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To Aspiring Indie Devs
by Folmer Kelly on 01/09/14 07:41:00 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.


(note: nothing I write here is aimed at anyone in particular. If you feel offended, it's whatever. I probably felt offended by your shit. Also, this piece was originally posted on

I know, I know; you're getting this a lot right now.

"10 tips for aspiring indies!"

"15 hard truths about being an indie dev!"

"8 things they don't tell you in video game school!"

I guess maybe it comes with the time of the year. Best Of lists show up all over the place, the IGF nominations are in, we start looking back and I guess that means we also start looking forward.

Before I released my first game, I used to eat that shit up. I read all of them and I believed every word simply because they were written by people who had done the thing I wanted to do but hadn't. These people were better than me by virtue of having done what to me seemed to be the impossible: They had made a video game. They were gods.

I wasn't going to question gods.

It wasn't just that though. The second part of it is, pretty much all of these articles list the same fucking things. And every time I read them, they became a little more true in my head. The facts cemented, then hardened, then they were stuck. Universal truths.  

And that messed me up for a long time. Which brings us to the reason I'm writing this, and I'm hoping that anyone who is looking for "ASPIRING INDIE ADVICE" reads this because I refuse to believe I was the only one who ever fell into this poison mind state, or the only one who ever will. 

It messed me up because after I released my first game, and then my second, and then my third, most of the shit I had "learned" turned out to be false. BUT: Because it was all written by people with experience, and because so many of those bullet points and snappy one-liners had been on a constant loop in my mind, I thought the problem was me, the problem was my games. Oh shit, I was making games wrong!

But then after I made my fourth, fifth... I started getting suspicious. And eventually I smashed the shit out of those cemented facts.

So let me run through some of the things that made me feel like I wasn't a "real" game making person for way too long:

1) Your first 10 games will be awful.

This is the bastard that really did a number on me. I read it everywhere. Your first 10 games will suck. Usually after that you get something like "so get them out of the way as soon as possible". 

My first game was a minimalist platformer called ROOD. For some reason I thought it would be neat to put some secrets in there, stuff like if you walk into the wrong direction and jump over invisible blocks - and invisible gaps that will kill you- you get to find some super hard extra levels.

I released it and didn't think twice about anyone EVER finding out about those secrets, because, y'know, i had 9 more shitty games to make before people would start enjoying anything I did. To my surprise, some people DID find the secret levels, and even beat the ultra hard bonus levels. 

My second game was called A Bat Triggered The Sensor That Activated The Defense Systems. I decided to put the game up for sale on not because I thought I could sell it, but because I wanted the experience of being on the site. For later. Y'know, after I had made 8 more shitty games so I could start making good ones. To my surprise, I found a sponsor within a week.

My third game, if I'm remembering correctly, was a platformer called Underneath, which still (I just double-checked the Mochi ads to confirm this) gets played on portals daily. I didn't put it on FGL for sponsorship because, y'know, I still had 7 more bad games to go. I regret that now.

I could go on but now it's starting to feel like showboating. The point is: Your first 10 games don't have to be bad. You are allowed to see them as good games. Some people might love them. Someone in the world might think it's GOTY. There is absolutely no reason whatsoever to think your first 10, or whatever number, of games will be bad. If they are bad (whatever that means to you), and you hate them, or no one cares about them, that sucks. But there's no rule that your first 10 games HAVE to be bad.

2) Start small. 

Well, I did, and if you have a crazy-ass MMORPG planned out and no skills to make it real, then sure you would indeed be an idiot not to take this advice.

But with that said, if you are the type of person who wants to make a game that requires a lot of content / time / effort, and you believe you can make it happen, don't let anyone tell you otherwise.  

3) What works for us might not work for you.

Seriously y'all I just got lucky lol. Aw shucks I have no idea what I'm doing really! 

Fuck that. I get that indies like to be humble and shit (heck I just apologised for showboating a couple of sentences back), but this one always made me feel like it was impossible to make anything happen with indie games for the longest time, like any sponsorship or sale I got was down to dumb luck. 

Look, if you have ideas to make and the skills to make them well, you can make shit happen.Yeah luck factors in, yeah networking and connections factor in, but guess what's a breeding ground for both luck and connections?

Yeah. The stuff you make before you have either.

4) Marketing is super important and its own job and a science and

Really though? Chances are if you're into indie games, you're on the internet and exposed to things like twitter and indie gaming websites.(*) And that means you're exposed to all the marketing tools you need, and they're not hard to reach. Just posting a picture on twitter with the #screenshotsaturday hashtag can get you coverage on places like Indie Statik. As an aspiring indie dev, that's seriously all you need to concern yourself with. 

(*= I might be off-base on this, I don't see how anyone could get into indie games without the internet but if I'm wrong let me know)

5) Prototype first, worry about art / music / etc later.

This one wrecked me for a while. I come from a graphic design background so for me it's much more pleasant to start with graphics and work from there. For some people making the music might be what inspires the rest of the game. There's no wrong approach. You're not less of a game making person if you don't start with code.

For me personally, moving placeholder boxes around just isn't inspiring, but I tried doing it that way for a while because I read that I should. I got way more productive once I decided my own workflow.

Alright! I think that's everything. Let me wrap this up by saying that these are my experiences, by no means am I saying the advice I've singled out and disagree with can't be valuable to you. It can be, and I hope it is. But if you start making games and your experiences don't line up with what those lists tell you, just know it's not your fault.

In closing, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention this: There is one thing on those lists, usually right at the top, that I fully agree with 100%. It has helped me immensely, and I think it's probably the only thing an aspiring indie dev really needs to know:

Make something and release it 

Sets and Settings / @folmerkelly

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Timothy Cutts
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See, this is the sort of advice that I like getting. I've read those same sorts of articles and it may just be my analytical mind, or the countless hours of research I've done on the games industry, but something always makes them seem... suspicious... is that the right word? I'm not sure... Anyway, I've only recently started my first project and, to be honest, I've been working hard to avoid following most of that stupid advice... mostly out of spite, but also because I'm a perfectionist... If you ask me, it's like the people who write said articles are writing them to scare off new competition... but that's probably just my imagination... it is, isn't it? (God, I hope it is...)

Folmer Kelly
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In all fairness I really don't think anyone's trying to scare off the competition. My take on it is that people try to manage expectations, like "don't expect success overnight".

The problem I had with that is that I took it all as gospel, and didn't allow myself to look at making games in a way that made me happy.

Doctor Ludos
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I agree with you. I think most of this of these advices are intended to prevent people from being devastated if their first game fail, as many indie games do. I've got the opportunity to teach in a class full of aspiring game designer, and all 30 of them were full of passion and energy, all dreaming that their first game will be the next Angry Birds or Minecraft and make them billionaire without real effort.

The thing is, for one Minecraft, there is a ton of moderate success games, which is perfectly ok, and also many failures, which can be devastating if you didn't except it at all. So I guess these advices (start small, you first X games will be sh*t, it's not all about making a good game but also telling the world about it...) are first intended to "counter-balance" the too bright idea most beginners have when they decide to "go indie". And I confess I also gave similar kind of advices to my students.

That being said, I 100% agree with your article: they are not universal truth, and they aren't an "objective picture" of the indie game world. But I think disregarding these advices totally would also be a mistake. Maybe the problem is more that most successful indie only focuses on these advices right now in their articles, and forgot that they aren't applicable to every situation / every one. So, in the end, you article is great to to give some balance back!

Wes Jurica
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@Folmer and Doctor

I got the same feeling that these were so people didn't become disgruntled when they fail. The thing is, for a company like Imangi, for instance, these numerous "failures" did happen, but it was a different time. Indie games didn't get the exposure they do now, mobile hadn't hit its stride yet and the tools available to indies were few and far between. Nowadays, it's perfectly reasonable to expect a tiny taste of success if your game is worth its weight in silicon.

Dean Boytor
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Exactly, in a way its already an up hill battle for that first game. And its somewhat soul crusher to be told off the bat that no matter how much fun you have making it and how much work/perseverance you put into it that its automatically a dud because that's just how it works. I refuse to believe that.

If I had a week to make something, then its probably going to not live up to my expectations. But If I'm taking my time with my ideas, then whose to say to still falls victim to that concept?

My first game has been in Dev for almost 2 years, I'm still doing concept, prototyping, story and level design.

I don't need other people telling me that it wont be as fun to play because its my first when I'm trying to live up to my own expectations! :P

Adriaan Jansen
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Ow yes yes yes yes. YES! These kind of things really hit our motivation to make Reus, but we made the game dispite all these points:

1) Reus was our first game. I (half)made 3 student project games ranging from 1 month to 1 week before Reus and we participated in one game jam during Reus, if you want to count every experience I had with making games.
2) Reus is not really small, it took 18 months to make. One thing that you might want to keep your eye on is if a bigger game will still be profitable though.
3) Thank you.
4) This one seems extra annoying, because since indies never seem to have any marketing experience, the fact that you mailed the press already qualifies for "paying attention to marketing". I believe you have to think about it and it can boost you, but I also believe that if you put a good to great game out there, it will be picked up anyways, and that should be enough for an indie.
5) Totally depends on your style. I believe prototyping is more about risk mitigation. Sometimes, your risk just aren't in pure mechanics, but in feedback, art, sound w/e. Just think about what you're making.

I know these lists are in the best intention (and provide great insights in someone's experience), but they're not the indie code of law. The idea that they are is really hurtful for you as a new developer.

Thanks for this great post. We almost stopped working on Reus to work on something smaller and quicker, because "your first games suck" and "you have to start small". Good thing we didn't. Eyes on the prize mates.

Kenton Fletcher
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The point about the marketing isn't that you can't be a success without it, rather than you are likely missing a huge opportunity if you neglect it. The simple truth is that the more people that see your game, the more people will buy your game. Also the more targeted that audience, the higher the percentage of people who see your game will then buy it.

You don't need a degree in marketing to figure out how to promote your game, just do some research and ask around. A lot of awfully good games however have died ignoble deaths for the simple reason that hardly anyone saw them. Relying on the old idea that a great game will always spread though word of mouth is a dangerous assumption. There are just so many game out there now, that standing out amongst the noise takes effort.

Steve Cawood
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I kind of agree and disagree with your points, but that's just the point, I think the biggest piece of advise I could give any aspiring game developers is "Know your own abilities".

Be honest with yourself, do you really think you can pull off a huge game? Yup? then do it. Nope? What game can you pull off? Do that one. If however you're very determined and failure won't discourage you, make the game you want to make, if you fail, no biggy try another, if you succeed...well you can figure that one out.

Personally, my first game has allowed me to work full time as a developer and earns me more money as I've ever earned doing any other job. I make little prototype games to see if i get a "vibe" and then go from there.

Phil Maxey
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Don't stop Learn coding skills
Be friends with graphic artists.
Don't be afraid to talk about what you're working on, to everyone, everywhere.
Take the amount of time you think your next project will take and double it.
Come up with a real, concrete plan of how you will pay your bills if you make no money this year.
Browsing the internet is not working.
Be lucky.

Lennard Feddersen
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Phil, Strunk and White would like your style. Your list is spot on and a good reminder for me to stop browsing the internet and get back to working.

Phil Maxey
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:) I've actually got their book under my monitor as I write thing strangely.

Wes Jurica
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Thanks for this. I too was addicted to these articles, though I never did give them much weight because they were written by people creating different types of games than I was interesting in making.

To address each of your points from my own experience:

1. The first game I released for free has been downloaded 700k times with great reviews. The first game I released with a price tag has sold 45k copies.

2. Our first premium game competed and won against a game with "Sonic" in the title that was released the day before us. I'm pretty sure our game has more content than theirs. This is about being realistic, not skimping on content. That said, there were points where we questioned our scope.

3. We specifically targeted a demographic that was being ignored and that we ere personally interested in. Thanks to that we got funding from a great partner to develop our free game into a premium experience just days after that initial release. I feel grateful but not lucky.

4. I haven't been active on in any indie communities. In the few times I have been exposed to the indie scene, in person or on the internet, they haven't been very inclusive of anything that doesn't fit into their "art games with something to say" mold. Apparently there is no room for a realistic, physics-based, side-scrolling, off-road racing game in their world. Regardless of not having that word of mouth avenue to exploit, our fans do the marketing for us and we haven't spent a penny.

5. On this one I think it should be "Nail the core experience first". If that takes art, music, UI, physics, and AI, then that is what needs to be done to evaluate that game's prospects.

Dean Boytor
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This is pretty great.

I'm pretty guilty of reading these success stories romantically at work, or even following what my favorite developers did hoping that I am coincidentally doing the same thing.

The one thing that got me was
"your first game will suck"

In a way it bothered me, because when you constantly think the world of your characters, stories and game play elements, you worry your self into a position where you are purposefully conceiving other ideas to "Meat shield" your grand idea in hopes that they can absorb all of the bad reputation, so your original idea can emerge unharmed with the "awful first game" stigma.

Without releasing anything yet, I strongly feel that if you have a good idea, proper execution and patience. The game will be as good as it will be. whether its your 1st or your 11th.

There's truth that maybe it would make the world of difference if its your 50th or even 90th game under your belt. But a developer should never worry about how much awful stuff he will inevitably make before he/she makes the "good one"

I'm glad I'm not the only one that is mentally fighting against that concept. It has made me reconsider a prequel to my original story mostly because I want to make something on a smaller scale than what the original game concept has grown to.

I thank you kindly for your story and wisdom


Josh Sutphin
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I think a lot of those kinds of articles come from people who've had bad experiences (probably mixed in with good ones) and are trying to tell you how to avoid stumbling into those same bad experiences. Which is a noble enough goal, I guess.

The only problem is, I think those bad experiences are as much a part of the final product as the good experiences were. Sometimes you make your craziest, most brilliant, most unexpected decisions when you're panicking trying to figure out why your marketing isn't working, or trying to dig yourself out from under the mountain of over-scoping you imposed on yourself. If you had taken all the conventional wisdom to heart, and avoided those moments of adversity, you may never have been pushed to do your best work.

I'm not saying we should ignore the lessons learned by those who've come before, I'm just saying that there's a particular perspective from which experienced people (myself included) share their learnings, and correcting for that perspective is probably important.

Daniel Cook
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Having given similar advice and talked to hundreds of indies, I think many such rules of thumb are helpful maybe 80% of the time. I'd put small games, first 10 games, prototype first (with functional art, not squares), marketing and luck all into the 'generally valid rules of thumb' bucket. So maybe not at all helpful to an outlier. But helpful to another 4 people.

Shocker: The world is best described with probability curves, not binary statements.
1) A single personal experience does not invalidate decades of aggregate wisdom.
2) But it does suggest that instead of taking advice as gospel, we should personally engage with advice and test if it works for us and our unique situation.

The thing that kills me after years of making game is the brutal ignorance that destroys so many indie careers before they even begin. Let's not kid ourselves; the default response is to ignore all advice and do something inanely stupid. And then give up on making games forever when being a naive idiot fails. It is like watching a puppy step in front a moving boot. I find that tragic.

By all means find your own path. But don't ignore tips and tricks without at least trying them yourself. There's a good chance you'll save yourself a few years of extremely painful education.

take care,

Folmer Kelly
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I wasn't trying to say that those rules of thumb can't be helpful, I'm just sharing my experience with being the 20% it wasn't helpful for. And even then, it's probably an outlier-within-an-outlier thing since not everyone is going to take those rules of thumb as gospel and feel bad for not lining up with them the same way I did.

But like I said in the article, part of why I took it as gospel was that I kept hearing the same advice. So I figured if I offered a different perspective, someone out there might benefit from it.

Christiaan Moleman
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Most common advice is given with good reason but it wouldn't hurt to have a "your mileage may vary" on some things. I like your point about "Prototype first, worry about art / music / etc later". It really depends on how important visuals and audio are to the game. If it's just meant to be dressing, fine... but if they are an integral part of the game you need to start early.

If you design with a cube, your character will move like a cube. If you want it to feel like a living thing that physically exists in the world animation needs to part of your prototyping. Same goes for other disciplines. Work smart and don't waste effort on detail before it's needed (and risk throwing it out later), but by all means start building a rough version of key elements and iterate from there.