Working From Home As An Indie

February 4, 2011

Now that I’m officially a full-time indie game developer, for the first time in my life I am working from home full-time on games. Many of my game developer friends have also started working full-time from home in the past few months, partly because of all the game studios shutting down in our city recently. Working from home has its own set of unique challenges that aren’t initially obvious. Today’s entry is a list of tips I use to be as productive as I can while striking a good work-life balance.

The biggest complaint I hear (and face) from working full-time at home is the fact your “always on”. Unlike trudging off to work for 8-12 hours per day where there is a definite line between work and home, the line is blurred. This list is mainly ways I go about emulating that distinct line between working and relaxing.

Kill Switch

The best way I can shift my mind from work to relaxation is what I call a “kill switch”. Some activity that completely resets your brain, clears out everything you’ve been thinking about and lets you get into the relaxation zone (rather than the work “zone”). For me this kill switch is Company of Heroes (CoH). As soon as I finish for the day, I have a game of CoH and everything I was thinking about is blocked out. I put 100% of my concentration into playing the game and come out the other end with a clear head ready to relax for the evening. For other people this kill switch comes in the form of WoW. After a hard day they sit and relax, focussing their mind on Azeroth to help forget the stresses of the day.

Whatever the game or activity the important purpose is to put a barrier between work and “not work”. Many people already have this activity they perform, but don’t consciously do it at the end of the day to form a barrier. It becomes a routine and lets your brain form the habit of switching off after the activity is complete.

As game developers, the bonus of this kill switch being a game is that it forces me to actually play a game (even if it’s just one). One of the most noticeable differences in my life since becoming a game developer is that I play a lot less games. I believe it’s vital for game developers to play games to keep a view on the gaming landscape as it changes from year to year. It’s also important to see our craft from the other side, as a gamer.

Working Area

The second important way of differentiating my time is having a separate area that is used only for work. In the current age, this can be quite difficult as often the computer is the centre of both work and entertainment. By keeping my working area separate from everything else at home there is a definitive area that is my work station. I pretend like I’m “heading to the office” when I walk over to my desk and when I’m here, it’s all business.

I find my iPad is a great way for me to be connected while not “working”. Rather than sitting at my computer surfing the web or sending personal emails, I’ll sit on the couch with my iPad on my lap.

Laptops are also perfect ways of physically relocating to be outside of my work area. If I need a computer for something personal, I’ll take my laptop and sit on the couch. It may seem silly, but this small difference is enough for me to not feel like I’m working.

Set Standard Hours

This is an easy one. I’ve found a lot of Indie friends begin working sporadic hours when they start working from home. While its great fun to stay up until 3am getting that last task finished I’ve found it has a detrimental effect in the long run. I like to get 10 hours of work into a day and so I set myself a start and end time. I begin work around 6am and finish at 4pm. I’ll set my status to “do not disturb” and I’ll work through as solidly as I can. One important key is that if something comes up that interrupts me, I don’t count that time towards my day. So if something takes my attention for an hour, then I at it to the end of the day and finish at 5pm. After a few days of working 6am-7pm I quickly realised the importance of cutting out interruptions.

Whether you want to be as strict as that or not, the key is keeping consistent working hours that are sustainable for a long period. Software development is a marathon, not a sprint and it’s important to schedule your day to fit this. If you find you’re burning out after a few days or weeks then look at adjusting your work hours to better fit the long-haul.

Write Everything Down

Getting Things Done” is a great book that I’ve spoken about countless times in the past. I recommend it for everyone, particularly those working from home. It helps you to become more productive and sort your life out. The main key I get from this is that I make lists for everything. As soon as I think of something, particularly if it’s outside of “work hours” I write it down, set a reminder in outlook for the next day and don’t think about it again. If I am laying in bed and something pops into my head I’ll add it to my to-do list and then forget about it.

Email Separation

This is another easy one. I like to make sure I can’t get work emails during non-work time. This is easy when working in an office as when you’re away from your desk you usually can’t access your email. It’s important to set up a similar barrier when working from home, much like the physical workspace. I set up different rules on my iPhone so I don’t get push notifications for work emails. If I’m at my desk working it’ll arrive in my inbox but if I’m out for the evening I won’t be distracted by it. There’s nothing worse than getting an email you need to act upon, or that has bad news in it when you’ve finished working for the day. This is particularly important when working with overseas publishers or customers with emails coming in at all hours.


Do you have any other tips for working from home on indie games? Whether working full-time or part-time at home, how do you go about keeping a good work-life balance?

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  • richtaur

    I guess I don’t need a “kill switch” or to switch gears or whatever because making games is exactly the same thing as playtime to me.

  • Doolwind


    Are you doing it full-time? I found I was the same as this until I started doing it 10+ hours a day 5+ days per week. Also with deadlines and other external influences it makes it harder to enjoy as much as it was when it was just a hobby.

  • Gutenberg Neto

    That’s a great post! I’ve been working from home in the past few months (not full-time though) and some of these tips will help me for sure!

  • David McGraw

    Excellent thoughts! I just recently transitioned to indie due to a studio closure as well. It’s all still relatively new so I’m trying to find the right balance. As it stands, my days are pretty sporadic and can last into the 3 AM time period.

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  • Natalie

    I have found that the most important is for people you live with / see regularly to take your work routine seriously and for me, this required a few intense discussions to get there.

    I don’t stay in front of my computer for the whole day though. Indeed, I am using this as a chance for a healthier lifestyle so I do take walks during the day, quite often “thinking walks” where I muse about a problem I can’t solve and try to get a different perspective on it.

    Another important aspect of working from home is to know yourself/your body. For instance, I have noticed that my brain is very alert first thing in the morning so in my case, working in the evening would be a stupid idea as it would upset my sleep pattern and my next morning, which is my most efficient natural working time. However, some people think clearer in the evenings so it might make sense for them to work then. Take the time to observe how well/not well your brain is reacting at specific times of the day and adapt your work schedule accordingly.

  • Toni Sala

    I totally agree with the “Kill Switch” issue. Is it necessary to do the switch but for me it is very difficult to go to play some game. Since I got full-time indie I haven’t played a single AAA game. I mean, I played lots of casual games during 10-15 minutes sessions (specially iPhone games) but nothing else. My brand new Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood for 360 is on the shelf still sealed T_T

  • Agnes

    Yeah, ‘kill switch’ is very very important. It is best to be something unrelated with computers … that way the switch works a lot better, otherwise the line can be rather blurry. Oh, better, something that can’t be “multi-tasked” together with a laptop on your lap … watching tv is therefore not good.

  • Walter

    I’ve been working from home for 5 years now and come up against each of the things you mentioned about. But probably the biggest change I’ve made is to adopt the 50:10 rule.

    Every 50 minutes (or close to) I take a 10 minute break away from the computer doing something completely different. Every 3 hours I also take 30 minutes off on top.

    That’s it! Such a simple rule but it’s stopped me ‘burning out’ during my 12 hour days when I used to get distracted by other things like personal emails, slashdot, techcrunch etc.

  • Damian

    One of the people that works for us remotely has similar problems:

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    I’m interested in building a game and I wanted to know that if i take help of any publisher like .. say chillingo .. what shares would be mine? any one have any idea?

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