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Games

How a Developer Released Their First Game, Despite Being Homeless

Jeffrey Winn overcame everything to release his first game.

by George Johnson
Mar 24 2017, 5:29pm

Jeffrey Winn is homeless. He has been since the fall of 2016, two weeks into the development of his first game, Roll a Ball. Months before, he was making about $17 an hour operating a forklift and living in a small apartment with his two daughters. He left his job to look for greener pastures, but found himself in a difficult position. "The company I worked for was giving a bad reference. I tried finding a job, but at that point, I wasn't about to work for McDonalds or Walmart."

For a short while, Winn's daughters went to live with their mother. His eldest returned for a short while so that he could help her with school work, and with funding from her mother, they moved into a sleazy motel near her school. She soon left again. "A week later, since my oldest left and her mom no longer had a reason to help, I left the motel. So at that point, I was homeless."

We found a time where he'd be at a Starbucks, for the free Wi-Fi. I would soon discover that this would be every day from opening to closing time. We intended to talk over Skype, but he had to sell his earphones for a little extra cash, so we resorted to using WhatsApp.

"I slept in my car second guessing my decision every night."

It was initially difficult for Winn to adjust to life without a home, described by the Huffington Post as the "most dangerous State for homeless people." But, he still had some commodities that would keep him afloat for a short while, and for a time he survived on bulk bags of animal crackers and water. "I still had a car at that point, so at least I had shelter. I still had some funds in my bank account, but it was a matter of finding wi-fi, free wi-fi, to build the game." It's this necessity that led him to his local Starbucks.

"Over the years, I had been to Starbucks maybe a few dozen times. Run in, grab a coffee, get out. I actually thought, during those times, that it was overly priced coffee intended to make people carrying their cups look cool." He hadn't actually considered Starbucks as an option until he had to use the bathroom there. "I knew Starbucks always had clean bathrooms, so I went. That's when it hit me. I'd seen people in there with their laptops, just hanging out. Hell, if they could do it, why not me?"

Even before he found himself without a home, Winn struggled with feeling connected to people. "I'm kinda used to being... alone. I could be in a crowd of a thousand people who love and care for me, and inside, I'd still feel alone." This only became amplified by his circumstances. "I slept in my car second guessing my decision every night. Not only was it embarrassing and humiliating, but it was solitude in a city of life. People all around me, going on with their lives. And here I am, alone, stuck in a rut of homelessness."

It wasn't long before he lost his car. "Up until that moment, I did have some shelter. A blanket to keep me warm. This was around the end of November, beginning of December. So it was getting cold here in Orlando, Florida. After my car finally got repossessed, I was actually sleeping on the streets. Wherever I could find a spot. I only had a few clothes and a semi-warm jacket. The temperature started to drop to around 45°f. That was probably the first moment I asked myself, 'What the fuck are you doing?'"

Header and all Roll a Ball screens courtesy of Mack Mack Studios

Even with the world against him, Winn soldiered on through the development of Roll a Ball. "I worked feverishly. Once I got comfortable with going into the same Starbucks on a daily basis, I would be there usually from the time they opened till the time they closed. This allowed me to focus more."

But despite this focus, he started to run into some problems that intensified the self-doubt. "I started to have some major bugs in my game. A few days would go by and I couldn't figure them out. I felt severely defeated at times."

So, as many would in his position, Winn turned to faith. "I asked God for help many times. Still, major bug. I had spent a few days going over the game, looking everywhere for the problem. I had just come back inside from smoking a cigarette, and there it was. I honestly do believe in God, and I honestly do believe he showed me the problem. There were a few times like this. And again, feeling defeated, I would question what the hell I was doing."

Winn recalls the points that led him to want to make Roll a Ball. He had installed a number of ball games on his phone and noticed how they all felt depressingly similar. "It started to piss me off a bit. If I'm going to spend the time to download, install and play your game, at least give me something different. I noticed in every one of these games, you were stuck to following predetermined paths. That's how Roll a Ball came to be. A simple, casual game that would allow the player to determine where they want to go. And since the platforms are randomly generated, it allows for a different path every time."

"If that's what it would take for me to accomplish something... in a heartbeat."

Winn feels that the bare-bones simplicity of Roll a Ball is what makes it as fun as it is. "Yes, it's a very simple game. And that's what I wanted. For people to play it while they're in the bank, or at the doctor's office, or waiting for a movie to start. I always found myself in these situations, playing Candy Crush, or something similar. Quick and simple."

Looking back on the past five months, Winn feels conflicted about the experience. "If I felt and know what I do now, of course, I would definitely try to keep a roof over my head. But, it happened. I let it happen. I welcomed it. As for my focus, yeah, it helped me an incredible amount. Would I do it again? If that's what it would take for me to accomplish something... in a heartbeat."

"Yes, I would love to find a good job. Yes, I would love to be able to call a place my own home. And yes, I would love to be able to do both of those things and still be able to say, 'yes, I am still an indie game developer.' And the only way to do all of those things simultaneously is to learn and grow. And I do believe out of all this pain and anguish, all this overwhelming excitement from creating my first mobile game, I have learned that I can accomplish all those things."

"He's been through so much and yet he can still accomplish things. That shows me that he's such a good person and he can do anything."

Those close to Winn have high hopes for him, most notably his eldest daughter. "He's protective, he's funny, he's outgoing," she told me. "There's nothing I can do to help him, but I also feel happy because of how he's dealing with it. He keeps me updated. I get worried though because sometimes I don't know if he's ok or not. But it shows that I love him. Because he's been through so much and yet he can still accomplish things. That shows me that he's such a good person and he can do anything." 

Winn's story is unfortunately not an isolated case. We've seen other developers suffer through homelessness, some to great success, and it's a testament to the willpower, determination, and passion that many people in this industry have. 

Despite all odds against him, Winn has powered through adversity and developed a functional and entertaining video game, which is no small task. Roll a Ball is currently out on the Google Play Store, and Winn has managed to find a temporary place to stay until May; a house owned by his daughters' mother. He's still struggling to find a job, but he remains optimistic about his future. And so do I.