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Making it in Indie Games: Starter Guide
by Derek Yu on 03/01/13 01:31:00 pm   Expert Blogs   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.


A little comic about becoming indie.

(This was originally posted on my game-making blog, Make Games.)

Every now and then someone will ask me for advice on making it as a professional indie game developer. First, it’s a huge honor to be asked that. So I want to say “Thank you!” Second… damn, if I really want to help out it’s a serious endeavor. Of course, I could always say “Give it your best! Work hard! Be true to yourself!” and it wouldn’t be a terrible reply… just not a terribly useful one, either.

So here it is. Here is what I’m going to link when that rare situation arises again, because it’s too much work to write it up more than once! This is advice that I feel may actually be practical to someone who is just starting out as an indie game developer. Hope it helps!


So yeah, what does being “indie” even mean? Is “indie” short for independent? Is this game “indie”? Is “indie” a genre? IT’S CONFUSING - WHY DO WE NEED THE WORD “INDIE” AT ALL.

To answer the last question, I offer the following scenarios. Scenario 1: a person is looking to make games, and perhaps start their own studio. They type “game development” into a search engine. The results, to say the least, are underwhelming. Dry. Academic. Programming-centric. (Try it yourself and see.)

Scenario 2: the person instead types “indie games” into a search engine. Instead of pages upon pages of conferences, bachelor’s degrees, and programming tools, that person is met instead with pages upon pages of games to play and vibrant communities filled with people who are doing exactly what he or she wants to be doing. Some of them went to school, but many did not. A wealth of different ideas and tools are used. There are even documentaries about making games! It’s not just something where you get a degree and wait in line for a job. You can start making games RIGHT NOW.

The word “indie” is more than just a way to describe a type of developmental process… like any label, it actually provides an avenue for people to explore that process and then flourish within it. It has a real purpose. It serves real lessons on game creation and entrepreneurialism. It offers real motivation!

Of course, it can be irritating to see the term misused, or become a vehicle for pretentiousness and arrogance. Like any label, “indie” also breeds a certain amount dogmatism, croneyism, and other -isms. But the net result is really worth something. As someone who once gave up on professional game-making because I thought it meant a 9-to-5, I can tell you that it’s genuinely valuable.

As for what games are “truly” indie, we’ll never fully agree, and that’s probably for the best. But I can tell you the criteria I’ve devised for The Independent Gaming Source to determine whether a game is fit for coverage:

1. “Independent”, as in no publisher.

2. Small studio (roughly 20 members or less).

I choose that definition because it’s the most useful one. Someone who is looking to become an “indie” game developer is interested in what is possible under those constraints and how those types of studios operate. It excludes companies like Valve and Double Fine, which are certainly independent but too large to be “indie”. It also excludes “feels indie”-type games that are not self-published.

Under that definition you still run into gray areas, but hey, just because we don’t know when “red” turns into “purple” doesn’t mean the words aren’t useful. Just think about someone who wants to make a game with a small team and self-publish it… what should they type into Google for inspiration, advice, community, etc.? “Indie” is still as good a word as any, in my opinion.

So, should I go to school to learn how to make games?

The most important thing to know about video game development and schooling is that no one, whether it’s an indie studio or big company, cares about degrees. How could it, when some of its most prominent members are drop-outs or never-beens? John Carmack, Cliff Bleszinski, Jonathan Blow, and Team Meat are all prominent members of this club.

A degree is a piece of paper that says you can do something in theory - game developers want to know that you have enough passion to do real work, regardless of whether you’re being graded on it. And if you’re thinking of going indie, it won’t matter what other people think - you’ll simply need that passion to succeed or else you won’t. You’re the only one holding the door open in that case.

This isn’t to dissuade you from going to college, per se (I studied computer science in college, and while it was far from a perfect experience, I also gained a lot from both the curriculum and the friends I made there). The point is make something - games, mods, art, and music. If school helps you with that, great. If it doesn’t, then you need to rethink how you’re spending your most valuable resources: time and money (both of which can be exorbitant costs for schooling).

If I go to school, what should I study?

At a regular university, I would suggest majoring in computer science, even if you “just want to be a designer”. The design of games is very much tied to how they are made.

At an art school, illustration, concept art, and 3d modeling courses are probably the most useful for games.

At a game school, they will hopefully try to involve you in all aspects of game creation, from programming to design. I would stay far away from design-only schools or curricula - those are either scams or are better suited to academia than actual game-making. Also, it’s worth finding out whether or not the school owns what you make while you’re a student there.

See also: Jonathan Blow - How to Program Independent Games (read the comments as well as watch the video)

Okay, you say make something. How do I start?

My best advice for those starting out is not to get ahead of themselves. It’s easy to start worrying about tools, teams, platforms, deals, marketing, awards, and whatever else before you’ve even gotten a sprite moving around the screen. Those stars in your eyes will blind you. They’ll freeze you up. You need to be actively making games all the time.

If we were talking about painting, I’d tell you to pick up a painting kit and a sketchpad at your local art store ASAP and just have at it. You’d proceed to put absolute crap down on the pad and get frustrated. But it’d also be kind of fun - so you’d keep doing it. Along the way you’d read some theory and study other people’s work. With good taste and under a critical eye, you would keep doing that until the day you painted something good.

We’re talking about games, though. I recommend Game Maker and Unity as two all-purpose game-making suites. They both have a good balance of power versus ease-of-use; they’re both affordable or have free demos, and they both have a wealth of tutorials and plug-ins online. Both are used by professional developers (Unity in particular). Grab one of those and start running through the tutorials. When you run into trouble, ask for help. Give help back when you begin figuring things out. Get active in a game-making community.

But above all else, keep making games. It’s the only way to truly answer all of those questions in your head right now.

Also, watch this!


1. Finish your games.

2. Don’t skimp on artwork. It’s easy to underestimate the importance of artwork to a game. And even if you don’t, it’s easy to underestimate the importance of having a unique style of artwork. The result is that there are many ugly or generic-looking (i.e. “clip-arty”) games failing to capture people’s attention.

If you have no artistic talent, go for style and coherency as many successful indie developers do. And even ugly is probably better than generic, all told. Remember: this is most people’s first impression of your game.

3. Don’t blame marketing (too much). In the indie community it’s become popular to write “how I failed” articles where the screenshots and comments tell the story of an ugly, boring game and yet the article itself tells the story of bad marketing decisions. Let’s face it, no one wants to admit that they lacked any amount of creativity, vision, or talent. It’s much easier to put the blame on release dates, trailers, websites, and whatever else.

This is the internet, though. A good game will make its way out there. Marketing will certainly help, and hype may get you quite far in the short term, but it’s not going to make or break you - it’s only a multiplier of however good your game is. Saying otherwise is only hurting your ability to self-criticize and therefore improve your craft. It’s also encouraging others to do the same.

4. Indie is not a genre or aesthetic. Make the game you want to make, not what you think an indie game “should be”. Recently, the very small and very independent team behind The Legend of Grimrock announced that their very traditional first-person dungeon crawler sold over 600,000 copies. Don’t feel pressured to be dishonest about what you’d like to do - after all, what is independence if not freedom from such pressures?

5. Build yourself a working environment that’s healthy for you. Are you introverted and lose energy around other people or are you extroverted and gain energy that way? Or something in-between? What do you want your average working day to be like?

You’ll want to focus all of the energy available to you toward creating, and it’s amazing how much of it can be lost to seemingly mundane things. Figuring out your physical working space as well as your personal support system is a key part of the solution to this problem, and its vitally important to you as an independent creator.

6. Stay independent! To be sure, going indie can be daunting. There is always going to be the temptation of selling yourself or your ideas to someone else for a bit of a feeling of security. But honestly, once you go down that road it’s hard to come back - every moment you’re simply securing may not be a moment you’re progressing. I’m not recommending recklessness, but it’s important to stay committed and focused on the task at hand. Life is short.

Also, don’t give up your IP or in any way limit your opportunities long term. Keep exclusivity timed. When Aquaria released we weren’t aware of Steam. The Humble Bundle did not yet exist. iPad did not exist. Being on all of those platforms has been great for us. You need to keep your hands untied to take advantage of what future will bring.

7. Create your own luck. As an artist, I owe a lot to the people around me - my family, friends, peers, and idols. I accept that a lot of my success was simply the luck of being born with these people in my life.

But it’s important to realize that you create many of your own opportunities, too. For example, I met Alec (my friend and Aquaria co-creator) because he offered to help work on I’m O.K. I’m O.K. was a game started on the Pix Fu forums. The Pix Fu forums were part of my personal website and its members were friends of mine I’d made much earlier during my Blackeye Software/Klik n’ Play days.

You could trace a similar path from the XBLA version of Spelunky to the original PC version and the TIGSource forums.

The point is - put yourself out there. Make things (I can’t stress that enough!). You never know when serendipity will strike, but when it does it will likely be related to situations in your past when you chose to actively engage someone or some idea.

8. Avoid “business as war”. As a professional you’ll need to do business and make business-related decisions at least occasionally, and as a creative type you might not be that interested in that stuff. Hell, you might even be downright scared of it.

Well, I’m here to tell you that you don’t have to be Gordon Gekko to make it as an indie. And please, don’t try to be. In fact, avoid the Gordon Gekkos. Avoid the people who try to confuse you. Avoid the ones who try and nitpick. Avoid the ones who try and rush you.

If you have a great game, there is no distributor you will absolutely have to work with, platform you have to be on, or person you will have to team up with. Always be willing to walk away from a bad deal, especially if it’s to maintain your independence as a creator. In turn, be a direct and generous person yourself.

People get defensive when they’re scared. Don’t sit at the table with someone like that or as someone like that and doing business should be fairly pleasant! This isn’t Wall Street!

9. No gimmicks. Simply put, focus on making a good game - a deep, interesting, unique game - rather than devising cheap tricks to grab people’s attention. Whether we’re talking about clever-sounding-but-ultimately-shallow game systems or off-the-wall marketing ideas, a gimmick is a gimmick. And you should stay away from them because they’re short-term, high-risk solutions that ultimately cheapen you as an artist, perhaps literally as well as metaphorically.

Certainly, one should take risks in game design as well as in life. My point is that they should be honest, worthwhile ones - those tend to be less risky in the long run.

10. You are your game - understand and develop yourself. As an indie game developer your game will likely be more “you” than a game made by hundreds or thousands of people. You have to understand yourself quite well in order to make a truly successful game. Fortunately, the unraveling of what makes you “you” - your taste, what you care about, your abilities - is one of the great pleasures in life and goes hand in hand with your goal of being an independent creator. Treasure it!

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Joseph Elliott
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This might be the best article I've ever read on the subject. Thank you for the immense inspiration!

Scott Sheppard
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I honestly believe that this is the most helpful article I've ever read on indie game development. Thank you for the heart-to-heart that you never had with me.

Jorge Garcia Celorio
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Thanks Derek for this impressive piece of motivation!! The Ira Glass video you attached to the article summarizes in a deep, and emotional way what we as indie developers go through. I'm quite happy that there are thousands out there who feel exactly as I'm feeling right now--thinking and executing ideas for games every day. There is no special trick, its just discipline, commitment, motivation, and communicating with others.

You are an inspiration. Keep creating the impossible.

Lars Doucet
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Hey Derek! Thanks for posting in Gamasutra-land, glad to have you! Wonderful article :)

Curtiss Murphy
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I agree with Joseph. This may be the best article I have ever read on succeeding as an Indie. I particularly liked the link to Ira Glass!


Derek Yu
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Thanks for the nice comments, guys! I'm glad people are finding it helpful. :)

Brian Bartram
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Loved the article, and followed every link. Thanks for sharing.

Jason Carter
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This is inspiring. Most of it is stuff I've read before, but you put it nicely and succinctly and in a way that makes the reader feel supported while reading it. Well written.

Sven Bergstrom
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Superb. Another great link to link to beginners (alongside finish your games and the rest!)

Alex Camilleri
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Great article :)

Jesus Alonso Abad
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Thank you :)

Phil Maxey
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"hype may get you quite far in the short term, but it’s not going to make or break you - it’s only a multiplier of however good your game is"

That's a great comment.

My take on it is that it's hard for an average game to get noticed in a sea of average. There has to be something special about your game. The best games inspire us.

Jonathan Jennings
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great advice on going to school Derek I am in exactly the same boat, I went , I graduated and it was a good springboard I think it put me into a good position to explore and learn things in my free time . what got me the interviews and eventually the job wasn't the degree, it was the small demos I made because I had an idea I was excited about. They weren't the best games in the world but they showed I had passion and a desire to work on games for no other reason than the love of working on games. that tends to be the difference between people in the industry and those who don't in my experience. there's nothing more fun then letting my co-workers walk me through their portfolios !

Derek Reynolds
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Like others have said, really great advice and inspiration here. I find that I go back to your "Finish the Game" article every now and then just to keep perspective, and I often mention that "finishing is a skill." Great stuff!

Ben Trautman
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I have to wonder if we are not expecting enough from "indie" creators, if all we require is no publishers and small teams.

You seem to down play the need for risk taking when you say, "Certainly, one should take risks in game design as well as in life. My point is that they should be honest, worthwhile ones - those tend to be less risky in the long run."

There has been an ethos with the indie label that seems to be forgotten (not only in the gaming industry). Risk taking is at the heart of that ethos. Shouldn't it be at the forefront of indie development? Shouldn't we require an indie game creator to push the creative process? If they don't (even with no publisher or small team), aren't they simply a lesser version of the thing they are trying to escape?

Andrew Wallace
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"Of course, it can be irritating to see the term misused, or become a vehicle for pretentiousness and arrogance. Like any label, “indie” also breeds a certain amount dogmatism, croneyism, and other -isms."


Vin St John
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Nobody really has the power to "require" indies to do anything - that's what makes them independent. However, if you mean "we" as consumers, I think to a certain degree that happens whether it should or not. As the article and some of the commenters above have said, a game needs to be special to stand out. That will either mean it is creatively risky, or it could mean it's extremely well polished (and therefore not a "lesser version").

I think there are many things that an independent developer can bring to the table to give value to their players over a big label, and creatively risky games are certainly a big one. Others, though, can and have included: great community management, great developer support, low prices, new games in an old genre, etc.

Ben Trautman
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I have to wonder if we are not expecting enough from "indie" creators, if all we require is no publishers and small teams.

You seem to down play the need for risk taking when you say, "Certainly, one should take risks in game design as well as in life. My point is that they should be honest, worthwhile ones - those tend to be less risky in the long run."

There has been an ethos with the indie label that seems to be forgotten (not only in the gaming industry). Risk taking is at the heart of that ethos. Shouldn't it be at the forefront of indie development? Shouldn't we require an indie game creator to push the creative process? If they don't (even with no publisher or small team), aren't they simply a lesser version of the thing they are trying to escape?

Steven Christian
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Good advice. I'm off to Uni this year but I've also made games in Construct 2, used Photoshop extensively, had minor experience with Unity/3DSMax/Maya, and dabbled in programming in C++ and Java.

The amount of information that I have to try to learn over the next 3 years is a bit daunting, especially considering that most of what I want to learn is not covered by my degree; but to make the most of the knowledgeable people I'll be associating with, I'll need to be going above and beyond just to have the curly questions to ask and to get the best value for my money.

One step at a time I guess.

David OConnor
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Great article Derek, thank you for sharing your experiences :)

Arturo Nereu
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Thanks for sharing Derek, and I found interesting what you said about going getting a degree. I believe that from university I got a lot of friends and skills way beyond of what I learned about game making.


James Yee
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Woo! Thanks! Much of this works for more than games as well. I think a good TL:DR version would be: JUST DO IT! :)

Be it Writing, painting, comics, or games just do it. Know you're going to screw up but just keep on doing it! :)

Michael Joseph
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10. You are your game - understand and develop yourself.
Great article. Your #10 tip is real gem and something that could be expanded upon in a future article by yourself and/or others.

"The most difficult thing in life is to know yourself." -Thales

"We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time." - T.S. Eliot

"Who knows only his own generation remains always a child." -George Norlin

"If you don’t know where you’ve been, how will know where you are going?" -???

With great filmmakers we can often see how their works have evolved as they themselves have developed not just as filmmakers but as human beings. To paraphrase your tip, their work is them at different snapshots in time.

David Holmin
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Thanks for a great post!

TC Weidner
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Great article, only thing I would add is that success isnt just found is some arbitrary number of sales/downloads, etc, it can be found in the creative process itself, the bringing of an idea to life, and lastly but not least in the satisfaction found in being proud of what you accomplished and created.

Again, great article

jerome challet
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I couldn't agree more. i have just graduated a year ago from uni and i still have that bitter taste in my mouth. My degreee is legit and all but i haven't done any games during that time. It cost me a lot of time money and troubles all that for a piece of paper where i could have made games by just getting at it instead of believing you need to go to uni to make games.

Mohit Sadhu
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Thanks a lot for the inspiration.

Simon Love
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Glad to see this incredibly inspiring article pop up where many people can read it!

Good call, Derek.

Filip Lizanna
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Excellent article, thanks.

Gal Kfir
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This is a very informative and inspiring article.
Thank you very much!

Nick Harris
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Indie means Independent.

Independent means no Publisher.

You cannot arbitrarily set a limit on the size of the development team to exclude, say, Valve, because it would exclude valid Open Source projects collaboratively developed by hundreds of bedroom programmers. This does not mean that such a large project would necessarily lose focus provided that everyone involved bought into the initial creator's vision and future plans, offering their help and expertise to make it a reality. Charismatic leadership and diplomatic interpersonal skills are essential to what in time becomes a leadership-mediator role.

Vin St John
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EA doesn't have a publisher. Are they independent?

There are plenty of teams of 21-or-more publisher-less game developers who are doing a great job and are really no less "indie" then their 20-or-less brethren. As he pointed out in the article, though, the definition he used is useful here because he assumes that the primary use of the word is for newly formed studios (which usually are small). If a team is more than 20 people, that usually indicates a more well-connected, financially and professionally established CEO that is less likely to be dependent on the advice of this Gamasutra article (not that it isn't helpful in those cases, of course). And if a team is a distribute group of many volunteers for an Open Source project, then I assume an article called "Making it in Indie Games" is not really going to apply, because I assume "Making It" to mean "Making enough profit to sustain a living."

Nick Harris
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@Vin St John

EA is an independent, but there are always exceptions to a rule. There is no guarantee that a very small studio acts with an independent spirit if it is a wholly owned subsidiary of a corp. I suppose it all depends on how much influence their publisher has over their creative choices.

SCEE were behind the publication of Little Big Planet, yet it feels 'indie' to me as a result of Media Molecule's efforts to establish a community of end-user developers who have created over seven million planets for it. In a sense this answers your question as to how Open Source can make enough profit to sustain a living insofar as a commercial toolset / game creator that is pre-package with inspiring, example, material becomes the vibrant hub of a large collection of creative individuals who happily extend and enrich the saleability of the core game with the altruistic contribution of their free 'mods'.

Jorge Molinari
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Awesome post Derek. It’s great to hear from the mind behind my hands down favorite XBLA game. There are so many questions I’d like to ask you about Spelunky but I will limit myself to just three:

1. By my rough estimation, there are 25 levels of which only 16 will be visited by a player who is skilled enough to get to the end. Of course along the way he would see some strange things he would not know how to interact with, but he would be able to “complete” the game. How did you arrive at the gutsy decision to have your game be roughly 1/3 “secret levels”? And I say gutsy because you spent the resources to populate these levels with new art and enemies, these aren’t the Super Mario-type secret levels of recycled assets. Did you assume most players would take to the internet to research the Spelunky secrets? Or did you do a statistical analysis of the likelihood of a player discovering a secret in say, 100 plays? To be sure, the Spelunky mechanics appeal to the hardcore crowd, so maybe assuming that the player will try stuff and research on the internet isn’t far fetched.

I wonder what % of people who purchased the XBLA version have seen a secret level or two. The randomness of levels and items, along with the desire to get to that elusive “hell” area is what keeps me coming back for more.

2. What the heck does the eggplant do?

3. Why do you hate humanity?

Derek Yu
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1. Secret areas are supposed to be legendary, so I have no problem putting lots of time into them and then hiding them well.

2. Heh heh... heh!

3. Beat Spelunky the hard way and the sublime feeling you experience will reveal that I actually love humanity. Pleasure through pain. :)

Muir Freeland
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Thanks for the article, Derek! It's excellent.

The part that resonates the most with me is: "5. Build yourself a working environment that’s healthy for you." I've found that it's really easy to be unhealthy when you're an indie; for example, when I started, I only worked out of my bedroom, and that lack of separation between work and the rest of my life essentially forced my brain to be working, full-tilt, on games at every waking moment (which in turn made sleep harder to come by, and so on and so forth.) It's incredible how tempting it is to do nothing but work; after all, when you're your own boss and your livelihood depends on it, shouldn't you be working to get products out the door as quickly as possible?

The thing that I eventually learned is that not all hours in a day are created equal. If I take the time to drive somewhere else to work, and to exercise, and to eat healthy, and to relax and to sleep -- the hours that I do spend working are exponentially more productive, and it quickly adds up to way more progress than brute force ever could.

I don't see this championed a lot in this industry, so hearing it come from a bigger name is much appreciated. Thanks again!

William Pitts
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Great read, agree with almost everything except for the 20 or less is a small team, unless they are all from different disciplines. If you have 20 people around, you are mid size, now if you have 12 or less you're indie. Of course this is my own take on it. You start and stay small to keep yourself from having decisions go through too many people, instead of getting things done, and if they don't work, tossing them and doing something else.

Jeanne Burch
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In spite of what you said about degrees, I'm making my gaming students read this! :)

Prafulla Oimbe
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Great article and very helpful!

Zack Wood
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Derek, everyone else has already said this, but this is definitely the best "guide for indie game developers" I've read by far! It's clear, engaging, and practical while still being upbeat and inspiring. #2 is definitely a great tip and a big problem for a lot of indie games.

And I enjoyed the "Finishing a game" post and graphics on your blog, not to mention the awesome design and layout of your personal website! Glad to get acquainted with your work and whatnot (though I still have no way to play Spelunky without a PC or Xbox).

Carlos Rocha
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As a Colombian Game Developer, this was incredibly helpful and very applicable, even if we have to go through a lot of other stuff (our national market pretty much doesn't exist, so trying to appeal to different markets has its own hurdles). As a teacher of game design at some local universities, I'll make sure every student reads this!

Sascha Mueller
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Thank you for this inspiring article Derek. Reading this just made us think and we came up with the idea of creating some free-to-download badges for all indie developers out there. To let everybody know and because some of you might be just as proud as we are being independent souls. ;-)

You can grab your badge from our blog over at:

Aniruddha Loya
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Great Article, esp. the tips to finish the game!

Daniel Parente
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Very good article, I am almost 99% agreeing with you with one difference. It is true that in the past a degree in videogames would not help you too much, but in the present and especially for the future, I really think that studying four years is a very valuable asset for the future, and a corner stone for the professionals.
Of course it depends on the university and in the program being delivered, but if correctly aligned with industry needs and with teachers that are professionals, being able to study will certainly help a lot.
I have been a game developer for the last 10 years and invited in the last years to coordinate a degree in videogames, and I really think that it is our responsibility to take the control of the training in videogames.

A part from that, I really agree with your definition of being an indie, and that I have been defending in the last years.


Guilherme Figueiredo
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It makes me feel even more sure of making games, did not finished one yet, but i'm making my way to finish one. Thank you for this great article!!