project and I was also feeling the dread of working with that client. It was staff-augmentation work and blurred the lines of contractor/employee and I just overall felt really stagnant. The positives I saw early on in the steady pay and seemingly unlimited project scopes became red flags and negatives and decided to close up work on that client. I was pretty much burnt out on everything at this point.
Year 3 - Dead silence
In March 2019, after 2 years of Inwave Labs, it was basically inactive. I was too burnt out to work on Double Turn and the last of my client work had just wrapped up. I was still in the mindset that I would be looking for more client work so I spent some time refreshing my project contract templates and website. Busy work, really. I had an important realization: Juggling the contract work and game dev wasn't sustainable alone.
I didn't really like the contract work available for web devs, I wanted to work on greenfield projects but I didn't have a design partner or creative partner to really successfully bid on those types of projects. Most of the work I was seeing was essentially more "we need a programmer right now because we can't hire full time or refuse to". But really, without the game dev to come back to, the web dev client work felt empty and aimless. I decided I'd rather find a full-time job on a project I can really dig my teeth into, rather than just piecemeal client projects. Losing the will to work on Double Turn sort of killed the thing that made freelancing so appealing to me.
So I folded up shop and got a full time job. I joined Dashlane in July 2019 and Inwave Labs sat in the sidelines quietly in my heart and in the abandoned Steam page of Double Turn. I also silently dropped the price of the game from $9.99 to $4.99. This was the first attempt to force myself to scope smaller and rethink what I wanted to make. Nothing about the game changed but I think the lower price helped me re-frame in my head what I wanted the game to be to be closer to what it really was.
I tried to return back to doing patches or bug fixes for Double Turn but the ghost of online and the sting of reading "is this game dead now?" comments just really kept me away. In truth I didn't have much to say. No it wasn't dead, but also no I've got no update. To the Steam forums thats as good as dead so I just let it be. I wasn't ready to go back yet.
Year 4 - Revival in time of quarantine
A few months being back into the world of full-time employment and after a work trip to our Paris office and a much needed vacation in London — the first real vacation i'd had in years — I came home refreshed and in January 2020 decided to put some work in on Double Turn. For the first time in a long time, I felt enjoyment working on it.
Right as I started getting back into the swing of things, I saw the dreadful state of it. From the abandoned store page to the sad state of the codebase and tacked on online that still haunts me to this day. This time though I started tackling all the problems that plagued my mind for years and came at the project with a fresh mindset.
I was at the point where I could do one of two things with the project: kill it for real and painfully move on knowing my first commercial project failed without every seeing the light of day... or I could finish it at least to what I really wanted for a finished release. I decided to give it a go but with a rule: Refocus and cut everything that wasn't necessary, especially what made the project harder to work on. Steam Remote Play Together launched a few months prior so I decided to cut online completely and officially turn off the unused online servers and really honed in on a final list of features and updates for the game.
Unfortunately the COVID-19 pandemic started really showing itself in the US and recommended quarantine in my city quickly got me into work-from-home mode. I was extremely fortunate to be able to transition to WFH and keep my job during this time and the pandemic really forced me to rethink what I cared about and what to put my energy into. Luckily this aligned with exactly what I wanted for Inwave and Double Turn, I was already in hardcore focus and cutting mode, and all about narrowing focus.
I spent the rest of 2020 putting out regular updates again. Tried to salvage what I could of the Steam forums and respond to whatever criticism I got from abandoning the game, even if I knew those players were long gone. Hell I even whipped up a new logo for Inwave Labs and refreshed the website!
In November 2020 after a few EA updates that were 2 years never too late, I launched the fated 1.0 update and... it did ok, I did about as well as the original EA launch, just at a lower price. Sold some more copies, still nowhere near paying back the original budget. But hey, I'm happy where the game is.
And as year 4 closes, I've finally settled into a place I'm happy with. I'm enjoying running Inwave Labs part-time. I'm still putting out Double Turn updates, although the cadence is a bit slower and my focus is mostly on just quality of life and accessibility updates for the time being. With the occasional bigger update when I'm feeling inspired. I even started working on other game prototypes, something that my anxiety and guilt prevented me from really pursuing before.
- Don't go it alone: I really feel that having a partner to complement my skills, whether it be a designer for web work or an artist for games, would make what I tried from the outset more sustainable and allow me to bounce ideas of them and relieve some of the pressure and weight of it all
- Scope smaller when taking risks: I think there's a version of Double Turn that's actually simpler and cheaper to make without losing too much quality, and I think that is what I should have made and launched in Early Access sooner
- Embrace community: I was really hesitant to show off builds of the game too early too publicly, or to do small betas. I was worried that I only had one shot to launch and that I was simply too new too unknown or too small to build a community. I think embracing community building earlier would help, especially for a game that needs people to play with friends. I also would have gotten good feedback a bit earlier.
- Don't be afraid to ask for help: Help comes in a lot of ways and I never really asked anyone for help during this time. Funding or a publisher could have helped bridge gap between my vision and what I could afford on savings; a community manager could have helped foster the community before and during EA; excited players could have helped playtesting earlier; mentors could have helped me connect with people at GDC
Inwave Labs is still kicking and I'm still supporting Double Turn as much as I can. I've got some prototypes cooking right now and even a hobby project that is keeping me fresh and having fun. I'm making sure I explore a few prototypes before diving into another commercial project and whatever I do next will be smaller in scope. And for the first time ever I have something really really cool that I can't talk about publicly just yet! Ooooh so secretive! How fun!
Most importantly I feel like the space I've carved for myself is much more sustainable and I'm happy with the full-time web dev, part-time game dev split I have. I even take part-time "vacations" regularly, I haven't coded on nights/weekends for 2 weeks!