Eight years ago, Ben Johnson had graduated college and needed something on his resume. Johnson decided to make a game. The Australian programmer figured it would take a few months to make his mixture of Diablo, Grand Theft Auto 2 (the overhead one), and an obscure indie shooter named Soldat. It took much longer. The game that launched on Steam this week, Geneshift, would ultimately take nearly a decade to finish. Along the way, Johnston would leave his home, move around the world, and build a game in a place where he didn't understand the language.
"Programmers are bad at estimating time," he told me.
When it became clear that Geneshift was going to take longer than the summer, Johnson had to find a way to subsidize his newfound development hobby. For a few years, that meant delivering pizza, but he eventually landed a full-time software engineering gig that took up more of his time. In 2012, he submitted the game to Steam's Greenlight program under its old name, Mutant Factions.
He isn't just Geneshift's programmer, either. He's also the game's primary artist, composer, designer—you name it. (Members of the community built a few maps.)
Johnson figured things were clicking into place. A small group of testers were playing his top-down multiplayer shooter, a now playable game with GTA 2-style vehicles and Diablo skill trees. Then, some fans starting asking about a potential zombie mode. Zombies were all the rage at the time, and Johnson wanted to ride the wave. Riding that wave took roughly a year, but simultaneously, Johnston became inspired to build a single-player campaign into the game.
You can probably see where this is going, right?
"I massively underestimated the time this would take, but once I got started on the campaign, I was determined to finish it."
As the game continued to expand in scope, it would be two years before Geneshift was approved through Greenlight, which provided the push for Johnson to quit his job and begin working on the game full-time. Moving in with his parents wasn't an option, so Johnson became reliant on his savings—about $20,000—until the game was finished. The problem, of course, was the same as before: programmers are bad at estimating time. He was quickly running out of money.
The solution Johnson came up with was leaving his home and trying to find places with a cheaper cost of living than Australia, so he started jumping from hostel-to-hostel in various parts of the world. "It's a strange thing to be fixing bugs in a hostel room while a bunch of travelers are singing on the acoustic guitar next to you," he said.
This went on for about 18 months, before he settled down in Arequipa, Peru's second largest—and largely industrialized—city. He chose Peru because there were fewer tourists, and he could live on roughly $30 per day, which gave him a way to balance his depleted savings and rising debt.
"The whole experience was surreal and I didn't really know what to expect," he said. "The first thing I noticed was how strange it is to start a new life from scratch. Not only do you say goodbye to all your friends and family, but you can't even talk with strangers anymore, either, as very few people in Peru speak English."
Peru is a country in flux, as it's slowly grown to become a major player in the world economy. This means the poverty rate has dropped significantly in some areas—in the city's capital, Lima, it went from 44.8% of the population in 2004 to 15.7% in 2013, according to The New York Times—but not others. It's often described as a country with two populations: one booming, another left behind.
"I was so lucky just to be born in a place like Australia. So many people in Peru are struggling to get by. I knew I always had a way out."
As Johnson worked on Geneshift, he often saw the latter, and found it humbling. "The main lesson I learned while living in Peru was how incredibly lucky I am," he said. "I was so lucky just to be born in a place like Australia. So many people in Peru are struggling to get by. And even though I was struggling to manage my credit cards, I knew I always had a way out."
He was in debt, yes, but a privileged debt of his own making. He chose this. At any point, Johnson could have hopped on a flight back to Australia, found himself a comfortable programming job, and lived in relative peace and prosperity. The people he was working around didn't necessarily have that option.
As 2017 rolled around, it became clear, after eight long years, that Geneshift was finally nearing completion. The game had come into its own while Johnson was in Peru, and he became infatuated with launching from his home away from home. One problem gave him pause: he was constantly losing access to electricity and Internet in Peru. It'd always come back, but it wasn't exactly reliable.
"I was stubborn," he said, "thinking that I had to launch in Peru, or the mission wouldn't be complete."
He smartly decided against the idea, relocating to Australia for the release this week, where GIFs for the game have been blowing up on reddit. It's too early to tell if Geneshift will be a success, but Johnson said the weird journey's been worth it.
"At first I used to ask myself," he said, "'What if the past eight years doesn't pay off? What if it all fails? […] Even if the game completely flops, I'm still going to have a good life, anyway, and should be grateful for that. Honestly, I'm lucky to even be able to attempt something like this."