The Indie Guru

I’m moving to Southeast Asia because of Steve Pavlina.

I’m not the only designer who has taken bold steps after reading Pavlina’s articles about independent game development. Jake Birkett of Gray Alien Games says, “I read his stuff in November 2004 and became very inspired. One year later, I released my first commercial game, Xmas Bonus, and now two years later I’ve made four commercial games and a game framework. Of course, lots of people are dubious of this kind of stuff, but it totally works for me, and that’s what’s important.”

“Steve inspired quite a lot of game developers, and I’m certainly one of them,” says Cliff Harris, who started Positech Games in 1997. “He wrote some fantastic articles on game development and marketing. I would regularly e-mail [one] to all the developers where I worked, back in my retail dev days. Of course, nobody paid any attention, which is why they all still sit in a cubicle on minimum wage.”

Gabriel Gambetta co-founded casual game developer Mystery Studio in Uruguay. “Back in 2001, I found Steve’s site by chance – and it changed my life. For the first time, I saw we could make games, even from this remote corner of the world. Steve’s motivational articles were always helpful. … Not to take as The Truth (and I don’t think that’s Steve’s intention), but to make you think or consider new perspectives on everyday situations.”

“You can’t overestimate the impact of Steve’s willingness to share his successes and failures with the indie dev community,” says Nick Tipping of MoonPod in Sheffield, U.K. “Without Steve showing us the light, there’d be no MoonPod here today, and I bet we’d be missing many other developers.”

Chris Evans started Outside the Box Software in early 2004 with minimal experience. “For those thinking about going indie full-time, it’s probably better to have some game development experience first. However, I’m still very happy with my decision. Many of my former co-workers are just now getting into game development, whereas I’ve released several games, learned 3-D modeling, gained industry contacts and made some money in the process. This is why I wanted to make games in the first place. I’ll be forever grateful to Steve Pavlina for lighting that spark.”

Then there are the ambitious newcomers. After reading Pavlina’s articles on the independent game business, Gianfranco Berardi woke up. “I didn’t have to work for some large company to work in the videogame industry! I could form my own company! Last March, I officially formed my own LLC [limited liability corporation], and I am currently working on finishing my first commercial game when I am not working my day job. Steve Pavlina’s writing let me know I was gravely underestimating what I could do with my life.”

Historically, Pavlina’s articles have ranked with Garage Games among the most alluring siren calls to the rocky straits of indie design. Some might denounce such persuasion as irresponsible, even dangerous. Many developers who tried the indie life gave up within months, sometimes with angry, bitter public goodbyes on Pavlina’s online forum. The path of self-reliance, though available to anyone, has never been for everyone.

The thing is, none of us know if it’s for us until we try.

That’s why, by the time you read this, I’ll have relocated to Malaysia to start my own company. Because, like many before me, I got inspired by Steve Pavlina.


Pavlina was born in 1971. Raised a devout Catholic, he became an atheist in high school. As a bored and amoral student at the University of California at Berkeley, he turned to theft. After several run-ins with the law, Pavlina was arrested in 1991 for felony grand theft. Later, through a lucky legal oversight, he was convicted of petty theft and sentenced only to brief community service.

But while sitting in the county jail, Pavlina experienced an awakening. He cleaned up his life and developed a remarkable ability to focus and manage his time productively. Attending California State University at Northridge, he earned dual computer science and mathematics degrees in three semesters, graduating with a 3.9 GPA.

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After graduating, Pavlina started his own game company, Dexterity Software. He spent six months programming a shareware puzzle game, Dweep, about a cute little purple guy who rescues his children from mazes of deadly obstacles. Made for basically no cost, Dweep won several awards. Over the next few years, Pavlina constantly revised and expanded the game, turning it into a major casual hit. The final version, Dweep Gold, has 152 levels.

In September 2002, Pavlina started a forum on his site as a gathering place for independent game developers worldwide. He began posting articles about making successful shareware. In “Shareware Amateurs Versus Shareware Professionals” and a dozen companion articles, Pavlina discussed professionalism as a goal, a state of mind and a set of best practices:

  • Plan for the long term.
  • Do basic market research.
  • Stick with one product and refine it incrementally.
  • Give unique value.
  • Constantly reassess and experiment with your marketing.
  • Measure the results of everything you try.

His tone was pragmatic yet upbeat, his approach methodical and success-oriented – precisely the right way to reach would-be designers and programmers. Jaded by frustrating no-win deals with rapacious publishers, many professionals hearkened with glad heart to a prospect of game development where every single element of success was potentially under their control.

Dexterity’s success made Pavlina financially independent. His articles and posts, both on the Dexterity forum and on, began to reflect larger developmental topics. He started talking not just about games, but about avoiding procrastination, developing focus and enlarging scope – about using game development and entrepreneurship as a path to personal growth.

In summer 2004, Pavlina retired from game design and started a blog about personal development. When he closed the Dexterity Games forums, indie designers Steve Verrault, Mike Boeh and Dan MacDonald started the IndieGamer forum. IndieGamer hosted the Dexterity articles for several years; the site still archives old Dexterity forum threads, though they are only accessible through external search engines.

Pavlina still ran his game business in desultory fashion until October 2006, when he finally shuttered the Dexterity site. (Dweep is still available at shareware download sites.) Having completely left the field at last, he has not looked back.

*** is subtitled “Personal Development for Smart People.” His approach matches Tony Robbins, Jay Abraham and a long line of ultra-motivated business coaches reaching back to Dale Carnegie and Napoleon Hill.

Pavlina’s advice is mostly sensible and unobjectionable. His message of conscious living echoes every self-help guru since Gautama Buddha. He has written many articles about success and purpose:

” “The Courage to Live Consciously

” “30 Days to Success

” “10 Reasons You Should Never Get a Job

” “10 Stupid Mistakes Made by the Newly Self-Employed“”

” “How to Discover Your Life Purpose in About 20 Minutes

” And (almost forgot!) “The Meaning of Life

But the main traffic drivers to Pavlina’s blogs are his more mundane self-help articles, such as “How to Become an Early Riser” and “How to Give Up Coffee.” (Hey, a purpose-driven life has to start somewhere.) A committed vegan, he has written of his attempts at an all-raw diet, a regimen so austere that, hearing of its rigors, even the most condescending vegetarian may feel, briefly, less smug. Pavlina also drew much attention for his experiment with polyphasic sleep, a regimen of reduced sleep-time based on frequent naps. He sustained his polyphasic schedule (four hours awake, then a 15-minute nap) for over five months. In “The Return to Monophasic,” he says he could have maintained it indefinitely, but it was too inconvenient to coordinate with the monophasic world.

Notwithstanding these superhuman feats, it’s clear Pavlina is no saint. His least likable articles divide people into “bears” and “eagles.” Bears are ordinary people who sleepwalk through life; eagles, no surprise, are those who think like Pavlina. “Bear Bombing” advocates jostling ursine peers out of their hibernation by, well, being a jerk.

Today, Pavlina practices what he calls “a religion of personal growth“: “My religion is based on working actively on my personal growth and helping others to do the same.” Though he never describes them as such, his beliefs represent a form of Hermetic magick, the practice of self-transformation, empowerment and imposition of the will to reshape external reality. If you don’t believe it, check his podcast “The True Nature of Reality” and the article “Cause-Effect Versus Intention-Manifestation.” The blog’s most overtly magickal exercise to date is the Million-Dollar Experiment, “an attempt to use the power of intention to manifest $1 million for each person who chooses to participate.”

Pavlina is well on his way to his own million. Though he charges nothing for his writing or podcasts, the ad-supported blog is quite profitable. In October 2006, he claimed the site earned $1,000 daily. Characteristically, the author has turned his experience into an article, “How to Make Money From Your Blog.”


The last section of Pavlina’s essay “The Courage to Live Consciously” is titled “Embrace the Daring Adventure.” Even now, as a fan of his writings, I read this cornball phrase with a reflexive snort of contempt.

Which is odd, because I’m doing that.

Pavlina is the only game developer (that I know of) who migrated to self-help. But leaving aside the game angle, his story, and his message, follow the conventional American myth of early mistakes, redemption, hard work, persistence and ultimate success. Every personal-growth guru tells that exact story. Yet each guru appeals to a different base, a particular audience receptive to his or her unique approach.

Pavlina connects with game designers not only through his analytical method, but through his understanding of their issues. Some of them feel trapped and powerless in dead-end jobs. Others, for various reasons, disdain marketing or the overhead involved in running a company. Some of them have wasted six years in a dull and sterile suburb, stuck in a torpid life of web surfing and dog-walking, feeling old and stiff and mean. One of them, anyway.

This rarefied demographic, and increasingly the broader internet audience, responds to Pavlina’s restatement of timeless lessons. See, for instance, his conclusion to “The Courage to Live Consciously”:

“Don’t die without embracing the daring adventure your life is meant to be. You may go broke. You may experience failure and rejection repeatedly. You may endure multiple dysfunctional relationships. But these are all milestones along the path of a life lived courageously. They are your private victories, carving a deeper space within you to be filled with an abundance of joy, happiness and fulfillment.”

The people I tell about Malaysia wish me well, but I see the questions in their eyes. It does sound weird. Yet Malaysia has skilled coders who work cheap, and I can base the business in nearby Singapore, where the business climate is good. The government of Singapore offers loans and perks for new game companies. (I’d live in Singapore myself, but it’s too expensive.) If I planned to smuggle drugs or chew gum, I wouldn’t go. But if I’m choosing a censorious money-mad paternalistic police state, I could do worse.

One friend, acting with good will, thought it prudent to caution me about what could go wrong. I could lose all my money (he pointed out helpfully), or get sick, or have language difficulties, or have software trouble, or fall desperately behind schedule, or discover my project won’t work. That I still snort at “Embrace the Daring Adventure” shows my commitment is weak. The whole thing could blow up in my face.

All of that may be true. But you know what? I’m moving to Southeast Asia, and he’s not going anywhere.

Are you?

Allen Varney designed the PARANOIA paper-and-dice roleplaying game (2004 edition) and has contributed to computer games from Sony Online, Origin, Interplay and Looking Glass.

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