[Three indie developers in different stages in their evolution -- Tiger Style Games (Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor), Haunted Temple Studios (Skulls of the Shogun), and Uppercut Games (Epoch) discuss the pros and cons of the move from big studio to indie.]
While many developers harbor dreams of going indie, for many, it remains just a dream. That's because financing a business -- and then keeping its doors open -- can be quite the challenge, say those who have actually made the transition.
But, of the three who Gamasutra interviewed recently -- each one at a different stage in that transition -- not one regretted making the move.
For instance, Randy Smith opened Tiger Style Games two years ago, having been at Electronic Arts in Los Angeles for two and a half years, most recently as creative director/lead designer on the Steven Spielberg project -- code named LMNO -- that never shipped.
Prior to that, he had been a consultant at EA, and previously did stints at Ubisoft in Montreal and at Lyon, France-based Arkane Studios. His first two jobs were at Cambridge, MA-based Looking Glass where he was a designer on the Thief series and then he shifted over to Ion Storm where he continued on the Thief series as project director. All told, he worked 14 years at major studios.
But, in year-end 2008, as the weak economy convinced EA to downsize, Smith found himself jobless, and he decided to take advantage of the situation.
"Becoming an indie was something that had been in my head for some time," he recalls three years later. "And it seemed to me the perfect time to do something with the iPhone given the fact that Apple had just fired up the App Store with some very early games. It felt like a new, exciting frontier to me and, given the low overhead needed to get involved, I decided it would be an easy place to get started and fulfill my dream."
Although all his experience had been in PC and console games, Smith looked forward to creating the simpler iOS titles which required smaller teams and shorter development cycles.
One of the biggest advantages of moving into the iPhone space was the minimal funding it required, Smith says.
"There was no need to romance publishers to make a publishing deal or to spend tens of thousands of dollars for a development kit," he explains."In fact, when we started, there weren't even any publishers in existence for the iPhone, while now you have companies like Chillingo and Gameloft. All we needed was a cheap license, the SDK, and we were ready to start plugging away."
But keeping a new company running is more than just creating good product, as Smith quickly discovered. First off, there are decisions to be made. Will he have employees? Will there be investors? Will there be an office -- or will a virtual company suffice?
"It wasn't all that difficult," says Smith. "In fact, it was surprisingly easy -- one day I was unemployed, the next I was working for myself. I needed to assemble a team, but I had plenty of contacts in the industry who were interested in pursuing this endeavor with me, both part time and fulltime."
Tiger Style Games functions as a co-op -- no one earns a penny until the game ships and makes money. The downside is that everyone, including Smith, works for a long time without being paid. The upside is that the team gets "lifetime royalties" in proportion to the effort they put into the project.
"This is a business where people do get rich, but if you're in a salaried position working at a large, publicly traded corporation, it's very unlikely management has any intention of making you rich," he says.
"What I really love about our model is that it helps reward everybody in a way you wouldn't see in a large studio," says Smith. "It also puts everyone in the same boat, trying to make the game as good as possible. So everybody is motivated to put in just a little bit more effort, to collaborate more, and to make the game better because then it will sell better and the money earned goes to them, not just the executives. It also means that everyone takes a piece of the risk."
Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor
Smith's team took the risk on its first game -- Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor -- released in August, 2009. The good news is that it was a critical and a reasonable commercial success, up at the top of the sales charts and the winner of awards and high scores from the press.
Now the Tiger Style team is on its second still-unnamed title -- an "action/adventure/exploration/emergent behaviors iOS game in which you play an astronaut exploring a cave on Mars where life has been discovered," according to Smith. He hopes to ship later this year if all goes well. He has between 12 and 17 mostly part-time people on the project which, so far, has taken 15 months.
"When we ship, we will have worked just shy of two years on the game," says Smith, "which is a very long time for an iOS game. But we've got a lot of polish, a lot of features, and, most importantly, we spent a very long time in pre-production because there's a fair amount of innovative, experimental stuff going on and we really wanted to make sure we understood them well before we went into production."
Smith's strategy -- and his best recommendation to other indie startups -- is to remain self-funded by earning enough from the first project to build up enough of a nest egg to fund the second and third projects.
"The idea is to bootstrap yourself using lower overhead projects to pay for subsequent, more ambitious projects -- like our next one," he says. "That's a better idea than turning to, say, a venture capitalist whose goal is to have you grow your company and then sell it off. That may be good for them, but is rarely good for your own career goals."
While Smith says it's difficult to measure how much money a startup needs to build its first game, he estimates less than $20,000 "if you add in every little expense like buying new MacBooks so we could work, and paying lawyers to get you a trademark. But that doesn't include spending eight months of your life -- paying your rent and feeding yourself -- doing something that may or may not pay off in the end."