One of the reasons the digital nomad lifestyle is such a good fit for us is that making games solo is pretty location-agnostic. As long as I have my computer and electricity, I can develop. Throw in a solid internet connection and I’m happy. Once those basic needs are met, the biggest challenges are trying to approximate a good work environment, and maintaining a healthy and productive work-life balance.
Most rentals are aimed at sightseers, so dedicated workspace is vanishingly rare. We’re usually left to fend for ourselves when it comes to managing ergonomics and comfort. Many throw pillows end up as temporary desk chair upholstery, and our first walk through a new apartment includes testing any torso-high surface for standing desk feasibility. Likewise, a minor nuisance like nearby construction or street noise can be torture when trying to concentrate on a challenging task. It definitely pays to give extra attention to complaints about noise levels in apartment reviews.
Also useful to consider is the necessary equipment, and how travel influences our needs. In addition to development requirements (more power = good), weight is a key concern, as is not attracting undue attention at airport security or in less affluent areas. So thin, light, and powerful, but also modest, and flexible enough to handle unforeseen issues, too. Not a small order!
Before we embarked on our journey, I weighed those factors and settled on a new Surface Pro 4. In some ways, it has been a perfect choice; in others, a bit of a letdown. First and foremost, it does a fine job as a game dev machine. It’s light and thin, reasonably capable, and the touchscreen has come in handy on several occasions for art and test needs (admittedly not as often as I hoped it would). It’s been more flexible than I’d imagined – though I rarely use it as a tablet, it often serves as a laptop, monitor, or media center.
On the other hand, though it runs my own games perfectly well, it struggles with other people’s (Mini Metro is no trouble, but Cities: Skylines is a bog and No Man’s Sky refused to even start). It’s bad for actual lap-top use (the kickstand digs into my legs). And in the weird, traveler-person-problems category, the vents are ideally sized for tiny ants to disappear into – a genuine concern in the tropics. All told, I don’t regret the purchase, but I do wish it were less flawed for its cost. Given another chance, I may have gone with a Surface Book, MacBook Pro, or Razer Blade Stealth instead, but there’s always hope the next iteration will be a better fit for our exacting requirements.
Finally, my wife holds on to our older Macbook Air, which, although on its last legs (Danielle insists the Malaysian heat did its battery in), is sufficient for her needs and for me to occasionally commandeer for iOS builds and deployment.
Mouse & Keyboard
In addition to the Surface’s keyboard cover, which is perfectly adequate, I brought along my older Bluetooth mobile keyboard. I actually tried to get rid of it before we left, but I’m so glad I didn’t find any takers. Light and flat and with excellent battery life, it has earned its keep many times over. It’s so nice to be able to take what is basically a laptop, pull it apart (mounting the tablet portion at eye-level and keeping a keyboard and mouse at comfortable arm height), and end up with a desktop-like rig as needed.
I also have a Surface mouse – very nearly, but definitely not, the perfect travel mouse. It’s comfortable and lightweight, and in a genius piece of UX, flattening it out for transport also turns it off. But it also has a “virtual” scroll wheel, which is basically a sensor that is supposed to detect one finger moving but in practice detects somewhere between 0 and infinity. I give it NaN scrolls out of 10.
My wife and I each picked up a new phone before our journey, one iPhone and one Android, to cover the most important cross-section of mobile test needs (as well as to have the broadest access to app stores around the world). I added an Xbox One wireless controller along the way for PC/console development; unfortunately, I picked it up just before the Bluetooth-enabled version came out, which means I have to carry an unwieldy and unsightly dongle around to use it. We also purchased a DisplayPort/HDMI adapter to give ourselves more entertainment options on apartment TVs that are often lacking in anything entertaining.
Internet speed and reliability varies wildly by country. Romania has famously good internet, and the reputation is deserved. We enjoyed download speeds of 50-70 Mbps in Bucharest. Playa del Carmen likewise deserves its reputation, this time on the opposite end of the spectrum (not actually slow – fast enough to support video streaming in fact, but unreliable in that the connection would drop out every 20-30 minutes). Unfortunately, this isn’t usually captured in AirBnB listings or reviews, so we’re basically at the mercy of chance as far as connectivity is concerned. One of my
excuses reasons for not dev streaming from the road yet.
Working for myself, motivation has never been a problem. I mean, I make games because I love to make games! Additionally, I try to make sure I have more than one project on the back-burner at any one time, so notwithstanding certain self-imposed deadlines to finish this task or that, I can easily switch gears if I find myself stuck or excessively frustrated. So my default state is to lean harder on the work part of work-life balance. The pendulum has swung in the other direction now, though. Every place we go, we’re overwhelmed with new and novel things to see and do. We constantly have to relearn how to strike a balance between living like locals and being tourists, experiencing our destinations to the fullest. Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer or universal solution. Sometimes we can convince ourselves that we’ll be back someday; others, we take advantage of opportunities to explore at the expense of our backlog. All I can say is that, all told, I’m happy with the choices we’ve made. Hopefully that continues to remain true.