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Top 5 Problems Faced By Indie Game Developers
by Kate Reichert on 11/01/12 05:34:00 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.


Nowadays, ‘indie’ is a complete buzzword. Just look at the rise of the hipsters- those ironic douchecanoes are pretty much everywhere. Indie musicians and actors are considered far more artistic than their ‘mainstream’ counterparts, as if success and integrity are mutually exclusive. Indie games are on the rise and the success of games such as Minecraft and Slender indicates that this trend is not going away.

When I began my internship with a local independent game developer, I thought boys in tight pants and hipster-Ariel glasses would flock to me, drawn in by my new indie cred. Instead, I’ve been learning about the indie gaming market, and the rewards of working on independent games. I've also seen some of the problems developers face.

Problems such as:

#5. No Funding

“Duh,” you might be saying, “These developers are independent, of course they don’t have any funding.”

But think about what that means. No funding means very few incentives for other people, which limits your labor pool to yourself, your friends, and perhaps some unpaid (and inexperienced) interns. You still need a place to work, not to mention computers and different design programs. How exactly are you planning to pay for all of that? All of you will have to be working at other jobs in order to pay for the necessities. 

“But that isn’t true!” you say, “Can’t you just do fundraisers?”

Sure, sites like Kickstarter offer a whole new way to raise money, but it isn’t actually as simple as putting up a page and watching the money roll in. First, there’s the part where you have to persuade people to part with their money in order to fund your potential. That’s harder than pulling a celebutante away from a camera.

If you are lucky enough to reach your goal, it presents an entirely new set of challenges. Sometimes, the demand can completely outstrip what the creators can do. Kickstarter is full of small-scale operations, and success can end up utterly crushing them. 

But let’s say you do have a great group of supporters who can’t wait to fund your project, and you have enough people behind the scenes to make it happen as soon as you get the money. It can still go wrong- just look at the information on this campaign, where they raised more than enough money for their project, but underestimated the costs of their pledge gifts. Most people who are using Kickstarter do not have the experience with financial management that will make the campaign the first stop on their success tour.

This isn’t to say that fundraising can never be successful, as you can see from many of the projects from the Kickstarter site. But it definitely isn’t easy.

#4. Resources

The resources available to independent game developers are entirely different from those available to big-name studios. For example, take a look at Beyond: Two Souls from Quantic Dream. Beyond is an upcoming game from the developers of Heavy Rains. It involves motion-capture technology and required 160 actors, including Academy Award-nominee Ellen Page. 

Let’s compare that to an independent and underfunded studio, where we only see Ellen Page in our dreams, and motion capture is when we film ourselves falling down the stairs. It simply isn’t on the same level.

But hey, games don’t have to be fancy to be good. They don’t even need pretty girls.

#3. Protecting Your Work

If you’ve ever been on Facebook, you’ve probably seen the reactions of people who have had their accounts hacked. Usually it’s nothing more than a stupid status update, but sometimes people take it seriously and completely freak out. You probably laugh at those people- I know I do. 

Now think about what you would do if your personal project, which you have worked on and loved and sacrificed your Netflix account for, was stolen by someone else and marketed by them. And you couldn’t do anything about it.

That’s what happened to Rodain Joubert, the developer of Desktop Dungeons. He discovered a clone called League of Epic Heroes and attempted to rescue his material. However, as stated in this article, “Copyright can protect artwork in a game, or the specific code behind a game, but game mechanics themselves cannot be protected.” Although the Joubert got lucky, managing to scare the other developer with threats of legal action, what if he hadn’t been able to afford a lawyer? Many independent developers definitely wouldn’t, and would have to helplessly watch and/or attempt to blackmail the clones. The risk turns any independent game release into Russian roulette.

#2. Flooded Market

Developing your own game can’t be as horrible as it seems, though- otherwise, why would anyone do it? 

There are actually many people leaving more established companies, hoping to work on their favorite game ideas in their own way. Creative freedom and bragging rights are far more fun than rigid rules and little control over the finished product. It also forces developers to think outside of the box in order to get the work done and promote their games successfully, and we all know how popular it is to go against everything mainstream.

The only problem with this is that new developers are not just going up against the big studios- they are facing seasoned competitors in the independent sphere. Just to illustrate how difficult this is, think back to the Kickstarter campaigns I mentioned earlier. Now think: who are you more likely to give money to, the unproven newbie or the seasoned professional? 

The market is also absolutely flooded with games. When anyone can take a few classes, download various programs, and produce simple games, it opens the door to so many new options. Although many games require more in-depth knowledge to produce their more complicated qualities, the fact remains that the number of independent games is increasing.

Check out the funding for games on Kickstarter:

Hot damn.

That’s literally millions of dollars over an incredibly short period of time, funding many different games. Imagine what the gaming world will look like if every game campaign manages to produce fully-funded games.

#1. Publicity

Perhaps the greatest difficulty for independent game developers lies in gaining and maintaining a paying audience for their games. Sure, you can sell your first-born for the money to develop your game, but what does that matter if nobody will play it? The question of how to create awareness is always on the minds of game developers.

There are, of course, options such as Steam Greenlight (which allows users to vote for games to be released on the Steam system) and Indie Games Uprising (which promotes independent XBox Live games). But some of these types of sites require a consideration fee, and there is no promise of success even after that payment. Some people market their games by allowing potential players to choose how much they want to pay, trusting that their games will be good enough to inspire payment and word-of-mouth. 

Independent developers often turn to social media, taking to Twitter, Tumblr, and various blogging platforms in order to be heard. But when your marketing plan depends on a site that gained popularity through Ashton Kutcher, there is so much that can go wrong.

Developing games independently involves a great deal of risk, but it can also be a reward in itself. As I always think, when/if my child self manages to jump into the future to meet my present self, is she going to be more impressed if I'm making steady money, or if I'm interning with the team that created Metacell?


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E McNeill
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Why do you take shots at the "artsy" indie stereotype at the start of this article?

Kate Reichert
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Consider it affectionate teasing.

Robert Boyd
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The Indie Games Uprisings don't require a consideration fee.

Kate Reichert
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Oops! Meant to only apply that to Steam, which had a fee when I wrote the original draft. Fixed it. Thanks!

Kevin Fishburne
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You touched on this with #2, but I think a better way to phrase it would be "Were I a betting man, I'd wager your game isn't as great as you think it is." Or perhaps, "99% of everything is crap." It sounds like I'm being an asshole, but that's probably my biggest fear with my own game. I realize that there's an indirect relationship between hours invested and success, and that ultimately success depends on the demand for your final product from the market to which it is released and promoted. The problem is that passionate devs follow their dream and spend an inordinate amount of time working on their game, yet have little idea of how successful it will be when released. They may be crafting the finest arrow to ever take flight, but until the bow is plucked the mark gives little answer. Being an indie, especially when you have a family to support, is a bit terrifying.

And I never trust anyone who wears trendy clothing to distinguish themselves. If you have time to worry about that, then you're not working hard enough. Good call, even if in jest.

Nick Harris
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Here are my solutions to the problems you identified in your amusing article:

#5. No Funding

Treat it as a self-funded hobby rather than a pay-the-rent career even if it means it takes decades and lower development costs with the creation of custom tools as with Eskil Steenberg's 'LOVE' and boost productivity with the design of a declarative programming language paired with a live coding environment that instantaneously reflects source code modification in a running interactive prototype whilst supporting input capture, replay, rewind, pause and "ghosted future" visualisation / debugging techniques as seen in Bret Victor's "Inventing on Principle" video.

#4. Resources

Use procedural generation techniques as in 'FUEL' or 'Infinity: Quest for Earth' rather than employ 3D modelers and texture artists to make everything laboriously by hand.

#3. Protecting Your Work

Simple game mechanics are easily ripped-off, so aim for layers of complexity and depth whilst retaining a shallow learning curve for accessibility.

#2. Flooded Market

Select an overlooked genre, say Space Combat / Colonisation / Commerce which obviates the need for expensive motion-capture.

#1. Publicity

Cultivate a vibrant community through an associated web forum and integrated level-designer and sophisticated modding tools the resultant User-Generated Content (as in 'Little Big Planet', or the 'Halo 3' Forge), will supplement idiosyncratic character to the procedurally generated resources.

It is my view that Independent Videogame Developers need to set aside some time to develop tools to make their working lives easier as it is currently too difficult to make a decent game without the financial backing of a AAA studio, even with something as nifty and cheap as Unity.

Tyler Yohe
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I loved reading your article Kate (it nearly inspired an even longer rant that typed below!), and Nick, I really enjoyed reading your rebuttal - mainly because I have those same takes on indie. I started my own studio a year ago, and I've been loving every minute of each 120hr work week so far lol.

#5. No Funding ('Duh') :)
The reason most go indie is exactly as you breifly mentioned Kate, its because we are passionate about what we are creating. What scares me about the sudden flood of indie studios is your other points however, like 'lets get money via kickstarter', or 'lets go indie so we don't have to deal with management' (which I think is very popular with all the lay offs lately). The problem with this is we are creating this bubble of unmanaged genius, where talented individuals have the ideas to create something great, but they don't know how to build the infrastructure to support their 'studio' - and as a result the create a fan base / draw financial support, but then when their studio collapses they alienate their fans (and worse yet, kickstarter investors) when their idea flops due to lack of management (not a big fan of bureaucracy - I mean I do own an indie studio - but its still important to know how to manage money, people, keep on schedule / don't let creative ideas take over and extend a project indefinitely -- sometimes management are helpful in just knowing where to draw the line in the sand and tell you, ok, enough is enough, we need to find a more efficient way to do this).

That mini-rant brings me to my agreement with Nick's statement of you should treat things as a self-funded hobby, because honestly if you don't enjoy working on your own product enough to put money and time into it, why would anyone else enjoy putting money or time into playing it or joining on to develop it? That said, it again scares me how many are launching a kickstarter with just an idea, hand outstretched before they've you've built a foundation for their company & game using their own funds. Its not that it can't be done, its just an 'all-or-i-give-up' approach which is fine for them if they succeed, but bad for the rest of us because it can leave a bad taste in donors mouths toward future kickstarter donations.

#4 Resources (or lack there of)
Working 120hrs a week can be stressful (40hrs at a full-time 'pay-the-bills' job + 60-80hrs on the company) - time is probably your most valuable resource, and if you can't commit, don't be deluted enough to expect others to for you. That said, I've found if your passionate (and maybe a bit of a salesman), your 'talent pool' for employees actually isn't to limited - its just a matter of getting them to see, and then share, your dream for a game (again, if you expect your idea to be good enough to attract players, it should be strong enough to attract workers IMHO).

As for programs, today MOST indies would be crazy to decide to design their own engine with Unity & UDK out there for you (though I do have profound respect for those that take this on, but its a huge time & money sink if you aren't going 100% original). Then for 2D art their is GIMP, 3D art their is Blender and DAZ, motion capture there are quite a few kinect freewares + maximo.

The software is outthere, its just a matter of taking the time to find it, and learn it - again meaning it comes down to the your most valuable resource, time.

#3 - indie, AAA... doesn't matter, when it comes to gaming, you have to expect pirating, so keeping quite until you have something to show is the best bet. Doing much more often 'upsets' indie gamers (such as DRM), or can cost an arm and a leg for little long term protection. Never the less, I think you're points were great.

#2 - can't say much more than what Nate did here, but I completely agree with you (see statements under 'no funding').

#1 - again, agree with both you, and Nate, PR is a huge part of being successful, and its extremely difficult on a limited budget. again, take advantage of your one resource, time, and look up the many, many articles on how to market on a low / non-existant budget.

my post here: discusses how to get your feet wet in this area, while getting your name out there for free.

Anyway, BEST OF LUCK TO ANY INDIES OUT THERE! And again, thanks for the article Kate!

Robert Carter
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#2 should be #1, #5 should be #4, #4 should be #5, #1 should be #2. YouTube is THE advertising tool for anyone. Their rules clearly state that almost anything you come up with can be put up in a video. M$ may be hurting themselves & a lucrative market with Indie Development by removing XNA. I would hope if they continue to plan to have an 'App market' like iOS & Android, M$ must redo XNA. It just worked for Indie development. It was nothing wrong with it. If the game got to the point where it was GREAT quality, then they should promote it. Trust me, $100 for a Indie License, $60 for XBLive Gold(1 year) is more than enough of a buy-in fee to develop Indie stuff for Xbox360 , without literally and figuratively hacking the system and doing other illegal things that would not only void your warranty , but land you in jail too.

James Edeson
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Great article!

For the 4th problem of resources, time and money are the scarcest for indie developers.

In this case, which is more important – your professional pride or the profitability of your business?

If the latter is more important to you, you might want to change some of your mentality you accumulate during your studio years. For example, being an early adopter will give you an edge over late majority. If you are not sure what the buzz words mean, check out

Here is an example, if you are in 3D character animation, there is a new tool out there that can test your willingness to be an early adopter:

Anyway, it can get most of my 3D face animation done at a small fraction of the time and cost of using other solutions.