It's Not All Rainbows and Unicorns. Thoughts on Life, The Universe, and Indie Development.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
(This post is cross posted on my website, indielicious.com)
I've been making games professionally for over 30 years now. Yes, I am old. I started when I was 16, back in 1983, writing text adventure games on the Commodore 64, and earning a little bit of money here and there. Back then the games industry wasn't really an industry; it was just a bunch of kids writing games for themselves and their friends in their bedrooms. Back then it was all just good fun, and everything was new and shiny, and everyone was making shit up as they went along. It was brilliant, quite frankly! Then I got a job, making proper games, and slowly over the years it all got very serious, and I kind of lost track of what it was all about, and why I started making games in the first place.
This was a slippery slope, and it was a subtle, and beguiling one, and I was happy to go down it. There was money and girls and adventure. Ok, so there weren't many girls, and the money was a bit meh, but there sure was adventure. I spent the next 30 years, building a career, travelling the world, working for big companines and small companies, and even starting some companies. I was kicking ass, and making games, I was on top of the World, and I thought everything was good, but I didn't realize I was slowly losing my soul.
I began to realize there was something very wrong about 10 years ago, after getting quite ill from an extended crunch on a particularly terrible project. I found myself thinking these same thoughts every day; There has to be something more to life than this. What if I quit my job? What if I just made games that I wanted to make? What if I could program, purely for the love of programming? These were potent thoughts, and they nagged and pecked at me all the time. Every time I dragged myself into the office and sat in my cubicle, and plugged myself in for another dreary day working on another brutal project, I'd gaze out the window and think these thoughts.
And then, last year, a number of things all happened at once. Various stars and planets aligned, and I found myself in a position I'd sat dreaming about for the last 10 years or so. I was basically free. I had money enough to support myself, and an understanding and supportive wife (very, very important), willing to let me pursue my indie dreams. And so I did it, I went independent. I started by porting an old PC game I wrote, to iOS and Android. It took me three weeks to port the game, and the following 10 months to wrangle it through a publisher. This first project was my "toe in the water". It was an experiment with tools, technology, and development environment, and it mostly worked. I built a cool, cross platform, 2D game engine, and got my first game running. And then I hit the publisher brick wall. It all felt strangely familiar. I tried to pull the game back, but I was tied into a contract, and therefore in limbo. This was my first lesson as an indie developer, and one I'm still wrestling with.
Meanwhile, I'd been working on two more games, and recently started running my little Indie website, Indielicious.com, and all these things are things that I want to do. Some may say it's ironic that I left an extremely busy and demanding job, burnt out and exhausted, cynical and jaded, only to end up working my ass off, 14 hours a day, not making any money. But you know what? It's not the same. That is a fundamental truth. Working for yourself is hard. It's stressfull and risky, and frought with financial peril, but it's totally worth it. I now work because I want to. I set the parameters and rules, and if I want to go to the beach or hang out with friends, I can, and will. If I want to spend four days making a prototype for a cool game mechanic I thought about in the shower, I can, and do. If I don't like what I'm working on, or it just plain sucks, I'll scrap it, and I have. This is why it's worth all the risk. To me at least.
That said, it isn't all rainbows and unicorns, and there is a very real economic pressure at play here. The realities are, that to live, one must make some form of income, and making games is not that good a way of accomplishing that. Believe me, I've been doing it long enough to know. I've made a lot of games, and those games have made a lot of money, but because I made them for Globo Game Corp, I've only ever seen a small perrcentage of that. I know that games can make money, but for a game to make money, it has to have a few things going for it.
First, it has to have a marketing budget. This is the number one thing, and without money for marketing, you have to rely on luck and the fickle Universe to work its magic. And that hardly ever happens.
Second, it needs to be a well know IP, or a sequel to something that has already done well, and got a proven, financial track record (and been marketed well).
And finally, the game should be good, but this isn't always nescessary, if you have the first and second points covered.
Of course, being indie means I have no access to the first two. I don't have a big old marketing budget, and I don't have a well known or successful IP to leverage, so what I'm left with is the last one. The game has to be good. Hey, no problem! I'm a creative chap, and chock full of cool ideas, and I have all this new found freedom to make what I like, so easy peasy! I can pick a genre I love, like a platformer, or a rogue-like, and make the best damn platdformer, or rogue-like imaginable. I can pour my creative heart and soul into the game and make something quite special, and then .. And then .. Well, it will most likely dissapear into the frothing, seathing sea of apps and games, being sold and published by a myriad of sites and publishers, all wanting to take a piece of it. (I actually have no problem giving up a piece of my revenue, if someone brings value to the deal, but that may be the theme of another article.)
So my awesome, labor of love is lost at sea, hidden by noise, and buried under a mountain of games; some good, some bad, all vying for the same eyes and money, and I might make a couple of bucks, but unless I'm lucky (remember, I don't have any other hook or money to market the game), I will not get noticed. It's a brutal, thankless business basically, and it always has been. Indie or AAA, it's the same thing.
So why the hell do I do it? Why do any of us indie developers do it? It has to be love. It has to be passion. It certainly isn't the money. Now of course, if your game truly is great, and innovative and all that good stuff, someone important may notice, and blog about it, or tweet about it, and it may go "viral". You may suddenly find yourself on a fantastic rocket ship, with your revenues going crazy, and all the marketing and publicity you can handle for free, and it's just a matter of hanging on and making the most of it. It can happen, but it isn't normal, and we all cling to that romantic idea of sudden success and recognition.
We all have to find our bliss; the one thing that makes it all worth while. The thing that makes you get out of bed in the morning, and do what you do for another day. Discovering that intangible, illusive thing is hard, and some people never do find it. Pursuing it, once found, can be even harder, but it shouldn't stop you doing it. To me, being indie is all about freedom and choice, and that is my bliss.