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Let's get real about the financial expectations of 'going indie'
Let's get real about the financial expectations of 'going indie'
March 25, 2015 | By Bryant Francis

March 25, 2015 | By Bryant Francis
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More: Indie, Business/Marketing



There are many ways to measure the distance between "going indie" and independent sustainability in the world of game development.
 
Tanya Short can measure it in months and years: Five months between leaving Funcom and founding Kitfox Games; One year for the company to become financially sustainable; Nine months in a Montreal startup accelerator (working for close to minimum wage); One year at Kitfox and counting, thanks to the funds from her Moon Hunters Kickstarter and a grant from the Canadian Media fund.
 
Daniel Cook and Spryfox Games can measure the distance by the games themselves: Eleven released, three profitable, four that broke even, and five that just didn’t work out; Five (or 20) unfinished prototypes waiting in the wings.
 
Keaton White can measure it by continents: He crossed three before he started his company, Abyssal Arts, in the UK, all the while using contract work and translation jobs to set himself and his wife up in their new home, while creating up Zombie Playground and Shroud.
 
And for others, the number is counted in abandoned projects, the broken bits of code, and left-behind business models--numbers that loom large when not just creative achievement is at stake, but also when it comes to paying rent and putting food on the table.
 
For Short, Cook, White, and other independent developers, there’s a period where, plain and simply, their games were not their main source of income. This is counter to any glorified notion about "going indie." Often, games aren't a developer's main source of income far past their first game. So then, how do you survive? How do you eat and pay the bills? How do you find the time to make a great game while bringing in that money? To get to these answers -- which vary wildly depending on who you ask -- you need to understand that what's financially in store for you when you "go indie." It's not as glamorous as you might think, but true independence is attainable.

Scrapped together from nuts and bolts

For married developers in the middle of their careers, Short begins by explaining where that support begins -- partners and spouses. “My partner is still in the industry," she says. "There were a few months in between Funcom and Execution Labs in which I was supported by my partner, and at Execution, I was only getting minimum wage. So to be comfortable and keep paying off my student loans, he's been supporting me throughout this whole Kitfox adventure.”
 
It's the same situation for White. “A good way of putting it is that we've been relying on my wife's income, and supplementing that with savings from my past job with addition to a little bit of contract work.”
 
Peter Curry, with his brother Robert Curry of Mini Metro, had a similar scenario. “Robert and I were both financially supported by our partners during the 2008-2011 period. In 2013, when I was working full time on Mini Metro and before it started to earn, Marry and I were dipping into the savings she’d managed to build up while she was working, supplemented by the pre-order income.”
 
" A good way of putting it is that we've been relying on my wife's income."
 
It’s a similar story with many developers, but it’s also just the beginning of a larger answer to those questions about gaining financial independence as an independent. As more and more developers opened up about their primary source of income from the start of their careers, the answers grew wider and wider.
 
Contract work becomes the next most obvious step. Short and Kitfox games partnered with Cartoon Network to create Steven Universe: Heap of Trouble. Some of White’s contract work was for his former employer, Capcom Japan, and developer Neil Rennison started his company Tin Man Games in 2008 on the back of his former work in an art outsourcing company he’d run for several years before. In particular he says, “There was one primary source of income from my outsourcing for at least the first couple of years. One [game] in particular, a Need for Speed title on Wii/PS2 for EA really got things moving.”
 
“Around early 2011 I decided to work on my final outsourcing project," says Rennison, who at one point even took a part-time job lecturing at a local university. "Tin Man Games now has a steady income and while there have been some months where I have had to drop my salary to keep the cash flow steady, on the whole I can now say I earn a living from it.”
 
Adam Saltsman’s indie career is practically defined by contract work. “I did my first freelance jobs on nights/weekends, where my main income was my old desk job as a digital photography software programmer and designer. After a year or two I started freelancing full-time, but my wife and business partner Bekah kept her day job, which had a good salary but maybe more importantly good health insurance. It took us at least three years to go from part-time freelancing to full-time internal independent development.”
 
 
"My primary source of income probably was student loans, in law school."
One surprising "going indie" financial scenario is that of Michael Hartman, president and CEO of Frogdice Games, as he was on the road to publishing his text adventure Threshold. Even though most developers speak about student loans with the tone one would give an axe hanging over their heads, Hartman’s experience with law school proved dramatically different.
 
“My career started in 1991 while I was at college. I started making basically what is now the equivalent of DLC to BBS Door games...I wouldn't say school was a source of income per se, but in a way it was," Hartman explains. "I went to undergrad on scholarship, so I guess my income was my scholarship, because that paid room and board. Then when I was in law school -- you go to law school on student loans. There's virtually no law school scholarships. They assume, ‘Hey, you're gonna be a lawyer, you can pay back your loans, you don't need a scholarship.’”
 
Hartman started making money off Threshold after he introduced monetized mechanics in order to finance the purchase of a new server. When it came time to take the Bar, he realized he was in a very lucky place. “We gradually expanded upon that [business model], and Threshold started generating income, and I got to the point where it was going to cost $4,000 to take the bar exam -- between exam costs, and bar prep class, and everything like that. So I had this fish or cut bait moment where I was like, ‘well either I'm going to have to spend $4,000 on the bar exam, or I'm gonna decide that I'm totally gonna be a game developer.’”
 
“There was a two-year period where [Threshold] was not my primary source of income," he adds. "My primary source of income probably was student loans, in law school. And then by 1998, I was like, 'This is gonna be enough to actually live on.'"

So Why Aren’t We Talking About This?

None of these situations are the public story of indie games.
 
Hartman and other developers speak fondly of their time at the Indie Megabooth at PAX, a fixture that might best describe public perception of the indie game scene: A well-stocked group of independent developers crammed together with a carnival of small games and bright ideas. Their budgets may be low, but everyone’s either showing off a recently launched game, launching something on a crowdfunding platform, or showing final builds in the months or weeks before release. Everyone talks about features, art assets, but no one talks about the anxiety of budgeting for next month’s rent. Or the creeping dread of pacing out how long your those student loans are set to last. But the anxieties are there, and most independent developers are well aware of the social and financial ecosystem they must navigate in order to thrive and survive.
 
Daniel Cook’s thoughts on the matter are blunt. “The games industry...is less a meritocracy than it is a reputation-based market," he says. "Are you hip? Are you, as a brand, culturally relevant? Is your work enlightened? Many developers are faking it till they make it and as such are immensely aware of showing certain weaknesses. There are certain standard roles that are acceptable, such as 'Starving artist' or 'youth fighting the man.' Breaking out of those roles in a public fashion can feel like a betrayal within some communities.”
 
"The games industry...is less a meritocracy than it is a reputation-based market. Are you hip? Are you, as a brand, culturally relevant?"
 
“Business development is a particularly interesting example. In our rush to see games as ‘art,’ we imported a lot of shallow, stereoptypical concepts about what art is and how artists should behave," Cook continues. "The media, the schools, and many developers are at fault here. There was never a real critique of the fine art industry as this $66 billion business machine that uses ‘artists’ as cheap disposable labor in the service of crushingly-powerful institutions. In another industry, we’d have labeled the folks making games on new digital platforms as ‘entrepreneurs,’ but because of the rush to be ‘art,’ mere discussion of business takes on a negative tinge. The result is a lot of very poorly-equipped folks trying to run businesses for the first time.”
 
Short, meanwhile, digs into some of the more personal reasons that the conversation about making a living becomes awkward -- reasons that have made her more determined to try and open the conversation up with other developers. “A lot of people will only talk about their games if they are massive successes, and there's a lot of reasons for that. I don't think people shame failure, and I don't think it's only embarrassment or anything like that. The reason I haven't talked loudly about how many copies of Shattered Planet we sold isn't because I'm embarrassed, it's because it feels...it feels dirty, a little bit? Like sleazy or something? Or gross..to talk about how many we sold.”
 
“Part of it is imposter syndrome, like you feel like you sold more than you deserved, or somebody who made a better game didn't sell as well," she explains. "And part of it is you didn't sell as well as other people might have, and so people maybe would be surprised. 'Oh! I thought you were more successful than that!'"
 
But there’s an even more specific struggle she and Kitfox have grappled with: their platform partners. When you can’t discuss how many copies you’ve sold, how can you explain the budget/sales formula that helped keep your indie company afloat? “From what I understand, Valve for example, does not like you exposing what exactly you've sold on their platform, using their various algorithms. Nobody has explicitly told me not to share, but that's the rumor I've heard. To be fair, if the rumor is true, I think it likely has good reason -- they want people to make good games rather than chase get-rich-quick schemes like on the app stores. But the end effect is that various things encourage a little bit of opaqueness. I wouldn't call it secrecy, I don't think any indies are particularly secretive, but I definitely have felt a little bit of pressure to be less transparent than I actually would be.”
 
"The reason I haven't talked loudly about how many copies of Shattered Planet we sold isn't because I'm embarrassed, it's because it feels...it feels dirty, a little bit?"
 
The Apple Store and Google Play Store have also obscured sales, presumably contributing to an inability for full transparency. Short’s game Shattered Planet was published on Steam, the App Store, and the Google Play store, creating a set of business partnerships that are now essential to keeping her company afloat, and creating a situation where she needs to balance business partnerships as a company, not just an individual. And that’s another “unspoken” part of the conversation to her: the fact that she needs to do this as a company.
 
“I think if you were to do a survey on tigsource or r/gamedev, or r/indie or whatever [asking where revenues are directed], I think you'd find [paying the salary] is the minority," says Short. "Even though all of the high profile ones pay themselves out, the perception is that indies do it for the love, and indies don't need to pay themselves salary. Even the phrasing on Kickstarter has to be very careful. You can say you're paying for art and programming, but if you say you're paying for food and rent, then I think you'll get fewer backers.”
 
She adds, "We have to always know that we have some sort of salary every month. [But] there's a whole subculture of people who see indie in a part-time, almost hobbyist kind of fashion, versus people who are doing it as their day job, their profession, who have to make money at it. That lack of awareness is definitely unhelpful.”

Facing the good and the bad, independently

There’s another thread weaving in and out of these conversations -- what advantages and disadvantages do you bring to your career when you strike out alone as an independent developer?
 
While Hartman’s story reflects developers who’ve been working independently all their lives, prior professional experience in the game industry is part of so many successful developers' careers. Short’s experience at Funcom gave her time to practice her game design skills with her colleagues; White’s personal circle consists of four other developers with experience to his stint at Capcom.
 
And there are husband-and-wife duos like DoubleBear's Annie VanderMeer Mitsoda and Brian Mitsoda, who credit their years in the industry for giving them resources, experience, and background to create the Kickstarted game Dead State. "When we set out, our primary source of income was Brian's savings, then my full-time work at ArenaNet until the Kickstarter gave workable funds to move the project to full-time and hire additional staff," Annie explains.
" In our rush to see games as ‘art,’ we imported a lot of shallow, stereoptypical concepts about what art is and how artists should behave"
 
"Brian's extensive experience in the game industry and his notable work on Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines helped give our company and our project a higher amount of attention, even before the Kickstarter (and potentially [my] work on other RPGs, to a lesser degree)," she adds. "While this didn't give us immediate financial help, this did help draw attention and support to the company and the project at an early stage."
 
Los Angeles developer Arthur Danskin admits he was able to leave his job at Nvidia to work on his game Reassembly in part because of his parents paying for college and giving him a huge base experience to start with. “My parents paid for my college," he says. "And that was huge. Also my dad was a software engineer, so that helped me become a software engineer. Being able to have that programming experience has been super invaluable to me too. Working as a normal software engineer, I think I'm much more prepared technically than other indie developers. My game's more technical than other indie games, and that experience was incredibly helpful.”
 
Then there are the challenges, many of which aren't exclusive to being "indie," but the difference is facing challenges more directly -- independently. Short made clear that the tech industry’s struggle with sexism has been a part of her life too, even if it’s just a subtle way. “Being the female lead of a team is both an advantage and a disadvantage," she says. "I haven't suffered any explicit harassment. You read articles, and investors are statistically, very focused on investing in male-led companies. And obviously we got investment, so I dunno? But the possible ways that someone could passively undervalue your work are everywhere, even when there's no proof anywhere that something's going wrong in your particular case. I don't have any horror stories per se, but I'm definitely bracing, since I'm the primary person who speaks for the game in the Kickstarter video.”
 
Where you choose to "go indie" is also a decision you must live with. Hartman, while ultimately satisfied with the Kentucky location for his company, doesn’t ignore that geographic location can be a double-edged sword too: the choice is a low cost of living vs. access to opportunity. “If we were in San Francisco, Boston, Seattle, or Austin, we'd be out of business," he says. "Now granted, maybe if we were there, other magical things would have happened, Like, we would have bumped into some company and they would have needed something and we would have partnered and we would have made some game and it would have made $10 million. Those locations offer investors and partnerships. Either one of those can be gigantic.”

It’s time to talk

Vlambeer co-founder Rami Ismail’s recent piece about the state of the game industry is a testament to the industry’s literal struggles, but it’s also a giant warning sign to one big fact: We aren’t talking about those struggles. And we especially aren’t talking about them in the world of indie development, instead complacently creating a knowledge gap that fails to properly acknowledge the struggle, the unprofitability, and sometimes the downright failure of striking out on ones’ own.
 
Most of the developers interviewed here have spent two to three years crossing the gap between going independent and launching their first games. Their incomes came from an array of places at a variety of points in their lives. If the game industry continues to praise the art, ingenuity, and innovation that comes out of the independent space, we must discuss how to support creators, and how they support themselves, if we want to be continually enthralled by what they create.


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