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.


Anonymous said...

"How to" posts are indeed a dime a dozen but I always enjoy reading them. Though usually the same ground gets covered you do get different perspectives on similar problems and that invariably leads to some new insights.

All I really want is ONE post that tells me how wonderful and rosey and profitable and great and life affirming and worthwhile indie development is. All these "you'll be poor" and "it's damn hard work" posts just depress me, but in a good way, I suppose. :)


Bicheng Cao said...

This is interesting to read and it's very true. I have been worked as indie game developer for 18 months and I found that time is so limited.

My first project is a failure and I experienced 6 months without any income. I got lucky on my second project and it is able to cash me some money to support my life. BUT you need to continue support your live games, all by yourself. After running out of innovation on the same game, I need to move on to new one. But my time get more limited since now I need to support old game.

There are people making huge money by being an indie developer, but the chance is very low. For average indie, the life is worse than being employed. I'm still going to try my luck with my next project, but if the result is just so so, I may need to reconsider my career.