Sarah Lacy of Utopian World of Sandwiches pulls back the curtain on a life behind the games

Going indie

[Sarah Lacy is a concept artist and designer at developer Utopian World of Sandwiches, where she works with designer and animator James Woodrow. This article was originally published on the indie’s official website.]

Lots of people think about going from a comfy job to the crazy highs and lows of starting up alone. People often ask us what taking the plunge was like. We try to find the words to tell them that becoming indie and starting our business was the best thing we have done, but wow, it’s so hard.

We dreamed about this business for years (you might remember how long). One day we went to the pub with our friends and decided to do a game jam together. That is when we came up with Chompy Chomp Chomp.

That weekend was the beginning, it changed our lives. It was a game that we really believed in, we were finally doing it instead of just talking about it. And it felt like we were pretty good at it.

Not long after that Woody (James Woodrow) hit his "30 crisis". His birthday was like a cut off in his head and he came home from work one Friday and told me he was going to quit on the Monday. He said he was sick of just talking about doing it and that it was like deciding what to do with your lottery money when you don’t even play the lottery.

We’d just bought a house and spent most of our money on a holiday to Australia, and we didn’t have any savings left. So I decided to support him while he got the business up and running, he’s supported me so much after all.

Sometimes savings aren’t enough and you have to be prepared for anything, so having my wages as a safety net was ideal. I have a full time job and I freelance in my spare time so that we can afford to make games. Woody always quotes Jurassic Park at me when I worry about money "Life, uuuh, finds a way Sarah, life finds a way".

It has not been easy. At all.

We don’t see our friends as much as we used to. When we do we have to do cheap things or they have to play our games 40 times in a row with us watching their every move.

Lately we’ve only travelled for work stuff. We work long hours. I effectively have three or four jobs at a time, a full time job, two or three freelance jobs and making games with Woody, and we are still skint.

Right at the start I went through a really stressful period at my job where everything was changing and I was scared that my career was going in the wrong direction. The pressure of supporting Woody and our dream became a lot more stressful. Feeling the full weight of all of the responsibility is a lot to deal with. The stress took a physical and mental toll, it was one of the hardest times. After months of sleepless nights and head stress loops I was lucky enough to find a new job that makes me much happier.

It’s not easy to persevere, roll with the punches, keep the hope alive, scrape the bottom of your pocket for pennies when you know if you just got a job you could earn a pretty decent wage and not have to worry anymore.

Woody and I have this determination that I think of like a burning fire inside us. We talk sometimes about what would happen if we really couldn’t do it and it was all going to fall apart and all the many ways that it could fall apart. The fire seems to dwindle for a little while.

Sometimes one of us is down and the other is up, sometimes we are both rock bottom. But when we talk about all these hopes we have, all the ideas for game experiences that we could create, how we could make people feel or we see a family playing Chompies together and laughing their asses off, then we think… honestly… if more bad times are coming, let them come.

If we end up eating porridge out of a bin bag, we’ll still be making games. If we never have much and have to scrape by forever at least we can say we spent our lives doing what we are passionate about and we tried. There is nothing worse than boredom and apathy or a life lived without passion. We want to master the art of making games. It’s not about making the most amount of money or making specific games we like. It’s about exploring the art and craft of making the experiences that only a game can create. That is what gets us up in the morning.

When we got cushy nine-to-five jobs we forgot this. We got hooked into this cycle of work, sleep, work, sleep, wages, get drunk, work, sleep. We weren’t happy but we didn’t know why and didn’t realise we were numb. I still have a nine-to-five but now I’ve learned not to be numb, I have a job now that I care about because following my passion awakened me to what it is like to really care and I understand myself so much better. I have learned to keep pushing myself, to never get comfy again.

Behind every overnight success there are at least ten years of failures, learning and experience. We learn from failures a lot more than we learn from the successes and if we ever do achieve success it will feel sustainable and real.

We’ll have gained the knowledge from the journey to get there that we need for it to work long term and grown the business from the roots up. We’re learning more now faster than we ever have done. We measure our success on how much we learn. The worst thing to do would be to not try at all, which is what we did for too long.

And when I think about the past year, we’ve done some things that we just never thought would ever happen in our wildest dreams. We’ve released an Xbox game and a PC game that people seem to quite like. We’ve met some of our heroes, been to all the expos, been on podcasts and live streams.

We’ve met so many seriously awesome people who have supported us so much and who will probably never know what that means to us. Seeing a girl walk into the Loading bar during Etoo wearing a Chompy t-shirt was one of the most strangely humbling and heart warming moments of my life, I had just not expected that would ever happen unless they were a member of my family!

We’ve made friends with some amazing game developers who never stop inspiring us.

The indie community is awesome, everyone is so supportive and encouraging of each other. It’s great to be a tiny part of it. So for now just those little wins are more than enough for us to outweigh the seemingly large lows. It’s just feeding that fire that we won’t let burn out.

So, when you are trying to decide whether or not to go indie or start your own business, consider if and how you can keep your hypothetical cliche flame alive when everything, including yourself is trying to extinguish it.

You have to have that passion to keep going, because the money isn’t going to. If you think you are going to be able to buy a massive house and a fancy car and have a bunch of money coming in every month, you should go do something else. If you go to sleep thinking about games, and wake up having dreamt about them and are willing to sacrifice your own comfort to make you and everyone around you happy, then seriously what are you waiting for? Life is too short to spend time not doing what makes you happy.

People spend far too much time "being realistic". If people didn’t follow their crazy dreams then no one would ever achieve seemingly impossible things.

[Interested in contributing your own article for Develop’s readers? We’re always on the lookout for industry-authored pieces on development-related topics. Email for more details.]

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