I can’t afford to die now: My thoughts after making “Bear’s Restaurant”
As you may have heard by now, a little game called Bear’s Restaurant was recently released on the Nintendo Switch eShop worldwide. In just the span of a few days, the game has already reached #19 in the eShop’s Best Sellers ranking… To think how far I’ve come…
Bear’s Restaurant is a game that I originally released for smartphones two years ago. This was an important release for me, and one that marked a turning point in my life, so I’ve decided to write about it in the hopes that it might inspire some of you as well.
It’s been five years now since I first went indie.
At the time, I was the lead programmer for a number of smartphone games. I had built up a fruitful career in San Francisco. But what I was making at the company wasn’t the kind of game I wanted to make, and no matter how many games I made there, it never satisfied me. I was always working on my side projects, but it was always sort of half-assed. I was always wondering… “Have I ever REALLY poured my heart into a game before?”
When the company dissolved and I was laid off, I was already over 30 years old, so I figured if I was ever going to make my own game, this was my last chance. It was sort of scary to be unemployed, but at the same time, it made sense to make use of all the money I saved up to invest in this opportunity which I might not have in the future again.
I had a plan. I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to make JRPGs! I grew up with the games created by SquareSoft, such as Final Fantasy, Chrono Trigger, and the SaGa series. Trying to make my own JRPG just seemed like the natural choice. However, because I had professional experience in the game industry, I knew from the start that I could never make a game on such a massive scale as those games. Therefore, I decided to cut out the battle system and other aspects of the gameplay and keep only what was really necessary. It wasn’t long before I nailed down my idea and decided I’d stick to developing short, JRPG-style adventure games. I was a bit worried as to whether pixelated JRPGs might feel a little outdated in this day and age, but success stories like Undertale and To The Moon gave me the push I needed.
One key facet of my initial strategy was to focus on smartphone games because that was the platform I was familiar with and I knew exactly how those kinds of games are supposed to be crafted and published. I also knew that the chances of my first game being a smash hit were slim to none, so I decided to develop my own RPG production tool in order to create a foundation with which to build future games as well. While developing the tool, I released four games in two years: Clock of Atonement, Bluebird of Happiness, Angel Road, and Town of Tides. Some of them showed signs of promise early on, but the sales numbers were far from lucrative because the amount of money earned per player was too low!
After two years of game development, I still had a lot of money saved up, but my “mental savings” were starting to run low. It’s lonely being an indie game developer, after all. You start to lose touch with the people around you, and you start to feel like they’re leaving you behind. My former coworkers who were laid off at the same time were getting new jobs and starting new careers one after another. My income had dropped to about 1/20th of what it used to be. While everyone else was talking about stock options, I was receiving Obamacare and making short adventure games that didn’t sell….
Eventually, my mind got caught in this downward spiral, and I couldn’t stop thinking like…
What was I thinking, trying to make a living off of these pint-sized adventure games!? Why am I doing something that isn’t making money? I can’t do this anymore. If my next game doesn’t sell, I’ll get another job. Besides, even with a full-time job, I can still make games on the side, right? It’ll be fine!
However, I still wanted to give it one last try before I gave up. I decided to pull out all the stops and make one final game — the game that would become Bear’s Restaurant — as the culmination of my two years of work and a way to bookend this chapter of my life once and for all.
I did everything I could do. I reworked the scenario several times based on tester feedback, and I did everything I could to monetize it. I sent a bunch of review requests and set up a pre-order campaign. I even spent a few thousand dollars on advertising in the hopes that it might earn me a few more downloads. I didn’t want to have any regrets.
Finally, the release day arrived. And it was a bigger success than I could have ever anticipated. On the first day of the release, I saw a number of downloads that I had never seen before. It honestly didn’t feel real to me. The sales on the first day were 3000 USD, which was… very different from what I was used to, to say the least.
Thanks to the great success of Bear’s Restaurant, I was able to give up my job search and finally return to Japan. After all, there was no need for me to stay in the U.S. anymore if I could make a living from my games. Not to mention, San Francisco had long since lost its luster for me anyway. Smell ya later, Golden City.
After returning to Japan, I had a series of fortunate events, such as the success of my next game, Fishing Paradiso, and winning a prize at Google’s Indie Game Festival. Now, two years have passed, and with the release of Bear’s Restaurant for the Switch, I’m feeling more and more hopeful about the future. Not just because my games continue to be successful, but also because I feel like I’ve done it all and can overcome anything that might happen in the future. I don’t think I’ll ever go back to being an office worker again.
This is what I’ve always wanted to do. I’ve finally achieved my dream of being an indie game developer! It’s taken a whole lot of work, and even more dumb luck, but I pulled it off, and now I’m more than ready to take on the next challenge life throws at me. I already know it’ll be the most fun I’ve had in my life to date.
And you know what else? There’s one other feeling that I notice I’ve been having a lot lately.
I can’t afford to die now.