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The Dark Side of Indie Game Dev
by David Maletz on 12/03/12 04:04:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


The indie game dev scene is filled with starry eyed, optimistic developers hoping to make the game of their dreams. Recently I've read several articles trying to discourage them and make it clear that there is a dark, difficult side to game dev. And I won't lie - game development is not easy, and has many snags along the way. In this blog post, I will list some of the snags I have found over five years, without sugarcoating anything. It may be harsh - it may sound like I'm saying "you're crazy to want to make games!" However, this blog post is not particularly to discourage you from game dev. Instead, it is here so that you can learn from a game developer who has had more failures than successes, and perhaps avoid or deal with some of the common pitfalls that game developers face.

You are likely to fail. Especially your first time.
You've probably heard this before, but the vast majority of indie game developers fail to finish their game projects. For every success story you hear, there are literally thousands of failures you have probably never heard of. Since you're an indie game dev, you are probably an optimist, so you might think it will be different for you - that you'll be one of the rare few who succeed. This is false, and only by accepting the fact that you are likely to fail can you put in the extra effort and trample over failed games to eventually reach success.

Game development is only fun ~10% of the time.
You have a great idea that you are excited about. Awesome. Starting the project is fun and new, and everything seems smooth sailing. This will not last throughout the whole project. The simple fact is, games take a lot of work, and not all of it is fun. At some point during development, especially if it is a long development, you will grow tired of the idea and the work, and some new idea will come up. The idea will seem so much better that you will want to drop your current project and start that new idea immediately, however, think carefully before you do this. You thought the current idea was as amazing when you started, and likely if you switch projects, the same thing will happen, and you'll just end up with several unfinished projects. Try to remember what made your original idea so exciting, and try to stick with it. While sometimes you do have to drop a project because it's not working out, more often you are just getting tired of the current project and want to start something new. Take a break, get some fresh air, and really think about your project, and your ultimate goals in making it. You'll probably find that you were just frustrated with some aspect of it, and you still really want to finish it.

Game development takes at least twice as much time as you expect.
After five years, I've become pretty good at estimating how long games will take to make. I have a simple formula for determining this: decide how long the project will take. Now double the estimate. That is the actual time the project will take. The fact is, there will ALWAYS be something that you do not expect during game development. Some feature, some bug, some design flaw, something that you overlooked when estimating the development time. Even professional games are almost always over time and over budget, which is the cause of the much hated "crunch time." Don't let this catch you unawares, expect the unexpected, and pad the development time, especially if you are inexperienced. One of my earlier games that I thought would only take me one month ended up taking me over a year (no joke). And nothing kills motivation more than a game taking much longer than you expected - just like with the above point, you start to get frustrated and tired. So, assume your estimate is optimistic, and give yourself extra time. If the game project sounds like it will be too long, don't just shrink the time estimate, try actually cutting features.

Feature bloat - it happens.
Just as you get ideas for new games to distract you, you also get ideas for new features for your current game. If you're not careful, the game can bloat to several times its size during the development process, perhaps becoming insurmountable. Some amount of feature bloat is unavoidable as you find gaps in the game design that must be filled, but always try to "keep it simple, stupid" (KISS - a very important acronym for all developers to remember). The simplest form of a project can be just as great as something heaping with features.
If you're working with a team, an argument will occur.
Even if you're working with close friends, everyone will have different opinions, and arguments will occur, especially when the game hits a snag. If you are not talented at leading a team or you're working with people you don't know and trust, this could destroy your team. I strongly recommend listening, something I still haven't learned perfectly. Listen to your team, and try to keep discussions calm and productive - even if there is some major crisis going on with the game. Again, take a breather if you need to. And, always make sure you build trust among your team, so that when an argument DOES occur despite all your efforts to stop it, you are able to work through it without anything falling apart.

There WILL be bugs!
Don't kid yourself thinking that you write perfect code. There will be bugs, and more. Games need a lot of playtesting, debugging, and polishing before they are ready to release. A good game with bugs or a bad UI will be unplayable. If the development of the game takes a month, then you'll most likely need another month for playtesting, debugging and polishing. And this stacks with the "game development takes twice as much time as you expect" rule, so that means that what you originally thought would be a one month game will likely take four months to make! However, don't skimp on debugging and polishing just because you are overtime or don't enjoy it, as it can make a huge difference for the game. For example, the average sponsorship price for one of my games (Drawscape) went up four times from just the polish and debugging! Twice the work yielding four times the reward (or more)!

Even if you finish the game, it might still die.
The completion of the game isn't the end of the project - some would say it's only the beginning. You finish the game, post it online, and maybe a few people play it. It might even get a bad rating. Why didn't it get the amazing reception you dreamed it would? Unfortunately, you can't just have a good game, you have to have good marketing as well! You need to network, have a great website, and market, market, market! Random strangers on game portals will not give your game much of a chance, especially if it already has a low rating - they may play for 30 seconds or a minute and not see what makes your game truly special. You need to have a following who really play your game and spread the word, and press contacts who will review it and encourage strangers to really play it. You need to "sell" the game to the public (even if it's a free game). It's also possible that your target audience is very niche. There's not much you can do about that except try to help that niche find your game, and move onto your next project.

Many projects will fail.
You will have abandoned projects, incomplete projects, and projects that were released and not well received. The fact is, not every game you make will be a big hit - especially your first few projects. I've finished five games (with many more incomplete), and I only consider one of them a "success" (and even that one was by no means a big hit). You can't assume your game idea is so great that it will "make itself" and instantly succeed. You have to be prepared for tough times, roadblocks, failure, failure, and more failure if you want to have any chance at eventual success.

Have I discouraged you from making games? Then don't make games. If just me (or anyone else) telling you not to make games keeps you from making them, then you're not cut out for it. There is an interesting story about this called the violin prodigy story: . If you truly have the burning passion to make games, then don't let anyone else discourage you from making them, and use failures and negative game dev stories as examples to learn from. If you don't have the passion, then you might want to consider doing something else. I love game development and wouldn't prefer doing anything else, but it often seems like any other kind of programming work (corporate apps, etc) would make me a lot more money than game development does. But game development is not about making tons of money, it is about doing what you love, and sticking with your passion no matter what gets in the way.

(all images are copyright their respective owners) 
(originally posted on my personal blog, here:

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Justin Sawchuk
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Yeah but at least we dont have to commute.

Chris Christow
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You could always buy a tent.

Lucky Red
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I find these things to be true for non-independent game developers too. You have to be naive to think that there won't be bugs, feature changes (or removals) and all the risks that a game being developed can have.

Alice Rendell
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Completely agree! Especially these points: "The idea will seem so much better that you will want to drop your current project and start that new idea immediately, however, think carefully before you do this." and "If you're not careful, the game can bloat to several times its size during the development process, perhaps becoming insurmountable.".

In my experience (as a non-indie) it also true that significant game design changes are a huge factor in the delay of projects, and I think David is right in saying that it is just because the new ideas seem fresher than the older ones.

Nice article, thanks.

David Maletz
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I had a feeling these applied to non-independent game developers, and other types of creative projects too! The lifespan of ideas, where old ideas get stale and new ideas seem so exciting (even when the old ideas were once the new ideas) is probably some universal psychological concept, but I have next to no knowledge of psychology to back this up haha!

Luis Guimaraes
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So it seems publishers nailed the solution for this problem: avoid all ideas that sound fresh and interesting.

Francisco Javier Espejo Gargallo
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"I find these things to be true for non-independent game developers too. "

I agree Lucky.

Thanks for sharing David.

Adriaan Jansen
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Great article, sounds very true. Especially the part of "Even if you finish the game, it might still die" is a lot bigger than the amount of words used for it make it look like. ;)

TC Weidner
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art doesnt die, it just patiently waits to be discovered.

Tyler Yohe
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Thanks for the article David. I think you're article does a great job overviewing the mistakes / problems, but don't kind of glosses over the underlying reason of 'why we make them' - lack of organization (unfortunately the thing 'the suits' bring to the table usually).

One thing thing that I personally feel leads to the dreaded indie 'failure' on titles is that same passion and optimism we have for our ideas. I catch my passion for an idea getting the best of me, and I have to remind myself that being indie means that I'm not only the developer, but also 'the suit' for the company.

I'm taking on my first (incredibly ambitious) title, and I had to spend almost a year doing pre-production planning the included formulating a multiple 3-year budgets (depending on my funding), development timeline, and early marketing strategy!

[I was about to write a book length comment but just deleted it because noone wants to read that :) I just highly encourage writing your idea out on paper and outline everything needed for success from Day 1, even for a project as small as a 1-month app development! It helps to avoid most of these pitfalls and sets you up for success, giving you concrete steps to both project completion, as well as giving you a checklist of how to make your game profitable from day one. If you can't come up with how to make it pay off during this early write up of the idea, chances are you wont by the time its finished - meaning it will likely fail. Being organized, and taking a 'cold, analytical' look at ideas is much better than the 'hope & pray' model that a lot of us passionate indie devs take.]

Suit up fellow indie devs! We can be successful.

David Maletz
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Organization is certainly part of it and makes things much easier, but most of these problems will still occur even if you are organized! There is no avoiding most of these "mistakes" no matter what you do, the key is how you deal with them. No matter how organized you are, you can never plan everything perfectly, there will always be bugs, snags, and feature gaps you didn't expect.

Tackling a large project for your first game can be tough, but I wish you the best of luck!

Tyler Yohe
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Couldn't agree more.

In my development plan I actually left an empty 6mo. 'oh sh*t' block, so the time line can be shifted as bugs come up, features bloat, etc. Also built in an entire year for testing (extremely inflated considering a likely small test pool for our indie title).

Its a daunting road ahead, but thanks for the support!

Luis Guimaraes
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Good luck with your project!
And if it's of any help:

TC Weidner
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if game development was only fun 10% of the time, why would anyone do it? Surely not money. I find bringing my ideas to life in game development to be at least 80% fun, thats the beauty of being an indie, its YOUR idea, not someone elses.
Now working on games that were someone elses ideas and in their control, I could see that only being 10% fun, but if that the case why not just do business software, its better money, more stable environment, etc etc.

anyway I would just say, indie is about the doing, and love of the creative process, bringing an idea alive.. If you are doing it as some get rich plan, you would have better luck opening a lemonaide stand outside on the sidewalk.

Some people ski, other play golf, other rebuild cars, few make a living at it, so what? people like us make games.

David Maletz
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I would say the love of indie game dev is what gets me through the development that's NOT fun - but I certainly never enjoy debugging (and many specific features needed), no matter how much I love the project and want to bring it to life.

Adam Bishop
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I guess for me it depends what you mean by having fun. I don't actually find a lot of joy in coding. I like designing, writing, testing, refining, but I don't really like writing code. But if I want to have the kind of control over the final outcome that I need to make my ideas come to life, then I can't use something like RPG Maker, I've got to get to work and make it happen myself. And the process isn't always fun, but the end result is immensely satisfying and I always feel like it was time well spent.

It's the same thing for me with recording music. I don't like playing the same parts over and over again until they sound just right, and I don't have a lot of fun mixing audio, but when I play back the finished song at the end, the satisfaction that I get from having brought that final song into existence and feel like it's really *good*, that satisfaction is worth the boring bits that I had to work through to get to the finished product.

David Maletz
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@Adam, this is exactly what I mean. Not every moment of the process is fun, there is a lot of drudgery involved. Only 10% fun might be a bit of an exaggeration, but the point is, just because you love the idea and you love the satisfaction you get in the end, doesn't mean you enjoy all of the steps needed to get there. You have to be prepared to do a lot of work you might not want to do to see the project through to the end, BECAUSE you think it's worth it in the end!

TC Weidner
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to avoid drudgery I simply set up very achievable weekly goal which I can achieve with regard to a game, and that feeling of achievement stays with you. I also tend to work on a couple of project as once, so while one may get 80 to 90 of my attention, if it gets a little stale, I go work on the next project a tiny bit.

I also tend to try to write pretty clean code. Yes we all create bugs and so forth, but I tend to be much cleaner then others I've encountered who have the " i'll get to that later, or I'll clean that up later approach".

Luis Guimaraes
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I'd say only programming Achievements, inApp Purchases and Twitter/Facebook integrations are the non fun part.

Aaron Foster
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I like development 100% of the time, if i only enjoyed it 10% of the time i would honestly rethink my situation, i know i am echoing the guy above, but i think those are red flags for anyone if they feel that way.

Rey Samonte
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"I have a simple formula for determining this: decide how long the project will take. Now double the estimate."

For many of us, this is a very basic formula which I've used many time before. However, I've also been criticised for using it in the past. I still use it today but a lot of managers don't like the thought of doubling your development time. I wished more people in management positions understood this principle.

Eric McQuiggan
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You do the math in your head. You don't tell your producer you are doing it. I've also tacked on an extra 0.5 for haggle room. It also helps if you don't end up doing the work and they pawn it off on someone more Junior

Curtiss Murphy
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Failure is part of the path that leads to success. So, fail early and often. Or - Try; Fail; Improve; Repeat until too good to ignore.

Love the article. Thanks.

Phillip Abram
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Great article. I would like to add: Make sure you give yourself enough time doing things outside of game development to make you happy (play games, spend time with friends and family, take care of your body and mind, etc.) Doing these things not only reinvigorates me, but that it's okay to fail.

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. - Samuel Beckett

Mark Richardson
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Great article. The points you made are things I shall definitely keep in mind when my time comes to make games on my own.

As someone who is hoping to get into the games industry someday I think the way indie developers define 'failure' might need to change. If you make a game that completely bombs but you have learnt valuable lessons from it which you can take into another game then I think you need to be optimistic about it. If you put your heart into it and have some fun along the way then it shouldn't be something to get down about. Obviously I haven't been in that situation but I would like to think that I could keep myself motivated while working on a game I've designed myself.

David Maletz
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This is definitely true, I've learned a lot from my failures, every one taught me something new, and I wouldn't be the game developer I am now if not for them. Being able to take "failures" in stride is important for the indie game community, but it's difficult. Indie game developers tend to get very personally and emotionally involved in their work, and there's such a rush of excitement when you release the game, followed by a huge wave of disappointment if the game doesn't do well.

I think indie game developers need time to "mourn" their projects that don't do well, and then they can move on to learn from it and start work on their next game, or at least that's how it worked for me!

Harsh Singh
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So true. I'm indie game developer and there so many pending project in my work folder. My brother also love doing game development as a hobbyist and we often come up to discussion on doing more to existing project or scratch this project and start doing new one. Luckily I learned this lesson and believe in finishing the project no matter what though I have officially launched only one game. Currently working on one more game since last 3 month and often I have arguments with my brother as to whether my project is worth it or not. He often pitch me new ideas and pursue me to start working on it. However end result is again one big argument. But I am okay with it as you also said arguments are part of team :)