So you want to be an Indie Developer?

"So you want to be a..." posts seem a little fatuous to me, just because I know that you could tell me that I'd die, and never make a game, and I'd still want to try it. If you want to be anything with conviction, a blog isn't going to change your mind. You've probably already learned enough to take the bad with the good. No amount of curmudgeonly complaints about our plight is going to stop you. So, you, the target audience, are just here for reassurance. And anyone else is just here out of interest... checking if the grass is greener on the other side.

Maybe I shouldn't really be posting this, as we haven't released a game yet. Still, this blog is meant to be about giving you one indie dev's anecdotes about the path, so here's where we stand:

Wait Until you are Ready
A great concept is nothing without the ability to implement... it. It's tempting to jump off at the deep end and try to make it on your own. However, your first game is almost certainly going to be over-ambitous: As Alan Moore once said, (paraphrased) "Impossible tasks are great, because you can never be judged on the results". These ultimately pointless endeavours are not all waste: You can still learn from them in a kind of really masochistic way.

There are more efficient ways to build your creative muscles, though: The best way to do do it is by using your free time work on quick, achievable experimental games. You could also join the industry proper, learning the ropes, earning your licks, and other gay slang. Being in the industry may also introduce you to someone you really gel with... Mike and Miles of PomPom met at Argonaut, and me and Tommy at Streamline. It was gay at first gay.

Don't believe the Mythos
My favourite bit of the video game journalism is when they ask the developer how many pizzas they ate, and how many sodas they drank while making a game. It gets funnier each time I read it, because each time I read it, I know that the games journalist gets his wings, and the game developer gets his first coronary.

See, getting fat and unhealthy, and not seeing sunlight for days on end is not as cool as people make it out to be. It is, indeed, living the dream... assuming that the dream in question is dreamt by someone who wants to see you fail in all things. Doesn't sound much different from horror stories in bigger places, eh?

The Grass is the Exact Same Hue Over Here. But it Gets Less Attention... Like a Garden in Student Accomodation.
Now, you'd think that being your own boss means you don't have to put up with overtime or any of the other typical* industry horrors:

  • You don't have the marketing staff asking you to knock out a perfect, polished, working build for investors, publishers or press with two hours notice before they arrive.
  • You don't have artists asking for you to make them tools, and then complaining when you haven't included things that they haven't specified, since they're "common sense for any artist".
  • You don't have designers acting all excited about a new feature, and denying all knowledge when it doesn't work out.
  • You don't have coders with their arrogant dismissive chortles as you ask for a feature that doesn't fall in line with their favourite areas of interest.
  • You don't have producers disrupting the schedule to get their pet feature made.

The thing about a small indie development team is:

  • You don't have anyone on staff to tell people/publishers/press about your game.
  • You don't have anyone to create content for you.
  • You don't have anyone working with foresight to maintain the overall cohesion of the project.
  • You don't have anyone to write the engine.
  • You don't anyone bringing in meals and doing whatever else it is that a producer is supposed to do.

It's all on you, you sorry bastard. And in this day and age, the bar set where it is, you have your work cut out.

So yes... there is overtime. There's some small solice: it's (partially) self imposed. Other events do force your hand a little:

On a typical day, without distractions, we wake up at 2pm, and get to bed around 4am. we've gotten to this state by having a 24 and a half hour working day. It's all work while we can work. But, since we don't actually earn any money, we've no high horse to sit on when a family member asks for a helping hand. You can't really turn around and say "Look, I'm working here!", because they can just counter with "If you don't wanna help move this furniture, you can get the HELL OUT OF MY BASEMENT!".

The Seven Yard Itch
The moment you're more than 7 yards away from your development computer, you're instantly itching to work. It can make you seem like a dick if you're out socializing, grimacing that you're wasting precious time with human contact when you could be staring blankly at a head-scratcher of a bug.

But when you're at the computer, you realize how much other work there is to do other than just making the game - working out contracts, preparing food, sleeping... all necessary evils. Everything seems to take longer than you expect, and you end up blaming yourself, even though there's nothing you can do about your circumstances. Oh, and the internet is a constant distraction, of course. This blog entry, for instance, took far longer than it should have, and I am pretty angry at myself for not getting any other work done (even though this is tacetly part of the job).

Do it for the Right Reasons
If you want to go indie, do it because you have a great concept for a game. Do it because you enjoy the creative process, and all the toil that goes with it. You probably won't get famous (though you might get props from industry friends). You most likely won't get rich. But if you crave the creative endorphines, indie development might be for you.

When you have no income, passion for the game is your fuel. Development in any setting can turn into a grind. When it's indie, it's grind without monetary compensation... so get a great concept for a big fuel tank. Seriously, you need to be committed to the point of clinical denial.

Free Yourself of Worldly Possessions, ya Tramp!
I'll echo the point made in other SYWTOBAIDs ("Soyewtobaids"): You're not going to get much money from this. In the worst (and most likely case), it will bleed you dry. You'll have to lean on friends and family for charity, which always leaves you with a warm, fuzzy, anxious, I-owe-everyone-BIG-TIME feeling.

You'll have no budget for luxuries after the running costs of the development. You may not even make back that money. So as much as you'd like to see what life was like for Cliffy B all those years ago on alpha centauri, it's not going to happen (but for the same effect, you could watch donnie darko, and imagine that actor Jake Gyllenhal is actor Vin Diesel, and the rabbit guy is that spider boss).

Expect whatever War Chest you've amassed to leak a lot faster than you expect, what with paying for industry standard software and specialized hardware, even if you're living (as we do) rent free. And as Tommy witnessed this week, PCs have a lovely habit of occasionally blowing up, costing you time and money. Oh yeah, and you're your own tech support!

However, the idea that you're not going to make money should be liberating. You owe no-one, and no-one can impinge on your freedom (too severely). You are free to make the game that you want to make. Think of all the audience-second guessing you don't have to do! You're a demographic of one!

If you have any dependants, just forget indie development and get a proper job. It'd be immoral to take your loved ones through this.

Build it and They Will Come. Twice.
Second guessing audiences is a scurge of the conventional industry now-adays. It feels like most every mediocre game out there requires insidious and ill fitting stealth sections, or "gritty urban thug" themeing which wouldn't be so bad if it wasn't courtesy of the whitest guys on the planet. The design-by-committee and focus testing tend to filter the personality and soul out of a game.

As an indie developer, you actually don't have to worry too hard about who your market is (queue lots of dudes who have read marketing books spitting their coffee uncontrollably and trashing their expensive LCD monitor. That was the point).

If you're making the best use of the creative freedom which indie development gives you, you'll be making something new - something that creates a market, rather than exploiting existing ones. And since you're creating the market, you get to define it. You do this implicitly, just by making your game. Give the game a horrible interface, and your market will be made up of people with a high pain threshold. Make a shallow game, and you'll get players who only want a gaming snack.

The main draw of all this is to do something different. It's not that it's not possible to make something fantastic through the regular pipeline, but when you're solely responsible for your own actions, and determined to use your freedom, it makes that endeavour a lot easier. If you're no longer worried about making money, you're free to ignore the impulse to simply make a product for sale. You get to make something else.

Just remember what Henry Ford: "If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have asked for faster horses."

Cliffski’s Mumblings
Lemmy and Binky
Reality Fakers
They Came from Hollywood

*These are definately not my own experiences... just typical gripes I've heard from all over the place.


Stories about their Games.

I am in America right now! I am working with Tommy! We are in his basement! I am excited! Mainly because I didn't get interrogated and strip searched on the way in! Like I did last time! (!)!

While driving to a stripmall to grab FinalFantasy XII (for Tommy) and Dark Messiah of Might and Magic (which I almost worked on), Tommy made me think of an interesting point, and I figured I'd write it here to congratulate myself.

We were talking about how separate story and game play often are in contemporary games. The Narrative vs. Interactivity debate is not one I'm going to dig up and clobber again, because I will fall the fuck asleep mid-sentance.

I was explaining to Tommy in my most patronizing tone, how Kevin Levine at Irrational tries to work game play and narrative into a symbiotic relationship. When he gets his way, the story tends to be about the things in the world that you interact with. He once gave an example of how, in Theif, he wanted one mission to be about the Rope Arrows that you use - make them a big plot point, rather than just a "tool". In Bioshock, the story is about how the genetic alterations you make to yourself (part of game-play) change and corrupt your identity, and your morality, and how that process has extended to the under water city of Rapture - furnature re-appropriated, and existing walls cracked and crumbled. Levine is, in a way, merely amplifying the inherent message in the gameplay, rather than creating unnecessarily detailed backstories which have no real relevance to the player's moment to moment actions.

I compared that to Kojima, where the story is about memes, genetics, terrorism, conspiracy, but the game is about moving around stealthily. Story in the Metal Gear series is treated a little like a string of rewards - you're playing to unlock an almost unrelated movie. There's real dissonance between the story you're being told, and the game you're actually playing. How much does finding and defusing bombs really have to do with the machinations a clandestine group of "Patriots", who are trying to filter the meme-o-sphere to their own liking?

So here came a hypothetical question: what if all games' stories were forced to be about their gameplay? Here's what I think might happen, (apart from seeing the games industry instantly implode, of course):

We're no longer allowed to have stories about things unrelated to gameplay, so for better or worse, we have to leave behind government agencies, gritty backstories involving murdered wives, children and parents as these aren't really "about" the abstract game play.

If stories start to be about the game play, and a continuing stream of cookie cutter Beat'em 'ups, Tunnel FPS, RPG, RTS and racing games come out, we become inundated with stories about "the way of the warrior", "the totalitarian control of one man's freedoms", "self improvement through toil", or "the art of war"... philosphical interpretations which aggrandize pretty standard games to the height of Go, or Chess's ivory towers.

When every game's story becomes introspective with regard to its game play, and the game play is the same, you get the same story, over and over. Black, Fear, Prey, HalfLife, Halo - these all draw from the same well in terms of game play, and would all have the same intrinsic story to tell - the upkeep of costs involved in travelling through life, the inability to form a path that hasn't already been specified, and ofcourse, the art of pointing at a thing and pulling a trigger until it falls over or explodes. Without the typical unrelated back-story/theme to differentiate them, there is not much left to hide their similarities. People grow tired of hearing the same story much faster than they grow tired of playing the same game, since games have replayabilty. (Except, probably not, because video game stories are already so damn similar as it is. "Oh, you're in a super special forces squadron? Oh, but you have 'special abilities which make you viably different from other products in a highly saturated market'? Oh really?! Wow!").

As a result, I'd love to think that this would force storytellers and designers to think much harder about their game play, and what its intrinsic message is. Y'know - rather than what currently happens - sandwhich whatever existing gameplay you like with whatever story you like.

Of course, we're much worse at coming up with fundamentally different game mechanics than fundamentally different themes and stories - not because it's very hard (though it's not easy either), but because of the costs and risk associated with exploring new territory. It's also very hard to work on this "Message from the Machine" level. Systemic messages emerge naturally through iterations, combinations and chaos in general - it's out of your hands, to a degree. (I do believe that we can get better at this art, and science. For me, that's really what mastering the medium is all about, and it's clear that it's still very early days for us as an artform.)

But if Bioshock is anything to go by, then focussing the story on the game play has forced Irrational to try a fair few new ideas - the focus on AI's interelationships, and creating a social ecology within each level, rather than a series of rather restrictive linear levels. Sure, you'll still shoot and frob your way around, but they're trying a lot more than most would at the same budget level.

And what does this have to do with our game? Well, I've never really had any kind of story for the game - it's rather abstract. However, it still needs some kind of encompassing theme to bring all our ideas into one cohesive bundle. After talking to Tommy about it, I think we've got it now. I'm not saying what that is, yet... but I'm pretty sure it'll win me a Wank Hat.