People say that to become successful, you need to hang out with successful people and learn from them.
I’ve always had a problem with that. Not because I don’t know successful people — but because I’m usually too proud or shy to ask for advice. But this year, I’m changing that. I’m going to talk to successful people I know, and approach successful people I don’t know for advice. And I’ll share what I learn with you.
Today, we’re talking to Sim a.k.a. Nerdook. He’s an old friend of mine who left a promising engineering career with PETRONAS to start his own computer game development business. His games are critically acclaimed pieces of art, and have been played over 50 million times. Best of all — his business is done fully on the Internet, so he works from home. Just like all those wonderful stories you read from The $100 Startup. I think he’s an amazing success in career and life.
This is what he’s got to say…
1. You’ve achieved tremendous international success in a few short years. What’s your proudest achievement?
Well, first of all, “tremendous international success” is a bit of an exaggeration, since I’m considered one of the lower tier indie developers on the scene. However, my proudest achievement is being able to make games full time for a living at all: it’s not easy to throw everything away and start from scratch, especially leaving a stable and rewarding job with a large oil and gas corporation like PETRONAS. There are times when I do wonder whether I’m doing the right thing, even now!
2. That’s wonderful. Correct me if I’m wrong, but computer games have always been your passion. What do you think about the advice of “Follow your passion, and find a way to get paid for it?” We hear it all the time, but it seems like a distant fairytale for the average person. For example, I really like basketball — but I’ll likely never make any money from it.
I once read an article by Mike Rowe, the guy from “Dirty Jobs”, answering a question from a fan after he gave the advice to NOT “Follow your passion”. (Here’s the link to the full reply). Basically, he says that “Follow your passion” by itself is terrible advice, “as though its wisdom were both incontrovertible and equally applicable to all”, which it obviously isn’t. Mike Rowe suggests that the question be rephrased as “You may follow your passions, but ask yourself for how long and to what end?” In his career, he’s seen plenty of people who aren’t afraid to dream big, but he’s seen even more where they have obviously bitten off way more than they can chew, and then are crushed when they realize just how unrealistic their dreams really are.
Screenshot from Vertical Drop Heroes HD
3. What was it like for you when you were first starting out? Did you face any additional challenges because you were (then) an unknown developer from a third-world country, playing in international markets?
When I first started, nobody would have believed it was even possible (or even knew what a game developer is). Whenever someone from Malaysia would ask, I would say “I make web games!” and they would go “Oh is that IT sector-ah?” With the explosive growth of iOS games and the rise of Facebook casual gaming, I would say it’s a more acceptable job nowadays (now they say “Oh is that like Angry Birds-ah?”), though I get the feeling that people do silently wonder why I’m not doing a more “reliable” job, like engineering.
As for the international market thing, the best and worst thing about the Internet is that it’s a true meritocracy, and everyone has a fair chance. There are a LOT of competitors, but if you stick with what you believe and really improve your quality over time, you will eventually have a chance to rise about the others. Sturgeon’s Law states that “90% of everything is crap”, and that’s even more true of the Internet, so my focus was to work hard enough to rise above the 90% and into the 10% that isn’t completely crap. So there were no additional challenges or barriers — or at least — no more than anyone starting out from zero will face.
4. Would you mind sharing how much you’ve made as an indie game developer so far?
Haha! The answer to that question is: “More than you expect, but less than you think!” It’s enough to get by, but definitely less than the average salary I would have if I had stayed with an oil and gas company. My income varies depending on the number of games released that year, the sponsorship amount for each game (for web games) and the frequency of sales or promotions (for Steam games).
I am small, I can keep my costs low, so there’s less pressure on earning back large initial investments that larger game developer teams might have.
“It is perfect for gamers who are into roguelike games and who also like platformers and RPGs. And of course, fans of Nerdook would certainly appreciate and enjoy this updated classic.” 8.0
– Review on ThatVideoGameBlog –
5. According to your post on IndieGames.com, you managed to release an average of a game every 2 months in 2010-2012. All while having a full-time job, a girlfriend, and rumor has it that your yearly appraisals were rated “Outstanding”. How did you manage to balance your passion, while still performing so well for your day job?
Simple! Lack of sleep. And I never got an “Outstanding” rating by the way — that’s an unfounded rumor. I think I really pushed myself really hard during that time: work in the mornings and afternoons, game programming in the evenings/night, and I would often sleep at 1 or 2 am after a supper at the local mamak. It’s not the healthiest lifestyle, and I did fall asleep at the wheel during traffic light stops a few times after a really long day at the office. If I didn’t enjoy game development as much as I did, I would have given up after a year or so… it’s just not worth it in the early days, especially when my very first game only earned $5… in total…. even after all these years!
6. Your Reddit AMA says that you’re a stay-at-home dad now. What’s your typical work / dad duty day like?
Yes! Believe it or not, my life dream was to be a stay-at-home dad, although nobody ever believed me when I said so. My daughter is 2 years old now, and any parent will tell you that’s when the “fun” really starts. I typically wake up at around 8-9am, and my parents would come over to spend some time with me and the kid (thanks Mum and Dad!). I’d go out for lunch with my wife (who works really hard in her own 9-to-5 job, and is waiting for me to be successful enough for her to retire) and then wait for the kid to go to sleep in the afternoon.
I can only ever get any work done when the kid is asleep, so I’m only able to work during her afternoon naps or late at night, just before going to bed. Most stay at home parents will tell you that this is pretty much the only free time we have, and on stubborn days, there’s sometimes no free time for work/relaxing at all!
7. Would you say then that the greatest part of your “job” is that you can stay and home and watch your baby girl grow up?
Well, yeah, I guess so. And the fact that I have a much more flexible schedule and can spend more time with my family, or adjust my schedule when things come up unexpectedly. The cost — is of course — a much more unpredictable income stream: sometimes I do miss having a constant paycheck at the end of every month!
8. I’ve known you for more than a decade. Despite your international success, I’ve never seen you flash any signs of material wealth. Is it fair to say you’ve always been thrifty, or is there a BMW parked somewhere at home that we don’t know about?
No BMW, I’m even driving the same Kancil you saw me with in our university days. Again, there’s no huge international success, just a typical middle income Malaysian family, so whatever is left over from the earnings gets invested or saved for a rainy day (like most middle income families). I do splurge occasionally on small luxuries like board games, often after a successful sale or game release! Back in my hometown Kuching, nobody really puts any value on flashing material wealth, and spending time with the family is sometimes more precious than anything money can buy… 🙂
9. I see outstanding Malaysian technopreneurs like yourself in the news every once in a while, but they’re few and far between. What do you think is the problem — is it due to the education system?
I don’t think it’s purely the education system… it’s more of a cultural thing, maybe? Malaysians in general are not huge risk takers (except when driving like maniacs on the road???), and when it comes to something like career, the general thinking goes something like this: if you’re good in studies, you study real hard and work for a degree that gives you a good chance for a stable, long-term job, like engineering, or accounting, or law, or banking, or medicine.
If you’re not academically inclined for whatever reason, you go into business if your parents are rich (or take over your parents’ business if they are really rich), or you work for someone else in a vocational or entry position. There’s not a lot of drive to really go for entrepreneurship options, and even less in the technology sector, which remains an arcane art for most of the population, and with good reason: a big percentage of entrepreneurs are destined for failure in their early years, and few parents would ever want their child to take that risk.
Nerdook draws the artwork for his games himself
10. Does Nerdook Productions have any plans to expand? My gut feeling tells me you’re being deliberately “small” — which allows you flexibility to spend time with your family, as opposed to chasing an IPO and heading down the “corporate” path.
Not at the moment, but my company is currently in a partnership with Digerati Distributions in the US, where they handle the publishing/marketing side of things and I do the development/design part. I don’t think I’m going to do any multimillion dollar IPO anytime soon, or manage to achieve anything like Notch’s runaway success with Minecraft (an interesting story by itself, by the way), but I’ll take it one day at a time and see how things go.
11. Do you have any final words of advice for aspiring entrepreneurs out there?
Okay, here’s my advice: if you’re really going to jump into an industry as an entrepreneur, make sure you do so with your eyes wide open. Learn as much as you can about the industry you’re going into before taking that first step. This is important: you must understand what you’re getting into, and it should preferably be something you already have a good knowledge of, whether from experience in the industry (which is best!) or from extensive reading (which is better than nothing). Know the risks, learn the game, and have a plan laid out possibly years in advance. The maxim is “Hope for the best but prepare for the worst”… work hard and try for success, but if you do fail (and most people do, initially) you should have a backup plan or some way to salvage the situation. If you have commitments like a family, your risk exposure will be different.
You should also look into incorporation or partnerships as a way to mitigate your risks, and be especially wary of taking on huge debts to bet on the “next big thing”… every dollar you borrow will be another dollar and change you have to repay, so you should make sure every dollar you have is used to its maximum potential.
12. We’re all fans of seeing homegrown Malaysians having success internationally. What can we do to support Nerdook Productions?
Well, you can buy my games to directly support me, but there’s usually giveaways and if you’re a friend I can always give you a copy for free. The best thing you can do is just let people know I exist, and maybe one day I’ll make a game that you truly enjoy and think “Hey, that was totally worth it!”
You can follow my Facebook page or visit my website too… I post updates there, if any, and it always helps to have more people even know of my existence. 🙂 Unlike those MLM posts from your Facebook friends, I promise not to spam your wall with constant notices and thinly veiled advertisements!