Ever since I founded Spiderweb Software and released my first game in January of 1995, I have been a proud indie game bottom feeder. I have fed and grown fat upon the scraps left behind by the mighty predators above. I have learned well the secret power that writers of indie games can use to actually make a living: We can find a small niche long-abandoned by the big companies, settle into it, and thrive.
I write low-budget, hardcore, turn-based role-playing games. The sort of game that was really big in the previous century, largely abandoned in this one, and that has still enough fans to enable me to buy a house. I've been writing my games for 16 years. I have no intention of stopping, and they'll have to drag me out of indie gaming feet first.
For 15 years (before my games appeared on iTunes and Steam and my life completely changed), I had a simple plan. Every year, I wrote a game, extensively reusing the code and assets from the previous one. Then I put it on sale for $25, with hint books and character editors available alongside for a little extra revenue.
My goal was 5,000 sales. Five thousand! Imagine what a negligible amount that is in this industry. Usually, I sold a couple thousand more than that, thanks to the small, loyal audience I spent many years building. And, if you do the math, you will see that there's a pretty decent living in there.
It's great being a bottom feeder. I get to lurk in my basement and watch the titans of the game industry punch each other silly far above me. I don't work 80 hour weeks. I design my games to be writable in the period of time allotted, and I release them when they are actually ready.
I also spend a lot of time answering questions from the young and ambitious about how to get to do what I do for a living. I tell them to find a niche that is underserved. To work hard and to remember how difficult it is to get someone to spend actual money on something. I also urge them to get a chair with decent back support.
And I push a certain set of principles until I'm blue in the face. They are the principles I feel any group of ambitious game developers should take to heart, if you want to make a living selling your little games.
If It Was Fun Once, It's Fun Now
I'm old enough to remember the Atari 2600. Man, but we played that thing. Hours and hours and hours. You know why we did it? Because it was fun.
And the Atari 2600 is still fun. It's just not fun enough. The art of game design has progressed far beyond it, and Pitfall doesn't have what it takes to compete anymore. But you know something? All of those old games can be updated. All of those old genres have tons of fans out there. They just don't know they're fans yet.
Twin-stick shooters. Adventure games. 2D platformers. (2D platformers are like Viagra for indie game developers.) Bullet hell games. Tactical wargames of Aspergian complexity. Flight sims. Puzzle games of nearly infinite variety. Yes, turn-based RPGs. These were once hugely viable genres, and there's a good reason for it. They were awesome.
But now the mainstream game industry mainly writes first-person shooters with RPG elements sticky-taped on. All of the old genres have been left to you, waiting to be recreated for a new audience that will be thrilled to discover them as if they were new.
There was a long period in there when nobody wrote RPGs. Just me. I got so many emails complimenting me for inventing the role-playing game. What do you say to that? "Thanks," I guess.
People love indie games. They really do. But I don't think it's for the reason people say. I've long felt that indie developers aren't that much more innovative than mainstream developers. What's awesome about us is that we keep the gaming ecosystem vibrant and lush. We're the ones who maintain variety and keep the old ideas alive.
So you want to be a bottom feeder like me? Think back to the sort of game you really loved once, the sort that nobody makes anymore. Then write one of those.