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A Dark Room: From Sabbatical Year to $800k (failory.com)
399 points by nicoserdeir on Dec 26, 2017 | hide | past | web | favorite | 250 comments

This is incredibly depressing. It hits home for me because I'm in a very similar situation. I and one other guy almost went broke making Clicker Heroes, but it turned out to be a great success.

But so far since then every project has not been worth doing.

> I didn't do ads, I didn't do micro-transactions, scummy energy bars, and all those other bullshit monetization tactics.

We did this in Clicker Heroes, and I don't like that we did. But I'm learning more and more that it's hard to compete against scummy tactics.

I hope Clicker Heroes 2 does OK. We might have to find corporate jobs too if it doesn't.

> We did this in Clicker Heroes, and I don't like that we did. But I'm learning more and more that it's hard to compete against scummy tactics.

Props to for going against the HN hive mind. F2P is successful because most people choose it and will not pay for software. There are real issues with it but it not pure evil like HN thinks.

I think you misunderstood what he wrote... He was saying that it's hard to compete in F2P unless you use the same scummy tactics that everyone else does. That's why he made Clicker Heroes 2 as a non-F2P game.

> We did this in Clicker Heroes, and I don't like that we did. But I'm learning more and more that it's hard to compete against scummy tactics.

Same with ads.

Even if nobody was using scummy tactics, it'd be hard to compete. There are so many people who want to make video games. Hell, I wanted to, before I got my "boring" BigCo job. Personally, I'm really glad I decided not to make games. I like the safety a regular income brings. Maybe once I hit my number I'll make some games, and we'll see if I'm any good at it.

In the meantime, I have nothing but admiration for those of you who actually do it before having independent financial security. I can't say I think it's wise, but I am a beneficiary of the massive numbers of talented people working in your field.

Unfortunately, that 'safety' of a 'regular' income is almost entirely illusory as well. Employers stopped providing insulation from market fluctuations in the 1980s. If your market dips, your company will hemorrhage workers without a second thought. Your desire for a place you can 'settle down' will also be ruthlessly exploited, and if you don't jump to a different company every 4 or 5 years, you will rapidly end up making radically less than you could elsewhere due to your experience level. This is unfortunately the scenario companies have built. It can be dealt with so long as you understand the game as well as they do, though.

'Make game of that which makes as much of thee.'

I provide my own insulation by spending much less than I make, and saving the rest. I have decades of savings at my current rate of spending. I'm about as safe as a person can be in this world.

My company has been paying me very competitively for more than a decade. I'm not worried about settling down here, but nobody else will make me a higher offer, at least not without requiring much more of my time than where I am at.

  that 'safety' of a 'regular'
  income is almost entirely
  illusory as well
Sure, to an extent, but there are differences of degree here.

If I work for Google and they go bankrupt, worst case I lose a month's salary and I'm unemployed. And the chance of that is probably below 5% per year (obviously depends on the company)

If I take a year off to develop my indie game, the odds are much worse, I gamble a year's salary not a month's, and if I end up unemployed I've already burned through a lot of my savings.

"If I work for Google and they go bankrupt,"

Google may be a bad example. Google actually filing for bankruptcy would probably have a pretty big ripple effect on tech and financial sectors, and your skills may be in less demand than you think.

You are absolutely correct about differences in degree, but I think you chose a pretty misleading example. It's not a matter of whether your employer goes bankrupt or not. Even if your employer continues to grow, if they don't grow as fast as they were predicted to grow, then they will throw employees out the front door without a second thought. If the market dips by 1%, then in order to still meet their goal of growing by 4% that quarter, they will 'cut the fat' and get rid of their employees (while holding on to their executives). Getting a job used to mean protection from fluctuations in the marketplace, so if the product the company makes suffers a bit in popularity, it just meant a reduced profit margin for the business that year. Now, a reduced profit margin is not an option. It's not even thinkable. Obviously the livelihoods of employees are dispensible in the face of that.

Salary, healthcare, bonuses, and investment contributions and their performance over the next 30 years

Mad props to you. Email me and we’ll exchange war stories.

Thanks for writing this. I got out of the game industry myself after working as a developer on 8 games in a row that failed to make hardly any money at all, for three different companies (two startups, one small business).

I've been working on corporate software for 3 years now, and while my finances are back on track, it's gotten harder and harder to stay motivated and I've been really tempted to take another stab at it, despite not really having enough saved up to do so (especially if my girlfriend and I are going to buy a house this year).

Anyway, it's tough to just sit and stare at the die and not roll it. I have done some board game design as a hobby, since that doesn't totally drain me like extra programming does, and I've even gotten my first publishing offer recently, but I know firsthand from other designers of successful titles that the money you can expect from it is minuscule compared to making a successful video game (one person told me he made $10k in royalties off a game that you can buy at Barnes and Noble. I've made more than that off a video game that was only somewhat successful).

Anyway, I've played and enjoyed A Dark Room. I should probably check out your other games. Thanks for taking the time to share your story, it's given me something to think about.

With board games a lot of the margin goes to the publisher. It's hard to be independent as just a designer. Massively successful games companies like Cards Against Humanity vertically integrate and are even handling their shipping logistics at this point: https://www.blackbox.cool/

FWIW, I don't feel like Clicker Heroes handles micro-transactions in a scummy way. It's not pay to win/play because it's literally impossible to win and you offer an alternate way to obtain the in-game currency (rubies, I think?).

I appreciate your making that game, it and Adventure Capitalist have been my mainstays :) I'd love to know your thoughts on monetizing with reward videos. It's how I am thinking of monetizing my own idle game.

I hope CH2 does okay too. I liked Clicker Heroes. Good luck!

The math on this makes no sense at all.


- Live off of $15k a year. Don't buy a house. Don't buy a fancy car. Just save.

- Do this for a year.

- Land a job that makes you $100k a year. Save the rest. Max out your 401k contribution.

- Celebrate by living off of $30k a year.

- Do this for three years.

- Land a job that makes you $140k a year. Save the rest. Max out your 401k contribution. Get a Roth, put $5k a year into that.

- Celebrate by living off of $60k a year.

- Do this for three years. >

He is talking about SAVING, $500,000. Then needing to liquidate your 401k, just to take off a year?

If he is capable of living on 60k before this, he should be able to live almost 10 years just on his savings without liquidating the 401k.

Yeah it doesn't make any sense at all.

He grossed over 800k on a video game, loves programming, but after another three years he has to go back to his day job? It sounds like he's burning over 100k/year and lying about his expenses in this report. In any case, there's a lot of information left out.

He has a revenue sharing agreement with the original creator of A Dark Room, which I think is 50%. Self-employment taxes plus regular taxes will be somewhere around 35%. Apple takes 30%. So, ($800k * (100 - 30)%) * 50% * (100 - 35)% is $182k. So not bad, but it's only $60k/yr for three years.

I really feel like Apple's 30% tax is not optimal and a lower % would actually stimulate more development for them

I'm sure Apple made a complex assessment to determine 30% as 'optimal'. The problem here is the oversupply of apps and the undersupply of paying customers - Apple has a duty to it's shareholders to skim that market as much as possible.

While it might appear unfair for Apple to take such a large cut of 'your' money, Apple looks at this the other way around: you cost them quite a lot of the money their customers are willing to spend on apps.

"I'm sure Apple made a complex assessment to determine 30% as 'optimal'."

Given that they've never actually run any large scale tests of the effect of different rates, it's probably safer to say this is a number that just 'feels right' - it doesn't look 'too greedy' up front, but isn't too low that shareholders might think they're leaving money on the table.

Dropping it to 22 or 25% for a couple of years would give some real numbers as to what the true impact would be. Even if the numbers were studied years ago, the current behaviour and ecosystem would be different.

As an apple shareholder, I would prefer that they explore other rates and then demonstrate that this is the best one.

The game theoretic problem is that they cannot explore other rates without giving away the fact. The 30% suddenly looks a lot less set in stone (and less initially justified), and cue incessant deluge of pushback.

> "and cue incessant deluge of pushback."

But really, where else are people going to go?

I don't think quantity, or rather the lack thereof, is the problem with any app store.

I give you my Armchair Expert of the Year Award. Congrats :-)

Must be nice to live in a world without having to give Apple 30%, insurance premiums, taxes, and royalties/partnership splits.

Take this comment in good spirit. We all make mistakes. Nothing but love for you. Go build awesome things. Hire a CPA for all the math related stuff.

I see this every day, people take the gross income number to the bank. In software world, the operational costs are less compared to other domains, but there are still costs and taxes.

Apple taking 30% cut is insane.

YESSS.. By itself it's just business right? The price of doing business. Don't like it? Go somewhere else. But that somewhere else is Android and Google ALSO charges 30%? Hmmm..

This duopoly situation isn't really good developers. Apple taking 30% cut and tossing it on their pile of 250b in cash; that's a depressing image.

It's interesting because Android is decidedly not locked in to Google's Play Store, yet it's entirely dominant in the Android app market regardless. Amazon's App Store is still kicking and side-loading is easy enough, but seems like very few users take advantage.

So don’t sell in the App Store. Set up all that distribution, collect correct sales taxes for every country in the world, accept payment from anywhere — deal with a potentially high rate of chargebacks and the fees associated with that, also create a search and discover platform so that people can find your game nobody ever heard of until they visited the App Store. Also, do it in nearly every language on the planet, accepting almost every currency. Also handle actually hosting your content and securing downloads to boot authorized devices.

I’m not sure 30% is expensive enough compared to doing all of that yourself.

Dark Room would not have sold $800,000 anywhere else. The author even said Google Play was an order of magnitude less than Apple.. so is an order of magnitude worth 30%? It seems like a lot of people would trip over a dollar to save a nickel.

You're right; my post was a mistake. I regret that I didn't read the article too carefully before posting. Alarmingly, instead of getting ignored or downvoted, I got a bunch of upvotes. What gives?

He also said he has 10 years of emergency funds saved. IOW, he's saving and not touching the retirement. Good for him!

He says he has a decade worth of emergency funds saved up.

4% withdrawal rate is a conservative figure often used to live “forever” from a portfolio (use 3% if you want to be more conservative, 5-6% for more risk friendly).

To get $30k a year, that’s a starting portfolio of $750k. [0]

If you’re making $140k a year and living frugally, you can amass $750k in less than 10 years, perhaps even 5-7 if you are really frugal + lucky with the market.

It’s within reach of most software engineers, to be honest - but of course many people prefer the regular ski trips, new Tesla every few years, and so on. But if your dream is to work on your own stuff free of bosses/corporate politics/etc, it might be worth doing.

$30k a year won’t be much of a living in the Bay Area or New York, but for a single dependent person it’s quite alright; and in many mid sized European cities with socialized healthcare/university/etc, it’ll even let you raise a kid or two without having to sacrifice much.

[0]: http://www.firecalc.com/ gives us an 80% chance of success for a $750k portfolio on $30k withdrawal a year over 50 years.

If you’re new to this and want to delve further, check out https://www.reddit.com/r/financialindependence/

The problem with your assumption is you're "living frugally" not for the ten years to make your portfolio withdrawal rate, you're doing it _for the rest of your life_.

You live on $30K / year (in the Bay Area/NY, where you're most likely to find a starting / junior / midrange position that offers $140K - remembering that needs to be liquid)...

and after your ten years of "living frugally" (and let's be clear, it's gonna be frugal with $2500/month rent for a 1br 600 sqft apartment eating up well, 100% of your after-savings income, so you're going to be rooming with someone)...

That's what you've got for the rest of your life. Your $750K nest egg will give you an 80% chance of being able to supply $30K/year. Sure, now you can use it to work on your own stuff, but until (and unless) that catches on...

You can always still work (job, contract, consulting, etc) even if you're "soft retired." It's just that you have a lot more freedom in the selection, and you can pursue things that carry more personal fulfillment than MegaCorp job with lots of responsibilities.

As for living frugally: Don't live _in_ SF. For a short BART or Caltrain ride, you can live in a $1500/mo. apartment that is beautiful.

Where? Apartment in Oakland or Berkeley aren't that cheap. You'll have to spend at least $2500 for a decent studio/1BR.

Fremont. $3k for 2bdrm split 2-ways

>[0]: http://www.firecalc.com/ gives us an 80% chance of success for a $750k portfolio on $30k withdrawal a year over 50 years.

Which will be good 4 out of 5 times.

This is using all available 50 years "stretches" since 1871.

If you try limiting the "since" to 1960 the success rate goes to 25%.

Still since 1960, 40 years are 44%, 30 years are roughly on par at 79%.

And while sticking at the shorter 30 years, if you start from 1970 the percentage of success increases at 94.4%, if you start from 1980 you finally get 100%.

If you start from 1970 with 40 years period, you are at 75%, more or less the same.

Now what happens if - still starting from 1970 - you increase the period?

41 - 71.4%

42 - 66.7%

43 - 40.0%

44 - 25.0%

45 - 33.3%

46 - 50.0%

47 - 0.00%

And the troubling issue with the last one is that in the two cycles available you hit 0 US$ respectively after 25 and 40 years.

Not to put anyone down, but even the 3% is not that much safe when you go over such lengthy stretches, still as an example drawing 22,500 US$ out of the 750,000 portfolio, which gives a 100% rate of success limiting since 1960 gives 8 cycles, of which one is not a problem as it ends ove 20 millons, but the other 7 (or 87.50%) are IMHO too close to 0 to be reassuring.

To be fair, I think the parent poster is not suggesting that you retire outright with $750k in the bank, but work independently "free of bosses". Hopefully in several decades of self-employment, you would be able to generate some meaningful supplemental income during that time.

>To be fair, I think the parent poster is not suggesting that you retire outright with $750k in the bank, but work independently "free of bosses".

Honestly I don't know what he is suggesting or not suggesting, but the reference to the Reddit group makes me think that he actually suggests about becoming "financially independent".

My note was however only about not taking the 4% and firecalc calculator (BTW very good) as an oracle.

More a reference to:


than anything else.

Much harder to make $140k in Europe, but I perfectly agree with the rest of your points. The opportunities you have for financial freedom as a software engineer in the US are absolutely amazing.

In the US your health insurance and rent alone will likely be over $30K. I have no idea how one can live on $15K, unless it's some really unpleasant place or an RV. And if you have any health issues, you're done.

The unspoken secret is own your home. Life is a lot easier when there is no rent.

True, but then you need more than the $750k to buy a house outright AND retire. And you certainly can't buy in the areas where you were earning that $140k. Owning outright makes things easier but there's always property taxes to pay, along with maintenance and upkeep.

With $500k, you could put 25% down on a 50 unit apartment complex, clear $12500 per month profit — tax free due to building depreciation — and that’s after the rest of the collected rent pays for property management, property taxes, a repair budget and the debt service — all while building equity in the building that you can then leverage to buy another property. With $500k cash you can turn that into real wealth rather than hoping for S&P rates of return. Cash on cash return for multifamily buildings puts the stocks and bonds investments to shame and other than finding the deals, it is pretty hands-off in terms of day to day work.

Where do you find a 50 unit complex that only costs $2 million?

He mentions in the course of the article putting a big down payment on a house after his big hit because his girlfriend/wife got tired of living in a small apartment, so he still has mortgage payments to make, plus his family didn't want to live frugally forever.

He did apparently have a girlfriend during his sabbatical, whom he supported.

I suspect most of those budgets were aspirational as well, and he ended up spending 10k more for each of them.

Those numbers are ridiculous. I saved up about $100k in 3 years at a tech job and I haven't worked in the last two years on that, no problem (living in a not-inexpensive US city with a car, also).

It isn't that you cannot live for 10 years off a large chunk of change... it is that you don't know what will happen during those 10 years. If you are fully stocked up on health, disability, life, and home insurance, you are probably OK. But most people I know who are taking time off are not fully insured for all possible scenarios, with backup plans in place. So instead, they hoard their savings.

His actual income (after Apple and paying the original game creator) was $276k - which replenished the savings he had cashed-out for development time and then gave him several more years of development on sequels/prequels.

Apple only report to you the remaining 70%, so the 800k is after the 30% is deducted.

Edit: It seems the $800k includes Apple's cut. As an app developer myself, even considering that amount is torturing yourself. Apple _only_ report the remaining 70%, especially when you consider promo codes, refunds, etc... - doing a crude sales*price is somewhat inaccurate.

(Fun fact: I'm an Australian developer. Of the amount I get paid, I also need to deduct sales tax for any sales I make to Australian consumers. For a 99c app, I would make 63c for Australian sales and 70c for other countries).

What do you do with 100k of savings? What's next?

Spend it on rent. Work again when it's dwindling.

Keep saving. You probably plan on living to an old age?

The other thing is it doesn’t seem like he’s generated that much wealth. If you’re taking half a million out of savings, working for a year to maybe double it (at long odds, 10-1 or 1000-1 as the article suggests), isn’t a trip to Vegas a viable alternative?

Could be that the $100k is pretax and the $30k spending is post-tax.

That'd roughly halve the amount going into savings, if tax is a third, he's spending a third, and he's saving a third.

Of course, he'd still have savings of $220k+

lol, I did a year off with 10k.

Nice! Where did you go/what was your living style like?

I've done something similar, though still working full time: went to rural Japan to teach English for about $30k per year (and subsidised housing -- it ended up costing me about $150 per month). I had lots of free time after work to write software and since teaching and programming are completely different things to do, I had a fair amount of energy left over. My work day officially ended at 4:30 and usually I stayed until 7-7:30 at my desk programming.

I was quite happy living in rural Japan doing my own thing and spent less than $10K per year, which meant that after taxes, health insurance, pension, etc I saved more than $10K per year.

I did that for 5 years, then I got married and I'm back in the programming business ;-). But anyway, the point really is that you don't actually have to take time off from "work". Find a cheap and wonderful place to live in the country side and a 9-5 job that will pay the bills, but leave your mind free. Then replace TV, video games, socialising, etc with programming in your free time. Even with limited time, because of the complete lack of politics, it's amazing how much you can actually do.

How old were you when you made that jump? How much dev experience did you have? Which countries are best for that these days?

I was very nearly 40 (40 is the age limit for the JET Programme, in which I participated, and I just barely squeaked through). I actually had to apply for the position a full year before selection, so it was something I thought about pretty thoroughly. (What follows is a bit of an autobiography -- sorry if it is boring, but I wonder if it might be helpful if you are going through some of the same things I did).

Dev experience is hard for me to measure :-) I worked at the university where I went to school. I also love to work and hate to study (err... "study" meaning attending classes or doing assigned homework -- for some reason I hate that and love independent study). So basically, I worked full time through school and squeaked through academically with a so-so mark ;-) Somewhat related, I even started a company at school with a few friends to write a game, but that got canned when the "business guy" embezzled all the money (great lesson, BTW).

Also, "sabbaticals" are not a stranger to me. In the late 90's I quit my job and spent 8 months writing free software. At that time I guess I had around 10 years of experience, depending on how you count. I had just suffered from working in a really messed up group and was questioning if I really wanted to be a programmer. Because I'm naturally frugal, I had saved up a fair amount of money by that point. My actual thought was, "I know I will need this money when I retire, but I think it will be better spent now." (In retrospect -- best thing I could have done).

To be honest, it was a crazy time. I would wake up at 6:00 am, go have a shower, have an idea while I was showering and literally run to my computer. Then I would program until it got dark. This is when I realised that I loved being a programmer and that I would do it as long as my body/brain could handle it. (Funny, but true story -- when I moved out of my apartment an older woman said, "Oh, are you the nice young gentleman who used to program in his front window all day? It's a pity you are leaving." Only then did I truly reflect that half the time I was programming, I was naked, having neglected to get dressed in my excitement to get back to the computer!)

At the same time I was doing this, I read a lot of daoist philosophy... Well... that's not really true. I spent a lot of time reading a little bit of daoist philosophy -- because it's incredibly dense (if you are interested, save time and just read translations with annotations by Richard Wilhelm -- He was German, but English translations of his translations exist. I wasted a lot of time reading extremely poor translations by people who didn't understand what they were translating). Later I wrote this: http://mikekchar.github.io/portfolio//UsefulAndBeneficial I still think it's the best thing I ever wrote (probably because I didn't really write it -- just pieced together other stories ;-) )

Armed with a better understanding of myself, I got another job and was very successful. After about 5 years, that job disappeared (the company was bought out and our division, being a kind of experimental division, was disbanded). I took the opportunity to take another 8 months "off". This time, it was less of a reactionary, "I need to find myself" affair and more of a deliberate, "I'm not going to get a job right away because I want to invest this time doing self study". Again, I wrote a lot of free software, but actually I was experimenting mostly with techniques around legacy software (refactoring, planning, prioritisation, etc).

I actually put all of my work on a business card sized CD-ROM and would occasionally hand it out to people who were interested in what I was doing. This actually landed my next job in a tiny start up. The founder had looked through my planning and prioritisation work and thought, "This is what we need!"

I really enjoyed working there, but the angel investor who bankrolled the company had similar qualities to the person who embezzled all the money in my game company. His interference cost the start up pretty badly and I saw the writing on the wall. After a few years I moved to another start up, but this time with an awesome management/investor team. I stayed there for a few years as well.

I was quite successful at this point. I had a good reputation in Ottawa, where I had mostly worked. I had a much bigger house than I needed. I had a good job, working with people that I liked. I had developed a way of working that was both successful and fulfilling for me. But... I've never been one to enjoy success, unfortunately. I always procrastinate because I hate finishing things. To accomplish something is to have it taken away from me -- I love to work on interesting problems.

So I moved to Japan. My initial idea was to go for 1 year to try to learn Japanese and to improve my mentoring skills. I had virtually no interest in Japan, and only picked it because: The JET Programme seemed like a comfortable way to do this kind of thing (and it is -- highly recommend it if you qualify: http://jetprogramme.org/en/), and also because I had randomly been practicing karate at the time.

After 3 months in Japan, I sold my house in Canada and incredibly reluctantly allowed my friend, who had been looking after my dogs, to adopt them (still sad about that, but also think it was the correct thing to do).

I think the most interesting discovery for me was: I don't have to be a professional programmer to be a programmer. In RMS's Free Software Manifesto, he spends considerable space devoted to the concept that not everybody needs to be a professional programmer. In the past I always read that section with considerable scepticism. But, at least for me, he was absolutely correct.

I loved teaching -- especially in a Japanese high school. I loved being with the students: chatting with them, helping them, joking with them, listening to them. It was at that point that I realised that jobs all have good and bad points and for a person who likes working (like me) there are probably hundreds of jobs that I will enjoy. Even though I love programming, I can do that whenever I want -- and on my own terms! That is the wisdom in the Free Software Manifesto. Whether or not you agree with the concept of software freedom -- as a programmer, you have a choice and you are free to take that choice. Do not overlook this!

I'd love to spout on more about that, but I'm sure I'm near the limit of the message size (not to mention your patience). I think Japan is still the best place to go to teach English comfortably. The other major place you can go is South Korea. I would say, try to find organisations that can place you in the school system (either public or private) because some of the "language schools" can be fly by night affairs. But it really depends on your tolerance for crappy situations -- some people are pretty good at rolling with the punches.

Also, even without leaving whichever country you are in, consider the idea of moving to the poorest, cheapest place that still has internet, renting an apartment for a year and doing whatever regular job you can find. You can probably do it for no more than $15K even if you don't get a job. When coming back to the industry, though, it helps a lot to be able to show what you've been doing during your sabbatical, so make sure to program every day :-)

Hope that helps!

To the library. Lived in a shared flat. lol

So basically you just studied/worked on projects for a year, lived very cheaply in a shared flat, cooked your own food? Worth it do you think?

For that kind of money, I would rather go to a different country as well. Like Thailand. Find a nice place in a city with a co-working space. If you'd be ok eating asian food, life can be very cheap (1,5 USD a meal depending on where you buy the food). A nice apartment + gym + swimming pool can be rented pretty cheap as well, maybe starting around 300 USD a month and more expensive depending on the size of the apartment.

I'm not the traveling kind of guy. Also I have many close people here where I live.

Pretty much, yes.

Gave me new perspectives on life. Went into self-employment after that year. Also I invested much time in my peronal life, stopped doing monogamy and had much time for my two partners.

> So here I am with a disgusting $140,000 in total compensation. A sea of cubicals, souless sheep that want nothing more than to do their time and go home.

We need to learn the art and skill of finding joy in any circumstance. This detached, negative view of your coworkers does nothing but signal your inability or unwillingness to become something apart from your selfish, personal desires.

This entire generation is lost at sea. Can’t you see that your happiness is dependent on none other than yourself?

Did you read the entire thing?

> The people I once called sheep, aren't that. They just didn't have the means to roll the dice.

Source: later in blog.

That's still an extremely opinionated viewpoint. Some people are happy to work a 9-to-5 gig because it affords them stability in exploring their other hobbies.

I agree with your sentiment and find the judgemental, derisive attitude that some entrepreneurial communities exhibit distressing. Going so far as to call 9-to-5 workers sheep is a display of arrogance and (perhaps) own insecurities. It would be better for us not to foster such attitudes.

This has been a big regret of mine. I should never have preceived anyone in a 9 to 5 that way. And as mentioned above, there is nothing wrong with a 9 to 5 (dice or no dice). It’s a prefectly valid course of action to pursue the more important things in life.

> Can’t you see that your happiness is dependent on none other than yourself?

I agree with that but differ from your conclusion. I think it is our responsibility to keep looking until we find what makes us happy.

I'd you'd have to back up that statement implying that this is somehow unique to this generation.

Yes, the game market is often hard. But I find this author's attitude fatalistic and weird. (Also I agree that the numbers do not add up).

He seems to think that "rolling the dice" is the primary thing going on, and that he can't influence this substantially by any amount of development skill, proper tactics, and so forth.

I wonder if this kind of mindset is a side-effect of modern-day political correctness -- that if you succeed, it is 100% due to your good fortune (combined privilege and luck) and not because you did anything special to get there. The upside of such an attitude is that we recognize luck and recognize that people who failed did not necessarily fail through fault of their own. One major downside is that we feel a lack of agency, and this lack of agency is almost certain to drastically decrease the chances of future success.

Be careful what you believe, because it matters.

For my part, I think talent and skill and grit are huge factors in success, so if I want to succeed at something, I am able to formulate some kind of a plan. I don't feel that I am "just rolling the dice", even when luck is involved (which it is all the time, in everything).

I didn't draw the same conclusion from the article regarding whether the author thought, or the article implies, that "rolling the dice" is the primary element of success. The author emphasizes the sorts of elements you highlighted - formulating a long term and reasonable plan; demonstrable talent; grit and perseverance - not as necessary (or sufficient) conditions to success but rather necessary conditions to have a chance at success.

As you know more than most, game development isn't a linear path from ideation to release, and good games from smart people who worked hard on them often find little success. You can increase your chance at success with experience and talent, but games are an entertainment medium and sometimes your creation just doesn't resonate - or increasingly rise above the noise of the platform marketplaces - with enough people to be a sustainable career.

I've worked at AAA studios and am now at an independent game developer. I've sometimes thought of doing something even smaller, an indie effort akin to the author's or something of the scope of what you did with Braid. I found this article aspirational and affirming, validating the idea of taking a chance on something that is meaningful to you despite the (long in the case of the mobile app store) odds.

>not as necessary (or sufficient) conditions to success but rather necessary conditions to have a chance at success.

Exactly this.

I agree with you. Beliefs, grit, talent, skill are all factors in success. But we run into huge issues of post rationalization, survivorship bias, and the human tendency to attribute success to our actions and failures to circumstances (which incidentally is a practice that reduces depression).

Uwe Boll's grit created a bunch of awful movies and 3 failed kickstarters - he's much more successful at owning a restaurant!

The challenging question is where to focus your efforts. Listening to survivors to the detriment of understanding your current situation and needs can be a trap.

I don't think most people think all success is 100% luck, but many people do find issue with those who consider themselves self-made without any consideration for privilege and luck.

It feels like you're setting up a strawman here of people who believe that all success is unearned. The author only said that there are those who work as hard as he does and are as smart as him and yet don't succeed. How else would you rationalize situations where you find your peers failing and you succeeding, even though you might consider yourselves equals in ability and tenacity? Or do you simply consider yourself above and beyond and attribute all your success to that?

Have you seen A Dark Room? It's text.

He ported a text game, that someone else had already designed and implemented, to iOS.

This is not a huge amount of work compared to what most game development people do, and is not particularly challenging compared to what people are doing with 3D graphics, etc.

I am pointing this out not to be mean, but to respond to your point: "those who work as hard as he does and are as smart as him". What he did for A Dark Room was something pretty much any iOS programmer can do, and in those conditions it's natural not to expect to be noticed in a crowded market. i.e. he evidently did not do anything noticeably smarter or work noticeably harder than anyone else.

This doesn't mean he can't do smarter and bigger things, just that a port of ADR is not that, and neither were his other descriptions of projects he did in the meantime (for example, look at the screenshots for Mildly Interesting RTS).

I think when this is the limit of what one is attempting, one has no right to complain that people aren't buying one's stuff (and should not be surprised at that either!)

MIRTS is an incredibly deep take in distilling the essence of RTS. The spartan look is instrumental to that. I don't think you get it.

I only played ADR for a few minutes, so I didn't discover its depth, but the reason it became so popular on the app store is that it was able to create a compelling experience with the least amount of resources, a creative tour de force if you ask me.

The mainstream audience wants flashy things, and these games are probably never going to catch on there, but not for a lack of value, work, or depth.

Mildly Interesting RTS looks pretty good to be honest. Have you downloaded it? It's surprisingly a lot of fun. Solid review score too.

Oh and totally give A Dark Room a shot. You may find it pretty okay.

PS: I'm totally gonna frame this comment thread. I'm big fan Braid and The Witness. You? Not so much :-)

MIRTS is actually an incredibly shallow take on RTS. I remember playing an extremely similar game back in 2007 and I also remember thinking that game was extremely similar to design docs that I had seen people blogging about a few years earlier.

MIRTS is something I'd expect from a weekend programming jam. It's a minimal effort and it's not surprising that it did minimally well in the marketplace.

It’s unfortunate you had to take this ad hominem.

Even if you do your best, you won't know if it's enough until you actually try. That's why, from a practical standpoint, it's indistinguishable from a gamble.

Finally created an account, just to say this

"A Dark Room recently hit the #2 spot _overall_ on Google Play (pro tip: stick to iOS, the revenue is almost an order of magnitude better)"

I bought the game on android to support the developer despite the game being VERY late to android. With that said, the android port is horrible. It's behind garbage. Amir cannot talk about love for the code and release crap like that.

So treating android user as idiots. We pay for good game and avoid crap. Don't be crap.

Edit: ADR went quickly free on android because nobody would pay for that crap. So that's why it didn't make much money.

That sucks. I’d spend more time on the Android version. But there is a really high piracy rate. Buy a Samsung Galaxy S8, it was tested on there.

Both Michael and I appreciate the hat tip you gave us by buying it. Email me and I’ll glady refund your $0.99.

My 2 cents:

1. Charge more than 99c. Double the price and your sales will likely drop by less than half, making it profitable to do so.

2. If you’re going to half-ass the port to Android, why even bother? It will do more damage than it’s worth.

It works great on the devices I’ve tested on. Which is like 4 out of the 15,000 possible OS+Device+Carrier combinations.

If it looks like a half-loaded web page on a nexus (which is the reference device for the platform) then something is wrong.

Please don't take offence, I'm just trying to explain why it did so bad on android.

edit: you don't need to test your app on 1500 devices. They are all the same, if you plan for it only two devices (big/small screen) should suffice. Source: former app developer.

You’d be surprised at how many variations exist out there. Source: app developer who has had 300k downloads of his Android port and has dealt with death threats from people trying to run his game on a device that has the processing power of a toaster.

I can feel your pain. I get aggressive complaints from my users when their 5 year old Android can’t use modern video codecs because they can’t upgrade the OS. Somehow that’s my fault. (This is for secure video chat FWIW.) With iOS, it’s a simple as ensuring their OS is current. Far, far less pain dealing with iOS and Mac users than anything with Android. That isn’t a complaint against Android per se — just a business fact. Android users quite simply cost us more money in support and development time, not to mention Android users generally are more “value conscious” which is another way of saying “cheap.” We have a HIPPA compliant video system and it’s amazing that mental health professionals billing $150 per hour still insist on attempting to conduct highly security sensitive work on extremely outdated devices. I can only imagine how it must be to deal with casual gamers without any professional motivation.

I think ADR with its simplistic graphics should run on any android (even a "toaster").

But your app seems more demanding, can't you limit it to newer versions of android? Many banking apps for example require users to be on 6.0 or better.

Are you sure that's not just what the game is supposed to look like?

Nope, the iOS version looks different (e.g. buttons on main page are not off center)

His budget numbers & supposed savings vs. sabbatical runway shock me. The 401k bit fits his "roll the dice" theme, but should never have been necessary. I can't help but feel we have an unreliable narrator who's not telling us the full story about finances and motivations.

The truth would be so much more interesting and instructive. What setback really led to needing to clock out and cash out? What was really left of that 800k after the app store cut and taxes and marketing and mistakes? Was it only money that pushed him back into the workplace or something more?

Real life is messy and I can see the hole where he cut that part out of his story.

> I liquidated my 401k savings (took all the tax penalties up front), and said "alright, gonna live off of this for as long as I can until I figure something out".

This is the hard part in all of these stories. Props to him for having the courage (stupidity?). I think this forum is full of people who would not just love to quit their job and work on their own project, but would THRIVE in doing so.

The problem is the paycheck. Do I want to risk it all, throw away my savings, all for a chance at success?

> The problem is the paycheck. Do I want to risk it all, throw away my savings, all for a chance at success

Reading this, it feels better in India. Here I can work for 2 years in a good company, save enough to quit job and do something of my own for 3 years before needing money. (Lots of other stuffs are shitty in India, but this aspect is good)

That's awesome. I love hearing about how this scenario is for people in other countries.

Here in California, I don't think that's possible. Cost of living is too high to live for 3 years off of 2 years of savings. Maybe if you were very careful with spending and had a good rent situation, you might be able to do it.

If you are single and don't have children you can always leave CA for a few years, cut your expenses in half by living in a low COL area and come back if it doesn't work out.

Yup, that is a good point. I would definitely recommend anyone with the drive and interest in striking out on their own, do so in their early - mid 20's ... Move somewhere really cheap, and make it happen! You won't be able to do that (or it will be very difficult) once you find a partner because their career may be geographically restricted. Even more difficult if you have children.

I was making the same point. Why make money in a high cost area and insist on spending there :-).

You are actually luckier. If you live in California, please work there for 1 year, get your ass of that city/country and come live in a country where cost of living is lower :). That is provided you have the stomach for that and if you don't have family/kids. You can easily get Visa to almost any country and perhaps one month of California/SF salary is enough to live one year in a low cost place.

If moving away from a job is that easy in your country, it would definitely be more difficult to build stable business like the one you can build in states. People are here because you can achieve more here then elsewhere, they pay for this opportunity.

I’ve actually realized that I was thinking about this wrong. If you spend a year doing shit, you will be in a fundamentally different position skill wise.

I quit my job over a year ago (I know, long time but my project is pretty ambitious). In that year I acquired way too many skills. Like I feel like a different person.

You aren’t betting necessarily on your project but more on yourself.

If you are living in a high COL area like Seattle or Bay area consider moving to a low tax state with low COL.

Kansas, Montana, Arizona, not places you want to stay forever but you can get a studio apt for $600-$700/mo.

Can probably cut your expenses from LA in 1/3 if you are frugal and push your runway out several years until you start making profits.

Engineer in St. Louis here. I live in a crazy nice walkable area of the city and pay $400/mo splitting a 3 story house with 2 others. There are plenty of very livable cities esp in the midwest perfect for saving/working on passion projects, only off-limit because they aren't seen as tech hubs or considered hip (These are the best guesses I have). Honestly I don't really understand why programmers (or anybody working mainly on a computer) aren't getting work from home and living in cheaper more livable places. Shrugs the lack of demand is sure favoring my lifestyle.

Regret minimization framework. Looking back from your old age would you wish you had done something like this? Can you earn it all back with a good fall back plan on your expertise ?

I think more people would regret it if they knew what they were giving up, but most would probably not make that calculation. If he had kept his corporate job and spent the initial $30k a year he could have retired early only 10 years later. Maybe less if he'd be willing to live very frugally. Then he would be free to build as many apps and games as he wanted, giving him many chances at getting a big hit.

I'm in this dilemma myself, as I've always wanted to do something more risky, but I don't want to jeapordize my ability to be financially independent at ~40. Being stuck in a potentially crummy corporate job with potentially terrible management and coworkers for another 25 years (not the case now, but things can change quickly) is the regret I want to minimize beforehand.

Moonlight unless your co owns your IP? Post traction go independent?

Seems the only reasonable option to have the cake and eat it too.

> he could have retired early only 10 years later.

That is a flawed argument. 10 years later you might not have the same drive/ambition which you have right now.

Maybe, but sounds a bit like future discounting to me. I'm just presenting my dilemma, and I don't think the solution is to be idle for 10 years and then switch to entrepeneurship overnight. More like work a normal job and try to get stuff going on the side, but don't risk your life savings for a lottery ticket.

> age would you wish you had done something like this?

Not if I was 65 and still working, because I liquidated my 401k back when I was 30 and it never panned out.

But yea, I would regret being 65 and having never built a business.

> Can you earn it all back with a good fall back plan on your expertise?

I don't know. Probably, if you were able to dramatically cut costs and go into hyper-saving mode. This can be a challenge later in life though (once kids and a mortgage take hold).

Why not throw out dirty prototypes of your top ideas every weekend to see if they gain traction?

And if you can’t earn it back, are you prepared to work until you die?

In lots of tech fields the comp packages are so high this shouldn't be an issue. With good financial planning lots of engineers could actually retire in just ~15 years or so of work.

Coding until I die? sign me up


Contract work, side projects that make revenue, etc.

Opportunities are always there for those who keep an open mind and a growth mindset.

Let’s not derail the thread, but there are lots of people with college educations who can still only get a minimum wage job. Opportunities are not endless, nor always there.

It’s entire possible you jump off the corporate ladder and never make it back on, your wages permanently stunted and your career prospects dimmed.

Ok let me update it. Opportunities are always there for enterprising, confident and contrarian thinkers who will take several chances with low downside and try to create new things rather than compete within existing paradigms.

Disclaimer: Not financial advice but personal observations

This discounts the high failure low success rates of entrepreneurship, which is dangerous advice in a country with a broken healthcare system and no social safety net.

Again, it’s not an OR situation. One can try doing side projects while one works full time.

Is the question of what I will think of something when I'm old really the best question? I know that this seems natural but I wonder if it is a bad way to make choices. I don't think my enjoyment when old is more valuable than my enjoyment when young.

I've been considering this same move a lot recently. I know this is appealing to some people and seems completely insane to others. I believe that I understand my own psychology pretty well. The situation where every productive hour of my life can be devoted to creating my own product and my own business as well as every passing day being a step further towards zeros dollars in the bank is a way to push me into the mode of peak productivity and creativity. This is weighed against the large risk of not creating any positive revenue streams or cash injections from outside investors and spending all my money. :) I do not have a wife or children so the amount of risk is limited only to myself.

I'm in the same boat as you when it comes to my psychology and ability to get motivated. I am fairly risk averse though, and find myself unwilling to risk my nest egg.

Not courageous. Really stupid.

> The problem is the paycheck. Do I want to risk it all, throw away my savings, all for a chance at success?

here's something nobody seems to mention.

most people don't risk everything once, then exit with a set-for-life payday a few short years later. that's the rare minority of entrepreneurs. most are moderately successful for many years on end, and may finally do a $multi-million exit after a decade or more of hard work and risk.

after that initial success, you have to risk it all, multiple times, to either keep succeeding, or reach the next level of success. at any point, if you stop risking the status quo you are likely to fail.

in other words it's a self-selecting process. if you are having doubts about risking your meager savings which you can likely earn back within a few years of frugal living while working a high paying programming job, there's your answer.

This guy made a lot of really questionable decisions. Put his future and family at risk. His only hit was porting someone else's hit game to iOS. He himself admits he is working again now only so he can build a stash and gamble it all again.

I hope he finds success some day, but given his track record, I'm very skeptical of his conclusions.

Whilst perhaps a little harsh in its tone, this comment appears to be the only one commenting on the fact that it sounds like he only ported the existing game from web, didn’t create it.

So, depending on how much split with the original coder/creator that 800k might not have gone very far, and seems pretty good for “A port”. I wonder if/why not forming a small studio with the original creator would have worked.

From the article:

> I redesigned so much of the original game. So much of me went into it.

I haven't played the iOS version of A Dark Room so I can't speak to exactly how much change there is between the original web version and this one, but it sounds like it's not just a straight port.

Compared to some of HN's 'mega successes' he actually did quite well. There is still quite a bit of survivor bias at work here and if he had to do it all over again he would likely change some decisions but you can do far worse than this. What I like is that it shows adaptability and a willingness to try again and again until something actually worked.

>questionable decisions

That’s an understatement.

>His only hit was porting someone else’s game

Yep. He’s a hack job for sure. There is no way he’ll be successful in future stuff tbh.

Sarcastic self-deprecation without actually addressing the complaints doesn't really work to your credit tbh.

The entire write up was me explicitly stating that it was dumb and that there was an immense amount of luck involved.


I am curious as to why some people think being paid $140,000 a year is 'disgusting'? I live in Australia so the comparison is a bit different, but here electricians and carpenters will very frequently make over $130,000 a year. Traffic controllers can make up to $180,000 a year, which is an unskilled job with only two days training [1].

In the prime of their careers, dentists, lawyers and doctors can commonly make over $300,000 per year. At the top end of the spectrum, specialist doctors and commercial lawyers can make over $1,000,000 a year, as can those who work in investment banking for instance.

What is it about software engineering that people think is less valuable that these other occupations? Why do people think that earning $100k a year is overcompensation? My personal theory is that it is because impressive wages are a relatively new phenomenon in software (there is a much longer history with doctors and lawyers) and people are not comfortable with the idea yet. But I can assure you that there are many groups in society earning over this amount and one shouldn't feel disgusted by doing so. (Of course, there are many who are not - but that is a longer conversation)

[1] https://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/news/nsw/sweet-deal-traffi...

That article is a crock of shit by the way. I know two traffic controllers and they're both on $25 an hour. I'm sure there's a couple somewhere that are well connected with the unions and get sweet gigs, or some actual engineers that get put on traffic control duty and earn that salary, but you can't just walk into a $140k job off 2 years experience doing traffic control like you can in software in SV.

A fair point. It was a silly example to use and seems to be limited to CFMEU members which is not part of the market operating as normal.

Still - do you think $140k is too much for any one person to make?

Many programmers hit their peak salary very fast. Making $140k a year for 35-40 hours of work a week <4 years out of college with no graduate school is pretty insane.

Continuing to make that $140k 20 years later is also insane, but in the opposite direction, but that's not the situation the post was describing. As a programmer you're fantastically highly paid at the beginning of your career but often not at the middle and end.

I always tell that to young people that look at their peers and see them very well paid - not 140k here in Uruguay, more like 30k but most other young people would be lucky to hit 15k.

However, an accountant, doctor, lawyer or other professional will have an upwards trajectory while programmers have a tough-to-penetrate glass ceiling and will plateau VERY early (late 20s to early 30s) unless they switch to management or start their own company or move to the U.S.

it’s weird because that’s starting salary levels in a lot of silicon valley..


Here's a funny satirical antidote for "bet the farm" success-story fantasies like this one:


Thank you for this. A great talk in youtube equating winning lottery ticket with a successful business / startup. (want this indexed by my bookmarking site google.com)

Loved it. Thanks for sharing. Survivorship bias is a problem imho.

I loved this, thanks for sharing! I died at "niche numbers."

I have never been directly employed at a large Silicon Valley tech company. Is it really that difficult to work on side projects on your nights/weekends while working at these places? To be sure, it would take longer to get your projects finished, but you would also be doing so with the benefit of a steady paycheck and health insurance. If you happen to hit the lottery with your finished project, great - quit your job. But it seems insane to me to just gamble on something with such absurdly long odds, especially if you have a wife.

Also, the sad reality is that only a very lucky few will create games that become popular enough to generate a living wage without somewhat aggressive monetization techniques, such as ads and in-game purchases. This guy seems to really dislike his corporate job, but apparently not enough to monetize his games well. If anyone else wants to follow in his footsteps, you should do some soul searching before you put in your notice and decide if you can live with a near-zero chance of success while sticking to your principles, or if you want to have a much higher chance of success but with the caveat that your users will be seeing ads and buying power bars from you. Life is full of crappy trade-offs.

> Is it really that difficult to work on side projects on your nights/weekends

It doesn't really have anything to do with "large Silicon Valley tech company". I have a life outside of work, friends, family, etc that I spend most of my nights and weekends curating. Working 40+ hours a week anywhere makes it hard to launch something at night without being young and single or sacrificing time with your family.

> Is it really that difficult to work on side projects on your nights/weekends while working at these places?

I only have internship experience to speak of, but I've noticed that when I'm writing code from 9-5 -- even though I thoroughly enjoy programming and creating stuff with it -- I end up uninterested in doing more of that in the free time I have left. I think it's a psychological thing more than a time thing.

If you work at a big Silicon Valley tech company, odds are that your employment contract says that they own whatever you do on your own time, if it's at all related to anything the company does (not just stuff you work on at the company or using company resources; anything they do).

If you work at a big Silicon Valley tech company, odds are that you live in California where where such contract clauses are illegal.

You're thinking of non-competes, which are very different. I would suggest talking with an employment lawyer if you work for a BigCo in Silicon Valley.

I have a pretty sizable side project and I'm starting another one. It's possible, but you have to be hyper organized with your time. I used to do a lot of my coding on the BART/Transbay commute back and forth (about an hour and 15 minutes a day), plus another hour at night. You can do a lot in two hours a day. Squeeze in a few hours during the weekend and you can still have a life and a full-time job. You do have to love coding though.

No it isn't. He also isn't employed in SV with those comp numbers. I'm kind of surprised he isn't working there with his personal levels of ambition. Being married also helps him avoid the difficult hetero male dating scene there too. I guess family or something similar is keeping him from moving.

There is a lot of cool stuff to work at a big silicon valley tech company. They actually have the budget & the need to do engineering 'properly' somewhat :).

I have read that in most businesses, you want to start with marketing & sales as the major focus vs. the product itself. Creator types like us software engineers like to focus on creating, which can create problems in making an actual business.

+1. This guy took a huge risk and is an idiot. He got stupid lucky.

In case anyone missed it, 'amirrajan is the author of the submission :)

I didn’t say you were an idiot. You bought a lottery ticket, and won. All I was saying is that most people in the app business lose, especially if they don’t use aggressive monetization.

No seriously. My current self would be slapping my past self in the back of the head saying “you idiot, do you have any idea what kind of bullet you dodged?!”

> The people I once called sheep, aren't that. They just didn't have the means to roll the dice.

One thing I see often and often (I've done it too) is that when you quit your job to pursue your dream, everybody else working at a job is a sucker. They are too comfy in their life sucking job and one day they will get fired and realize that they wasted their time making someone else rich.

I was lucky that failure caught up with me really fast and I realized I am no better then others (so did the author).

But I've seen cases where the person believes in this so much that even after catastrophic failure they can't go back to a job because, well, of all the horrible things they said about being an employee.

I was in start up school this year and one of the common theme was about people who where at the brink of losing their home for an idea that was not even close to ready to launch. The instructor stress them to get a job.

>The instructor stress them to get a job.

This is really good advice. Additionally I'd say don't bet the farm. Some times the best you can do is be that rock/stepping stone for your kin to build a legacy with.

> All code I see is beautiful in its own way. It tells a story of the reasonable programmers put in unreasonable situations.

I like that. I think it's kind of deep.

  But if you really want numbers, here are some of the numeric 
  sacrifices I made to role the dice _once_
  ( ... big list of qualifications ... )
  Now you can take a year and a half off and roll the dice
The author did great and should be proud, but I wholeheartedly disagree with this part.

You don't have to have these ridiculous qualifications to take a risk (let alone "roll the dice once") and be successful. Choose not to live a lavish lifestyle and you can "roll the dice" many times.

I'd like to think there's a middle ground between 'corporate america' and 'at home alone'.

Hitting the jackpot the first time around may have actually led the author away from a place he'd feel most comfortable in - a small company with other people who love what they do.

During my free time I did a good amount of contract work with small companies. They loved what they did and it was energizing. But what they love working on isn’t what I love working on which is in essence: “artistic, evocative experiences”. Yes I’ve invested in a closet full of turtle neck sweaters while I continue my search for my “magnum opus”.

There are companies like that, but they are tough to get into (generally small company, low budget, low openings). I personally think it would be cool to work on the next Journey/The Witness/Monument Valley/etc, but it’s a crapshoot of knowing the right people at the right time with opportunity to jump on. I’m personally saving up until that opportunity comes or I go nuts like you and quit to do my own thing. Best of luck.

Thank you for the well wishes. You'd be surprised at how small/close knit the game dev communities are (come to TouchArcade's after party at GDC and say hello to figuratively every indie worth their salt).

There isn't really a company that any of use work for per se, but "all" of us are collaborating in one way or another to make sure we succeed collectively. It's pretty great, but you have to have the battle scars to join (actually you just have to bring cool laptop stickers to the party and we'll tell you all of our war stories in great detail).

I believe it. Game industry is a small place. I miss shipping.

I spent every morning for several weeks playing A Dark Room while commuting by subway with my 7yo, so I this story really engaged me. My biggest takeaway is to think about this advice from Sam Altman:

http://playbook.samaltman.com “A word of warning about choosing to start a startup: It sucks! One of the most consistent pieces of feedback we get from YC founders is it’s harder than they could have ever imagined, because they didn’t have a framework for the sort of work and intensity a startup entails. Joining an early-stage startup that’s on a rocketship trajectory is usually a much better financial deal.”

There are so many good jobs out there that are not just being a corporate drone. He has amazingly relevant experience for tons of companies.

He should find one that has already taken venture funding and ride the rocketship (along with punching a lottery ticket) while still getting a reasonable salary.

I'm really really happy that ADR gave you some (hopefully) great moments during your commute. Seeing thing comment means the world to me (it really, truly does).

If you get a chance, download A Noble Circle and play it with your child. You may find that you can connect over it's ridiculous story and crazy gameplay. I'd love any feedback you may have about it.

Thanks, my son and I really enjoyed playing A Dark Room, and were definitely freaked out when we saw the workers had become slaves.

I'll try A Noble Circle with him.

This is exciting!!! All the random criticism from this post will be entirely worth it if your son ends up smiling even once while trying to navigate Mr Circle. Let me know!

>> There is such a heavy dose of luck in success. There are those that will give one thousand percent, and because the roll of the dice wasn't perfect, nothing materializes. They have as much love for the game development as I have... they've worked as hard as I have... but just didn't get a kiss from Lady Luck. And it sucks. It just isn't fair that they want to create more than their next breathe, but can't catch a good break to devote time to it. They have to look over at those that have the privaledge to take multiple rolls of the dice, eat their cake and have it too, and if everything still fails, they get bailed out by mommy and daddy.

This is exactly how I feel.

I appreciate the honesty in this post and I'm pretty sure we people who make games can all learn from this.

having said that, before relating to the story please take into consideration he is going solo at it. Difficulties are very different if you are working as a team: It's a lot more expensive but a collaborative approach to creation can yield better odds of success if they can look at the game from different points of view (story, graphics, programming)

I'm not in favor of either approaches to game development, but Please remember that following your guts on creative work is both a blessing and a curse, and teamwork is a totally different beast.

Similar recent interview with him on indie hackers : https://www.indiehackers.com/businesses/a-dark-room

This one adds some details of where the $800k revenue went.

Apples cut of 30% drops it to $553k. Since it was a port of someone else's game half goes to them, so his actual income was $278k for the 16 months from start to end of 2015.

Still a significant take-home but makes it more understandable why he had to take on contract work when his subsequent games did not hit iOS pay-dirt. I wish him the best, iOS is a brutal market.

If he's talking to the press, here's hoping he might restore some of the content he removed in his data purge. There's got to be interesting, useful knowledge in there for other game dev and future generations.

>there's got to be interesting, useful knowledge in there for other game dev and future generations.

There is, but "the few ruined it for the many". Some who got access to that information tried to "growth hack" their way to a successful app. They started name dropping me to Apple as if they knew me. This isn't a very nice thing to do.

Can’t anyone name-drop you even without such “information”? I wonder what kind of content that would be?

Wow the ego in this guy is thick. It seems like he thinks success is only luck and it's no wonder, not once did he mention his customers. He only talked about how much he loves his work and his freedom.

- 215k$ in savings after game had succeed, according to the graph in the article

- managed to spend in few years

There's plenty of decent countries where you can live off this sum for decade, at least, and have much more dice rolls.

His math for what it takes to roll dice once doesn't make any sense. If you can live off $15k a year, than can't he just work one year for $30k and roll the dice? It seems unnecessary to ever take the other jobs after his first year of working.

Once you live off $30k/yr it's difficult to go back down to $15k/yr (especially if someone else like a significant other is involved).

I think he meant 9/10 times a business will fail if trying the first time in a field. If it is your 2nd time trying after a fail or success, the chance has to be different because you’ve boosted your chance from the learnings

> two years of internships, one year as a full time employee

2 years of internships? Is that a thing in some industries? Sure seems crazy to me

Privaledge? Role? Come on man, edit the article a little.

Then. A Dark Room went viral.

I suspect the author's lack of subsequent success with his other games stems from his apparent lack of curiosity about exactly how his first and only lucky break took place.

It's not about lack of understanding. The viral success of a "one-off" type of game like ADR is nearly impossible to reproduce. Sometimes people take a liking to something because you hit exactly the right notes without even knowing what notes they are (not that they do themselves even!), and it is impossible to hit them again. ADR looks like that kind of success. Repeating the success of GTA Vice City is very hard, but probably more tractable than repeating the success of ADR. There are a few reasons: the high resource requirements for the production and marketing create a moat, the type of game is amenable to a near "extension" to repeat the success, etc... notwithstanding that, most game publishers end up finding the way to kill a franchise after a few titles.

Sure, but I'd have expected at least some analysis of what happened - where it got reviewed, or what the growth pattern leading up to the sudden spike was like, or anything really.

Actually, if the original creator of A Dark Room wrote another game that was nearly identical, people would lap it up. Especially the ones that loved it the first time.

The problem is that the OP here didn't write it. They ported it to mobile.

So they haven't yet actually created a game like this, they've just made some changes to an existing one that was already insanely popular and reaped the rewards for it.

Story-based incrementals are still incredibly popular in the incremental games community, and another good one will do quite well. It's very, very hard to charge for them, though, because nobody trusts them to be any good until after they've played it to the end.

So you basically have to make a free one and hope it takes off, and then charge for the mobile port of it.

>his apparent lack of curiosity about exactly how his first and only lucky break took place

I completely agree. It's not like he wrote a 300 page book on the whole ordeal or anything. He didn't spend those 300 pages trying desperately to dissect every single day, tweet, email, news post, and website write up between 11/17/2013 and 04/13/2014. Nor did he try to analyze his other assets/how they correlated back to A Dark Room. Now... if he put that kind of effort into understanding A Dark Room's meteoric rise, then maybe his subsequent endeavors would have succeeded. At least he would have been more deserving of those successes.

You can't criticize people for not having information you have. None of that was in your original post. Also the sarcastic 3rd person tone of most of your responses is off-putting. This comment would have been much better if you just stated how you did try to analyze the success of ADR in great depth.

"If we spend a second thinking about this, if 9 out of 10 startups fail, then we only need to roll the dice 10 times and the last startup will (by statistics) achieve success."

That is not how statistics works. :<

With a 90% failure rate, your chance of failing 10 times in a row is (9/10)^10 ~= 35%.

They're also not independent trials. If you just failed 9 times in a row, you're probably not the best at startups.

Or maybe you learned tons and it makes your 10th attempt more likely to succeed?

Ultimately these ponderations are kind of meaningless in the absence of great data to frame them with.

If I recall correctly, one of the Compass VC analyses covered serial entrepreneurs and found that there was no increase in success rates and each attempt looked independent. There's just that much randomness in it, and I suppose the various selection effects cancel out.

I googled around for this document to no success. Do anyone have a link to this?

Looking for it, I think I am remembering either http://10years.firstround.com/ (which says, specifically, that experienced founder returns aren't better because their increased success rate is already priced in, which is not quite what I claimed) or https://www.econstor.eu/bitstream/10419/90815/1/777058081.pd...

At which number would you no longer make the point you just made? 100 failed startups? 50,000?

You’ve got a lot of faith in people. My number is maybe 5.

I've been seriously, actively interested in building a tech biz or startup since 2003.

In 2003, I started selling chat bots on the Internet.

In 2005, I cofounded an affiliate marketing website that cracked the Alexa top 10k

In 2007, I built an app that scaled to 100k MAUs and was acquired for $20K

In 2009, I started a SaaS but couldn't break $~600/month in revenue.

In 2010, I built a business that ran for over 5 years and supported me entirely for two of them, but probably grossed less than $100K total revenue. But it couldn't grow, as I struggled to find a repeatable and predictable customer acquisition channel.

In 2013, I got involved in Bitcoin. Finally one home run after a portfolio of mediocrity. [I am choosing to omit various projects from this list, but between 2003-present, there have been a lot.]

In 2013, I also started doing stock market research with ruby. In 2015, my work had attracted enough momentum to bring on an outside angel investor and even piloted the strategy in the markets with $1.5MM. Didn't perform that well; investors withdrew their capital.

In 2017, I started a SaaS that is currently doing ~$2800/month in revenue. I also did consulting. I grossed about $190K this year from my business efforts - note, that's nearly 10 times faster (in terms of growing revenue) than I was 7 years ago. I also fixed a major hole in my previous business skillset, i.e., predictably acquiring customers - something I could never do for the biz in 2010. Furthermore, I have a lot more emotional maturity than I did 7 years ago - though Sam Altman was precociously mature, with the "emotional maturity of a 40 year old" (Paul Graham, on meeting Stanford undergraduate Sam Altman).

So I can tell you definitively, that:

- My skills are expanding due to systematically resolving the deficiencies in previous attempts.

- These improvements are a result of deliberate practice.

- Some people may have the ancillary skills, resources or characteristics that position them to perform better from early on - YC seems to be adept at identifying these people, but also credit them for making 1,500+ bets.

- My best success to-date has been as a result of luck.

I'm 30 years old now.

Bitcoin is not a win until you sell it at a profit (which you may have done...I’m just saying.)

Thanks a lot for sharing. I'm impressed by your perseverance and so glad to see things have been working out for you lately. Best of Luck!

Would you mind going into a little more detail about the hole that you plugged and how you plugged it?

For me it was learning all about sales. I actually got a job selling industrial equipment specifically for this purpose. I learned that a good sales person is an agent who advances the best interests of the buyer as well as the seller. I also had the epiphany that my ads and website are - essentially - salespeople, selling to exactly one visitor at a time. So if I can't sell without the website, I can't sell with the website. But once I can sell, and then once my website can sell in my stead, it's about getting the website in front of as many people as possible - just like a productive sales rep will make many phone calls per day. Just as a salesperson will tailor her approach based on the market or personality of the buyer, a good website should do so as well. Therefore, I have segmented mailing lists, different landing pages for different buyer types, and so forth.

You may also find this comment I wrote about a year ago useful as well, https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=13283234


Sales and marketing is as important as the software. They can't exist without each other.

Dunno, depends on the kinds of startups you're trying to create. For example, I don't think you're "bad at startups" just because you create more ambitious ones with a higher chance of failure. Some people are at a place where they can take more risks, it doesn't make them an abject failure.

If you had the social and monetary capital to attempt 10 startups and fail, one wonders if that money and effort would not have been better invested elsewhere (if we assume that the goal of the startup is to achieve a successful exit), perhaps in easier forms to generate passive income or what have you.

Or you might think you’ve learned tons but you’ve actually learned all the wrong lessons and are spiraling hopelessly confident in the wrong direction. Failure doesn’t owe you anything.

What I recall of chances of success, earlier failures do not correlate with success - either way. So basically one is throwing fair dice every time. I might be recall wrong...

That is with dice.

Startups are not independent random events because some people are better at making startups than other people are.

I think your parent is saying that when you actually measure whether your claim is true, it isn't actually correlated in the failure case.

I remember reading something that corroborated this [1]. That source claimed that previous founders of successful companies had a much greater chance at additional success, but previous failures didn't increase your chances (ie. you don't, in fact, learn more from failure than success -- at least when it comes to founding failed startups).

Edit adding source: [1] https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=933932

Ycombinator has made a lot of money based on the idea that some people are better at creating start ups than others. They don't just bet on ideas they also bet on people.

On the flipside, it could be that Y Combinator has made a lot of money by creating an environment that helps startups succeed. Apart from money, they provide founders advice, structure and a set of motivated peers. More cynically, they also provide prestige, validation and connections.

I have no doubt Y Combinator would still be successful even if their selection method was not very good. (I tend to think about top universities the same way—the quality of Harvard's admissions process is not the core reason they graduate so many successful students.)

Personally, I feel like the success of Harvard students is mostly selection bias with respect to their admissions department - i.e., everyone who gets into Harvard would be successful anywhere else.

But then again, I was just rejected from Harvard, so you might want to take my opinion with a grain of salt.

Studies of people accepted to Harvard but who chose to attend other schools support your theory.

I also thought that, but I couldn’t find any references to any of those studies when I was writing my comment. Do you happen to know where I could find them?

Yeah, it's probable that a couple of teams are less stellar than others, they can probably work it out though

It would be interesting to know about some companies that don't get to Demo day or that doesn't put out a great presentation

Right. And that source isn't claiming that people are all equally good at founding startups. Rather, it's claiming that previous failures don't substantially make a person better at founding successful companies. (They do find a very small 2% effect, but that may be statistical noise).

Two caveats: 1. That study only applies to venture-funded startups, so startups funded by other sources are not included. 2. There is a small difference between success rates of 1st time entrepreneurs (18%) compared with entrepreneurs who previously failed (20%), so previous failures may give a small boost in future success rates.

Thanks! This is the reference which I tried to recall.

That's your claim. What evidence do you have for that? What if it is just (or majorly, like 95%) just getting lucky?

Luck plays a big role, but there are also other important dynamics.

Domain expertise, creativity, intelligence, education, insights from other fields, financial resources, connections to other impactful individuals, personality, etc. Such things significantly affect how events unfold.

I believe resilience is the big one

My thoughts exactly — thanks for writing this.

Helps to explain how there are so many 'anomalous' serial-entrepreneurs :)

Here's what I've learned when I quit and tried to start my own thing. A regular paycheck is "nice", it's a safety blanket. But it also keeps you down. You can live nicely on a regular paycheck, but if you want "something more", whether that "more" is money, or "meaning", you have to give it up and go into the real world. You have to take a risk. I didn't really Succeed, but I gained new experience, a bunch of contacts, and learned what I needed. The next time I do it, I'm going to have a better chance of succeeding in it, i'm certain of it.

A business model is more than a product, and a way to charge for it. It's having partners, channels, product, and yes some resources. If you're a dev who's planning on quitting, and then spending 18 hours a day coding, you're probably going to fail. If you quit and spend 100% of your time networking, you're going to fail. But if you have a plan for how to get the product built, how to market it, and you have a quantifiable reason to believe people want it. You might just make it.

I think it takes a few failures to get there.

I can't understand why that is even in the parent article. Amir is incredibly open about how much what he did was down to luck, and how much he sacrificed just to roll the dice once. He lists all the things he did that gave him a shot, like living on 1/2 to 1/4 of his income for years, not having kids, being lucky that he never got sick since he didn't have insurance as he did his venture, and more.

That quote above is an odd postscript to an article very open about how much it really is luck.

But if you try 21.8543 times, the odds invert, to 90% success!

Also, you'll probably learn something from all those trials, improving the odds.

But a bigger problem is measuring "failure"... how long and hard must you work before calling it quits, for it to count as a trial? Throwing up one "MVP" website a day for 22 days probably shouldn't count... Perhaps, 3 months full-time (about the runway YCers get)? And, 3 months off to recover.

So, 11 years, for a 90% shot... assuming you're already imdependemtly wealthy.

Like those robbers planning to get money out of bank in the form of a wage for working there, there's probably an easier way.

More importantly, after 9 failures the last startup has only a 10% chance of success, by statistics.

The intuition behind it still stands - if you're going to not fail 65% of the time when you try 10 times, that's pretty decent.

External factors (such as age, cost, or economy) may prevent you from reaching the 10th time.

Of course. Frankly - I don't think anyone reasonable thinks trying 10 times at anything that takes more than a couple of years each time is at all a good idea.

Then according to stats it would take infinite attempts to succeed. That's not how life works ;)

edit: a clarification, that's not how a single human's life works. It will work if you take all humans together into account. If you apply that logic to individuals individually then nobody succeeds ever.

edit2: a single human life individually doesn't get enough attempts to be statistically significant enough.

Actually, this is how life works: some people never succeed at what they try to do. It does take an infinite number of attempts to assure 100% success.

Relevant in the NYT: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/24/opinion/2017-wrong-number...

As you imply, you don’t get infinite attempts because you’ll die at some point. Some people never succeed despite their best efforts, effectively taking them infinite attempts to succeed.

The other side says that there’s a 75% chance of not failing ten times in a row. What this says is that it probably doesn’t just happen when it’s a sure thing.


No one's mentioned it yet, so I guess I'll be the one.

I can't tolerate that many misspelt words and grammatical errors...

My guess is: English is his second language, but yes, I had a real hard time getting through that one. That piece would improve greatly with a little proofreading.

This comment made my day. Thank you :-)

I should have written it after my morning coffee.

> . . . grammatical errors..

Normally we only put one period at the end of a sentence.

Apropos of the value of his comment, I'm sure you can appreciate that there's a difference between grammatical errors of the "don't understand the rules of language" type, and "poor keyboard/typing".

I guess my point was, by demonstration, that nitpicking little aspects of the articles we link here is without positive value. I'd have been wiser to leave my comment unwritten, but sometimes I can't help myself.

Since you brought it up, what WAS the value of his comment?

The original point was valid - that it is hard to read writing with many spelling and grammar errors.

Upper class privilege

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