Becoming a Nomadic Game Dev: How to Travel

Since 2010 Sarah and I have been traveling the world while making video games. We’ve written and shipped Rebuild 1, Rebuild 2, Incredipede and Deep Under the Sky entirely while traveling. We’re currently both working on Rebuild 3. There are a few questions we are often asked about our work/travel so I decided to write out a how-to. Or at least, talk about some lessons we’ve learned. Might as well start with the one true secret of making travel and work happen:

The One True Secret to Working While Traveling Is…

Spend at last a month in one place

We do one to three months everywhere we go. This is important because if you spend less than a month somewhere you won’t get any work done. There will be so much to do and see the pressure to do do and see it all before you leave will overwhelm you. You need time to get into a groove, you need time to let the excitement of being in a new place fade into the joy of experiencing a new culture. It’s like visiting an art gallery for the second time. You see more nuances, you start to see how it all fits together.

There are other advantages to slow travel, like that it’s cheaper.

We spend between 1000$-2000$ a month on rent when we travel. We usually get an entire apartment or house to ourselves for less than a hotel would cost. I am currently sitting under dappled shade looking at Sarah’s reflection in the pool of our two-bedroom house in Cape Town which we pay 1300$ a month for. I can hear the waves breaking on the beach and can’t see any neighbours because the property is so well treed. This is better than any hotel anywhere. You also get a kitchen which means you don’t have to eat out all the time and you can spend less on restaurants.

AirBnB is your friend here. It’s an easy way to find long-term rentals. Write people who don’t show a discount for long-term stays, they probably just haven’t considered it yet. Also dig around off of AirBnB, some places still have thriving local rental websites.

Airfair is less when you travel slow. Say you fly to Japan for 1500$, that 1500$ goes a lot further if you spend three months in Japan and then three months in Thailand before flying home.

Also, traveling slow is just better. You get to make local friends and get a feel for what a place is really like instead of bouncing between toursit attractions.

The Only Piece of Planning Ahead You Need to Do

Is to find an apartment/house for the time you’re staying. Everything will fall into place when you get to your new home. If you have a place to live you can figure out the rest. Remember that you are often competing with vacationers for these places and vacationers tend to plan ahead so you will have to as well. We like to plan six months in advance (this also goes for flights).

That being said, chosing and booking a place encapsulates a lot of other decisions. The important things in choosing a place are…

Internet, internet, internet

This is the most important part of any housing decision you make. Tripple check that the house has a functioning internet connection. Depending on what you’re working on you might not need a very good one. Sarah and I have gotten by on pretty terrible 3g cell connections for months because we weren’t working on games that required assets to be passed back-and-forth or big binaries to be uploaded to Steam. If you’re collaborating with a remote team and putting emergency builds up online all the time you’ll need a beefy connection. If you’re just spending three months doing prototyping you might not even need the internet.

Whatever your internet needs are confirm specifically over email that the house has the connection you need, then confirm it again. If you need a reasonably good connection then ask the house owner if you can stream YouTube and Skype reliably, these are questions non-technical home-owners can answer.

Honestly, if you have a decent internet connection you could live in a box with no windows and still have a pretty high quality of life so this is the big one. It’s also the only thing you can’t really fix after you get to your new home so make sure it’s what you need beforehand. (in practice we often have to make alterations to the internet setup, we travel with a small router we sometimes use as a repeater).

Location, location, location

This is the most fun question to answer: Where you gonna go?

The answer to this is obivously: That place you’ve always wanted to go!

If there’s one place you really desperately want to go (say Istanbul) then get on the internet and track down a place to live. Use AirBnB but also do web searches, hunt around for a while, write a lot of emails to landlords. Some of the best places we’ve stayed were secret little gems or places with much higher prices that we negotiated steep discounts for (it’s a pain in the ass for renters have new people comming in and out all the time so a lot of people welcome long-term rentals with open arms).

If you’re more open about where you want to go (say Costa Rica) then I like to find a nice house and then let that determine what city we live in. When we stayed in Greece I searched all of Europe on AirBnB for a cheap place with a view of the mountains and the sea. We found a nice little house in a mountain village on Thassos and had one of our best trips.

Don’t forget to read the AirBnB reviews! Some countries (I’m looking at you Brazil) have a culture of exageration.

The Other Stuff

Some other things to consider when you pick a place are:

  • Safety, do a google search, are you going to feel comfortable in the neighbourhood?
  • View, you want to like being in your new home so you can stay home, work, and be happy. A nice view helps.
  • Transit, can you walk/bus everywhere you need to get? You won’t have a car.
  • On-site Landlords, nearness to friends or other indies. It’s nice to have locals who can help out

The transit point might be less important in some places. We’ve stayed in a lot of very remote places and there’s always SOME way to get groceries. You might just have to walk eight kilometers along a beach or take kayaks through some mangrove tunnels.


You Have Your House, Other Considerations

There basically are none. If you have a house with the internet and money in the bank anywhere in the world then you’re pretty much good.

There is some basic stuff like:

  • Check what entry/visa requirements the country has BEFORE you book a place or get plane tickets
  • Figure out how to get from the airport to your new place (landlords that pick you up are the BEST!)
  • Get the necessary vaccinations at a travel clinic if you’re heading somewhere tropical
  • What’s the banking situation like? If you’re really remote you might have limited access to ATMs (you’ll just have to take out lots of cash occasionally)
  • Travel Insurance, get some travel health insurance, you want to be in a strange country’s hospital AND worrying about the cost of healthcare?

There are also things you shouldn’t worry about:

  • Language, you’ll muddle through
  • Where you’re going to get groceries, if people live there then there is food
  • Street Food, you’re there for a month, you can afford to mabey get sick for a couples days
  • Rainy Seasons, you’re there for a month, so what if it rains for half the days, you have work to do


The Downsides

If you are looking at the above “don’t worry about” list and getting scared then mabey you should think twice about this whole thing. Traveling is going to require patience, flexibility, and privation. You might have to completely change your diet. Buying the simplest things may be a challenge. The transit system will probably make no sense at all. Imagine you have been throwing up and haven’t slept well for three days, you walk for three hours to the pharmacy because you can’t figure out the bus sytem, when you get there you ask for a specific brand of medicine and instead of simply grabbing it and handing it to you the pharmacist asks you a question in a foreign language and just stares at you. This is the downside of the unfamiliar.

If you’re shy, a picky eater, picky about matresses, don’t like public transit, scared of people not like you, tend to freak out when anything goes wrong, can’t adapt to new situations, or are not a generally calm and welcoming human being then prepare to be seriously challenged.

Also, homesickness is real. Our first long-term trip was to Thailand in 2006 for six months, the first month was exciting, the second was uncomfortable and the third was I-want-to-go-home misaerable. The fourth through sixth were great! Homesickness goes away and varries from person to person but it can be emotionally brutal, be ready for it.

Another serious issue is loneliness. Sarah and I are extremely lucky to be able to both work from anywhere.  Traveling long-term on your own is going to be much more challenging than travelling with a partner and way less fun. Sometimes you can make friends with locals, sometimes you can’t. Here is where going to GDC is going to help you. If you’ve already made friends with a bunch of people in one city or another then that might be where you want to head. I’m not talking about talked-to-them-once-at-a-bar aquantences here. I mean people who you know well and are eagre for you to come.

I’m also going to put the disclaimer here: if you book a non-existant house in Somalia and get yourself kidnapped it’s not my fault! This all represents my experiences and doesn’t represent the full posibilities of what can go wrong while wandering the earth.


The Upsides

Downsides suck :(  But they are all worth it! With no challenge you wouldn’t grow as a person and travel wouldn’t mean as much. When you’re walking down a deserted tropical beach trying to solve game-design problems, talking angrily about bugs you can’t squash in a dark pub with new friends, or just sitting at your laptop staring out at some strange foreign place you will know it’s worth it.

And the world-wide network of indie devs is amazing! Most major cities have someone you can meet up with for a beer and get some advice on how to see the city.

You can work from anywhere, you have friends everywhere, explore!


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