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The Opportunities And Dangers Of Going Indie

August 10, 2011 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

[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."

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Daniel Fedor
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Good read, thanks Paul! As always, great to hear how other indies got their start, and how they choose to run their business. Every indie has different needs, but every case study is one more tool in a would-be indie's toolbox.

Regarding the $20k start-up costs mentioned on page 1, I put together a blog post which itemizes costs to consider, along with a downloadable spreadsheet for number-crunching. Perhaps indies who are reading will find it helpful?

Richard Lackinger
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Thanks for sharing the cost calculator, Daniel. Very helpful. As someone who is just starting on an indie project myself it is great to read and get advice from those who have already taken the plunge.

Daniel Fedor
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Glad to help! I owe a lot to articles like these and other indie blogs for educating me before plunging, so hopefully I can repay the favor to the next wave.

Alberto Fonseca
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Great, article. It's always interesting to read the perspectives and experiences of indies making the transition.

Farshid P
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This was a great read, it helps to put a perspective in place for those who are contemplating going the indie route or not.

Michael Joseph
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[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.]


That's great! In a perfect world every job would be like this. Real ownership (profit sharing) of products and services and eliminating the so called "worker" caste (because everyone is a co-owner) is the moral path. Kudos!

I realize not everyone has the ability to self fund but by the sounds of it, if all goes well you will have cast off the shackles and bought your freedom. Cuz freedom sure as heck isn't working like an automaton for 40 of the best years of your life.

Jeffrey Crenshaw
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Very well put.

Matt Ponton
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It basically is similar to Agile project management, where each member of the team is responsible for their own work, and the entire team can see their progress at the same time.

Margaret Johnson
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The upside is that the team gets "lifetime royalties" in proportion to the effort they put into the project.

Sounds great. How is " proportion to the effort..." determined? Perhaps within a domain this is more easily done (say development) but across (development, design, art, sound, script). What seems a "fair" (or perhaps rational?) way of determining the proportion - and what was done in this specific case study?

thank you.

Eric McQuiggan
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You could do it based on amount of time worked on the project. Assuming such a fair arrangement doesn't get gamed.

Breno Azevedo
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That's all up to how much trust the team places on the project leader. Yet it's easy to conclude that, if there wasn't such trust, nobody would be working for free to start with ;)

Todd Boyd
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I think time put into the project is likely the easiest metric for this... but expertise should also be a factor. If two programmers take different amounts of time to come up with the same algorithms, I hardly think the one who took longer (with the same result) should receive more royalties. (This is a hypothetical situation, of course, but the scenario still holds merit.)

Alberto Fonseca
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I think it has to be a bit more than just time as you mentioned expertise but really an overall measure of contribution should be in place. I know this is hard to measure compared to time but those that had the greatest impact on the project should be rewarded.

Jon Ze
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The class clown makes Algebra much less boring.

Breaking the monotony through laughter contributed to increased comprehension.

He never got credit or compensation for his efforts though.

How do you ever expect to really measure "contribution"?

Jeffrey Crenshaw
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"How do you ever expect to really measure "contribution"?"

Who knows, but it's certainly not done by giving people only the best salary they can negotiate in a negotiation scheme where businesses have all the power, like capitalism enforces, with future profit going to suits instead of talent. Besides, if we get out of this "me me me, get as much as I can get away with" mentality that modern negotiating puts us in, we can move toward a society built on trust and honesty, in which fair decisions are made on a case by case basis. I worked on two projects last year where the percentages were contracted at the start, but negotiated at various times to be more fair as workloads shifted. This worked because we were adults who cared about each others' happiness as well as our own. Sadly, this is hardly ever the case.

Michael Joseph
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6 men went out to kill an elephant. The 1st of them tracked and found the elephant. The 2nd devised the plan. The 3rd, 4th and 5th hearded the beast into a dead end and the 6th waited in abmush and made the deadly accurate spear throw.

Who gets to take home the most meat for his family? Why?

(we're assuming that they aren't so primitive as to allow the dominant male to take his share first and allow the "lesser" males to fight for the scraps.)

Jeffrey Crenshaw
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As a starting point, they split the elephant evenly. Now, if one of them has a larger family to support, they will all agree to let that person take a larger share to support their family (regardless of what his job was) knowing that it will deepen their friendship and he will help them out later when the balance of need harms them more (such as if they are sick and can not go hunting one day, or have a new kid to feed). This is an important example of kindness over "rational" wage-splitting.

If one of them slacks off, they can remedy this by _first_ talking to him, and then removing/replacing him if he refuses to carry his weight. If one of their jobs is crucial but requires less effort than the rest (such as, say, devising the plan), then they can take a smaller cut of the meal but devise several plans for several hunting groups at the same time such that they amass enough food to live off of through many small cuts.

Interesting note on them not being so primitive; in our modern society, we _are_ so primitive as to allow the dominant male to take his share first, if you view the dominant male as CEOs and other members of the ruling elite that get paid hundreds of times what the low-level workers make. It's a shame we are more primitive than your spear-wielding hunters of elephants :/.

Jon Ze
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"If one of them slacks off..."

This is where your entire argument falls apart. How do you measure something entirely subjective? How do you account for two or more employees not having the smoothest relationships? How do you place value on personal goals? How do you deal with spite, greediness, judgement?

Answer these questions and you might have a solution. Solve our vast array of social issues and all of this would likely not be a problem.

"...take a smaller cut of the meal but devise several plans for several hunting groups...many small cuts."

In this scenario, I would devise a way to automate my tasks, bringing home many, many, MANY small cuts...much like modern day capitalism. What do you do then? Place a cap on earnings, a cap on individual potential?

Jeffrey Crenshaw
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My entire argument does not just fall apart. ANY system of "justice" can "fall apart" if the agents acting in it act with spite and greediness, and nearly everything is subjective. If it's your opinion that criminals should go to jail, that's just your opinion. If you try to back it up by statistically proving that punitive threats lower crime, it is still only your opinion that less crime is good. If you try to prove that less crime is good because it results in more people finding jobs and less people dying, it is still only your opinion that more jobs is good and that people dying is bad. If you try further to justify this, I won't have to work hard to point out the inescapable subjective thread that eternally invalidates all of your claims. Yet we still make subjective claims. If my argument falls apart because of subjective nuance, then no normative argument anywhere holds any weight; and if that's the case, then why are you wasting your time participating?

To quote the great me (15 Aug 2011 at 8:10 am PST): "Besides, if we get out of this "me me me, get as much as I can get away with" mentality that modern negotiating puts us in, we can move toward a society built on trust and honesty, in which fair decisions are made on a case by case basis."

"In this scenario, I would devise a way to automate my tasks, bringing home many, many, MANY small cuts...much like modern day capitalism." So you would, hypothetically, find a secret way to predict elephant behavior with no effort and not tell your fellow hunters, creating false scarcity in a field where failure means starvation so you can do no work and bring home more meat than you could ever need. And you would discover this technique because, while the other hunters are out working to support your life, you stay in the hut in a positive-feedback loop, your own laziness letting you become more creative with your own laziness. Translation: "Me me me." You are (at least hypothetically) part of the problem. But let's say you do this. What do I do? I convince you to pull your weight, and failing that, tell all the other hunters that you work with of your plan. I'm sure a few dozen muscular guys can "convince" you to separate with your secrets if they were convinced, justified as without the food they caught for you, you wouldn't be alive to come up with your plans. Like I said, case by case, and you can come up with a million other cases with plenty of blanks I have to fill in. At any rate, the problem is not with ideals, the problem is with human behavior. I will never sell my ideals short because of this god-forsaken society's bad habits.

Jon Ze
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Thanks for the rebuttal Jeffrey. I do respect what you're saying, but still have to call you out here.

In your last two paragraphs, you turned into the late Old Spice guy. "You said back to me. Then you said back to me." All the while, attempting to force an argument against the "me me me" of modern negotiating. Huh?

But that's not the important issue here.

"...slacks off" - "...pull your weight"

All of this is - again - very ambiguous. Who determines the momentum of the tribes efforts? Who are you (or anyone) to say how an individual should live the course of their lives? How do you determine this "fair" ideal that everyone should share in?

Society built on trust, honesty and sharing is a nice sentiment, but do you recognize the fallacy in your statements? What if someone doesn't want to live this way? Do you see how in an effort to make everyone play nice, you're not playing very nice yourself?

"I will never sell my ideals short because of this god-forsaken society's bad habits."

What I honestly believe is that YOU are what is wrong with our society. Not morals, not ideals. It's this judgemental, elitist BS. This statement shows that you've already written off much of society with your grumpy-old-man attitude. With a bit of compassion, you'd be more likely to lead a life of example and quiet inspiration, while learning from those you currently frown-upon and dismiss.

Jeffrey Crenshaw
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I really don't think I'm following you (for example, I don't know who the late Old Spice guy is, but you said that's not important). I mean, I'm not even sure what you're trying to get at. You criticize me for trying to present objective (or at least mass accepted) morals, take a stance of moral nihilism, THEN hypocritically judge me for "being judgmental", THEN tell me that I am what is wrong with society and how I should live my life. I'm sorry, I honestly can't tell what your views are, nor what you're trying to construct as your argument.

I want another approach, if you will satisfy me, an approach that requires we (at least temporarily) rise above the discussion itself. What is your rhetorical goal? Why are you burning calories to type these paragraphs? I ask because understanding what drives you will probably help me understand what you are really asking with all of your questions. I feel like you are asking intentionally difficult, open, and unspecified questions for the sake of arguing now; "Who are you to say how an individual should live the course of their lives?" can be asked of anyone with political views, from Stalin to Ghandi to a seven year old. As for my rhetoric, I am cognizant of nihilism, particularly moral nihilism, and my inability to disprove it (or, to be honest, to prove it), but I elect to believe in a moral system because if there is none, then what "wrong" am I doing? If you believe in no moral system, then what is the impetus of your responses? They seem morally guided, as you make normative claims and not just factual claims. You talk about my "effort to make" people do things, but do you realize I have no power in this world to make anyone do anything? Do you speak out of fear, perhaps because I remind you of something or someone that held power over you before? I'll come clean, if I may; I was laid off at a time when I stood up for something I believed in, but had no power to see it through. This has molded me into who I am today; not the quiet geeky kid that put up with bullying in school, but someone torn apart by how much power we give CEOs and managers to decide who gets to have a living and who doesn't while taking the lion's share of the profits (see, I don't like people telling other people how to live their lives, but it's already happening at the very least from 9 to 5). I am mentioning these things in case it helps you understand where I'm coming from and why this discussion is worth my calories.

Okay, I'm done being meta, and popping back down into the discussion at hand. To answer your questions: I don't think I speak with fallacy so much as imperfection; to attempt to live in a just world (and make no mistake, I view the wealth-divide in our current world as unfair, maybe that's where we differ) is an improvement over settling for an unjust world, even if said attempt is not a fully articulated plan of action. As far as people not wanting to live in a way that is honorable, once again: case by case. We currently put many such people in a place called prison. I don't know what we _should_ do. You've asked a lot of questions, why don't you answer some of your own. For example, how do we determine what "fair" is -- or should we just not even try?

Thomas Grove
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How about using a Linden Labs/ Love Machine "Rewarder" system?

Give each hunter an equal share of meat with the caveat that they must reallocate it to the other hunters as they see fit. The logic being that the sum of all subjective opinions is more fair than a single subjective opinion.

Jonathan Lawn
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I like the idea of the Rewarder, but I think the description is somewhat flawed, because I don't think it can be working the same way in companies of 20 and 200. In a small company everyone can assess everyone else to some degree, so you can make this a major part of renumeration. However, as stated at least I don't think this could be properly fair across a big company, though it might provide a positive motivator as a tipping mechanism i.e. around 10% of renum. I can see other 360-degree mechanisms working for greater proportions though and would love more info from where they have been tried.

Alain Beschamel
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Here's a thought, when having a large number of employees: divide first by departments, apply the initial reward divide, then let each department divide amongst its members using the Rewarder system again. Switch the random people supervising each of the rounds and I think it should work.