Planes, Games, and Automobiles: The Nomads of Game Development
Developers like Rami Ismail, Adriel Wallick, and Tom Sennett live life on the road—but that's only helped them to make games that reflect the world around them.
Photo by Sean Connelly
The first person Tom Sennett told about his plan to make video games while living out of a van was the guy he bought it from off Craigslist. The second was his boss when he quit his comfortable office job in New York City. His family was, needless to say, confused when he finally got around to them.
Though he'd never met Sennett, Sean Connelly found himself in a situation similar in the fall of 2014, after nine years at his home in Maryland. After years spent paying off his student loan debt, he'd achieved the financial freedom to change his life. Connelly no longer had an excuse for putting up with living a brutally budgeted existence, so he decided to take a terrifying step. He sold his two-story house and donated nearly all his worldly possessions to charity. No matter. He was going to live in a van and make video games.
The world of game development is steadily diversifying in ways previous generations might never have imagined. Cottage game industries are swiftly popping up in locations like Israel, Shanghai, and Argentina, but a small subset of creators have begun to take up their own unique residences, free from borders and any sense of restraint.
For Devine Lu Linvega and Rekka Bellum, it's waking up at the crack of dawn to make games on their boat while sailing the Pacific Ocean. For Rami Ismail and Adriel Wallick, it's living out of one airport terminal at a time, and never being quite sure if the other is looking at the same stars as them. These are the nomads of game development.
"My name is Tom Sennett, and I don't give a fuck."
Those are the words Sennett chose to introduce himself with during the 2011 Indiecade Festival, after receiving an award for best game design on Deepak Fights Robots. Growing frustrated by the level of mainstream marketing that particular year's festival featured, Sennett let fly with the aggressive remark as a protest against major publishers leeching off of the independence of indie game developers. It was a sense of individualism that would color much of his own work and lifestyle.
On paper, everything in Sennett's life was fine. He had moved to New York City with his girlfriend, gotten a nice job in a nice office, nice coworkers, a nice salary, and plenty of new friends. After a year of living together, a difficult breakup destabilized much of what Sennett had built up around himself.
"Every day I would wake up and hate riding the train, hated going to work, even though I had a good job and worked with good people in that office. Every day." As Sennett tells me this, his natural charm is unable to hide the recalled exasperation. "I've wanted to be a game developer since I was five years old, and it was always something I was putting off. The further I got into my career, the more it felt impossible that I was ever going to get out of it and make games. I was at a point where I wanted to reevaluate what I wanted out of life."
In Maryland, Sean Connelly felt just as trapped.
"It just eats away at you," Connelly says. "One of the ways I've looked at it was that corporate life felt like being in a zoo, where if you're a lion, things are comfortable. Your food is given to you, you're safe, there's no challenge, you're just living this leisure lifestyle day to day. Now I have something I really love to do. If I could make just a little bit of money from what love, I would much rather do that than waste away in a cubicle waiting for the weekend."
The rise of the "digital nomads" could likely have only been achieved in our modernized, hyper-connected world, where entrepreneurs are able to sustain an online business independent of any centralized location. Online resources like the Digital Nomad Forum and Remote OK allow these traveling businessmen and women to communicate between one another and exchange job or travel information.
It wasn't until Sennett and Connelly researched the lifestyle that their grandiose dreams of living independently seemed within reach. Both settled on living out the van-dwelling lifestyle. Their families were, understandably, a bit concerned.
"My dad, he was very skeptical at first—almost offended—which is really funny to me," Connelly says. "This is just my interpretation, but he has a lot of stuff, so for me to say that I'm going to in a lot of ways reject consumerism, get rid of all my crap and live a tiny lifestyle, to him that was very shocking."
Connelly spent $40,000 on renovations for his van, constructing a bed, a kitchen, a full electrical system, and even a work station. Photo by Sean Connelly
"People were definitely worried I was going crazy at the time," Sennett says. "I called up my parents while I was doing everything, and the next day I called my mom and she says my dad is in the hospital. It turned out it was a problem with his gallbladder, but it basically felt like I might have put my dad in the hospital. Because he turned out OK, it was funny in the end, but at the time I was horrified."
Eventually, the worry and hesitation gave way to conversation. The ideals both men wanted to strive for—individualism, independence, minimalism—started to make sense to their loved ones. After a lot of discussion, each family became invested in their son's plans. Connelly's father, a carpenter, even helped to craft a miniature home inside his son's 2015 Dodge Ram ProMaster van.
Nearly $40,000 later, Connelly had his new home, complete with a bed, sink, closet, and hardwood flooring. On his personal blog, Connelly is quick to tout the fact that replacing a single sewer pipe at his old home would have cost more than it did to build his entire new abode.
Sennett, on the other hand, felt just as comfortable with a simple matress and two bags in his 2002 Dodge conversion van.
Divorced from the drab reality of an office cubicle and any semblance of normalcy, creativity and inspiration become much more omnipresent forces. This is especially apparent while traveling the world's more scenic routes: Routines and normal conceptions of how to fuel the imagination become meaningless.
"You have to think about everything you're doing." Sennett says. "Where am I going to the bathroom? Where am I going to eat today?"
For Sennett, no game of his own creation captures the soul-sucking lifestyle he escaped better than the aptly titled Hate Your Job. A simple mobile title, Hate Your Job places players in the shoes of a cartoonish office employee, frantically dodging paperwork, staplers, and co-workers before flinging yourself off the top of the building, the screen cutting to black before impact. It's reminiscent of factory labor conditions at places like Foxconn, the Chinese facility contracted by Apple during its 2010 production of iPhones and iPads. Infamous for a string of worker suicides in the same year, the facility installed netting around building exteriors to prevent overworked employees from taking their lives.
But Sennett doesn't end the short mobile game on a dour note. While each in-game work day cuts to black just before the man collides with the earth, on Friday, the character actually hits the ground. Instead of a grisly end, however, he simply bounces until he lands back on his feet, pauses, and walks away.
It's a brief glimpse of optimism, something that surely Sennett and Connelly cling onto when their travels become difficult.Sennett's own travel came to an abrupt end when his van broke down shortly before the 2016 Game Developers Conference.
"I had limped across the west Texas desert, through New Mexico, and made it to Scottsdale, Arizona. I took it into the shop and they told me I needed a new engine," Sennett says. "After that, I was kind of freaking out. Like, what the fuck am I going to do? I don't have a place to live."
Sennett was forced to ask a massive favor of an Arizona-based-friend: Sell his van on Craigslist, and get his belongings back to his parents' residence in Pennsylvania while he rushed for a plane to San Francisco. His friend didn't even hesitate.
"It was such a calming, reassuring thing for me," Sennett says. "I feel like I've had a lot of moments like that where people are just there for me, unquestionably, all the time. I don't want to take advantage of that. I told everyone I was OK when I was leaving New York, which I was and still am, but I've definitely been in a time in my life when I need the people around me."
High Seas Household
And when land, and privacy, aren't an option, that sense of an extremely finite space can carry all the more weight.
For independent designers Devine Lu Linvega and Rekka Bellum, staying creative is intrinsically tied to going to new places. After Linvega's work visa was denied renewal in 2015, he and Bellum were forced to leave their home in Japan, returning to their hometown of Montreal, and falling into old habits. The two began to brainstorm how they could continue living their preferred mobile and minimalist lifestyle, ideally eschewing the need for any complicated visa procedures. The idea of sending everything they owned to a new, far off location wasn't appealing. For the two of them, nothing felt more foreign than the ocean.
They settled on buying a 1982 Yamaha Sloop boat, naming it "Pino," sitting at 33 feet in length and 50 feet tall, for $38,000, all with the help of over 170 backers on Patreon.
"I'd never been on a boat before," Linvega says. "I knew nothing about swimming, electricity, or electronics work. I could have supposed all these things, like 'oh, it'll be really educational,' but we didn't know. Day one, the toilet broke and I had no idea how to fix it. Looking back now, yeah, I could say one of the best things is that we are learning every day."
Between their projects, the couple dove into books on nautical life, comparing images of professional sailing setups with their own to learn if they were correctly hoisting their sails. They set up multiple solar panels along the boat's exterior for power, fixed the mast boot, the ceiling, and installed their own radio.
The couple have spent a majority of their six months sailing around the British Columbia waters, most recently making their way through hundreds of nautical miles towards San Francisco. Only a month before, an unforgiving storm denied them their wish to sail to Hawaii. Yet one of their biggest snags came from the most ironic of sources: Yamaha's accompanying manual, written in Japanese.
The two weren't completely helpless thanks to their time in Japan, but the intricate instructions were far beyond their elementary understanding of the language. Forced to learn by inferring what they didn't already know, the two used that experience and their fascination with language as inspiration for their current game, Markle. A turn-based puzzle platformer, Markle requires players to infer what to do based on contextual clues and a distinct in-game language.
Living without many digital amenities, Linvega and Bellum regularly wake up with the sun, work until noon, then spend the rest of their day exploring, playing board games, watching television, and reading before hitting the bed at sundown. The freedom to make what they want of their day is not lost on them, especially coming from a minuscule Japanese residence.
"I guess the boat in some ways is bigger than the apartment we had in Japan," Linvega says, noting that the challenges of boating are a welcome substitute for the challenges of ridiculous rent payments. "Last night here in Vancouver, there was a big fireworks show. What happens is 100 boats leave the creek, then all come back completely drunk and try to anchor around where we are. This morning, there was one boat anchored within walking distance from ours."
For both of them, the most exciting aspect of their entire journey is the people they welcome into their lives. Nights spent on other families' boats sharing stories are but one more way Linvega and Bellum learn more about their new world.
"We've started to collect these stories a bit," Linvega says. "There are so many interesting people out there. The day I wake up and go 'ugh, another day on the boat,' maybe I'll try something else."
Where in the World are Rami and Adriel?
When people ask Rami Ismail where home is, he always answers "airplanes." He's even done the math to prove it. Last year, he spent a grand total of 40 days in his home country of the Netherlands. When I initially reached out to him, he was in Europe. Two days later, he was in Tev Aviv, Israel. Two days after that, he had landed in Shanghai, China.
Co-founder of noted indie game studio Vlambeer, Ismail has made much of his current living traveling the world, speaking at any number of regional game developer conferences, schools, and businesses. It wasn't always that way, though. Ismail himself says his globetrotting lifestyle happened by accident. As a developer based out of Amsterdam, Ismail recognized his reach was limited to a Dutch-speaking audience, and then only the incredibly small segment who sought out indie gaming news.
The answer to spreading Vlambeer's image lay in hoping that each public speaking event would lead to additional invitations to speak elsewhere in the world. "I was in the UK, and I literally gave the talk hoping there would be somebody there who would let me do another talk because I didn't know what else to do," Ismail says. It was a precarious situation, but in the end those invitations did come, reaffirming Ismail's decision to tour the world. "The fact that I could do that was pretty inspiring to me."
The challenges of international travel go far beyond logistics and lodging, though, especially for the half-Dutch, half-Egyptian man—a self described third culture kid." Positioned between two unique cultures, home and life have long had a fluid meaning.
"My sister survived a mall shooting and I went in there to find her," Ismail says. "After that, a lot of life becomes about death, right? So I like to appreciate the places where I am, just knowing that this could be a thing. I tweet the number of every flight I get on, half for my mom and half for the fact that I'm OK with that being my last tweet. I'm not scared of death or mortality."
This fearlessness has led Ismail to travel all across the world. "In most cases, every place that people think of as scary is just another place," he says. There is one exception, though. "To be honest, I frequently feel very scared in the United States. That's a very scary place to be sometimes, because people walk around with guns openly—not to mention the people who walk around with guns you can't see."
Standing at six feet tall, with brown skin, seven different Arabic last names, a regular assortment of electronics in his luggage, and a history of small airplane flight training, Ismail says that he probably sets off every red flag there is while passing through TSA checkpoints. On a recent trip to Israel for a developer conference, Ismail planned to stay for roughly 48 hours. By the time he finally departed, he had spent a grand total of 12 of those hours being interrogated, among other checks.
This is nothing new to Ismail, who is stopped so frequently that he even created the website "didramigetrandomchecked.com," which catalogued the entirety of his air travel through the year 2014. On almost a quarter of his flights, Ismail found himself subjected to a "random" security check.
"I've had times where I've told people checking me what they should be doing because I've done it more frequently than some new people at their job, I think," Ismail says. "Professionally, it used to affect me way more mostly because I was naive and thought nothing would happen. You go through all the stages. The first time it happens, you're confused but you try to justify it. By the tenth time it happens, you're like 'well, this is offensive and weird and humiliating.'"
"The honest truth is, I learn more from this than I could ever teach anybody." - Rami Ismail
As much as fear might dictate how many hoops Ismail is forced to jump through, Ismail's work abroad and the people he meets through it are a source for inspiration and introspection. A vocal supporter of Palestine, Ismail still found himself greeted warmly by Israeli game developers during his visit.
"Most game developers have to be curious about the world, so they're also curious about the political state of the planet; the state of the planet as an organism or ecosystem," Ismail says. "I think a lot of developers automatically have progressive values because part of game development is being able to empathize with people unlike you. The games industry might be one of the best places to travel within because of this."
This openness has led to an expansion of Ismail's understanding of cultural importation, how a mechanic or aesthetic a western audience might take for granted radically shifts in the eyes and hands of an easterner. Ismail stumbled upon the work of Iranian developer Mahdi Bahrami, the creator of Farsh, which lets players roll and unravel a traditional Iranian rug to solve dimensional puzzles. In another culture, the spiraling rug might instead be represented by a snake or a roll of paper, but thanks to Bahrami's cultural background (and his mother's career as a rug weaver), he was able to inject this design choice with a unique, personal flavor.
That Ismail is allowed the privilege of periodically checking up on cottage game industries across the globe is a hugely reformational force for the 28-year old developer. "The honest truth is, I learn more from this than I could ever teach anybody," Ismail says. "Because I had an Egyptian father, I grew up my whole life where Israel was this bad thing. Then I walk into Tel Aviv for the first time in my life and the first thing I see is just a couple. They're walking hand in hand. They're just in love. They're just people. It's what they do."
It's a worldview that some might say gracefully colors Ismail's own relationship with Adriel Wallick, herself an independent game developer and organizer of Train Jam, an event in which creators build short games while traveling the distance from Chicago to San Francisco on an Amtrak line. Given that Wallick and Ismail are frequently traveling around the globe at any given time, it's not so much a long distance relationship as it is a "where are you today?" relationship. The two even utilize a shared Google calendar to figure out what dates they'll be in close proximity to each other.
For Wallick, the relationship adds a degree of stability to the liberty offered by a life as a traveling game developer. "It's nice having that freedom to be able to live, but knowing there's somebody also wanting to do those things with you, who cares about you, who you know is the person you want to share all those journeys with... It's super nice."
Wallick's spent her own long history as a nomad, separate from her relationship with Ismail. The child of a member of the Marine Corps, frequent travel and momentary relocations were no foreign concept. While Wallick grew up primarily with her mother in Pennsylvania, her father and stepmother adopted a nomadic lifestyle of their own, spending a year in Africa and nine years on a boat. Wallick developed ties across the west in places like Colorado, Florida, and the UK.
"I was sort of always growing up watching them not really living anywhere, and I sort of rebelled against that," Wallick says. "I felt like 'OK, I'm in college now and I live in Boston and I have this stable life. I'm going to be a stable person and not a weird nomad like my parents all their lives.' Then it turns out, hey, I actually think it's in my blood, my genes. It was never a weird idea that I couldn't just live anywhere."
Wallick would get her chance after graduating, quitting her job, and allowing her apartment lease to expire. Her first mission in completely independent game development would be her "Game a Week" project, wherein she resolved to make one game per week for an entire year while she traveled across the country attending various game culture and development events.
The "Game a Week" project was one of self-determination, meant to voluntarily break Wallick's own inability to adapt to an ethereal schedule. Her thousands of supposedly amazing game concepts would soon be whittled down to a handful of decent semi-promising ones. The year's intensive work schedule taught Wallick a lesson she imparts on indie developers and students across the globe about being willing to put constraints on yourself, if only to counteract the aimlessness that excessive free time and freedom might produce.
Though Wallick's first year of travel only took her through North America and the UK, the locations she witnessed and people she befriended along the way served as constant sources of inspiration and comfort.
"It's hard to pick out any concrete example, but you talk to these people and you get bombarded with all these different perspectives on things that you just sort of took for granted as a universal thought process," Wallick says. "Like different childhood shows that other cultures grew up with, or different ways to approach religion, life, or the concept of death."
For Wallick, that constant sense of comfort—of having built up a network of friends and colleagues she can call on at a moment's notice—can be a double edged sword."People will ask me, 'oh doesn't it get lonely traveling all the time?'" Wallick says. "And the truth was it was the exact opposite of that because I literally just never had time to myself anymore because I'm always staying with people, usually crashing on a couch, not even a private room half the time for weeks on end. There were some times where all I would want is to be lonely for an hour."
Still, that introvertedness does little to distract Wallick from connecting with other developers through her numerous speaking engagements and the yearly Train Jam event. The first thing Wallick did after dropping her previous life was to take a train from Boston to Seattle for a convention. Along the way, she'd come to find her inspiration for the kind of event that would get developers looking away from their screens to appreciate the country's beauty.
"The only way to understand the world is to go to the world." - Rami Ismail
Whether their drive to become nomads comes from the wonder of seeing new places, a desire to escape from the drab office world, or a need to live a minimalist lifestyle, it all comes back to independence. Though the lifestyle is certainly not for everyone, more and more people are beginning to ask the first questions—the how's and why's—of our nomadic game developers. While it's incredibly difficult to estimate the size of a growing and increasingly mobile population, worksharing or nomadic networks like Hubud, Dynamite Circle, and Nomadlist all have thousands of members.
"For a lot of people, the creatives, they're trying to do it in a way that's healthy, fun, interesting. A way that doesn't lock them in a room," Ismail says. "There's nothing wrong with that. I've been that for years of my life, but at some point, people want something different, and I think this is a good way of escaping all of that. Just you, your resources, and your curiosity on the road."
But Ismail complicates this romantic image quickly. "I do wonder for how many people that this is viable. You've got to understand, for all the problems I have with customs, I am still a two meter tall dude that looks quite imposing." It isn't only a question of safety, either. For some, the open road, oceans, and airways offer a unique independence, but the harsh reality is that a certain level of stability is required of those willing to make the leap. Many younger or less fortunate developers may find the challenge or logistics too high a wall to scale.
The world of game development has always been fraught with some level of uncertainty. Fledgling careers, struggling studios, and underpaid overtime have all chewed up any number of hopefuls. In its present state, game development is a career that relies on the fleeting glimpse of a horizon. For these nomads, they're sure to never want for such a thing—and their grasp of the world around them will mature with each destination reached.
"The only way to understand the world is to go to the world," says Ismail. "You have to go there, because there's too much in the way. There's too much keeping you in your safe, understandable cultural bubble because people can talk to you and you can communicate. Honestly, understanding the world requires you to go where no one can understand you."
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