Focus on Zero to One – A Game Dev Business-Building Philosophy

Focus on Zero to One – A Game Dev Business-Building Philosophy

I used to dream of making millions from a video game I created. I would wonder what it would be like for people to love and play my creations but pay for them. When I got into game development, I wanted to make the next Halo…I wanted to *BE* the next Bungie. And not just for the money, more for the impact.

But as I began what would later become my life-long obsession of making video games, and after losing all motivation to touch them anymore, I realized something. By aiming my rocket for the moon, I didn’t land among the stars. I simply quit before I ever launched, because the scope of what I wanted to achieve was too high.

If that sounds like you, consider what I have to say in this article.

I call that process of completing your goal (launching the rocket) “Zero to one.” And I call the process of scaling that goal (hitting the stars) “One to one hundred.”


Zero is having nothing complete

If you think about your independent development in a purely binary sense, you have either completed something or you haven’t. I can either download your game on my platform of choice right now, or I can’t. You have either made your first $1, or you have not. In that sense, you are either a zero or a one. If you have not completed something before, right now you are a zero.

Zero doesn’t take into account how creative your game is. It doesn’t care how long you spent on it, or what cool and innovative features are built in. It doesn’t even care how addictive and compelling your gameplay is. You could have the best half-finished game on the planet, but if it is not live, it’s still a zero. If you want your indie game development to go anywhere, or if you want to make money from your games and support yourself from that income, your biggest focus right now should be going from zero to one.

As long as you are a zero you can never really go anywhere with your development. Sure you can do freelancing here and there, but you will never really build the awesome passive income, digital product game development business we all secretly want.


One is making your first $1

Once again in a binary sense, if you’ve made your first $1 you’re a one. If you don’t plan on monetizing (or you just make games for fun) you could consider completion as your departure from a zero to a one. As you can see, there is a very clear distinction here. There is no room for speculation. You either have completed the primary goal of your independent game development (publishing or monetizing) or you have not. Yes or no. Zero or one.

One doesn’t mean that all your problems are over though. Just because you made it past the land of zeros doesn’t mean its all smooth sailing from there. There’s a lot to do. It’s just that going from a zero to a one is a monumental achievement, and you need to understand how big of an accomplishment it is. Far too many developers undervalue this milestone, and because of that, they never reach it.


Most independent developers are zeros

I don’t mean zeros as in losers. It’s not meant as an insult, it’s meant as a binary indicator of whether or not you were able to fully produce a project up until this point. I’ve talked about this before but it took me 10 years to go from zero to one. In fact, at one point I was so sure it was impossible for me to produce my own video game that I decided I would help other people with theirs instead of working on my own. I based an entire life-altering decision on the lack of confidence in my ability to complete something. So when I tell you not to make the same mistake, please know that it comes from experience.

Contrary to popular belief, it is not the skills that you’ve acquired that dictate your success. It’s not the fancy new programming language you learned, or the cutting edge hardware you’re developing for. The single biggest factor in your success is your ability to keep on truckin’. It is your persistence, not your ability that sets you apart from the rest. Most developers would call that motivation, but motivation is hard to come by even when you’re passionate. You have to dedicate yourself over time to the process of going from zero to one. There are some things you have to watch out for. There are things you need to learn and skills you have to acquire along the way, but none of those single things determines your fate. It is the sum total of all of those things mixed with your determination and dedication that will make you great.

If you want to go from zero to one, never get stuck in the Dev Cycle of Doom, try not to get overwhelmed


Because zero to one is harder than one to one hundred

Now I’m not saying that going from one to one hundred is easy. It’s not. It’s actually very challenging and it takes an extreme dedication and the willingness to acquire the skills necessary. But it is significantly easier to go from one to one hundred than to go from zero to one.

Think about it. If your goal is to make $100 by selling your game on the internet, the vast majority of the work is NOT in going from making $1 to $100. The major workload comes in at making the game, finishing the game, publishing the game, setting up the landing page or store listing, and getting that first customer to your doorstep giving you $1. Repeating that same process of acquiring a customer 99 times is much easier than the entire creative workload of making and completing an entire game. It requires different skills, and you may have a skill set more tailored to the making instead of the marketing, but the process itself is much more simple.

Zero to one is binary. One to one hundred is not. Zero to one is very clearly defined, and you always know when you reach it. Going from 1 to 100 greatly depends on what your 100 means to you. 100 to me represents the greatest potential of your game, and your goal for what you want to achieve with it. Some people want to build the next Halo. Others just want to build a mobile game that gets 100 downloads. Terminology aside, building is ALWAYS harder than scaling. Once you prove that something works and sells, all you have to do is create a repeatable process to grow it.

Having lived on as little as $200/month, and having to choose between feeding my dog or myself, and having the juxtaposition of making $8,000/day and profitably exiting from companies…I can tell you that for me, the VAST MAJORITY of the work is in zero to one. I’ve done it before, and I’ve repeated the process in the different phases of my life. It’s never easy, but once you learn where to focus, it gets easier.

If you are trying to take your game development from zero to one hundred, the best place to start is zero to one.


Focus on your zero to one

Concentrate on completing your first game, publishing your first app, making your first dollar. What ever your long term goal is, break it down into 2 phases.

  • Zero to One: Proof of concept. Phase one is ALWAYS proving the concept and proving that people will pay for it. You have to prove that you’re capable of getting to that point. Your first game is published, your first app is live, your first dollar is in the bank.
  • One to One Hundred: Scale of concept. Once you reach that first milestone, it’s all growth from there. Once you complete your first game it is easier to complete your second. Once you get to the point of making $1, it is way easier to make $100.

Way too many people try to go from zero to one hundred, and get overwhelmed before they even make it to one. Looking at things at such a massive scale can be intimidating and de-motivating. It doesn’t make sense to task yourself with making the next Minecraft worth billions when you haven’t even finished that Pong clone that has been sitting on your hard drive for 2 years. Humans crawl before they walk, and they walk before they run. You wouldn’t try to run as an infant, so you shouldn’t aim for one hundred before you’ve even hit one.



Don’t try to tackle everything at once. Keep in mind that zero to one is always harder than one to one hundred. Focus on your zero to one. Focus on that very first milestone that puts your goal in the realm of possibility. Whatever you do, try to get out of zero land as fast as possible, that is where good ideas go to die.


Have you made your first dollar yet? If not, what’s your plan? Tell me in the comments!

Tim Ruswick

Tim Ruswick is the founder of Game Dev Underground and the author of the Game-Maker's Manifesto.