The fascinating journey of Sam Smolders who overcame incredible challenges to develop a game
Indie game developers often offer up the classic tale of a bedroom coder, someone who has defied the odds and beat the big publishers and thousands of other developers to get noticed and become a success.
One such developer is Belgium-born Sam Smolders, who recently released RPG title Victim of Xen with the help of a small group of volunteers and browser and casual games specialist Big Fish Games.
But unlike the challenges facing other developers, Smolders has had overcome a plethora of setbacks which include being kicked out of the US at the age of 18 having lived there since he was five years old, finding himself with no money and no home in a country where he couldn’t speak the language, to develop and release his own game.
But he isn’t just in the industry to experience its successes. During a recent interview with Develop his passion for game development was obvious, and his fascinating backstory is a testament to the lengths he is willing to go to make it in the game industry, and also how accessible the sector is to those who put in the hard work.
Kicked out of home
Born in Belgium, Smolders moved to the US with his mother at the age of five, growing up in the state of Arizona, studying at numerous schools and graduating in the region, all the while taking his early steps into the world of programming.
Citing his inspirations from Japanese games such as Final Fantasy and Metal Gear Solid, he says he was always attracted to the direction and the storytelling of the titles, which led him to studying game design.
Just before turning 18 however his world was turned upside down when he was told that due to improperly filed immigration documents, he would officially be labelled an illegal immigrant after his 18th birthday.
After a discussion with the immigration office, Smolders was told he must exit the US and then re-enter in order to carry on living in the country, but despite being allowed back for brief periods after leaving for Belgium, things did not work out as planned.
“It actually didn’t go down like they’d explained,” says Smolders.
“I listened to them because I wanted to do the right thing, I kind of grew up that way. And when I got out here (Belgium), I started working in some factories because I got a European passport when I got out here. I even went back once or twice during that time to keep in touch with everybody, with my friends and stuff, and let them know what was going on.
“But after a couple visits, suddenly they blocked me. I showed up at the airport, they pulled me aside and said, ‘Sorry, we’re not going to let you in the US anymore’, and they sent me back on a plane to Germany.
“They kind of just grabbed my stuff, I had a couple things on me at the airport and they just grabbed it off me and shipped me on a plane back to Germany, and I couldn’t get in anymore.”
Shortly after being refused entry on numerous attempts, Smolders also received the phone call that his mother, who had worked in Arizona for 13 years and paid taxes – of which Smolders claims she has records for – was arrested by police and taken to prison.
“They took the land, took the property, took everything that she’d been working on for all those years, and they barred it, they barred us completely,” he explains.
“After seven months they shipped her out here (Belgium) with nothing. I mean she showed up at the airport in rags and we haven’t been able to get anything back and every time I’ve tried to go back, as soon as my name comes up, everybody at the embassy, everybody at the airport, all these places, they suddenly change their mentality and they’re like, ‘oh we’re sorry, we’ve drawn a heavy black list’.”
Despite initially having his own apartment, due to low funds from working in local production factories for companies such as Nike, Smolders now moves from house-to-house every few months to friends kind enough to let him live with them while he tries to overcome the shock and challenges of being kicked out of his home country with next to nothing to his name.
When asked if his mother has her own place, an emotional Smolders says that while she does, he has chosen not to live with her due to his connection with what happened, having notified the immigration office in the US about his impending illegal status in the first place.
“Yes she does. But I don’t stay there,” he says.
“It doesn’t work well because obviously my going and explaining the situation is directly connected to all the stuff that happened. That’s an awful lot of stuff every once in a while, so I limit it to just visiting.”
Yet, despite being on low funds and in a stressful position many would crumble under, Smolders actively decided to follow his passion for game development, whatever the cost, having all but given up on returning home.
“I had been out here for a couple years putting these plans together,” he says.
“My main focus at the time was just trying to solve that whole cultural difference thing. When I was here in Belgium, my Dutch wasn’t that good, and I couldn’t get home to anybody. You know I really miss everybody.
“I’d always wanted to contribute and get into the industry, but there was such a lack out here in Belgium. There’s no game industry out here, it’s all in the UK, and in Germany as well. But my German’s not great either, and I didn’t have anybody to get me over there to make that jump because I’m really on the low end of financing.
“So what I decided was after a few years of putting my funding and production plant work into research and trying to get my immigration sorted, it still wasn’t working you know.”
“These agencies in the US – I’m assuming the one’s that took the house and all that stuff – They’d really put a lot of blocks and things on there, so my funding and lawyers and stuff, it all just vanished all the time.
“I decided instead of doing all that I’m just going to go full-time [in game development], put all of the funds straight into what I’ve been wanting to do form the beginning, since I was little, and just start. Just start here. Do it full-time, get really into it, build it up, just don’t stop, and the rest of it will happen.”
Developing on a shoestring
In an effort to learn more and gather further development resources and contacts, Smolders headed on a trip to Japan, getting his hands on the RPG Maker game engine – as well as advice on how to use the tool - which would later become the basis for his debut game, Victim of Xen.
It was at this point Smolders put together his own team, all developing for free in an effort to create what he describes as a “professional” game, despite the lack of funding. Initially starting out with just him and a writer in the US, through various internet forums and meeting local developers, Smolders was able to put together a team of 13 other volunteers who would contribute to development, test the game and also translate it into other languages.
He says that despite a few dollars for food, all of his money from work is ploughed straight into development to keep production going, with ambitions to raise enough money from sales to attract investment to create an even bigger second title.
But despite working for free and on a shoestring budget, Smolders says that German publishing giant Big Fish Games, on whose web platform Victim of Xen will be released on, has also played a huge part in bringing the project to fruition.
After hearing about the company through a friend, the indie developer wrote a letter to Big Fish, and paid to fly himself out to Gamescom in Germany to meet the firm’s representatives face to face and tell them about his game.
Big Fish then stepped in to help out with the game’s development, offering advice on what Victim of Xen was lacking and putting Smolders in direct contact with other developers who could lend a hand.
The publisher also put its QA team onto the title to give him feedback on a number of bugs and issues affecting the game, which he says his team wouldn’t have been able to discover by themselves.
Having now completed development of Victim of Xen and releasing it on the Big Fish Games website, Smolders is nothing short of ambitious about his future plans, which involve setting up companies in Europe and the US and pushing on with bigger and better games, although he admits his first title must sell well to meet such lofty targets.
“It all depends on how successful our current games are and how many of these limitations we can remove,” he says.
“I have a few visions of ten years from now that really depend on those outcomes. If they take off well, if people are interested enough and buy enough copies of this, I can remove some of these limitations. Then I really think that we'll end up having our own development system and contributing directly to multiple industries, not just the ones we're working with right now.
“I’m also looking into working directly with somebody right now instead of working in production plants, instead of just spending my time behind a conveyor belt or something to really directly input into one of these industries while we're doing this.”
With a full game under his belt despite numerous setbacks, Smolders’ story should be an inspiration for developers everywhere. As long as you have the drive and passion to make it in the game industry, a plethora of accessible tools, guides, publishers and developer networks mean that anyone can achieve success in gaming.
As Smolders concludes: “It’s all I really want to do, I want to contribute to this amazing industry. The entertainment industry, video games in particular, hit with me back in school, they really kept me motivated, gave me inspiration, got me connected with the rest of the world, and that's something everybody deserves.”