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Loneliness and a lack of funds - the costs of being an indie developer
by Stephen Morris on 07/26/13 01:39:00 pm

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.

 

[This article is reprinted from the Best of British column on PocketGamer.biz]

My friend Dave – his name changed to protect the identity - has just found out that tonight, he will be homeless.

A once eager indie developer, Dave had just been to an industry event – one he barely scraped enough money together to go to in the first place – when he found out he'd missed the last train home and didn't have enough cash to cover a night in a hotel.

But is this a common story? Is the tale of an indie sleeping rough after splashing their cash to attend an event one other developers would recognise? Just how much does it cost to do what we do?

During the writing of this article, I reached out to the indie community to identify the hidden costs they wish they'd knew about before they set out. Outside money matters, however, what really surprised me was the number that vocalised the loneliness that's part and parcel of the indie lifestyle.

The original and exciting image of being your own boss with the freedom to choose your own hours often actually acts as a straight-jacket.

Vicious circle


Developers actively felt guilty when spending free time playing games or with loved ones knowing that their own project was waiting to be completed and only they could finish it.

Conversely, when working, many developers also feel they're missing out on life events, closing themselves off to alternative opportunities. It's a vicious circle.

People on the outside, of course, view the indie lifestyle with much envy, believing it liberating - a way to break free of the AAA treadmill; to innovate the industry from within.

It certainly can be. The key, however, is realising that even as an indie, you are running a business – and a business that's losing money from day one, to boot.

A lot of the worry comes down to financial concerns, so the typical advice given to any aspiring indie is to have 6-12 months worth of living expenses saved up prior to diving into full-time indie development.

Work-for-hire is useful for topping up, and in some cases necessary to continue, but ideally most people would prefer their games to self-enable their lifestyle.

So, 12 months living expenses would equate to a year's worth of monthly rent or mortgage feeds, food and the cost of developer licenses, right? Sadly, this kind of calculation only gets you so far – there are a host of extra costs involved, but costs that you can actually account for ahead of time.

Said costs can generally be categorised into inward and outward facing expenses. Inward-facing tends to cover development costs whereas outward-facing will cover public events.

Inward facing fees


As an indie, you're typically a one-person workshop, comprising of a developer, QA, producer, business-owner and more.

If working on mobile, generally you only need a development computer, the required developer's license ($99 for iOS and Windows Phone, a one time $25 fee for Google Play and $100 for BlackBerry) and a number of mobile devices for testing purposes.

As new devices are announced and issued, it can become an expensive affair to maintain your current suite.

Current Best of British chief Jake Birkett has made an interesting observation, however: the setup for a mobile developer is remarkably low when placed in comparison to other businesses. A plumber, builder, landscaper, shop or restaurant owner have to suffer astronomical costs, yet they only has the same chance of success as you do.

Nevertheless, during the development of your game, little costs like this begin to appear here and there – too many for me to possibly cover in this column, in fact.

Based on my research, Adobe Photoshop was cited as an additional by a large majority of indies. It is still the de-facto standard amongst the creative industry - even amongst solitary developers.

Although your game's artwork may have been outsourced, the ability to check the work or even edit a piece slightly is a blessing. The costs can be negated by looking at the free options, however you may need to consider if the extra time spent converting between formats is worth it.

Tying into artwork is the use of fonts. Although there are some fonts supplied with the devices or the OS, generally a custom font is obtained that gives your games the extra touch.

The large amount of "free" fonts available on the web are actually covered by a personal-use only license, so you need to be extremely wary.

The good fonts will have licenses that cover a certain number of sales, or they may even be unlimited. When using several fonts, these licenses can start to add up so please be aware. The same applies to royalty free music and sounds.

Making an impact

Ideally, you'll have been keeping the press and community aware of your game throughout development, and that requires media material.

They say images are worth a thousand words and videos are worth millions. As such, making professional promotional pictures and trailers is critical in this current mobile climate.

Recording straight from the iOS simulator simply won't cut it, so be prepared to invest in a high definition capture card. FRAPS and Reflector are also great for those on a shoestring budget. Don't forget to factor in the cost of your video editing software as well.

Additionally, as part of your PR, business cards - considered antiquated by some - still have merit. A highly visual card combined with an impactful meeting leaves people with a strong reminder of who you are. In the fast-paced world of journalism, being a figure people remember does wonders to your reputation and increases awareness of your games.

Also, although not technically considered a cost, be aware of fluctuating exchange rates. With the majority of markets controlled in US dollars, quite a few European indies are stung by horrible rates when being paid from overseas.

The same also applies when outsourcing work internationally or even paying for hosting companies or domain renewals. The live market rates aren't the same rates banks or Paypal charges.

Tied in with these payments are account thresholds or the ‘minimum amount accrued before fund release'. Effectively, your money is held with the vendor until it has reached a certain level.

If the current total doesn't quite reach it, the money is then rolled over until the next month. This can be rather annoying, so make every effort to push it over the threshold as it can quickly accumulate if there are multiple portals are involved.

An anonymous developer told me he's got more than a thousand dollars spread of 12 different accounts that, as a result, he can't access – a sizeable fund for any indie!

Outward facing fees


Fellow Best of British member Byron Atkinson-Jones recently wrote about the importance of meeting other developers on a regular basis.

Not only are games a communal affair, but the exposure to differing work practices and hard-earned advice can, and often does, speed up development. There is also the opportunity to network with others from different fields - suddenly you can now access a full team of games industry professionals or given an introduction to a lucrative deal.

Many major cities have their own local meet-ups which are typically free and relatively easy to attend. Depending on the locale, this can range from five people all the way to a hundred plus at bi-monthly events such as the eagerly anticipated LUUG (London Unity User Group) and GameDevNorth.

These events are ideal for meeting local developers, but what about the national and international ones? The events that reach out and include guests from beyond the shores?

Events where there's an opportunity to talk to studio managers, international indies and console holders? Id they're your target, GameConfs has nearly every worthy conference on its list.

Here in the UK, the Develop Conference is the must-attend event of the games calendar - a three day pass retails at $1,090 (£715), with an indie variant coming in at $236 (£155). Looking further ashore to Sweden, Unite Nordic is priced at $887 (£582).

However, the largest gathering of games industry professionals is GDC in San Francisco. The opportunities for learning and networking are stratospheric but, of course, the prices can be a bit high. A GDC all-access pass is priced at $1,975 (£1,295), although an indie variant is available at around $400 (£262).

Some would question if these events are worth attending. Consultant Nicholas Lovell has revealed he often doesn't pay for tickets but, instead, comes for the surrounding events.

Indeed, costs for just the three events mentioned above already amounts to around $3,350/£2,200 ($900/£600 if you're savvy enough to purchase the indie tickets at early bird discounts) and these are only a subset of the events available.

An alternative "purchasing" scheme is also available if you have an interesting story to tell or useful knowledge that can help others.

Developer events are routinely looking for speakers and are willing to offer tickets in exchange for your time. Not only does this raise your profile but also makes you an expert in your field - another bonus for attending these events.

Gaming festivals

Developer events are fantastic for networking but what about showing off your games?

Everyone has heard of the IGF (Independent Games Festival) and IndieCade - if you haven't, you really should! These publicised events offer nominated games incredibly high visibility and the accolades are respected within the industry that, in turn, leads to more press coverage.

I was fortunate to be an IGF judge and an IndieCade exhibitor this year, so I got to see both sides of the submissions process. For the IGF, the number of international submissions was staggering and the process of whittling it down was difficult.

I can only imagine the IndieCade process is the same. It speaks volumes if your game is selected out of the hundreds that get submitted.

With the high number of submissions, the system that holds it all together needs to be maintained and, hence, organisers offset the cost by asking developers to contribute via a submission fee. The aforementioned events are priced at $95 (£62) and $80 (£52) respectively.

Whilst festivals are generally free to submit to, some come with restrictions that amount to even higher costs.

BAFTA's highly prestigious awards allows developers to make one game submission for free. Additional entries, however, incur a $335/£220 fee. Promoter has an curated online calendar that lists major festivals along with submission fees - very useful for planning out events throughout the year.

Exhibiting

Events such as IndieCade, EuroGamer Expo and Develop are fantastic as they hold curated areas designed to provide exposure to indie developers ordinarily unable to exhibit due to costs.

But what about if you weren't shortlisted, or the event you're interested in doesn't offer this option?

Public-facing events such as PAX and Rezzed offer tens of thousands of game loving audience members who are willing to play, spread the word and drive up anticipation for a game. If you have a game launch soon, the timing is excellent for lots of press (both professional and amateur) to have a chance to play the game and report back.

Of course, space is at a premium at these events and initiatives such as Kelly Wallick's Indie Megabooth can help out indies, but it still comes at a price - around at $1,800 - $2,600 (£1,200 - £1,700). Be careful to read the small print as well - some events require you to pay for electricity that can, at times, be double the stand cost.

And the fees don't stop there, either. For both events and exhibitions, the costs of traveling to events and staying for one, two, three or more nights can quickly build up.

As such, it's worthwhile factoring in travel costs and hotels when considering how many events and festivals you are willing to submit to and attend.

Travel wise, it's a case of hunting for the best flights or train tickets. When it comes to accommodation, however, indies tend to love AirBnB - the costs are generally a significantly less than staying at a hotel chain and you can get a local's understanding of the area.

So, with all these costs added up, where does this leave us?

They say, realistically, it takes 2-3 years of hard work before your work can self-sustain your lifestyle. Being an indie is incredibly difficult, but planning the financial outlay for the year can help to alleviate money worries, making the job far more enjoyable.

Have you discovered any hidden costs since becoming an indie? Let me know in the comments below so well can all help those just starting out get a clearer idea of what they need to prepare for.


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Comments


Srinivasan Veeraraghavan
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thanks for the article, a real informative one on what the costs would be.

Juan Belon Perez
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When your games dont make enough money ,you have to work in client services, that's what we all have done before...and if you aint no money, don't travel...or go expensive expenses...

Tom Eastman
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Thanks for the write up! We wrote up our costs after 9-months full-time here: http://www.trinketstudios.com/trinket-financial-report/

One more cost that we had no grasp on when starting was for a lawyer to help incorporate the company. That ended up being around $1000, or ~20% of our first year costs. It's quite possible that we could have done that differently or not at all, however.

Ken Nakai
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I was going to say. Unless someone's going solo and running a sole proprietorship (in the US that is), you're going to want to incorporate (S Corp or LLC most likely), it'll cost. If you're at least marginally comfortable reading some literature on your state's secretary of state (may vary from state to state, just search for your state and "incorporate" and look for a .gov site), you can probably get what you need done with out needing a lawyer. You can use sites like LegalZoom or RocketLawyer to prep documents and get relatively cheap legal advice. Obviously, your mileage will vary and it'll depend a lot on what you're looking to do (a CPA can help you figure out whether you should incorporate or do the LLC since a big part of it, beyond the limited liability, is tax liability).

And, even though states like California will waive first year min tax requirements, each year, you may have to deal with minimum taxes, filing local taxes (for example, Los Angeles County requires you to get a business permit if you're a solo professional working as a contractor though unless you make more than $X a year contracting, you don't pay tax to the county), and general paperwork.

Just be aware, if you're bootstrapping, you can probably prep articles of incorporation (C Corp or S Corp) or articles of organization (LLC) yourself and just pay the state fee. For instance, in CA I believe it's just $100 to file if you don't expedite or walk it into an office (you don't have to...not unless you're in a rush).

I'm not a lawyer (disclaimer). Just what I learned working in (non-gaming) startups. It's remarkably easy these days to get through the legal parts of forming a company. A lawyer friend of mine even mentioned how often, especially tech types, often know everything they really need to know to handle most basic legal documentation (contracts, employee agreements, incorporation, etc.)...they just use a lawyer to validate them sometimes.

RocketLawyer's customer service is mixed but unless you're doing something weird, you can get in there, walk through a wizard and out pops a doc you can use. Other sites like DocStoc also have docs but I'd generally do the monthly sub and cancel as soon as you get what you want. Cheaper than individual docs and better understanding how that particular industry is still a bit fragmented.

Cartrell Hampton
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Hey.

Client work isn't all _that_ bad. Just depends on what type of clients you can hook up with, and what kinds of games they are into, what their target audience is, etc.

If one really wanted to get their own games out there instead of making someone else's games, as it's been noted, client work is probably a good first stepping stone. Not everyone will get "lucky" and make a hit on their 1st, 2nd, 3rd game. You can at least use it to build up your portfolio, and probably learn a thing or two about some parts of the process that are outside your comfort zone. (For example, I HATE web page development.)

If you're "on your own", you won't have the convenience of signing up with a company's health insurance plan, if they offer one. You'll have to do that 100% on your own. Also, since the monthly fees are not automatically deducted from your pay check, you may need to specifically set aside money for that.

Also, don't forget about taxes, especially if you live in the U.S. If you are a contract freelancer like I am, taxes are not withheld from your payments, meaning a small portion of your pay doesn't automatically go towards taxes, so you have to set some money aside for that. Generally, the previous year's taxes are paid off in quarterly installments in the following year, which can add to quite a bit.

These aren't necessarily hidden costs, but the way they are handled could change from one might be used to.

____________________
- Ziro out.

Andy Lunique
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This was really informative, I'm working in PR with some indie teams now, I will forward this to them for sure!

Gabby Taylor
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As an indie, this made me quite sad to read.. I had not thought of exhibitions and events, just getting the game up and running. O.O Its still very early in development for that, but just.. wow... Thanks for the heads up!

Craig Hauser
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Great article. I was starting to look into the long term costs myself and hadn't even thought about most of the outward costs you mentioned or exchange rates.

Joseph Legemah
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off topic, but i am damn proud of this site for not jumping on that asshole phil fish story. glad at least one site is giving it the attention it deserves(none).

Thomas Happ
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I have a day job that supports my food and shelter, but I've been thinking of doing a kickstarter just to cover the costs of software, convention, booths, electricity, travel to conventions, etc, which I've been neglecting thus far.

Brian Tsukerman
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A great overview of the many concerns that an aspiring creator may overlook in their excitement to bring a game idea to fruition. Sunk costs, both in terms of time and money, cannot be underestimated if one hopes to achieve some fiscal success (let alone independence) by developing a game. I'll need to share this with my group.

Simon Windmill
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While spot-on with the guilt issue - I feel genuinely guilty when I spend time doing practically anything except working - it's not necessarily an accurate picture; I personally feel that if you can't get any coverage for your projects from established sites already, it's going to be a waste of money trying to exhibit at a show, for example. A lot of these "necessary" expenses seem more like convenience extras too - why exactly won't using a device simulator or raw frame by frame dumps cut it for producing a trailer? And while I agree Photoshop is the de-facto standard, it's still largely a convenience issue - other than the file format, it doesn't do anything magical that can't be done in other apps.

Even if you ignore everything I've just said as opinion, I do want to point out one factual inaccuracy - membership for the BlackBerry developer program is free, not $100.

Brian Stabile
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I tried going full-on indie with our (Astro Crow) first game, The Last Ace of Space (iOS). We got really good response from critics and media, but the sales just never came. Maxed out my credit card, depleted my bank account, and had to get a full time job, and push Astro Crow to my spare time. The worst part is when checking who's playing (via OpenFeint analytics) and seeing three times as many people playing the game (piracy) than there were sales. If an indie can't be supported by their own fanbase, how will they survive? That is why there are so many brainless games and clones on the market shooting for the Lowest Common Denominator- because they pay the bills.

James Edeson
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I believe not all tools are created equal and they could make huge differences to indie developers.

I am in 3D character animation and I just found a surprising tool via this blog post:
http://www.3dartistonline.com/news/2014/08/sponsored-post-natural
fronts-unique-software-gets-your-3d-animation-business-a-giant-st
ep-ahead/

The tool is much cheaper and also faster than other tools for the same purpose. This tool is certainly not perfect but it gets my needs met.

Even though indie developers are generally very busy, I believe it pays to go shopping for a new tool from time to time.


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