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How A PETRONAS Engineer Left His Job So He Could Create Web Games Full-Time

You may not have heard of Nerdook before. But I think you need to. His is a story worth listening to.

Cover image via Nerdook

Nerdook is an old friend of mine. We went to university together. But while I continued to work a 9-5 job...

... he took the road not taken -- leaving a promising engineering career with PETRONAS to start his own computer game development business.

That was a few years ago. Today, his games are critically acclaimed pieces of art, and have been played over 50 million times. His business is fully run on the Internet, so he works from home. On his own terms -- with plenty of time for his two-year-old daughter. Just like all those wonderful stories you read from The $100 Startup.

I decided to interview him recently about success, entrepreneurship, and following your passion. This is what he had to say:

1. You've achieved tremendous international success in a few short years. What's your proudest achievement?

Nerdook: Well, first of all, “tremendous international success” is a bit of an exaggeration, since I’m considered one of the lower tier indie developers on the scene. However, my proudest achievement is being able to make games full-time for a living at all -- it’s not easy to throw everything away and start from scratch, especially leaving a stable and rewarding job with a large oil and gas corporation like PETRONAS. There are times when I do wonder whether I’m doing the right thing, even now!

2. What do you think about the advice of "Follow your passion, and find a way to get paid for it?" We hear it all the time, but it seems like a distant fairytale for the average person. For example, I really like basketball -- but I'll likely never make any money from it.

I once read an article by Mike Rowe, the guy from "Dirty Jobs", answering a question from a fan after he gave the advice to NOT "Follow your passion". Basically, he says that "Follow your passion" by itself is terrible advice, "as though its wisdom were both incontrovertible and equally applicable to all", which it obviously isn't. Mike Rowe suggests that the question be rephrased as "You may follow your passions, but ask yourself for how long and to what end?"

In his career, he's seen plenty of people who aren't afraid to dream big, but he's seen even more where they have obviously bitten off way more than they can chew, and then are crushed when they realise just how unrealistic their dreams really are.

He ends it with some good advice, which is “Don’t follow your passion, but always bring it with you.” So -- if you love basketball, but can't make a career of it, then you should just find a career where you still have time for basketball instead, and it will be equally rewarding in the end.

Image via mr-stingy

3. What was it like for you when you were first starting out? Did you face any additional challenges because you were (then) an unknown developer from a third-world country, playing in international markets?

When I first started, nobody would have believed it was even possible (or even knew what a game developer is). Whenever someone from Malaysia would ask, I would say “I make web games!” and they would go “Oh is that IT sector-ah?” With the explosive growth of iOS games and the rise of Facebook casual gaming, I would say it’s a more acceptable job nowadays (now they say “Oh is that like Angry Birds-ah?”), though I get the feeling that people do silently wonder why I’m not doing a more "reliable" job, like engineering.

As for the international market thing, the best and worst thing about the Internet is that it’s a true meritocracy, and everyone has a fair chance. There are a lot of competitors, but if you stick with what you believe and really improve your quality over time, you will eventually have a chance to rise about the others.

Sturgeon’s Law states that “90% of everything is crap”, and that's even more true of the Internet, so my focus was to work hard enough to rise above the 90% and into the 10% that isn’t completely crap. So there were no additional challenges or barriers -- or at least -- no more than anyone starting out from zero will face.

4. Would you mind sharing how much you've made as an indie game developer so far?

Haha! The answer to that question is: “More than you expect, but less than you think!” It’s enough to get by, but definitely less than the average salary I would have if I had stayed with an oil and gas company. My income varies depending on the number of games released that year, the sponsorship amount for each game (for web games) and the frequency of sales or promotions (for Steam games).

I am small, I can keep my costs low, so there’s less pressure on earning back large initial investments that larger game developer teams might have.

Nerdook draws the artwork for his games himself.

Image via mr-stingy

5. According to your post on IndieGames.com, you managed to release an average of a game every 2 months in 2010-2012. All while excelling at a full-time job and having a girlfriend. How did you manage to balance your passion, while still performing so well for your day job?

Simple! Lack of sleep. I think I really pushed myself really hard during that time: work in the mornings and afternoons, game programming in the evenings/night, and I would often sleep at 1 or 2 am after a supper at the local mamak.

It’s not the healthiest lifestyle, and I did fall asleep at the wheel during traffic light stops a few times after a really long day at the office.

If I didn't enjoy game development as much as I did, I would have given up after a year or so… it’s just not worth it in the early days, especially when my very first game only earned $5… in total…. even after all these years!

6. I've known you for more than a decade. Despite your international success, I've never seen you flash any signs of material wealth. Is it fair to say you've always been thrifty, or is there a BMW parked somewhere at home that we don't know about?

No BMW, I’m even driving the same Kancil you saw me with in our university days. Again, there’s no huge international success, just a typical middle income Malaysian family, so whatever is left over from the earnings gets invested or saved for a rainy day.

I do splurge occasionally on small luxuries like board games, often after a successful sale or game release! Back in my hometown Kuching, nobody really puts any value on flashing material wealth, and spending time with the family is sometimes more precious than anything money can buy… :)

7. Do you have any words of advice for aspiring entrepreneurs out there?

Image via mr-stingy

Okay, here’s my advice: if you’re really going to jump into an industry as an entrepreneur, 1. make sure you do so with your eyes wide open. 2. Learn as much as you can about the industry you’re going into before taking that first step. This is important: 3. you must understand what you’re getting into, and 4. it should preferably be something you already have a good knowledge of, whether from experience in the industry (which is best!) or from extensive reading (which is better than nothing).

Know the risks, learn the game, and have a plan laid out possibly years in advance.

The maxim is “Hope for the best but prepare for the worst”… work hard and try for success, but if you do fail (and most people do, initially) you should have a backup plan or some way to salvage the situation. If you have commitments like a family, your risk exposure will be different.

You should also look into incorporation or partnerships as a way to mitigate your risks, and be especially wary of taking on huge debts to bet on the “next big thing”… every dollar you borrow will be another dollar and change you have to repay, so you should make sure every dollar you have is used to its maximum potential.

8. We're all fans of seeing homegrown Malaysians having success internationally. What can we do to support Nerdook Productions?

Well, you can buy my games to directly support me, but there’s usually giveaways and if you’re a friend I can always give you a copy for free. The best thing you can do is just let people know I exist, and maybe one day I’ll make a game that you truly enjoy and think “Hey, that was totally worth it!”

You can follow my Facebook page or visit my website too… I post updates there, if any, and it always helps to have more people even know of my existence. :) Unlike those MLM posts from your Facebook friends, I promise not to spam your wall with constant notices and thinly veiled advertisements!

The full article originally appeared at mr-stingy.com.

This story is the personal opinion of the writer. Submit a story as a SAYS reader too by emailing us at [email protected]

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