Article #013

A Dark Room: From Sabbatical Year to $800,000

When Amir Rajan went on a sabbatical year, he found what he was supposed to do in life. He built a mobile game called "A Dark Room", which hit #1 on the App Store and grossed over $800,000. Sit down and read his success story.

A Dark Room

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Sit back. This is gonna be a long one.

TL;DR:

I did the whole "get a degree, get a job" thing. Ended up being incredibly well paid, but horribly empty because of corporate America. Decided to rage quit, downsize (sell pretty much everything I own), and take a sabbatical. After binge coding on random crap, I partnered with a guy in Canada and ported (adapted, reinterpreted, reenvisioned) a web-based, incremental, text-based game to iOS and Android. Welp. It went viral and hit the #1 spot. That let me extend my sabbatical for another three years. I built four more games, none of which succeeded. Now I'm back in Corporate America (luckily only part time now... I make enough off my games and other assets to not have to work all year).

The Long Version:

Frustration:

There is such a heavy dose of luck in success. There are those that will give one thousand percent, and because the role of the dice wasn't perfect, nothing materializes. They have as much love for 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 breath, but can't catch a good break to devote time to it. They have to look over at those that have the privilege 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.

I was one of the lucky ones. I saved up for ten years and was able to role once. I hit lucky number eleven. And even then, I still find myself having to grind in a 9 to 5 yet again. Sometimes it's fine. Other times, I feel like I should have never taken that sabbatical, remaining ignorant of the pure joy of finding your calling.

Before Sabbatical:

I did what you were supposed to do. Did well (really well) in school. Went to college. Got a degree in Software Engineering and Computer Science. Did internships and landed a job as a developer for an insurance company right out of college. I did that for three years (two years of internships, one year as a full-time employee). I then went to work for a company that builds veterinary software. Did that for a couple of years.

I really really loved coding. Lived and breathed it. I interviewed at a prestigious consulting company and got in on the ground floor. Spent three years there only to be scooped up by another consulting powerhouse. So here I am with a disgusting $140,000 in total compensation. A sea of cubicles, soulless sheep that want nothing more than to do their time and go home. I didn't belong cause I actually cared about my craft.

I tried to compensate for my unfulfilling corporate work with open source development after hours. This took a toll on my familial relationships (45 hours a week working, then trying to get another 30 hours on nights and weekends, doesn't leave much time for anything else). I was on the brink of collapse. I had to choose: lose my sanity, my wife, or my job. I decided to get rid of the job. 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".

During Sabbatical:

It was great to breathe. I was 178 pounds at 5'8 (a little portly). That changed during the sabbatical. It took me three months just to figure out what my routine looked like. I'd code on whatever my heart desired. It was wonderful. I didn't even know what day it was. I didn't miss my stuff. I didn't miss the anxiety attacks I got Sunday nights before having to go to work. All of that gone. By month four I came across the web-based version of A Dark Room. I immediately connected with its sparse presentation. I reached out the Michael and asked his permission to port it to mobile. That night I lost track of time. I blinked and it was 3 am. I had never felt that kind of loss of time before. Nothing around me existed, it was just me and my creation. After another four months, A Dark Room was done and released to the App Store. It got a whopping thirty downloads the first day. I didn't care. Cause it was my creation and it was awesome. I redesigned so much of the original game. So much of me went into it. Oh, and I dropped 30 pounds too. Best shape of my life.

I still remember one of my happiest days. It was early January. I was working on a stupid little multiplayer fighting game written in JavaScript and Pixi.js. I didn't care that ADR was barely getting 10 downloads a day, I didn't care that my savings were dwindling away. I found what I was supposed to do (build digital, evocative experiences).

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Savings Dwindling:

The party was over at this point. My savings were dwindling down. A Dark Room was making its meager two thousand downloads a month (after Apple's cut, taxes, and splits, that's not a lot to take home). I started interviewing again for a job. I was better mentally, physically. And I never want my wife's quality of life to suffer (she was still in college at the time). Being the main breadwinner of the home, I knew I had to suck it up and go back to work. I wasn't okay with it, but I knew it was my responsibility. I was interviewed again for those big salaries. I would save as much as possible given my now humble lifestyle. After I had enough cash tucked away, I'd quit and try again. Then. A Dark Room went viral. Out of nowhere, it made $800 in one day. Then it made $1,200 in one day. Then it made $5,000. Then it made $8,000. Then it hit the #1 spot and I woke up with a $20,000 sales report.

Income Graph

A Dark Room at #1:

A Dark Room stayed at the number one spot. I was elated the first day. I was on cloud nine the second day. Then reality reared its ugly face with a sobering message: "this will come to an end."

So I waited for it to come to an end. I didn't sleep for 18 days. My life: was hitting the refresh button on the App Store, seeing if I had fallen. I'd do it every 3 hours on the hour, day or night. I did it for eighteen days. I read every review that came through. I'd refresh the page again and see if I had dropped. This was my life. I was waiting for all this success to end. 250,000 downloads later, A Dark Room finally fell from the #1 spot. It was over. From there sales dwindled. After another four months, I was down to 100 downloads a day. I had recouped what I had "spent" taking the sabbatical (and then some). My wife was tired of living in a cramped one-bedroom apartment. So, we put a huge down payment on a house.

After A Dark Room Fell:

I built a prequel to A Dark Room called The Ensign. It did okay (nowhere near as successful.. but not bad... this was around the time I did my interview with Indie Hackers). I wrote a book about Surviving the App Store too. I put my heart and soul into a game inspired by Edwin Abbot's "Flatland: Romance of Many Dimensions" called A Noble Circle. I created a digital Go board after binge-watching Hikaru no Go. I built a touched based mobile RTS called Mildly Interesting RTS (MIRTS for short). Every game had "me" in it. I didn't do ads, I didn't do micro-transactions, scummy energy bars, and all those other bullshit monetization tactics. I ported A Dark Room to Android (which was almost not worth it). I did everything to keep building games. I wrote about all of my journeys, presented, did podcasts, hoping to inspire others. And yet revenue kept dwindling. The writing was on the wall. Everything I did after ADR wasn't enough. And I got a job.

Now:

So here I am. Updating all my games to work well on iPhone X. Because I love them. I try to build what I can in my free time. But I'm back in Corporate America (it's been ten months so far). Two months in, everything became too real. My journey as a game dev was really over. I got so frustrated. I purged everything online. Took the book down, deleted all of my Reddit entries, my developer logs, my open source games. I removed all of it. All the content I created felt like a lie. Cause even with all this "success", I couldn't keep my dream going. I felt so much worse off because I got a taste of a fulfilling life that I wish I had been ignorant to. It has been eight months since "The Purge". I'm much better now. Mostly invisible outside of already established relationships. I stream occasionally on Twitch, keep my games maintained, and work on new ones as time allows.

I no longer deal with anxiety attacks Sunday nights at the thought of "clocking in" Monday morning. I'm at peace with it. The people I once called sheep, aren't that. They just didn't have the means to roll the dice. All code I see is beautiful in its own way. It tells a story of the reasonable programmers put in unreasonable situations. Again, I'm one of the lucky ones. Because maybe in another year, I'll have enough play money saved up to roll the dice again.

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Silver Lining:

My games provide a stable passive income (and I have a decade worth of emergency funds in the bank). 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). More importantly, I've very recently acquired the platform that helped me create my labors of love: RubyMotion. So between my games, subscription revenue, and my well-paying contract gigs, I do alright for myself. Thank you, Lady Luck. And my sincerest, deepest apologies for the 99.9999% that will never see the "failure" I've seen. I really do empathize with you. And I wish I had a better story.

Numbers?

I'm sure some of you are asking about numbers. Do you remember the title of this post? Do you remember what I said about the 99.9999% failure rate? Do you remember what I said about privilege, and eating your cake and having it too? What's the point of talking about the numbers I'm making now? So you can dream of one day making these numbers too? You won't. Start with that understanding, and work from there.

But if you really want numbers, here are some of the numeric sacrifices I made to roll the dice once:

- Have a 4.0 GPA through High School.

- Graduate #36 out of a class of 800+.

- Go to a community college cause it's cheap.

- Work two jobs in the summer to pay for college and save up.

- Go to university in 2001 when it was still possible to pay out of pocket and graduate without crippling debt.

- Get a degree in something that is valued. Even better if you actually like what you got a degree in.

- Land a job right out of school that makes you $55k a year.

- 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.

- Don't have kids. Don't get sick. Don't have any catastrophic events that leave you bankrupt. Probably best to just not leave the house.

- Quit your job. Sell everything. Liquidate your 401k. Pay all the tax penalties.

- Live without insurance cause COBRA costs $2000 a month. Still, don't have kids. Don't get sick. Don't have any catastrophic events that leave you bankrupt.

- Now you can take a year and a half off and roll the dice once.

You can dismiss what I've written and cling to all the success stories online; dreaming that you'll get that too. But you probably won't. And that's okay. I shouldn't have either.

Failory Opinion

With a sabbatical year, Amir started his own business and stop feeling empty, by finding what he was supposed to do in life. He received a kiss from Lady Luck and achieved success with his app "A Dark Room". But as we always say, chances of failing are always present. During the last years, they have risen to 90% (Amir ensures this number is even higher, 99.9999%) and succeeding with your startup is the most similar to the role of a dice. 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 achieve success. From the previous 9, we will have learned from our mistakes. When smart and hard work meets luck, ventures like "A Dark Room" achieve success.

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