Meet the Developer Who Made Games for Three Years While Living on the Streets
Ryan Zehm would stop at nothing for a career in games, even if it meant living on the street for years.
Whether he said them to the emptiness of his car, the isolation of his tent, or quietly so as not disturb other occupants in a homeless shelter, Ryan Zehm started many of his days by uttering these words from Og Mandino's book, The Greatest Salesman in the World:
"Today I shed my old skin, which hath, too long, suffered the bruises of failure and the wounds of mediocrity."
Founder of NurFace (pronounced: In-Your-Face) Games, Zehm now wakes and recites those words in his own place, to comforts many take for granted: his own bed, bathroom, and private space. Back in 2009, though, Zehm found himself at a crossroads after falling victim to massive layoffs at Hewlett-Packard: Take the safe and immediately secure route with jobs he'd hate or sacrifice amenities he'd known all his life to bring himself closer to his dream of running his own game development studio.
Initially, Zehm struggled to maintain his lifestyle after losing his job. He had family he could reach out to but they often responded to his vision of creating a profitable business through gaming with trepidation. Odd jobs at fast food restaurants were options as well, but Zehm decided he'd have a better chance of making his game company dream come true if he did nothing else, understanding he'd be unable to pay rent for a long while.
Zehm had the relative comfort of his car during his transition. "I stayed in my car for a couple of months and would sleep up on the mountain and park around," he told me via Skype. "It got hard and sometimes I'd get the cop knocking on the window telling me I'd have to move. I guess the main reason I went to the shelter is I wanted to stretch out and it was winter at that time so I couldn't just go grab a tent."
The River of Life men's shelter in Boise, Idaho was a stout upgrade, offering breakfast and a place to shower before hitting the streets. Between 5:30 AM and 6 AM, shelter staff gets everyone up with just enough time to clean and eat. The shelter is inaccessible until 7 PM, though sometimes they offered lunch to their perpetual occupants.
Once he had his routine down, Zehm wasted no time sharpening his game design skills. A library down by the river in Boise was his most important asset and, during his 12-16-hour days, it served as his school and office. "It was the only place to go where I was basically accepted, as a homeless person, to walk in and spend all day there working," Zehm said. "I looked at people in different situations like my friends in Russia. I'd talk to them on Skype and hear all these sirens outside their window and see some of the living conditions and think if these guys can do it what's my excuse, especially when there's a public library with 100mb internet for free."
He started by tinkering on the library computers, but soon did a few odd jobs to make enough money for a $35 laptop on Craigslist. The laptop, which had a Pentium 4 processor, 256 MB of ram, and wi-fi capability served as his main development device. Eventually, he was using it to design, prototype, program, market, and distribute his creations.
The games Zehm crafted early on were simple; the type you'd find someone casually playing on their cell phone. Space Blast, the first title to earn Zehm enough to change his circumstance, was a shoot-em-up title in the vain of Space Invaders. It was originally launched as a $1.99 app under the name UFO Defense and, soon after, UFO Defense Lite was released for free with ads and downloaded over 7,000 times. Those ads earned Zehm money that wildly fluctuated, earning between $100 a month to even over $1000.
Over time, the games became a bit more ambitious and intricate. Gameplay evolved from Fun Ball: Ping Pong, a static physics puzzler, to traversing an obstacle riddled skyscape with a soccer ball in Sky Soccer. None of the titles from NurFace Games received an overwhelming amount of reviews, but the ranking stayed fairly average, with Sky Soccer earning the highest rating of 4 stars out of 5 on Google Play.
When it comes to Zehm's path in game development, he adopted a realistic approach to success. "You want to read about a moment where there was a hit like Angry Birds, but that never happened and still never has happened," he said. "It was all constant repetition and building up. I learned along the way it wasn't about building the next most crazy innovative game and magically a million people are going to play it. There's some Powerball lottery chance of something like Flappy Bird happening."
Understanding this, Zehm leaned on persistent creation for favorable results. "I have a friend from the Ukraine and he was very successful," he said. "Successful in games no one has heard of, but he made a lot of money. His rule was one game per month, no matter what. So I've adopted that rule myself and I think it's critical." Local game jams presented him with not only a chance to quickly create games to meet his quota, but also build an essential following.
Constantly working on his following and sticking to his plan to release a new game every month is what ultimately earned him enough to get a $350/month apartment after three years on the streets. In addition to being his office, the library and spots around it served as a temple. "The shelter was tough because there's a lot of negative people whose mindset is completely ruined by now," he explains. "I'm like...Nope. I know I am homeless. I'm homeless on purpose. It didn't just happen to me, I allowed it to happen. This is a decision I'm making because I want to build a game studio. In order to get this thing done I needed to work on it full time, which means I can't pay rent, which means I'm going to have to be homeless in the beginning."
Books like The Greatest Salesman in the World also helped to tune out the noise and break up the tedious repetition of his days. Working at an eight-hour stretch was too much, but Zehm found solace in a secluded spot near the river. There, he'd read Greatest Salesman and other self help books to remind himself of the person he was capable of becoming.
"There's a number of key people out there that laugh at people that want be game developers and tell them to get a real job," Zehm said. "NurFace games is saying I can make games, we can make money, and we can break into this exciting and profitable industry. Why not? I'm just as capable as the next person and, when I prove it to you, the name that'll be up there is NurFace."
By 2015, he'd earned enough money to attend the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. There, the reality of his accomplishments truly hit home. He was able to shake hands with John Romero (creator of Quake and Doom), founders of Electronic Arts, creators of the Unity development platform, and others.
Zehm has won 1st place in the 2015 Global Architect Jam for his VR title Antilucid, 2nd in the 2015 JamWithMe event, and more. He continues to expand NurFace games by penetrating the quickly evolving virtual reality market but, most importantly, he can speak aloud the final lines of the first scroll in The Greatest Salesman and know it to be true: "Today my old skin has become as dust. I will walk tall among men and they will know me not, for today I am a new man, with a new life."