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Is it Supposed to be This Hard?

by Jonathan Neves on 06/18/14 08:59:00 am   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.


Personal Reflections of an Indie Developers Leader

I don't know if anybody really knows this but making games in the Indie world is hard. Not to say that I have a vast experience in making games in the professional world, I don't. I'm not blind to the hardships that many a professional face in our industry, from the mass layoffs and uncertainty of professional growth, I sympathize. I know more people that have been clawing for a chance to work in the professional industry then people that actually work in it. I can't speak on the experiences of other Indie developers other than the ones I've witnessed in that Indie Game: The Movie bit which cut pretty hard and close to home, thinking about it now, it's nice to know that I'm not the first to experience the trials, as unique as my experiences are in comparison to theirs. I think most of the leaders I do know would rather choose not to speak out about their personal struggles within their developers because it's like an omission of failure, that this love of making games is not a game. To share my experience with others can either inform people of my mistakes and hardships or be a cautionary tale.

First some background on myself and how my journey began. I started my indie developer A Maniacal Game three years ago this month while still in school learning to become a programmer. I'm not a programmer though, I would never label myself that. My talents are for Design and Production, I mean I love game development in all aspects, but I just don't have the talent as a coder. My plan for success was of sound mind, at least I thought it was. After serving in the Army, I was going to excel at my studies, volunteer my time into extra curriculars and start working inside the professional environment. I thought with my work ethic and drive I'd be a shoo in for the industry, but I was wrong, without a moderate amount of experience in my specific job title I was ill equipped to even compete with other potential employees. After receiving thoughtful instruction from my professor on my abilities to succeed in either the professional landscape or the Indie field, I opted to start a developer, not just to start making games that I envisioned but also as a means to gain worthwhile experience.

The past three years of this developer can be described not as a roller coaster with many ups and downs, but more like a bullet-train to hell with sudden stops along the way. When it began I didn't want to take on the entirety of responsibility of the company so I sought out partners, primarily from fellow classmates. At first it seemed to be the right decision, we had a project to work on and our communication was steady, but it wasn't long after my first trip to GDC that I found out the main partner was lying to both himself and I over his desires not just for the company but for his very future in the industry. He left but not before taking, or convincing the entire art staff to leave with him. I was pissed, not so much disappointed just pissed. I was left with a handful of programmers and no artists, so I made the decision to hold off on working on our project until we had a stronger team behind it. We instead focused our efforts on a much smaller project that was helmed, coded and designed by our remaining programmers while I remained determined to strengthen our structure.

I found new partners, once again from fellow classmates, an artist that believed in what we were trying to accomplish and a business man that saw our company as not just a profitable venture but a competing one in our industry. I began to seek out like minded individuals that could begin working on our first project once again, with the art partners help we found many people interested in applying their skills to our vision, but nothing good ever lasts. Tragedy struck us once again when it was apparent that our business partner had mysteriously vanished, a month went by till I found out he was the victim of a near fatal car accident and was comatose in a hospital. He eventually pulled through it but at the time I felt numb, he wasn't just a business partner, he was my friend, and those months while he was in the hospital I saw a sharp decline in the productivity of everyone of the new people we had brought on. The art partner was obviously just as affected by the events and began to distance herself from both the company and the people she brought on. While development on the smaller project continued, I had to seriously think about where this company was heading and how to deal with a partner that may never wake up. In many ways I felt like I was betraying him. After he recovered from the hospital, it was determined that he could no longer be our business partner, his health just wouldn't allow it, so I made sure that he had no responsibilities to the company, while remaining fair to him.

I attempted one more time to bring on partners to help with the management and financial responsibilities of the company, but first I saw an issue that was prevalent within our industry that ultimately was effecting every student that was determined to work in the professional field. Lack of experience was the fault that a graduate couldn't help with, I saw this issue affect myself and many of my friends and associates, so even though I initially started this company for selfish reasons, I wanted to change it as a means to help others achieve their goals. With new life in our art partner and a new business partner we went over the problems that plagued us professionally. Learning the lessons of the past when it came to the needs of the individual, we set guidelines to follow that would ultimately change A Maniacal Game for the better and last into what it is today. The partners however would not stick around and before I could finalize the partnership paperwork, they left. To this day I'm not clear as to why they decided to quit, maybe the stress of their school work overwhelmed them, but I was once again alone to fight for the company.

The vision for change, the driving force, the determination for success behind the company was always coming from me, so it was logical that I take the mantle as sole owner. I was able to convince my professor to invest his time as a limited partner, but everything primarily would be handled by me. I accepted that, I loved designing the games we were working on and producing them, but I knew that the operational responsibility would never truly get done unless I was doing it. So how the company was structured and remains structured today is a for-profit limited partnership with no employees. We bring on members instead and each member brings a different level of experience and talent to the group. They also choose their desired membership type and it varies in both compensation and responsibilities. We have student members that act as unpaid interns and experienced mentor positions for veteran professionals to share their advice to others. The bulk of our members are labeled Project-Term, this basically means that they stay for the entire period of development of a project and are required to provide at a minimum of eight hours per week on tasks. As long as they are delivering on their tasks they are guaranteed to receive a contractual percentage of the net profits of that project when it goes to market. It's fair, we don't ask for more than the allotted time, there is no crunch, and they are free to work wherever they need to pay for life. Plus if they decide to work more than the minimum they get additional compensation on the back end, frankly because I believe people should be rewarded for their efforts.  I began to spread the message of the company and what we were trying to accomplish at the following GDC. 2013 for those that are keeping track. I was successful in getting people's attention, many prominent members of the IGDA took interest in what we were doing and offered their help. We were able to find proper legal counsel, and begin recruiting new members that are still with us today. It was one of the stops on the ride that I could finally breath, that I could see a light at the end that was possible to obtain, but nothing ever lasts.

As I was finding people to fill the ranks to restart the development of our first project, I remained focused on the continued development of our smaller project which was getting out of control production wise. Splitting my time between it's production and the development of the company had put a strain on its progress. I brought on a close friend and brilliant programmer to help keep the project on task and finish the much needed code work. Over the summer, I trusted that he was hard at work on the project as he gave me many updates as time went on. We planned to release a demo and begin a promotional campaign for the project titled Maniacal Mouth in the summer of 2013. It did not happen that way. The programmer took it upon himself to break our NDA on the project with a work associate of his, steal our code and waste four months of development time on the project. Needless to say I was pissed, I was livid. It didn't take long for me to sick the legal attack dogs on him as he made a fatal error in judgement towards me, as good military leaders will state, he mistook kindness for weakness. The issue was settled out of court, but he is no friend of mine, I only now keep tabs on him to warn other potential victims of his. You just don't do that, you don't take the work of others for your own personal whims and pass them off as your own.

I set my small team to the task of completing the project by early 2014. I even handled parts of that project that I never before would have seen myself doing including the sound design and the animation. As I continued to recruit new members to the company, primarily for the larger project, they also provided small assistance to the smaller projects completion. We were able to present a working build to the IGF for the following years competition and start a small promotional campaign through our YouTube site and Steam Greenlight. We saw some interesting feedback for the game, lots of angry and confused people out there. I felt vilified that some people got the idea, that they understood what we were trying to accomplish with this unorthodox game. This game that we never took seriously in it's content but others considered it to be a horror genre. As development continued in the positive direction, I had developed a partnership with a well respected networking agency by the name of Mary-Margaret Network through a contact at the IGDA. We had begun an Indie talent board and my email was flooded daily by people interested in working with A Maniacal Game for their own benefit. For the first time I felt a sense of accomplishment in what I was doing, in what I was attempting to do, that people could work together on projects while potentially earning a place in the professional industry from their experience here. We were providing them the door, it was up to them to walk through it.

Production on our first project Screaming Eagles restarted and I was at the helm for both games at the same time while juggling the operations. I won't say that it was easy, but I will say that I felt content in my place in the universe. We had drawbacks of course, some new members were not happy with the direction of the project and decided to leave, all on good terms and are still capable of coming back if they desired. Sometimes I feel like I should have addressed their concerns a bit better and perhaps they wouldn't have left, other times there's just nothing you can do when someone has it in their mind that they want to quit. I knew that with a project of the size we were attempting I didn't want to micromanage the production so leads were asked and people volunteered for them, and that helped to let me breath a bit better. The completion of Maniacal Mouth was near and I set my sights on GDC once more. It's amazing how much GDC has coincided with this company. This past year I used it as an opportunity to have some fun, MM was a week away from releasing, SE was on production track and the company was stable. It would be my last GDC at least from my current perspective as the financial strain began to tighten.

Since this company began I've been the sole investor in everything financial, I started with a very healthy bank account, now I find myself struggling. I never assumed that developing games on our own would be my sure fire way of earning a stable living, that was never in my mind when I started this, but getting something back for the effort would be appreciated. When we launched Maniacal Mouth finally after all the drama and headache it didn't sell very well, in fact other than family members and friends that purchased the game only one random person purchased it. To Jared Jones if you're reading this, thank you, thank you for getting the game and enjoying it, thank you for understanding what we were trying to accomplish, thank you for standing up to the naysayers on Greenlight without us asking. The fact that we were able to reach someone that none of us knew personally is an accomplishment in itself. I feel a bit of success in that regards. Releasing a game in the Indie field separated us from so many other developers because we finished and released, and even though I tried to publicize the game to journalists while offering free versions, no one wanted to even be bothered. It's a harsh reality but I'm still making an effort to spread word about it as it doesn't lend itself to any established genre and has the courage to not take itself seriously. We have since lowered the price and even though we have an Android version completed we decided to archive it until there's an actual demand. It doesn't take much effort from me to continue marketing it as I continue to produce Screaming Eagles and even find time to start designing something fresh. Designing something new is still my primary passion. I've always looked at the people that work here with pride, that they have chosen to develop games when so often they are told they don't have the experience to do so. I feel a great sense of responsibility for them, not unlike a non-commissioned officer has for his soldiers. I want them to never be afraid to ask me something, to have everything available to them so they can work freely without hassle, to know that though we don't share the same work environment they are part of this family.

This month marks the 3rd year that this company has been operational, we didn't start with the same name or most of the same people, but the ideals remain the same. This month also marks one of the toughest months for me to handle financially as I feel the walls closing in. We have more recurring bills this year than any other, they're small for the most part and to help with them we've asked for donations from friends and family. This was the first year however that we made profit, and not to be left unprepared I filed the company taxes. The preparation was pricey but not unexpected, no the unexpected portion was the state law forcing me to pay $800. Here I am with a company that hasn't even broke $20 in profits and I'm expected to pay that much to the state. It's enough to make me afraid. That's saying a lot since I'm not afraid of death, or being alone, or the combination of both. I'm afraid that I will fail the people that are working here. That they will look at themselves after all is said and done and be drained of any hope to fulfill their goals. I don't want that to happen but at the same time I have to seriously think about what I can afford anymore. All the sacrifices I've made to my own life for the success of this company can't be for nothing and it's in danger of that very thing.

It's been a week since I started writing this and feeling like shit about the problems that I'm currently faced with. I have some resolutions, most were just discussed at a recent company meeting, they have the potential of saving this companies financial issues but nothing is ever guaranteed. Since I've been doing this work for three years I finally qualify in experience for many positions in the professional industry, so I've been applying again. How perfect would it be if I was working for someone else in the industry to help pay for my own company's survival. Some may say that this could be a problem because of the exchange of information, but I held a secret clearance in the military, keeping a secret is not an issue for me. A change in the structure of the company is almost certain before years end, being an LP gave us a bit more validity as a company but the costs are just too great for us to handle. Kickstarter is also a viable option that I'm considering but I have my reservations. Firstly I don't believe we can successfully obtain a financial goal on Kickstarter without having something to show, something that is actually playable, something that gets people excited for what we are trying to accomplish. We have a major milestone for Screaming Eagles coming up and that's when we'll launch that campaign, not before and not unless it's a presentable experience that lives up the vision of the project. Kickstarter is like first impressions, you only get one. Don't deliver on your promises and you'll alienate yourself and your potential community. I'm also open to the idea of having partners again, people that are actually serious about the success of this company and willing to share the financial burden.

The next six months will be the proof that A Maniacal Game can still survive. I never in my life thought it would be this hard, but my experience with these people and with the numerous amount of supporters I've come across would never make me feel regret for all that I've done and attempted to accomplish.

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