Interview: Indie Dev JOE SELLERS on Quitting your Job and Making That Game You Always Wanted to

It’s easy to say we’ve all been there: daydream about quitting our job to start a more fulfilling endeavor; the one we always intended on making, but few of us ever do.

On the cusp of finishing his first game, indie developer, Joe Sellers, unearthed an old letter he received from Sierra Entertainment as a kid. In the letter, Sierra encouraged Joe to go to school and offered their hiring department information for when he was ready to apply. To Joe, this letter further instilled that he had made the right decision to quit his management job to create Survival Horror: Interactive Fiction.

After only a year of learning and development, Joe was ready to release his first game, a clever mix of survival horror and text-based adventure. Luckily, Joe was able to set aside a little time to discuss what went into creating his first game from the ground up, with little knowledge and experience in the field, along with some tips for those aspiring to do the same thing.

In your own words, what’s Survival Horror all about?

Survival Horror is interactive fiction. I built this game with my own original code, even though I found really good software to write a text game. But I wanted to try something I had never seen before. What I created is a modern twist on that classic text adventure game format. You do not type in commands like “go north” or “open door,” because I felt like this mechanic can disconnect the reader. Instead, the creepy narrative invites its players to tap on words to explore the world, engaging with any objects of interest. In other text-based games, you might get stuck guessing the correct verb to solve a puzzle. Instead, the interactive text in this app streamlines the gameplay. To open the door, just tap on the word. It is that simple.
I grew up on these games, and I’ve replayed my favorites. However, once I knew the solution, it became a chore to go back through. I had to fix this. You cannot run through my game using a linear walkthrough, because each fresh restart builds a new experience. In one game, when you search the shelf in the closet, you find a screwdriver to jimmy open the locked door. In another game, you find a hammer, breaking off the knob to escape. In another game, you might find both, or neither. However, every obstacle will have a solution. Different weapons and inventory items, coupled with new challenges and complications, promise a truly unique adventure each time you revisit this game. I asked a gaming hobbyist to write a walkthrough for my game, but he quit after a week, explaining that it was impossible because it was too unpredictable.
To create an immersive experience for a text-based game, I layered in ambient music that maintains the mood of each situation. In combat, the tempo increases as you lose health. When you break through a brick wall, you hear the stone crumbling with each impact of your sledgehammer. Footsteps, radio static, wood splintering and glass shattering. It may be subtle, but the atmospheric noise can swallow you up into the story.
You play the lone protagonist, an amnesiac in a savage dystopia, fending off relentless zombie-like enemies, searching for the way back home, to rejoin your friends at camp. Your decisions affect the outcome of the story. For example, you can sustain injuries, like a broken arm or an eye gouged out of your face, which can influence everything that follows. As your character struggles for survival, you encounter gut-wrenching moral dilemmas. It is an unforgiving and brutal game, like any good horror story should be. Due to its unsettling content, this mobile app may be too disturbing for some players.
There are a lot of people who wish to follow in your footsteps. What would you tell them is an area they should prepare most for, and what was the most difficult aspect in the development or publishing process?

My previous career was in retail management. I led a team of employees, and we interacted with customers everyday. As an indie game dev, I work by myself. Daily interaction with the general public can be limited to online forums and social media. The social dynamics completely change when you’re working from home. It’s easy to become stir crazy with cabin fever, especially if your daily routine is unstructured. I scheduled time to work out at a local gym, and signed up for a few classes. I found meetup groups that shared some of my own special interests, like playing board games. It is important to make time, and stay connected with your community.

It seems like you made this venture solo. Did you receive any help with developing or publishing Survival Horror, and how long did the development process take for a first time dev team?

The development process for Survival Horror took about nine months. In May 2014, I finished the last chapter from a series of textbooks in game development. I decided that I was ready to create my own original game, and not just tweak the code from tutorials. It was a rough start, but I published a brief demo on a flash website in September 2014. People loved it. The response was incredible. It encouraged me over the next few months, as I finished writing the game.

And yes! It is absolutely vital to find a mentor to help you. I have some childhood friends who helped me along the way: Philip Tarpley and Andrew Garrison. Together, they built Jundroo, an indie game studio that specializes in simulation games. In addition, I find direction from some Facebook groups and subreddits I frequent. Feedback is essential in refining one’s work. A bug or glitch can undermine everything I’ve built over the course of a few weeks, and knowing where to go and who to ask for help is necessary in this business.

Without a background in game development and this being your first game, what programs or courses did you take in order to learn coding for Survival Horror?

I highly recommend Khan Academy as a free online resource to learn the basic fundamentals. I breezed through their course in computer programming in a week, but their website has expanded over the past year. Their mission is “to provide a free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere.” The videos and assignments are light-hearted and fun. From there, I purchased several books on Amazon to teach myself how to code. I read books by Rex van der Spuy, Jeff Fulton and Steve Fulton, but the most useful (and heaviest) book that I still use as a resource is Colin Moock’s Essential ActionScript 3.0. I also found several great tutorials online.

Early on, I considered enrolling in a collegiate program at a local university. It’s useful to network with other students sharing similar ambitions, and learning directly from an experienced professor is definitely a perk. However, without any substantial income, I was reluctant to acquire the debt needed to pay for school. I felt that the amount of instruction, available for free online, was the better route for me, in my particular situation.

It’s a pretty scary step to make walking away from financial stability to live out your dreams. What motivated you to take that leap?

I was miserable, working in retail. I was the store manager of a corner drug store, and my district manager was a heartless tyrant. The company yielded record-breaking profits, but kept cutting payroll and essential store positions. We were expected to do more, with less. I developed ulcers from the stress, and would wake up some mornings, puking up bile into my bathroom sink. I hated it, and wished I could get out. But I felt trapped, financially. How else could I pay the bills?

Dee Tisdale, one of my shift managers, was twice my age. We talked often during breaks, and she related how her mother taught her to “live within your means” and be content with that. Dee passed away a few months later, but those words stuck with me as I contemplated my own life, and how I was living.

As I climbed the corporate ladder, my income increased. So, I would eat out more often at expensive restaurants, spend more on entertainment, and even pay other people to clean my house and watch my children. If you make more, you spend more. But I saw how my employees lived, on a much lower pay grade. I was no better than any of them. I decided to stop squandering my income, and save up a nest egg, enough money in reserve to finally get out of retail. With that goal in mind, my work became less stressful when I knew I would soon be quitting. I stopped caring so much about what my miserable boss thought about me. When I put in my notice, it was the best feeling in the world. There are no words.

It has not been easy. I cashed out my retirement fund last year, so I could continue to chase this dream of mine in this new career. If all of this was a financial mistake, so be it. I may be far from being wealthy, and I may not make that kind of money ever again, but I can tell you this: I am so much happier. And at the end of my life, I doubt that I will regret chasing this dream. I am hopeful that my future will be its own reward.



Which do you see in your future: developing your own studio or finding work with a larger publisher or developer?

I would love to work with other developers! I would prefer to work in a smaller studio, but who can say? I’ll go wherever the wind blows.

David Kushner wrote a book, Masters of Doom, which details the journey of two developers, John Carmack and John Romero. They formed id Software, creating hit games like Wolfenstein, Doom, and Quake, which are still producing popular sequels. Reading about their careers, their journey in this business of video games, I saw that they were both most content when working in smaller groups.

Whichever way I choose to go, though, I want to be in a place that develops great games.

What made mobile development seem like the perfect fit for Survival Horror?

Honestly, I wanted to reach the largest audience I could. Not every gamer owns a console or a PC. On a tablet or smart phone, most people play games, or read stories and books. It felt like the best platform for a text adventure game that reads like interactive fiction.

The mobile market is saturated with mindless diversions: flashy games that mimic some of the greatest arcade classics in gaming history. You can find a few gems out there, but a good text adventure game is hard to come by. Most of them are similar to the classic Choose Your Own Adventure book series, where you read a block of text, choose from a limited set of options, and read another block of text based on that choice. I wanted something more than branching hackneyed stories. I wanted to contribute something better for the player, where she can explore a virtual environment, solve puzzles, and experience an engaging story with moral dilemmas and conflicts, much like the classic Sierra adventure games I played as a kid.

Hopefully, other gamers feel the same way, and I will find a niche here.

Survival horror, as a genre, has been making a massive comeback in the last year or so — in large part due to indie developers. As an indie dev yourself, what compelled you to delve into the genre?

Who doesn’t love reading a scary story in the dark? I wanted to appeal to people of all ages. As an indie game dev, I’m just getting started, so I want everybody to see the games I can make.

I also chose the survival horror genre because, as an avid gamer myself, I felt like the genre is diluted with unoriginal content that leans on the crutches of cheap scares and stereotypical thrills. Gimmicks like experiencing the calm before the storm, when everything is still and quiet, when suddenly something loud jumps out at you. Gallons of blood and gore, explosions and shaky cameras. I wanted to revamp the genre, and bring the horror back. I wanted to write something that frightens the reader on a psychological level. I want her to be shocked, question her conscience, and feel real terror, just from reading words on her mobile device. Good horror can induce repulsion or loathing, and I wanted to capture that.

In Ridley Scott’s classic horror film Alien, I am afraid of Giger’s alien. This creature is different from other movie monsters. Throughout most of the film, that deadly alien is unseen or obscured in shadows. Without any visuals, my imagination manifests the terror. The fear, it comes from my own mind. This same feeling of terror is embodied in my text game. There are no pictures, no flashy graphics to scare you. You have nothing but your own projected thoughts to color in the gritty details.

Image: Joe Sellers

Image: Joe Sellers

You recently made the front page of imgur with a letter you received from Sierra as a kid. If a kid wrote you one day, what would you write back to them? What was it about Sierra that was so influential?

Sierra made the best adventure games, including popular series like King’s Quest, Space Quest, Police Quest, Quest for Glory, as well as stand-alone titles like Willy Beamish or Conquests of the Longbow. As a young child, those games fostered in me a grand sense of discovery and wonder. At the beginning of every game, the Sierra logo would sparkle on my computer monitor, playing that familiar 8-bit musical score, and it felt like magic. Those games defined my childhood. They bolstered my self-esteem as a puzzle-solver, a do-gooder, and a thoughtful adventurer. My reading skills and vocabulary improved, and I fell in love with reading and writing as a creative outlet. I aspired to be a game designer. So I wrote them a letter, expressing my interest, and I was so excited when they wrote back!

I kept that letter. When I discovered it again, it reaffirmed my decision to quit my retail job and become an indie game dev. I posted that old letter on imgur to share my feelings about those moments, as a giddy kid who loved computer games, and how now, twenty years later, I am fulfilling that childhood dream with my first mobile release. I was not expecting much, but I have been overwhelmed from all the attention. As much confirmation as I felt, finding that ancient artifact from Sierra, I am more encouraged by all of the love and support in response to that imgur post.

I have had several people write to me already, through imgur or my website, expressing their interest in game design. Some of them are kids, just like I had been. Some of them are college students, and others are my own age or older. I’ve told them what little I know thus far, in how I got started. I’ve been diligent in answering everybody, even though I’ve lost a lot of sleep, trying to keep up with all of the comments and messages. In my experience, there are just so many people out there who settle for misery, because it is safer to be complacent. I will encourage anybody to live your life on your own terms, and chase after what your heart desires most. Your only regret would be in never trying.


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Categories: Interviews, Video Games


Founder, Editor-in-Chief at Another Castle | Twitter: @ComradeJen

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