Sunday’s Nation of Indies event in Austin, TX was not the mournful affair it could have been after the events that have shaped the city’s games industry over the past 24 months. We’ve seen AAA studios downsize and fold at an alarming pace. We’ve seen friends and colleagues wondering if the games industry is really worth the heartache.
I think everyone on the panel at Sunday’s event answered the bell and gave an informative, thoughtful, and passionate treatise regarding the merits of what has been labeled “indie” game development. I won’t go into the granularity of everything that was discussed, largely because the awesome folks at Juegos Rancheros are going to post the bulk of it for your viewing/reading pleasure.
I will go into a few key takeaways from the day’s panel discussion and Q&A sessions.
No Right Way to Do Indie
Whether you’re a full independent game development studio or a contractor doing specific work (sound, animation outsourcing, etc.), there’s not one way to set up or run your business. As Trent Polack (developer and panelist) noted, you don’t have to run a business at all to go indie.
That’s all common sense if you already run a business, but I remember when all of that information was super opaque to me a few years ago. I’m sure it was really helpful to those trying to start or become involved with an indie to know that there’s not a magic formula to setting up a game-related business.
Maybe you start an S-Corp in the hopes that you’ll make the next hugely engaging FTP multiplayer game and make $50M out the gate with a bunch of stockholders. Maybe you start an LLC, self-fund from the start, and put in place a merit-based revenue-sharing model. Maybe, like me, you start an LLC and raise private capital and pay salaries. Maybe you leave your AAA job and have a massively successful Kickstarter campaign to make your masterpiece. Lots of possibilities -- no “right” way to do things.
Focus on iOS & Steam
It seems like things have trended toward iOS and Steam for a while and that trend should continue.
Please note: lots and lots of other platforms are viable. Lots of indies are excited about Android (especially OUYA), lots of indies have good working relationships with Sony, lots of indies still love XBLA even though it’s becoming less attractive, Nintendo says they’re serious about indie support for the future, self-publishing is still an attractive option for many indies, etc.
It just seems like many indies who “make it” find their staying power with iOS and Steam. It’s what we champion at Minicore and it’s what Supergiant and Tiger Style have gravitated toward with hits like Bastion and Waking Mars, respectively. The marketing groundwork is there for those platforms, the user base is huge (caution: does not always lead to huge sales), and these platforms are generally run with lofty technical and support standards.
Tools Are Your Friends
Are you starting an indie developer? Can you do everything an indie developer needs to do? Unless you are a kind of person I’ve never, ever met, chances are you cannot do everything yourself -- at least not efficiently or at a high-quality level. You will probably need collaborators. You will need marketing help. You will need shortcuts.
I could do an entire entry (or series of entries) on the “this is good enough” mantra that many indies espouse. I don’t know if I totally agree with that mantra, but it’s a way to push forward toward a real release and that’s ultimately the goal, right? You have to get your stuff out there.
Use tools. Don’t build a physics engine or a shader engine or something that is ultimately not the focus of your game’s universe and already available through many, many cool sources. Many of these tools are either free or cheap and can save you tons of time and heartache as you move toward release. You don’t have to blow thousands of dollars on a development suite to get started on your magnum opus. Be smart and research what’s out there. Nation of Indies panelist Damien Di Fede went through a laundry list of useful tools that will be hugely beneficial for a new indie developer.
Friends Are Your Tools
That sub-header is way more Machiavellian and terrible than I really meant it to sound, but it was so symmetrical I couldn’t resist. The folks at White Whale Games (creators of the extremely good God of Blades) spoke at length about building social capital, to which they attribute a good chunk of their recent success. This seems to be a major sticking point in the indie community, for good reason.
AAA developers have so much built-in real capital and marketing spending power and indies generally can’t afford those luxuries. Don’t get me wrong. AAA devs can really rally a fanbase without money when they deliver a fantastic product. The point is, indies have to rely on word of mouth and building a sense of community to stand out.
It should go without saying that your approach to building social capital should not be for the sake of building social capital, but rather a genuine desire to see your peers succeed because of the awesome stuff they do, a genuine desire to show the world what your project is like, and a genuine desire to be a part of an amazing growing community. I can’t control what you enjoy and if social capital-building seems like a nightmare to you, I understand. It’s just very important that you try. Get out there. See what others are working on. Show them what you’re doing. Don’t be so secretive. If you came from the AAA world filled with NDAs and lunchtime whispers, this world is very different.
No elaboration really necessary. Taste, effort, and talent intersect at quality, so get there with all your heart.
When Juegos releases the video for Nation of Indies, you should check it out. Every panelist spoke at length about these things and much more at a level higher than I paraphrased just now. These developers have helped me as a fellow indie developer organize my thoughts and ambitions and we as a community can only hope to do the same for anyone who loves to make quality games.
John Warren runs Minicore Studios in Austin, TX. Check out new iOS game Tumblewords and get ready for Laika Believes, coming later in 2013.