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Why Indie Developers Go Insane
by Jeff Vogel on 02/10/14 09:13:00 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.


We all have our little mantras we use to get through the day.

After I started writing games in 1994 and went full-time in 1995, I soon came to a conclusion about the people who do what I do for a living: "These people are all crazy."


Then, as I got older, I realized that I am crazy too.


Then, as I got even older, I switched to a better truth: Everyone is crazy. Every human has his or her damage. Nobody gets out of this world alive.


It's just that indie developers tend to have high visibility, high stress, and small support groups. These factors mean that, when these devs break, you see it, and it's spectacular. Twitter has only helped to make self-immolation faster, easier, and more public.


A lot of people love indie games because they are can so clearly be the product of real people. They aren't focus-grouped, penny-pinching, soulless chum. At their best, they have character. You might not like my games, but you can tell I CARE. They're works of love, recognizably the product of passionate brains.


And, since we care about the product of these brains so much, it's sometimes worthy to look at the brains themselves. Brains that spend half their time receiving more accolades than they deserve and half their time being the target of laserlike hate. These crazy, crazy brains.


I wanted to write a bit about the brain of the indie developer under stress. I don't want pity. I just think someone might find it interesting to read what it can be like to be in this particular box.


Simple. Free. Ad-supported. Indie. Popular. Addictive. BURN IT!

What Brought This On?


For years now, the iTunes (and lately Google Play) app store has been this gigantic, rushing torrent of infinite money, and everyone has scrambled to grab their piece.


It's the most soulless, joyless, metric-obsessed market/ethics-free-zone imaginable. There is nothing that can't and won't have all fun and creativity sucked out of it to earn an extra penny from the "whales" (i.e. compulsives) who will happily shell out a hundred bucks a month to get Candy Crush Saga to let them play Bejeweled. (Hot tip: Uninstall Candy Crush Saga and play all the Bejeweled you want forever ad-free for three bucks.)


So for the last couple weeks, people, when they weren't raging about EA's pillaging all of their happy memories of Dungeon Keeper, were noting the runaway success of a tiny, free, ad-supported game called Flappy Bird.


Let's be clear. It's not a great game. It was written in three days by a young Vietnamese man named Dong Nguyen. It's really simple, crushingly difficult, pretty derivative, weirdly addictive, and marketed purely by word of mouth. And it became a huge hit, sucking the attention away from a million equally derivative money-sinks.


According to the author, Flappy Bird was averaging $50K a day. So here come the haters ...


Shut up,

If You Think There Is Something Bad About Flappy Bird, Here Is Why You Are Wrong


The Internet exists to crap all over everything. And Flappy Bird is simple, silly, derivative, and casual-friendly, so it was sure to bring the self-styled Defenders of Gaming out of the woodwork.


And why do people object to it?


One. The gameplay is similar to many earlier games. Well, of course. Flappy Bird is very similar to a host of press-the-button-to-make-the-helicopter-or-bird-stay-in-the-air games going back years. So what? Here's a news flash. If you write any sort of simple game, there is a %99.999 chance somebody already did it.


You can't copyright gameplay for a reason. If you could, small developers (including me) would never stand a chance.


(Many have claimed that Flappy Bird is a ripoff of a game called Piou Piou, which is laughable if you bother to actually try the games. They play entirely differently.)


Two. The art style is super-similar to early Nintendo games. Yes, Flappy Bird's art is reeeeeally close to some Nintendo games that came out in the last century. I've never seen proof that assets were lifted. It's just similar.


So what? Again, you can't copyright an art style, for a reason. If your art style could never be similar to someone else's, small developers (including me) would never stand a chance.


Three. The game is pretty rough. So what? If people choose to play it, nobody voted you the Queen of Gaming. It is so, SO not your business. I think players of Candy Crush Saga or mobile Dungeon Keeper are getting rooked and could get a lot more similar fun elsewhere for way less money, but I'm not running up and down the subway slapping the iPhones out of their hands.


Want to see people hate on Flappy Birds for no good reason? Look at this gross bit of anti-journalism from Kotaku. As of my writing this, the article begins with an update that basically says, "We changed the title of this article as it was pure slander." (Kotaku has since apologized for this piece, so thanks for that, I guess.)


Or look at this vicious example. Or this straight-out slander from the famed game critics of, um, (At least Kotaku apologized.) Or, on the pretentious grad student end, this hilariously bizarre article in The Atlantic.


Or read the petty, jealous comments of any article on it. I promise you the author has. Every single one. Which is why this happened ...


Going ...

Rough Lessons In How Humans Work


Dong Nguyen quit. A fortune coming through the door, and he walked away. As I write this, Flappy Bird has been removed from app stores.


Think about this. I mean you, personally. Think about what it would take to make you run from a gold mine like this. Really. Think about why someone would do this.


This is not about money.


If you've experienced any time as a public figure, especially one that is mainly hated on, it makes a lot of sense.


Dong Nguyen is a young guy. He wrote a game for fun, put it out there, and found himself at the target end of a massive wave of attention, much of it negative. I can't stress enough how insanely terrifying this can be, and he wasn't ready.


Hardly the first time this happened. Remember when Phil Fish, the successful author of Fez, canceled Fez 2 and quit the industry in a fit of pique? I've never been Phil Fish. I don't know exactly what was happening in his head when this happened. But it did happen, and I can totally relate.


It can be hard to understand why someone would kill a product that's making a fortune. Anyone can say, "Oh, gee. He has money. Who cares?"


Well, I promise you, there are things that money can't buy. If you are going mad, you can't buy yourself sane. Some people can take this sort of attention. Not everyone. And some people can take it, but it makes them ... weird.


... going ...

I'm Crazy Too.


I've been the target of my fair share of hate. Real example: E-mails from angry schizophrenics. People who tell me they hope I go out of business and my kids never go to college. Pictures of me Photoshopped in various unflattering ways.


And, of course, the occasional truly unhinged message that I forward to my friends and ask, "Tell me honestly. Should I be worried about my safety here?"


I've been doing this for a long time, and I have a pretty thick skin. Even then, this stuff has an effect. You can't help it. It's part of being human. One angry message has more effect than ten friendly ones. It has a real psychic weight. And, once you know it's there, turning off your computer and avoiding Twitter doesn't remove it.


When my games had their own Humble Bundle, I should have been happy. I mean, I was, in a way. It'll help send my kids to college, and who could argue with that?


Yet, I spent that week in my room quivering with terror. When my developer/writer/artist friends find themselves in similar situations, they are often the same. I've been asked, "This is going so well. Why do I feel horrible all the time?" We neither expect nor deserve sympathy, but that's what happens.


And when an indie dev becomes the hate target of the day, isn't up to it, and loses it a bit, the public responses are the same.


Suppose one day I get one insult too many, I go nuts and quit or freak out. Here's what people will say about me: What a weakling. What a wimp. What an idiot. Why does he care? Why doesn't he just turn the social media off? Why can't he be tough and awesome like me? Screw that guy.


All this, of course, from people who have never experienced being in even remotely the same position.


A Quick Aside


Everyone jokes about how supposedly soulless PR and marketing people are, but dealing with the masses is difficult, time-consuming, and an actual skill. To survive emotionally in a high-profile situation, you need a layer of protection between yourself and the raw feedback of humanity.


If Dong Nguyen got a PR flack, stayed off forums, and just wrote games, he could make a lot of money. However, as he has said himself, this isn't the sort of life he wants to live, and I can't blame him.


But if you've ever seen a public figure (politician, actor, musician, and yes, game designer) have a weird, inexplicable public flame-out, it might make a little bit more sense now.


... gone. You see? Trolling does work!

Nothing Can Be Done, Of Course.


Reality is what it is. We devs would never have our attention and success without the Internet, but you have to take the good with the bad. If you want the attention, you also have to face the Hate Machine.


Sometimes it seems (accurately or not) like every gamer on the Internet seeks out their own little rantbox. A place to direct rage at their chosen target. Young male teens on one side, social justice warriors on the other, general cranks everywhere. Everyone has their axe to grind, and shouting is fun.


People have the right to give feedback, too. If I want to call out the Dungeon Keeper app or the hacky articles I linked to above, it's something I should be allowed to do. If you make your work public, people get to respond.


Trolling is annoying. (Though one man's troll is another man's brave truth-teller.) People troll because it works. When someone writes, "[Some developer] is a moron and his games suck," and the developer reads it, it hurts. You can't prevent it. It's just how our brains work.


I don't think this can ever change. (Though less slander from reporters who should know better would be nice, of course.) It's not about a broken system. It's about understanding, empathy, and remembering that the work you are shouting about was written by another human. An actual human, with feelings and stuff. And humans can be surprisingly fragile.


Saying that won't make any difference, of course. Haters gonna' hate. Trolls gonna' troll. But it feels nice to remind people occasionally, just the same.


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Zachary Strebeck
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While I sympathize with Mr. Nguyen's situation, you can't say that the use of the pipes was just a similar style. They are as similar as can be without directly ripping the pixels. He could have made any number of choices for obstacles in the game, yet he chose a nearly exact representation of the iconic Mario pipe. Whether a court would find this an infringement in a legal sense is anybody's guess. But don't make the creator out to be completely innocent and typical of the indie scene. It belittles others who do take great pains to deliver work that is truly inspiring and independent.

I do believe, though, that the whole thing has been completely overblown. Referring to those who complain as simply "haters," though, doesn't do your argument any favors.

E McNeill
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1) If the art is not actually ripped, what makes this infringement rather than a loving homage?

2) Do you really think the pipe graphics are core to the appeal of the game? If it were any other sprite, would the game be any less popular?

3) Is Mario really threatened by this? Remember the purpose of copyright.

Zachary Strebeck
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1) See my blog post here on Gamasutra. You don't have to actually "rip" the art to copy it.
2) Since there are about 4 different graphics in the game (at least from what I've seen), it is a substantial part of the overall graphical component. A court COULD find that this is enough to constitute infringement. Or they could find that it is a fair use. That's the problem with this type of infringement. You never know what is going to happen.
3) The purpose of copyright isn't about whether or not someone is threatened by it. Copyright gives you the exclusive right to make copies of your work. If someone infringes with something that is either a copy or substantially similar to your work, you have the right to stop them. Perhaps you're thinking of trademark law, which has the purpose of stopping confusion in the eyes of consumers? You could make the argument there that a) the pipe is not a trademark and b) there is no likelihood of confusion. You would probably be correct.

E McNeill
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I'm reasonably familiar with trademark law, less so with copyright. But I'm not really arguing about the letter of the law as much as the spirit. So, yes, copyright gives you the exclusive right to make copies of your work, but why do we give people that right? To ensure that they can profit from their work, and that they aren't undercut by other people exploiting that work. In this case (I argue), nobody is going to be less interested in Mario as a result of having already experienced Flappy Bird's pipes. To my understanding, this is why courts look at the effect on a copyrighted work's value when evaluating fair use.

Zachary Strebeck
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Well, one might argue that a game allegedly making $50,000 a day in ad revenue IS having an effect on the value of Nintendo's property. As I said, it would take a court to decide that; fair use is a fickle beast that isn't super easy to figure out. That element that you mention is only one of the four, and the other three would seem to weigh against them in a fair use analysis, I think. So the effect on the market isn't dispositive in itself.
I do understand you, though, in thinking that this is against the spirit of copyright law. Your opinion is valid, and many on here and in the industry as a whole agree with you. See the uproar about the King trademark business and the YouTube Let's Play controversies. Unfortunately, we are just the little guys and our opinions don't seem to matter much :)

E Zachary Knight
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I think we should consider the full fair use doctrine when considering whether Flappy Bird might be infringing. Fair Use has a four factor test to consider whether something is infringing or not.

1. The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes
2. The nature of the copyrighted work
3. The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole
4. The effect of the use upon the potential market for, or value of, the copyrighted work

Keep in mind that none of these factors are dependent on the others. So a work can be found to be fair use even if it only fits 2 out of the four. So the fact that Flappy Bird is a commercial work does not automatically make it infringing.

So when we take the rest of the factors, we could easily make a case where the pipes in Flappy Bird can be found to be fair use.

So let's look at them:

2: The nature of Mario is a platforming game in which pipes are a characteristic part of the Mario world and mythos.
3: Flappy bird uses a single aspect of the overall Mario world. But it doesn't use a huge amount of work from the Mario games. The pipes alone are only a part of what makes Mario a Mario game.
4: Flappy Bird is unlikely to reduce the market share or value of Mario in any way.

Jeff Vogel
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Here is what makes me crazy about this argument.

Suppose the WORST possible thing happened. Nguyen directly ripped off a Nintendo asset. (Which I really don't think happened, but, in the end, it'd be decided by a judge.) It's not a noble thing to do, but we all do dumb things when we're green. If he did do that, here's how that goes down:

Nintendo sends cease & desist. Nguyen spends five minutes making new pipe and patches it in. End.

There is no percentage whatsoever for anyone to seriously sue anyone over this. In other words, in the worst possible case, there is nothing in this that justifies all of the hate Flappy Birds received. That, more than anything, is what hacks me off.

And don't get me started on how he's allegedly bad for making the 1000000th version of the helicopter game. For taking that design and putting a spin on it that makes people actually like it, he doesn't deserve our contempt. He deserves the Nobel Prize For Awesomeness.

- Jeff Vogel

Zachary Strebeck
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You both may be right. E. Zachary, your fair use analysis may be how a court would see it, but it may not be. Your understanding of the 2nd factor is incorrect, though. They look at the factual/fictional nature of the work, and whether or not it has yet been published. So because the work (Mario Bros.) has been published, it is more in favor of fair use. But because it is a fictional work, this is in favor of infringement. Even, perhaps.

The third element doesn't merely look at the quantitative amount used by the infringing work, it looks qualitatively as well. There was a case where a magazine used one line from Gerald Ford's autobiography, and was found to be an infringement, because that line was seen as the "heart" of the story. This is what a court would look for. Nintendo, hypothetically, might argue that the pipes are an iconic part of what makes a Mario game. They are all over the game, after all. While you see it as a small part of the game, a judge could see that it is an important piece of what makes something a Mario game and find for Nintendo on this factor.

Lastly, the fourth factor may not be that cut-and-dry either. I've no doubt that Nintendo, with all their money and resources, could produce some kind of economic analysis showing that all the money being made by Flappy Bird is cutting into their market. They are arguably direct competitors, after all, since Nintendo has games on handhelds that feature Mario and the pipes and all of that. Who knows what a court would think.

Jeff, while I understand your position and agree that the hate for Nguyen and the game is completely unfounded, I think that he made a mistake using that particular art. Yes, he could change it, but the money has been made, and a case could be made for damages if Nintendo won. It doesn't look like anything of the sort is happening. My blog post here and on my site were just in response to Kotaku's now-changed assertion that it was "ripped" art.

If it's so easy for Nguyen to make new pipe/obstacle art, why did he use the iconic Mario pipe in the first place. I wouldn't hang my hat on him as a pillar of indie greatness, or deserving of any awards. I agree with you that it was a mistake that comes from being "green," and one I think that he won't make again.

E Zachary Knight
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"I've no doubt that Nintendo, with all their money and resources, could produce some kind of economic analysis showing that all the money being made by Flappy Bird is cutting into their market."

If they can do that without resorting to arguments that could apply to any and all other games in existence cutting into their market, then I will buy you a beer (or your preferred poison.)

Ian Richard
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I agree. I usually see the internet applaud flash games with directly ripped sprites and cloned gameplay as "Homages" to the old days.

But here's a guy who happened to get lucky with a small 3-day project he happened to post... and the internet crucifies him. He somehow succeeded where us professionals struggle... yet we attack him rather than say "Tell us how you did that... oh and change the sprites they are too mario."

He did something that I would kill for. He attracted a massive and kept a crowd of players to a game that took little time and effort to make. He ended up on favorite games lists... and having his game LPed.
And he made enough money to live. I barely made enough working in the mainstream industry... and he does it with a 3 day project!

And you know what... he threw that success away so that he could just go back to being a guy who makes games. He didn't want the money... he just wants to make games.

That's all pretty awesome to me.

E McNeill
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On the one hand, I agree with just about everything you wrote here, Jeff.

On the other hand, did you really call Ian Bogost a "pretentious grad student"?

Jeff Vogel
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No, I said that his Atlantic piece was in the manner of a pretentious grad student. I mean, I'm sure Ian Bogost is a lovely person and kind to kittens and his mother loves him, but that article. Yikes.

- Jeff Vogel

Michael Mullins
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And Ian's best response would be to look at his article, grin, and say "You know what? You're right!"

E McNeill
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Well, at least that's not factually inaccurate. :) I enjoy his prose, but I can accept a difference of opinion.

Michael Mullins
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In a self-effacing sort of way.

David Klingler
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It saddens me that I'm in an industry in which I see a headline like this and I immediately understand it before even reading it.

Eric McConnell
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There is something so erie about this whole situation. A guy makes a game, months later after its released the game becomes a mega hit, he makes a lot of money, goes insane and pulls the game. I truly wonder what, if there is anymore, is the entire story. My conspiracy theorist side wants more (i.e. he used bots to push it to the top and got told he was getting pulled from Apple, he is actually a business genius and is going to release something else and make every more money, he sold flappy bird for untold millions, I'm not saying it was aliens but it was aliens, etc). Sigh, but I think the story written in the article is likely the case.

Richie Meneses
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"...I absolutely hate this idea of exploiting the Internet to express the shit side of yourself. It eats you up, on one hand, and it may be infectious and dangerous to those who are near, on the other. I'd rather be modestly boring, naively pompous, and politely narcissistic than a thrilling, exciting, over-the-top asshole with an exaggerated disrespect for anybody who does not want to conform to a set paradigm."
— George Starostin

Michael Pianta
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I have a question: is he actually losing all the revenue? Because I have the game on my phone and I still see ads, so isn't somebody getting that money?

JoseArias NikanoruS
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I just remembered this video:

The Internet sometimes doesn't allow us to see that there are Humans on the "other side(s)" of the web.

GREAT article!!!

Duvelle Jones
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I have always seen the internet like this... The best thing about it is that anything is possible people have a voice (no matter how small), and nearly everything with access to the net is accessible. These are also the worse things about the internet.

Sad really, as a from of collective thought of humanity... We have created a monster.

TC Weidner
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The problem we are seeing is the same we are seeing in all sorts of areas and media in our life.

I look at it this way. If your walking down the street and you see two people on soap boxes talking a loud. One is casually dressed, speaking in a monotone conversational style and seems to be making sense.
the other has his hair on fire, tossing monkeys in the air while screaming gibberish at people.

Which one are you drawn to watch? Exactly.

and that is why we cant have nice things in this world. we are all to blame, Rational media doesnt grab our attention, Loud shocking ridiculous media does, so of course what are media providers forced to do.. make the crap we see all over the TV, movies, radio, and internet.

Jan Wierk
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You can of course rip graphics, change them it's not a copyright violation. I would've done that in the last 16 years or so if it wasn't so forking lame. Let's just not forget that anyone can do better... hopefully!

James McMurtry
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"Everyone jokes about how supposedly soulless PR and marketing people are, but dealing with the masses is difficult, time-consuming, and an actual skill. To survive emotionally in a high-profile situation, you need a layer of protection between yourself and the raw feedback of humanity."

Great point. This industry has a problem. Indies have it the worst. How do we fix this?

Duvelle Jones
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I was talking to a friend of mine that works in mobile. I would have to agree with him, the amount of freedom and independence any indie developer has is amazing. But with the way that it's getting harder and harder to find people to just download a game, invest in transactions and blow-outs like this... it may come to the point where a collective of indies need to create the layer between themselves and the public.

I looked at him and said "There may be a point where you need to consider a publisher."
And the sad part... that is going to be a difficult road for other developers to come to. But if a publisher has the resources to safe guard developers and extend the ways that you generate income, I would assume that is a small price to pay. Maybe.

Amity Games
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Let's not obsess over Flappy Birds. It's like obsessing over the state lottery winner.

The real problem for us game developers is that the industry is hyper-globalized and over-supplied. Think about it. There are basically a handful of quasi-monopolies controlling the market (your "indie-friendly" AAPL, GOOG, and few other NYSE/NASDAQ listed corporations who get 30% to 70% revenue cut regardless of what games they sell or who makes them). On the other hand, there is something like a million developers hoping to make the next Angry Birds.

So yeah - as an industry, we are actually worse than apparel, chemicals, agriculture or any of the other poster children for globalization and consolidation. No wonder we're crazy...

Dave Bleja
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Excellently written article. I have nothing to add (which is unusual because, sadly, I'm usually an opinionated SOB) other than to say that I agree with everything in you wrote in both the article and the comments, Jeff.