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How to Make it as a Professional Indie Game Developer
by Thomas Steinke on 04/09/13 11:21:00 am   Expert Blogs   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.

 

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

Reponse to "8 keys to indie success"


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Comments


Hubert Rutkowski
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Great post! Very true. As my first project as an indie, I choose to make a game that was my latest day dream. It took me 8 months, during which I learned new platform, new language, new IDE, designed quite original game, produced two prototypes, did all the graphics (including animations of zombie dinosaurs), edited sounds, tested it on 30+ people, endlessly polished it - all alone ... only to kinda fail at selling it (it's already for 3 weeks at FGL auction and still nobody bidded). I knew from the start that I had to play it simple at the beginning... and believe me, I was planning to have the basic project take 4-5-6 months, and did move all cool but lots of work ideas on next project's todo list. And it grew to 40+ positions :) But even then, with so many unpredictibilities, production dragged on for much longer than anticipated.

However, what I don't necesserily agree is the first point - "seperating from your projects emotionally", working only on things that are financially safe, etc. When preparing to my project, I was reading articles from other indies, and most of them said to work on the things you love. Quoting someone I don't remember: "Your best bet is to make something that you’re passionate about. Something that you want to play. That passion will seep into every aspect of your game and chances are it will excite people as much as it has excited you."

That way, you will have great motivation to work on your game, to finish it. It will be easier to stay focused in times of troubles, or when work becomes more mundane. And even if the game will turn out to be a flop, you had a great time doing it and possibly learned a lot. Also, sometimes it pays off to make a risk.


From my perspective, this approach kinda worked - I am content with work I did on Ninja Cat and Zombie Dinosaurs, because with that much as I learned, I know a lot of what to do, and what not to do. On the other hand, if I have chosen a less emotional, but simpler project, it might have been more financially viable (but still, the jury is out on this one :), finish it faster (so could more easiliy iterate on concepts, technology, bussiness potential) and could have learned also much. I think I mostly failed at predicting amount of work.

In summary, I'd say that in this case the middle ground is the best - work on something that you find interesting, and would like to code even in spare time, but at the same time - be very realistic about money it can gather and pessimistic about time scope. Other than that, I agree with all you said.

Thomas Steinke
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It is great to love what you do. The problem is that if you make decisions emotionally they aren't always the best decision for your bottom line. This is one of the reasons it is common for people to have trouble finishing projects. The first 20% is fun the last 20% never is.

Paul Tozour
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Great article, Tom, and very solid advice! It was terrific working with you on MechWarrior 4: Vengeance back in the day -- you really saved that project.

Thomas Steinke
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Thank you Paul, it was a pleasure working with you as well.

Richard Terrell
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Some good advice right before I make the big decision to go full indie. Thanks.

Jack Nilssen
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#9: Iterate on a fully-developed concept.

Achilles de Flandres
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LOL! I was thinking the same thing.

Wendelin Reich
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Thomas, as much as I am impressed by your success, I think you overgeneralize from it. Advising indies to think like big companies cannot be the whole story. Some highly successful indie developers owe their fortune to the fact that they worked on projects they obviously cared about on a deep emotional level.

In all creative businesses, there is this basic tension between professionals who excel at 'sustaining innovation' and free thinkers who take risks, fail more often, but occasionally produce 'disruptive innovations'. I think much of your advice applies to both sides, but still, at some points you overgeneralize.

Thomas Steinke
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We have an excellent track record on XBLIG, and a lot of that comes from the projects we picked and how we chose to deliver those experiences. That is where most of the creativity is I did glance over that a bit because I could write another whole article about how to analyze marketplaces, and understand an audience.

There is obviously indie developers that have been successful making something they were deeply emotionally attached to. However being involved in the indie community for years now I have seen a lot of the flip side of that. I am just giving the advice that you to think like a business (not even a big one) if you want to increase your chances of survival.

Ian Stocker
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I too spent 8 years in the mainstream gaming industry as a contractor before going indie, and I agree that this gave me a huge advantage. I drew entirely different lessons from it though. I went indie to see if I could make a game and not fall into the same pitfalls which consumed project after project as I watched helplessly. The two I noticed most were a) sticking to the design doc and b) speculating what an audience "might find fun" based on current trends. I think there is a Venn diagram at work here, and for most of us there is a healthy middle ground of the intersection between "games I want to play" and "games that have a chance of commercial success." I believe that straying from this middle ground is a big risk. (I think we are in agreement on this. Correct me if I am wrong, but you definitely enjoyed the games you've made, even if some of them weren't your top pick.)

Very excellent advice. Congratulations on your success on XBLIG--definitely proves that with the right product you can make some bank off that marketplace.

Thomas Steinke
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Defiantly, I have tried to find a compromise between the games I loved and what I knew would work. In the case of CMZ it was a bizarre experience, because I would find myself playing it for hours at a time.

Thank you Ian

Matthew Burns
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Great article!

I encourage all Indies (even a one-person operation) to write up an invoice for the next game they wish to develop. In it they should include their projected monetary expenses in: time (offices hours, projected meetings...), software, plug-ins, music, voice acting, and the list goes on.

When you have a figure on how much you expect (cash) to put into your game, add and additional 5% to 10% to the bottom line for unforeseen contingencies. Hopefully you will not have contingencies, but if you do, you are prepared both emotionally and monetarily for them. It really relieves anxiety against the unknown.

As you gain experience, your ability and knowledge to gauge costs for any upcoming game you wish to develop will become more accurate.

Finally, Thomas is absolutely right, your time is worth money. Please do not cheat or undervalue yourself.

Do not give up Indies!

Lance McKee
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Thanks for sharing what you've learned!

Henry Shilling
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What you have described here is basically, A JOB... If you are a musician playing whatever pays then it is a job (yes I job I have had) if you are writing games you don't care about you may as well be writing insurance or banking software.

If you watch Indie Game the movie they point out how most indie devs are passionate, about getting what they make seen, or played. What you are saying is f* that, just go make money. I do not disrepect what you have achieved but I know if that was my motivation I'd quit.

Thomas Steinke
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After years of being in the game industry and having an opportunity for millions of people to see and play things that I have worked on, that part wasn't as much of a thrill for me. The fun in the beginning was the passion for the business end of the industry. It was fun like running a lemonade stand, and the joy came from growing that.

Yes, no doubt it is a Job. But is has been the best Job, and offered more stability than I have ever had in the game industry.

Chris Dixon
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Great article Thomas. A lot of this logic is what we used to decide on developing Produce Wars instead of many other games that we WANTED to make. No, we don't expect $127mil, but we recognized that people enjoy Angry Birds, which is what pushed us to approach that audience (none of us even play Angry Birds let alone wanted to make a game in the same genre).

Thank you for this insight, and for your help answering our questions over the last couple months.

Thomas Steinke
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Thank you. No problem at all, I love helping other indies, which is why I write these.

Jonathan Jennings
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Thanks for the article Thomas! I appreciate the advice on staying practical. Once I was employed with a very young but enthusiastic development team and I felt terrible because I feel like in many ways my approach to development was more clinical. Where I saw a basic set of mechanics that had to culminate into a finished product they saw numerous opportunities to embellish on every little thing. While there is no doubt in my mind they put out a product they would be proud of and excited about there was absolutely no way they could turn a profit on their pure enthusiasm.

I definitely don't think game development should be passionless and I would argue if you aren't passionate about games this is the wrong career path for you. But I felt terrible that while I was working to try to complete the game as much as possible within a certain time frame the concept of decent time management and not repeating or embellishing substantially on finished work was lost to them.

Anyway thank you for just showing me that I'm not a heartless developer just more focused on efficiency and of course trying to turn a profit while working my dream job.

Thomas Steinke
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I have similar stories from the pro industry, which is why I feel being an Indie is very refreshing. I am not telling people to be passionless, I am telling them to make practical decisions despite their emotions. That seems really different to me. Ideally there is some cross over.

Aaron San Filippo
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I spent 7 years in a studio myself, and the reason I quit to become an indie was precisely so I could make the games I want to make; games that make me feel good; games that are worth playing. If money were my primary directive, I'd still be working on Call of Duty, sitting on a pile of bonus cash, and wishing I was doing something more worthwhile with my life.

There's some practical advice in here, but the whole "pro"/"indie" language really rubs me the wrong way. A professional is someone who makes a living at their work, and this can happen in a studio or a living room.

It's also worth pointing out that if everyone followed this "follow the money instead of making the game you want to make" advice, you wouldn't have had Minecraft to thank as a template for your game, and probably wouldn't be in this position to criticize the majority of the rest of the indie community as not being "professional" like you are.

Thomas Steinke
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I usually start my articles with a better synopsis of my work, but it was becoming repetitive. I had many best selling titles on XBLIG before the CastleMiner series, and was full-time Indie long before that. In fact it that the freedom that those games afforded me that allowed me to make CastleMiner Z.

I also find it odd that you use Minecraft as an example, being that it is a derivative work itself (Infiniminer). That was just essentially monetized better.

Aaron San Filippo
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I'm not against derivative works, especially if they actually innovate.

My point was that you should absolutely chase projects you want to make, because you're in love with the idea and want to take it somewhere special - not just because it'll have the best chance of making you tons of money.

Of course, there is a continuum, and one needs to be business-minded as well when choosing projects. As I said, you've got some practical advice here. But the implication of your article is that if you're not putting money first, you're just an art-minded amateur, and I think that's bullocks.

Frank Washburn
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I have to agree to quite an extent here with Aaron. A lot of the advice here is very practical, but almost numbingly so. In this indie renaissance that we're seeing over the past year or so, the titles that truly stand out are the ones that are works of passion and of love - sure, you can be brutally pragmatic and merely follow where the market research points, but that market research is only so indicative of what's actually going to sell. Minecraft clones, FPS's, Infinity Blade clones are all big right now. And they all sell pretty well. But who would have thought that a silly fishing game, a work of love by a small team of design geniuses, would have utterly destroyed all competition in the iOS space. Ultimately, yes, we all have to be practical, and not let emotions cloud decisions - we all often can fall victim to "No that feature is my baby, I can't possibly see it cut, even though it's terrible and no amount of tweaking will fix it." But when I'm working until 2 in the morning, putting my nose to the grind, trying to instill passion and motivation in my teammates - it's going to be a lot easier to do all of those things if its a project I love and I know doesn't truly exist yet. My first indie project completely fell apart because it was a game that would have sold, and that I knew I had the capacity to make - but the lack of passion turned every minor roadblock into a mountain.

Thomas Steinke
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I am not postulating how one might become a successful indie developer. I am telling you how I personally did it, you can choose to take my advice or not. I also never said you can't work on projects that you enjoy, I said you need to put rational business decisions first if you intend to do it for a living, and I offer suggestions on how to make those.

Samuel Green
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Thanks for this article, Thomas. I'm thinking about doing the Indie thing as a job but I was going to go down the route of "I love this idea, let's hope it becomes Minecraft!"... I'm sure I'll only ship 50 units with that mentality. Or I get lucky and become a millionaire!

My goal is to work on something I love that fits in the marketplace, or work on a game mechanic that fits in the marketplace and wrap a theme on it that I'm passionate about. Like a few people have said, I can't stand to work on something I'm not in love with (which is why I'm going Indie)... so I'm trying to find a compromise.

If the logic is that the last 20% is always hell, then I'd rather enjoy the first 80% than hate all 100% of it ;)

Thomas Steinke
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Thank you!

Of course that is the best situation. What I see very often is people making something that they want for excessive period of time, almost despite the market, then later wondering why something that took a lot less effort outsells their product by leaps and bounds.

People are quick to dismiss other successes. That was only successful because of ... But enough of those "onlys" will let you pay the bills and keep doing what you love.

I am just offering my advice to a practical approach that has proven to work. If someone knows how to be the next Notch they definitely don't need my advice.

Abel Bascunana Pons
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It's easy. If you are a 1-man team or some friends are helping you for free, no need to think much about the money if your goal is making the game you'd like to play. If you need to pay people, outsourcing, etc, you expect to cover the expenses or earn some ROI. It's different to expend $500 than $8000, and many indie games can easily surpass these numbers. Moreover, the logical thing would be that if you like making games, this ROI pays for making a second game.

If you don't see the business thing of it all, you can be as passionate as you want. You may be lucky. Or you will keep making games for fun, but how many games succeed in the market applying this mentality? Before Angry Birds, the dev team had made 20 games almost to find a good "product". Minecraft monetized when in alpha development. That's the business side -that has not to be necessarily at odds with being passionate - and is necessary if you want to survive as an indie "professional" game maker.

Thanks Thomas for the article.

Thomas Steinke
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Thank you Abel

A lot of people don't realize the issues that you run into when you have a significant amount of overhead to making a game. It gets much more complicated.

Muir Freeland
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Reading the comments, I'm seeing a lot of backlash against the "putting money first" thing. I think a lot of people are interpreting this as "you can't ever have any passion for your project," and I don't think that's the point Thomas is trying to make. I interpret it more as, "Have all the passion you want, but don't forget about the business aspect of things." And I think this is 100% reasonable; after all, it's not like your passion project is going to build itself if you're broke.

Thomas Steinke
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Yes that is exactly what I am saying. I have found any time you talk about business and Indie together it stirs up peoples emotions.

Frank Washburn
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It's not the idea of putting money first. That's practical, useful, pragmatic advice, necessary to survive. It's the notion of choosing your projects based solely on "projected returns on investment" and examinations of what's currently selling. Ultimately, this is limiting, and it's for this exact reason that Xbox Indie Games are flooded with Minecraft, CoD, and Zombie games. This is the same kind of mentality that drives AAA titles to be all sci-fi military shooters with ironsights. This kind of mindset is one that is unwilling to take risks - which IMO is the true strength of the indie. And indie can develop and explore gameplay prototypes that a AAA studio would never dream of "wasting" time doing. It worked for Thomas, and he's clearly seen undeniable success with his model. I just want to bring to light the other side of the "How to make it as an indie developer" coin - this is not the only model for success. Thomas, I know you didn't say it is. But I nonetheless felt compelled to explicitly voice that.

Jeremy Stratton
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Frank thank you, this is exactly what I was trying to say in my post last night. Take a risk and make something new, don't "give in" to the gaming industry trends if that isn't what you want to do. IMO, that compromises the integrity of both the game and the developer.

Chris Wade
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As an indie working on a team who is making a passion-project, this post definitely shines a light on a sensible approach that I will take into account for my future projects. I don't see myself ever making games solely for profit, but I see what you mean by putting financials first, so that of all the game ideas I might have that I want to make, I focus on the ones that get the best of both worlds - fun and financial security.

Thomas Steinke
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There was such an overwhelming response to this article I decided to condense a lot of my answers to questions in another article here

http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/ThomasSteinke/20130415/190484/Repo
nse_to_quot8_keys_to_indie_successquot.php

Christian Torrico
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This article was a revelation to me. Especially the first part kept me reflecting a lot. For a long time, I use to focus on a romantic motivator for making games. But now that I realize it I want to do this more as a hobby more than as a "pro".

Thanks so much for this =)
You really made my day.

Jeremy Stratton
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I am an aspiring indie game developer, and am hoping to make a career out of game development. Maybe it is because I am young (15 to be exact), but after reading this post I must admit I felt a bit hopeless. My goal, not just in the gaming business but in life, is not to compromise my integrity or beliefs for any reason. Or in other words, not to give in. This article made it sound as if in order to be successful, you must focus all efforts on money. Forget what you WANT to make, focus on what you NEED to make. I feel that you don't need to do that, that your game can be successful without following the latest trends and patterns in successful games. Be the leader, START the new successful game trend! Na mean? If you make your game with emotion, and really put everything into it, it will show in your game, and the players will love it. Take a risk and just go for it, you got a game idea? Make it, popularize it, just make it happen. That's my say anyway.


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