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Going Indy
by Robert Madsen on 12/06/10 02:53:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutraís community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


So you want to go Indy?

I see a lot of posts on forums that look something like this:

I want to break into the game industry, but I really don't want to waste my time going to school or anything. I've got this great idea for a game and I know it will be the greatest. I'm thinking I'll just skip the whole job thing and just start my own game company. Can you give me some advice?

Anyone who has followed my blog for a while knows that I am a pretty strong advocate for the more traditional route to a job in the game industry: get a degree, then get an entry level job and move on from there. The biggest problem with posts like the one above is that it looks like whoever wrote it:

  • Doesn't really want to work hard
  • Is trying to skip all the prep work
  • Thinks their great idea is so great that everyone else is dumb for not realizing it
  • ...and finally, doesn't have a clue!

But let's say we're talking about someone who has really prepared and wants to seriously consider going independent rather than working for another game developer. What should such a person consider when trying to make this decision?


The first question you should ask your self is why? There are many motivations people have for choosing to go independent:

  1. A veteran in the industry may decide that it's time to break out of the mold and start a company that is run the way they want it to be run.
  2. A student may decide that going independent is the best way to extend their project from school and turn it into a completed, marketable game.
  3. In the current economy, going independent is a viable alternative to unemployment.

These are all good reasons to consider going independent. If this is something you are seriously considering, then realize that you have a lot of work ahead of you. Running your own studio is much harder than just getting a job and working for someone else, so make sure you know what you are getting yourself into!

Do Your Homework

First, starting an independent game studio is much like starting any other business. You have to consider what form your business will take (e.g. sole proprietorship, corporation, etc.). There are licenses to get and bank accounts to create. Will you have employees? Triple all of that!

If you have never run a business, then you need to do some research and find out exactly what it takes to start one. One resource I can definitely suggest is your local Small Business Development Center (SBDC). The SBDC is a branch of the federal Small Business Administration. They offer free information and advice and can also facilitate a small business loan. Check them out at

Are You a Business Person?

I have been self-employed for almost 20 years. I think the most important lesson that I have learned is that being really good at what you do (e.g. art, programming, game design) does not necessarily mean that you are good at running a business. In truth, I am really good a programming, but I suck at running a business.

In order to be successful, you are going to need someone who is really good at business. If creating art or writing code is what excites you the most, then you probably are not that person! Someone who is truly good at business gets excited about things like marketing, sales, budgeting, and cold-calls...these are not things that I love to do.

So, if you are seriously considering starting an independent studio, make sure that you have someone on your team who dreams of running a business more than they dream about creating a great game.

So Many Hats to Wear

If you truly are thinking about going solo, then remember that the full responsibility will be yours to make things work. As an independent computer programmer, I estimate that I spend only 25% of my time actually coding. The other 75% is spent finding work, getting people to pay me, and doing paperwork and other administrative chores. You may be able to run solo for a while, but eventually you will have to bring in other people who are experts at business so you can focus on your area of expertise.

And so much more...

Of course, there is no way I could go into all of the details of starting an independent studio in one post. Hopefully this has at least given you some food for thought. Going independent is a hard road, but it can also be rewarding. And there has never been a better time for independent studios in terms of technology and opportunity.

Until next time...Good luck!


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Kenneth Bowen
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Hey Robert, have you gone through with a small business loan before? The impression I get is banks aren't really keen on giving a loan out to intangible goods like game companies. They feel more comfortable buying cooking equipment, for example, because they can recoup their loss.

I'd like to hear your take on funding for your next post :)

Robert Madsen
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I haven't ever needed a small business loan, but I did work for the SBDC as a consultant for 5 years.

Your impression is at least partially correct. Tangible goods provide collateral against a loan, so getting a loan for these is easier. However, like any other loan, if you have your own collateral against the loan (typically 10 to 20%) and good credit, it is possible to get a small loan.

Even if you don't want a loan, going through the process, which requires a detailed business plan, market research, etc. is a good thing for any business and would be required if you ever sought loans from other sources or investment income. This could also be useful if you need to demonstrate to a partner (publisher or studio) that you have a solid business plan.

The key point is that the SBDC isn't just for people who want a loan...they offer a wealth of free information, support, advice, and other services. For example, when I was a consultant for them I provided computer support for small business and it was totally free to them.


Bennie Waters
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So, you mentioned getting an entry-level job and moving on from there, but so far, that seems a lot easier said than done. I'm going to be finishing my BS in Software Engineering soon, and I've had no luck in hearing back from game companies, both on Gamasutra and through my own searching.

Do you have any advice for someone like myself, who really wants to break into the industry, is going through "the right steps", and doesn't know what to do next? I'm also seriously considering grad school as a way to garner some experience, but I'm still on the fence about whether or not it will be necessary.

Kenneth Bowen
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Take a look at all these entries Bennie.

Brian Shurtleff
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How long have you been looking for a job?

For some of my friends it took from 6 months to a year of searching before they finally got that first job after graduation.

E Zachary Knight
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If you can't find a job in the Games industry, perhaps it is time to branch outside of the games industry and get a job in another IT industry. It still counts as experience and you can also make iPhone, Unity or XBLIG games on the side to keep up the games credits.

But I would also take a look at the link that Kenneth provided. It is loaded with great advice.

Robert Madsen
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Right now it is stupendously hard to get any job in the game industry, especially entry level positions. The current downturn in the economy has affected the game industry with over ten thousand layoffs in the last 2 - 3 years, so that means the market is pretty saturated with unemployed, experienced game developers.

I agree with Brian, above. You might need to take another job in the mean time (although those aren't easy to find nowadays either!). The most important thing you can do in the meantime is find some way to write games and get more experience. You mentioned a BS in Software Engineering...that should have given you the skills you need for general programming, but have you written any games? If not, get started. If so, then polish what you have done to completion and then write another.

Continuing education is also a good idea....for example, if your Bachelor's program didn't focus on game development, then you might consider some online courses in game development (e.g., Full Sail's online program (, or others).

Continuing on to get your Master's degree is an excellent personal goal, but may not equate to better job or money. There are a few game dev positions that ask for a Master's but not many. On the other hand, pursuing a masters that focuses on game development (see,, or for example programs) may be just what you need to add the game specific knowledge to your existing degree. In the meantime, the economy will have hopefully picked up!

As for advice, I have several relevant blog entries, and Kenneth's suggested site is full of good advice as well. Also, their is

Hope this helps.


Kris Morness
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Hi Bennie, look me up and we can talk. Send me a PM on my website forums.

Luis Blondet
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You don't need to do corporate paperwork and establish yourself as an entity right away if you're not going to have employees. You can commission work from freelancers instead of getting employees, which is very messy. This will save you tons of money!

The most important thing is to get the game done, then you can worry about all that paperwork.

Robert Madsen
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Great point. I hope I didn't make it sound like it was impossible to get started...only that you should think about these things, do a little planning, and preparation. Like you said, the most important thing is to get started making the game!

Thanks, Luis.


Christer Kaitila
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My personal take on these ideas:

1. don't even think you stand a chance of getting a biz loan - 99% of indie game companies lose money, no bank would touch you with a ten foot pole unless you've had past success.

2. Best way to find a job in the games industry: use the twitter hashtag #gamejobs this is HOT right now, this week.

3. K.I.S.S. - most indies aim too high and die of featurecreep.

...and have fun! You CAN do it! Don't give up! =)

Luis Blondet
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I am just learning the featurecreep lesson and although I learned it back when I was playing in the M:TG tourney circuit, it didn't occur to me to apply it in real life.

You can only do the best you can with what you have and getting SOMETHING started, even if it looks like crap, is better than not getting started on your intangible dream project.

It will never be perfect, so, get something out and upgrade it later! I mean, look at the pitch video I just made for my game( www.Lutopia.TV ), it's not great, but it is now out there!

We have to learn to be ok to start with the wood club and the cloth. We can't start with all the best equipment at level 1, that only comes with time.

We have to be crappy first before we're great ;)

Robert Madsen
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gr8 tips. Especially the "Don't give up" part!


MaurŪcio Gomes
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I think a very important thing is have money.

I went indie without money, and now I am in trouble (ie; the game is mostly done, but I don't have money to spend with marketing, neither time, and also I don't have money to hire freelance musicians, relying mostly on goodwill of some nice musicians that donated music)

Nathan Addison
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This was a great article. Everything that Mr. Madsen said is 100% correct! Starting a business and managing a business has been more work than actually making the games.

We started our company (Blazing Forge Games) earlier this summer. We've had our ups and downs but I honestly wouldn't recommend it to someone unless you are a real go-getter. The sheer amount of time that goes into it is boggling! If you have a spouse you better prepare them for the gauntlet before you quit your day job. Be thankful if you have an accountant friend because does anyone REALLY understand how to set up the atrocity to peace of mind known as your financial books? Going indy with the aim to be successful (because there are folks who don't) must be your goal. Yes, you get a ton of creative freedom but in the short term that doesn't put food on the table. You've got to make successful games even if they aren't the ones you really want to make. I'm not telling anyone to throw out your own ideas but to be flexible as the situation demands it.

I also second Mr. Gomes statement concerning money. This was one of our biggest pitfalls. If you decided to rely on investing to meet your financial needs then prepare yourself to get only a quarter of what you need. It's so hit and miss. Just like rolling the dice hoping to hit that nat 20. You may have an awesome sales projection, you might have tons of hard cold facts as to why someone should be begging to invest in you, you might even have a highly talented and capable team, but at the end of the day I have met very few big investors who knew a lick about what makes a great game. It's more about who you know; trust me. If you've got an aunt Sally who's banking then good for you. Otherwise, be prepared. Keep your feet on the ground, my friend! I'd recommend saving up enough money to pay your cost of living for a solid 6 months before even attempting this. And speaking of cost of living; once that money starts trickling please don't get a big head about it. If anything, with every paycheck never increase your cost of living. Because you have no idea what could happen in the market tomorrow.

You can make it but you better live and breath working hard. I'm not talking about these pansy 12 hour days. I'm talking about being an all-star that those major video game corporations wish they had working for them. It's a lot of work, my friend, but it's worth it.

end soap box lol

ashish pratap
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Hey Robert,

You have covered nice points and facts. I totally agree.

I know few people who are developing games on i phone and its not costing that much(it depends on the scope of the game though). I think as an indie developer, if you have low budget then you should try making games on i phone or android for instance ... The best part is anyone can develop and sell there games on i tune store... U don't need to pay any money to the first party... And if the game turns out to be good, you might earn money or fame :)....

Sean Farrell
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For me funding is the biggest problem, since you can bet that almost no one will give you money if you have no track record. But I have a really simple solution:

Build the game in your free time as a hobby. Once the game is 95% finished, create your legal entity called company. The trick is, while you are actually building a game (with no money) you don't actually have to go though the rigmarole that is actually founding the company. The after a marketing drive start to sell your game, but don't quit your job just yet (if you can). Until the revenue from your first game can't sustain you don't even think of quitting your day job. If you can, try to get a half day job to put more time into you game development.

The hard part here is that you only have little time for you game development, especially if you also have a family. The good part is, you are never in the immediate danger of going bankrupt.

Eric McVinney
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I can understand where you're coming from, Mr. Madsen, and I agree on all points. I have a start company that's been around for a long while and we're finally getting something together for a prototype. Luckily for me, and anyone else who has researched this, if you put your game on Steam you can work out some kind of negotiations on payment and marketing. Might be something for someone who is interested in starting their own team/project.

It's a pain not being able to fund your own project, believe me, I can't even pay my own team members! They're doing this for 3 main reasons:

1. Great for the portfolio!

2. Can't break into the industry due to the economy, so this is the second best choice

3. Doing it as a side project just to enhance their skills

The reason why all of this happened was because of who I knew *and* could trust. You would go through Hell and high water to find people willing to put in their time for a project that could either flop or be FUBAR (due to too many clashes of opinions on game design). My advice is to go to these gaming jams or conferences and do your best to network. Hell, join up on Linked In or go to Warply Designed (where you could also find my team ;D). There are tons of great networking sites for the small people, you just have to give it a try.

Good luck!

Michael Mackend
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My advice to someone doing this is to surround yourself with the right *variety* of skill sets (including at least one person who knows business), and to focus on working regularly and sanely. Cyclically working your knuckles bloody and then and then burning out is an extremely bad idea. The biggest threat to your new company is and will always be not finishing what you started. Finish. Whatever it takes-- just finish.

Nathan Addison
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I agree. Having that business savvy individual is a great idea. For us he is our marketer.

"Whatever it takes -- just finish."

That, sir, is some really good advice!

Kassim Adewale
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If you want to start a game company, MaurŪcio Gomes, is right, you will need MONEY, lots of it.

But going Indie means the money aspect of it can be reduced by following some footsteps of other that succeeded through such path. Read more on my suggestion in this article:

Let me add some points to this article:

1. Majority of banks donít know software economy, they will not borrow you money and those that understand software development as a viable business, information about piracy has frighten them to the extent that game creation is out of there scope of viable software.

2. You can setup your company as virtual online only, for the start and build upward.

3. You must know how to program in other fields, a quick contract on database, web design, 3D modelling, networking or any other aspect of contract business that you can handle which may come your way that can bring in quick cash for you to continue your game, so if being Indie and jobless, you will need to look into these area to make money.

4. If you are employed, which is good, you will start to work on your project after the close of work. Something the Americans called moonlighting. The rule of thumb is donít resign until you are sure that the game has been released and you have make enough money to stand alone.

5. Donít let the idea about game cloud your judgment, a game company is a software company, so it means you can diversify into other software solution area if your first game failed and youíve resign your appointment.

6. If your employer has opportunity that you can benefit from, donít hesitate. Eg: being a computer science lecturer means you can utilize the school library for your own project.

7. If you also develop software for your employer, you are likely to always come home tired, not been able to code as youíve coded in the morning, you will need to prioritise your project code and do those complex codes during the weekend.

8. When all odds were against you, search the Internet, free art, and free music are other forms of alternatives to reduce your game development cost. Or look for other loitering Indie that you can partner with.

9. Donít reinvent ubiquitous code, search the Internet.

10. If you are jobless, donít even think of wasting more time on anti-piracy code, instead use the same time for 1 level demo.

11Contribute to blog like this and logically introduce your game project, is a little indirect poor manís advert. Eg: I am working on Elewenjewe and itís 100% ready, and I am applying some of my suggestions above to be able to release the game, which is a real life practical example.

12. Find a journalist that will do a report on your company activities before your launch and after or do a post-mortem article of the game after launch, all these are still indirect poor manís advert.

13. To mention loan, some groups (, etc.) are springing up now that is assisting Indie by giving out loan (search the net for more), alternatively, you may need to enter into game competition. Intel, Nokia, Samsung etc. are constantly rewarding some game developers, and you can win money to focus on your project.

14. Please note that your problem will escalate when the game is complete:

a. Opportunist will come to say they can now loan you money.

b. Zero day piracy can happen.

c. Lost return of sales can also happen, please read: (

I believe people with practical experience can teach more than people with just unaplied theoretical nonsense. You will need more of practical Nults & Bolts of Indie strategies to success.

Thanks Robert for sharing this article with us.

Robert Madsen
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Great comments everyone and great advice! R