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Sarah Northway, Game Maker and Nomad

Photo of Sarah with a lobster hat
Smiling with a lobster hat
Hi, I'm Sarah Northway!

What do you work on?

I design and program indie video games. My most well known one is Rebuild, a post-apocalyptic strategy game for browsers and mobile phones. It's not your usual shoot-the-zombies-in-the-head kind of game; instead you manage a city of survivors and have to make tough decisions to keep them alive. It's written in Adobe Flash (AS3 / AIR) and took me about a year to make. I'm currently working on Rebuild 3, which I raised money for on Kickstarter.
The Rebuild game, being played on a phone
Playing Rebuild on a phone
I love being an indie game developer because I don't have a boss, so I can make whatever kind of game I want, and I can do it on my own schedule. I also get to wear a lot of hats as they say; I've done everything from art and sound to customer service. It means I never get bored, but some hats are more fun than others. Programming is my favorite part.
The Rebuild game, being played on a phone
Playing Rebuild on an iPad in the Phillipines

How did you learn to program?

I loved computers from a young age in the 80s and 90s, because I loved the games you could play on them. I learned shell scripting so I could run games, learned how to use BBSes so I could download games, then learned HTML so I could make websites about... I'll let you guess. I did my earliest real programming in first year college and fell in love with the world of puzzles and language that sits inside every piece of software. To me, programming is a game.
I majored in computer science, which involved far too much math and theory and circuit boards for my liking. I learned the most from working on projects that interested me, not from books or teachers. My favorite project was a game I wrote with a boy (my future husband!) about evolving insects.
The Rebuild game, being played on a phone
Programming in Panama

What do you do when you’re not programming?

The best, best part of being an indie game dev is being able to travel. My husband Colin and I sold all our stuff four years ago and have been traveling around the world making games since then, living in places like Japan, Thailand, Turkey, Honduras, and (right now) Brazil. We even made another game together called Incredipede, and it's also about bugs... sort of.
Lauren and Colin, living on a canal boat in Scotland
Living on a canal boat with Colin in Scotland
I'm crazy about snorkeling, hiking, exotic places and cultures, weird foods and strange creatures. I like cities and wilderness in equal measure, and I love the other indie game developers that we've met all over the world.
Lauren hiking through the hills of Greece
Hiking through the hills of Greece

What’s your one piece of advice for new programmers?

Today, if I was just starting to learn, I would choose something I really wanted to make (probably a game of course) and take it one step at a time, learning along the way as I go. There are so many free resources now, and so many tools to make programming easier. All you need is motivation, and the desire to make stuff is what drives me.
I leave you with me, wearing a horseshoe crab as a hat:
Lauren wearing a horseshoe crab as a hat

Want to join the conversation?

  • hopper cool style avatar for user 15tkostolansky
    Sarah mentions the word "indie" a lot in her little blerb above. ^^^ What does she mean by "indie"? Independent?
    (244 votes)
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    • duskpin tree style avatar for user Vrok
      "Indie" is short for "independent". It also refers to an independent publisher, or work released by an independent publisher, in this case, video games.

      For Sarah's case, "indie" refers to independent video game development. These "indie" games are video games created by individual or small teams of video game developers, usually without financial backing from large companies. Examples of indie games include Minecraft (I assume everybody knows what's about), Chicken Invaders (parodies Space Invaders and Galaga, funny yet great), World of Goo (those beautiful 2D graphics, I want!), Braid (puzzle platformer, I heard it has a dark ending) and Ikaruga (manic shooter... wait, indie?). Some indie games, including the last three I mentioned, are more well received than games from big corporations.

      P. S. I did research about indie game development on Wikipedia while writing this comment, at the same time looking for the aforementioned games on Steam.
      (98 votes)
  • leaf blue style avatar for user XeLT
    I will learn programming what will be the best for me to start?
    (56 votes)
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    • male robot hal style avatar for user Arman
      Well, that kinda depends on what kind of language you want to learn. http://www.codecademy.com/ is a good place to start as it has a variety of different languages for you to learn, although i'd recommend starting here! Once you've done the basics, you should try to find out what language is best suited for what you want to do. If you want to make games, try:
      http://www.pygame.org/news.html this is python for game makers!
      http://www.cplusplus.com/ C++ is one of the most widely used languages in game making!
      Java is also a great language from what my father's told me!
      Again, it depends on what you want to do!
      Hope iv'e been helpful!
      (6 votes)
  • piceratops tree style avatar for user Daleon Listhrop
    How does computer science equates to computer programming...?
    (8 votes)
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    • ohnoes default style avatar for user Robert Stone
      People were doing computer science before there were even any computers. They wrote algorithms out on paper for example. The difference is a bit like the difference between math and calculator operation. Strictly speaking, you don't even need a computer to do computer science. Sometimes computer science problems are expressed in terms of hypothetical computers that can't even exist because they have infinite memory.

      Another way to think of it is computer science is science, programming is engineering (software engineering).
      (29 votes)
  • leaf green style avatar for user 😎  Tommy 😎
    May I know what would be income If I become a programmer?
    And I have heard that modern computers would have power of auto-programming(no need writing codes).Is that true?
    (10 votes)
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    • primosaur seed style avatar for user πceratops (Caleb Winston)
      The average yearly salary of computer programmer in the United States is about $71,757 and salaries can range from $32,943 to $113,849.

      Programmers have already found ways for computers to perform tasks without being programmed to do them. These techniques are known as machine learning. But even machine learning techniques have to be programmed.

      Researchers are working on machine learning algorithms that can be configured automatically. But even this research is being done by programmers.

      So while it is possible that computers may eventually be so intelligent they don't need to be programmed to perform tasks, computer programmers will probably still be around for quite a while.
      (6 votes)
  • piceratops seedling style avatar for user tjmacca05
    What program do you recommend python, jvascript ect.
    (8 votes)
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  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user bochan.yang
    Why did Sarah sell all her things to travel around the world? Isn't it better to stay at home and create games?
    (4 votes)
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  • orange juice squid orange style avatar for user Muragundi, Chai
    I want to be a Game Designer in the future. What can i do to achieve this?
    (6 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user mustaphakareto
    If i wan't to become a programmer what are the prior knowledge required of me and is it okay if i start it here in khan Academy?
    (3 votes)
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  • mr pink green style avatar for user ₓₓₓ
    how long does it take you to make a game?
    (2 votes)
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  • duskpin seedling style avatar for user Uday Sharan
    how much can we earn with indie games?
    (3 votes)
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    • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user curtisprogramming
      The amount of money that indie game developers own varies greatly. In some cases they become rich and famous due their good games and advertising skills. However a lot of the time they will make a game that flops, and will sometimes change professions, as that will always make them earn very little money. Of course, most indie game developers will never come to anything, and will quietly make games with not a lot of people playing them, and not be rich at all.
      Solo indie game developers make an average of about $12000 a year, while salaried programmers at big game companies make an average of about $90000 dollars a year. Another depressing statistic is that 57% of indie games make under $500.
      If you go into the indie video game industry I wish you luck... you're going to need it!
      (2 votes)