How to Make it as a Professional Indie Game Developer
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
My name is Thomas Steinke, if you are not aware of me; I am the owner of DigitalDNA games, arguably the most successful Xbox Indie Developer, and the creator of the all time best selling Xbox Indie Game CastleMiner Z. In this article I wanted to spend some time and give advice to people that have aspirations of being full time Indie game developers like me.
What some people might not be aware of is that I am an ex-pro game developer. Of the really successful Indie game developers this seems to be a reoccurring trend. Most people would say it’s because you already KNOW how to make games. Yes, that is definitely an advantage, but there are a lot of indie games with very simple technology that have been very successful. It definitely doesn’t take a pro triple-A game developer to make the next Angry Birds. It isn’t about learning some alien technology that only the high priests of gaming have; especially now a days with all the great middleware out there. However, there are some really simple ideas that the pros have been exposed too which may help you a lot and that are pretty easy to summarize in an article.
A long time ago, someone approached me speaking about an upcoming project. They made a comment like “since this is a game you probably wouldn’t play, you probably would not be able to make it..”. I was surprised as a pro developer as I was; I was often in positions where I was making games that were not for me. It was interesting to me because it drove to the point what it means to be “professional” versus a hobbyist.
If you think about professional musicians or dancers they do this all the time. You may have heard stories about studio musicians who play back up on a rock album then an hour later play back up on a country album. This is the essence of what being a “pro” artist is all about. When you have to make a living by doing your art, especially if you are very talented, you learn to be flexible; it is main difference of being a “pro” from someone that is playing with their hobby. So if you want to be pro-Indie you have to start thinking like a pro, this brings us to our first item.
Be relentlessly practical
Separate yourself from your work emotionally. Since you are set on being pro, you need to be successful despite yourself. This is by far the most important lesson to learn, not only in game development, but business in general. Your primary directive as a professional and a business owner needs to be being financially successful. Not making yourself happy, feeling good about yourself, becoming popular, getting people to write articles about you, winning awards, pushing an agenda or supporting a platform or idea. Now you CAN do any or all of these things if they still support your primary directive.
You realize right away that this will force you to make very practical and level headed decisions about what projects you work on and how you spend your time/money.
Let’s stop here for a second. Before you go any farther, you may have decided that being a pro is not for you. That is totally okay. Game development is a beautiful art, and some people just want to be artists. It is very noble and respectable. There are a lot of opportunities out there that didn’t exist even five years ago. I could totally understand just wanting to be a game developer by moonlight, like some sort of superhero with a hidden identity. If you are that person I applaud you and you may find some of my advice objectionable. However if your plan is to quit you day job and make Indie games your profession, my advice may be more relevant to you.
The reason I mention this is that this level of practicality is painful and difficult for some people that have romantic ideas about what the game industry is like. Maybe there is this really cool idea you have had for years, and that is what you really WANT to make. However it may not be the right thing for you to work on, or at least to start on. I can tell you there is this huge back log of games I would LOVE to make, but it just isn’t practical. Pros “get” this because pros are constantly exposed to this idea of being practical about developing games. This leads very well to my next point.
Be realistic about what you can do
As a pro, one of the greatest advantages I have is that I can VERY accurately cost projects in both time and money. When I take on a project, I usually know exactly what problems I will encounter and how much it will cost to solve them. You may not have the experience to do this but you can mitigate this by not biting off more than you can chew.
Even as a pro developer, if you look at our XBLIG catalog you can see that our first games were very simple, this was completely intentional. The first game that I intended to make was Avatar Paintball, the first FPS with Xbox Avatars. However, I made about five small games previous to that. Each game was meant not only to build out part of our engine, but to monetize the development and learning that needed to happen. This made it so that when Avatar Paintball actually came out, the huge amount of work building the engine was already paid for. Therefore the risk of making such a complex game was greatly reduced. This idea has been rooted in our DNA (no pun intended), and has continued. If we decide to implement an expensive feature we usually already have 2-3 future games planed that will take advantage of the tech.
The point is, it is okay to start small if you have a plan. It is far better than doing a ton of work and simply failing. Also releasing lots of things will teach you things about the platform and the marketplace. You may find yourself working on something completely different than you first intended based on what you learn.
However there is another way to mitigate this which leads to the next point.
Leverage other people's work
It was very interesting to work in the game industry until about the early 2000’s. We were figuring out new rendering technology, how to solve physics, collision etc. At some point in early 2000 or so these all sort of became solved problems. There really isn’t any value in solving them again (back to point one). You might be really interested in how physics simulations work, but you need to decide if you want to play with a physics engine or make games for a living. There is tons of middleware out there, if it solves a problem for you, use it, instead of wasting your time reinventing the wheel. This is a great lead-in to our next topic.
Account for your time
People starting small businesses often don’t account for this. If you are going to leave your day job you need to make it worth your while. This is often a much greater problem for people that are passionate about making things or worse yet, passionate about making one part of something. Often I will see someone tinker with some part of their project for months or years, sometimes without even a project to focus on, while opportunity after opportunity passes them by. Here is a suggestion to avoid this:
Bill yourself for your time. Figure out what you make per hour at your day job, and keep that in mind when you make your projects. When your project hits the market, realize you will need to make enough money to make up for that. Your time is valuable and what you will realize very quickly is that you may not be able to afford to make some of the things you want. This is a GOOD thing. What you are learning by this experience is how to be profitable. This brings me to my next point.
Pick the right projects.
Be conscious of the marketplace you are competing in and the customers there. Remember you are not making games for yourself. You are making games for your customers. Look at the trends. What is succeeding and failing? Be quick and agile about your decisions to capitalize on current trends; this is your advantage as an Indie.
Realize it is all about return on investment. For every dollar you put out there (including your own time) you should expect to get that dollar back plus some return. In the venture capitalist world, investors typically want to see a 10 to 1 return on investment for an investment in a small business. This is not an unrealistic expectation for an Indie game company and actually is the rule of thumb I use for DigitalDNA Games.
What you will realize is, this will force you to make some really hard decisions about what you work on and where you spend your time. Take the movie industry for example. People often wonder why they keep making those cheesy comedy movies. They never come close to out grossing the big summer blockbuster. The reason is, they are cheap to make and have a predictable and excellent return on investment. Spending $1 to make $10 is usually far better than spending $100 to make $11. The margins for indie games are huge even compared to triple-A games. This starts to be problematic when you scale this to very large numbers, but when this becomes your problem you will be more worried about what island you are going to buy for your secret lair.
Be realistic about your expectations
This is another important part of this process which is a corollary to the previous point. People don’t often have a grip on this and it leads to poor decision making. If you plan to make a game but you see that ten other similar games have had dismal sales, it may be a stretch to think yours it going to be a blockbuster hit. On the flip side, people tend to get distracted by success stories and ignore the similar failures. The Angry Birds empire made something like $127m last year, so if I make a game like that I should expect the same right? This sort of logic is dangerous. There is probably some magic in picking the right project but experience and research will make you better and better with this over time. For example, I tell people that at this point with XBLIG, I can look at a box cover and not only tell you if the game will be successful or not, but instantly know almost exactly how much money it will make. This is the reason that our success rate for bestselling titles is the best on the system.
Again making smart and conservative choices about what you make, wherever it may be, will let you build this experience up without going broke first.
Be VERY selective about who you work with.
Finding someone that shares your passion can not only help share the workload, but can augment you and create a magical energy. With that said, a good partner can make you a stellar success; a bad partner will undoubtedly sink you. If and when you decide to work with someone, make sure you are making the decision for the right reasons. I am lucky in the sense that working in the game industry for so many years has let me come in contact with the absolute best people in the industry which I have the fortune now of working with. I will only work with the absolute best people now, and I am extremely selective.
Don’t get discouraged
Failure is part of the game, you have to learn not only to deal with it, but to be 100% honest with yourself so you can learn from your mistakes and become better at what you are doing. If you try something and fail you have paid for an expensive lesson that someone else doesn’t have, it just makes you that much more valuable; use it to your advantage. It is only a waste if you decide to give up. I often refer to these moments as “Empire Strikes Back” moments. There is nothing wrong with retreating and regrouping if you ultimately win the war.
There was such an overwhelming response to this article I decided to condense a lot of my answers to questions in another article here
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