Stoke fire: Lessons from A Dark Room

a-dark-room
by Amir Rajan

I quit my job, went on a sabbatical, took on a minimalist lifestyle, and ended up making A Dark Room, the number one app in the App Store. From this year-long journey, I’ve ended up six grand in the hole. From a monetary standpoint, I would have been better off keeping my day job. But I’ve come out the other end with a few life lessons that have changed me at my core.

Set achievable goals

Achievable goals have balance. On my sabbatical, I had a number of failures. All of them had one thing in common: there was a component of the goal that wasn’t in balance with the others. Pretend a goal is a chair. A good chair has three or four even-length legs. Sure, it may not be perfectly even, it may wobble a little bit, but there is definitely no single leg that is too long or short. All right, enough with the analogy, let’s deal in the concrete.

a-dark-roomSome things that make goals achievable:

  • Have a genuine interest in starting.
  • Enjoy the journey in achieving it.
  • Recognize that you’ve made progress.
  • Believe that the end result is worth the effort.
  • Have a sense of urgency.

Learning how to play guitar, for example, was something I failed at. I did have a genuine interest in starting, enjoyed playing, saw progress in my finger dexterity, and didn’t have unrealistic expectations about the end result. The problem was that there was no sense of urgency. There wasn’t an event I was going to play at. I had no real “deadline” where I’d be held accountable. And I failed because of it.

A Dark Room iOS, had a better balance. I wanted to learn the iOS platform and enjoyed building video games. I slowly ported pieces of the web version of the game, and recognized my progress. My end goal was simply to have an app in the App Store. I didn’t do it for the money; I didn’t expect to make anything off the game in fact. There was also a sense of urgency. I had accountability to my partner, Michael (the creator of the web version of ADR).

Just start, dammit

You can’t finish what you don’t start. I woke up in May 2013 without a job and no real plan (outside of my esoteric goal of “accumulating knowledge”). After the first couple of weeks, I began to realize that days of the weeks, months, even what hour it is become arbitrary concepts. In the past, I’ve told myself, “I’ll do that at the start of the week,” or, “First of the month, I’ll definitely start going to the gym.” When the days began to blur together, I found that I had to simply start working on something the moment it came to mind. I’ve stopped making excuses. I simply just start.

Time and meaning

No one can ever pay you what you’re worth. What dollar amount can you place on an hour of your life? What dollar amount can you place on something you can never get back? I will never get back the time I spent writing this piece. And you’ll never get back the time you spent reading it. But we both are doing this because we feel it’s meaningful to us. I’m writing this because I feel it’s meaningful. You’re reading it in search of that same thing.

I see so many people that give up time for the pursuit of “stuff.” I see people that work 40+ hours a week for companies that will always have more work for them. They use their income to buy things that have significant upkeep. They continue to accumulate “stuff” without consideration of the meaning it holds. They continue on this endless cycle and then realize they’ve amassed objects that break, degrade, and go out of style in exchange for something they’ll never get back.

To this day, I’m careful about accumulating material things. The laptop I’m writing this on will eventually break and the game I built will eventually be forgotten. The App Store may not even exist in a couple of years (in my opinion it definitely won’t exist in ten). But no one can take away the experience I’ve gained throughout this journey.

Set goals, start, remove the noise in your life, and make time to do meaningful things.

Fighting demons

Some people are ambitious and driven. They feel this constant, unexplainable weight on their shoulders and pressure to succeed. They have sparks of inspiration followed by bouts of creation. They go against the grain. They hate compromising. Most times, failure is the only thing that comes of it. I expect I’ve described some of you, and have definitely described myself. We have great qualities, but with them come demons.

Stress

Even while taking a sabbatical, stress reared its ugly head. Sometimes it came from the current project I was working on. Sometimes it was from seeing my bank account drop another $3,000 at month’s end. Sometimes it’s seeing your product do the impossible and knowing you now have to seize the moment. Regardless, that stress was there, and I did a very poor job of managing it. Each person has his own way of dealing with stress. Two things that helped me were sleep and exercise.

I sleep at night in (forgive the pun) a dark room: pitch dark with blackout blinds, three curtains covering the windows. I highly advise avoiding alarm clocks if you can. Just disconnect and sleep. Keep your phone out of the bedroom, leave it charging somewhere else. Sleep is a way to forget your worries for a small amount of time.

Then there’s exercise. It’s how I forget my worries for a brief moment. When your workout of the day is three sets of back squats at 72% of your one rep max, you don’t get to worry about your problems. I put the bar on my back loaded with 150 lbs (yes, I know I’m a weakling). With every dip, hip-crease below the knee, my mind is screaming, “You can’t do this! You can’t do this! You’ll fall forward and snap your spine!” My body continues, corrects its balance, wills itself to complete the set. And for that brief moment, I get to forget everything else. I set the bar back on the rack, I get to rest, but my mind can’t wander. I have to think about the next set, I have to count down each second and make sure I give my legs time to recover. Find a way to forget about your worries, even if it’s for a short period of time.

Uninspired states

It’s the best thing in the world to get that idea, to work on it full force day and night, but then the high goes away. At this point, you have to rely on habits to drag you across the finish line. When I was working on A Dark Room iOS, that high lasted for three months. But I had another month of work before it was ready to release to the App Store. The only thing that got me through that time was habits. I woke up at 7am, had my coffee and worked on the game. Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I worked out at noon and pushed my body to its limits. Tuesdays and Thursdays, I went to my coworking space FortWork to be around others like me. That consistent habit is what got me over the finish line. So when you don’t “feel” like working, it’s time rely on habits that you’ve (hopefully) formed.

Against the grain

I went against the grain with A Dark Room iOS. I took a free, web-based game and created a for-pay version on mobile. It was devoid of graphics and sound. It was nearly design-less, black and white, plain, made up of only text, buttons, and progress bars. This iPhone “game” had no in-app purchases, no ads, no pay walls, no candy or birds that flap, and no Facebook integration. The description of the game was vague, with only one screenshot. At the surface, everything I did was completely, utterly, stupid. For those that have completed A Dark Room iOS, they know that any one of the “best practices for iOS apps” would have compromised the product. It took six months of telling people, “No, I’m not going to do [x],” before my stubbornness paid off.

A Dark Room iOS took the #1 spot in the US on April 13th, 2014. Games like Minecraft, celebrity endorsed Heads Up! and apps featured by Apple (such as Leo’s Fortune, Hitman Go, and The Amazing Spider Man 2), couldn’t knock A Dark Room iOS off its #1 spot. It stayed for eighteen days straight. It fell to the #8 spot, but climbed back up again. For another two days the light shined on A Dark Room. Then it was surpassed by others and its top spot in the rankings was lost.

Failure

Those eighteen days were the longest days of my life. The first three days were wonderful! I had accomplished the impossible. But I kept my expectations tempered. I had already written the success off as a fun little fluke and was simply happy that I would be able to continue my sabbatical for a little longer (the game got ~50,000 downloads in those first days). But then a week passed and it was still at the top spot with no signs of slowing. Every day brought in another 10,000+ downloads. And my world, day by day, was changing.

Because of the relationships I had built at my coworking space, I landed local interviews with Dallas Morning NewsDallas Business Insider, and CBS 11 DFW. Then, the larger publications started taking notice. I saw unsolicited mentions in United Kingdom’s The Sun, and The Montreal Gazette. Even the Huffington Post and Slate Magazine wrote about the unexplainable hit that the game became. After ten days, I started thinking, “All I need is another thirty days here and my life will change forever.” I received interview requests from Cult of Mac and The New Yorker and both were published. I checked the App Store ranks hourly to see if it was still #1. I didn’t sleep. Eight days later, A Dark Room fell out of its #1 spot. No amount of media coverage could keep the masses from moving on. The game is now struggling to stay in the top 50 games, being outranked by the likes of SpongeBob Moves In and Disney Checkout Challenge.

I got a taste of potentially life changing success, and, being so close to reaching it, I did everything in my power to actualize it. Everything was starting to stack in my favor, but it still failed to change my life forever – at least financially. I have to say, coming that close and not getting there was one of the worst feelings in the world. In the light of all these once in a lifetime achievements, to some degree I still feel defeated.

After all is said and done, after Apple’s cut, royalty payments to my partner, income taxes and self employment taxes, I’ve netted less money than if I had kept my day job throughout that same time period. The game will generate passive income, so it is definitely a success from that standpoint. But now on the other side of the media wave, I’m doing contract work four days a week. If my extremely conservative projections are correct, A Dark Room has bought me a Friday’s for the next two years. Perhaps I can do the impossible again. At least I have a sense of urgency to stoke the fire for my next project.

2 Comments

  1. anthony thompson 07/19/2014 at 1:06 am #

    fantastic effort and sharing of your story. you hit on key points of goals and others that are monumental and things I failed at miserably.

    I’m looking forward to your next dream or idea executed, it’s closer than you think.

    cheers. – A

    Reply

  2. chad rogers 09/04/2014 at 8:48 am #

    I hope to do something that moves me with work the way your “job” does for you.

    Reply

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