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November 21, 2019
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My Decade Long Journey in the Independent Games Industry

by Michael Gnade on 02/19/15 01:24:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

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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.

 

Forward

As we prepared a big site update on IndieGameStand.com I found myself looking back at how the indie game space has changed since I first discovered it. I’ve been involved with indie games for almost ten years—first as a wannabe developer, then as an amateur journalist, and finally as an entrepreneur. Here’s what I’ve seen along the way.

2006-2008: Indie Game Development

My journey into the world of indie games began in early 2006 as I was finishing up grad school at Tufts University.  I had a boring data entry job on campus and one way or the other I stumbled onto the indiegamer.com discussion boards.  To my surprise, there were a slew of awesome people making their own games and selling them online.  Back then there were a lot of people trying to emulate the success of Popcap in the casual space and nearly everything was based around Windows PC.  Digital Distribution was growing up and evolving out of the shareware model.  I started following GameTunnel.com fanatically and looking forward to the 10 new indie games they reviewed every month.  

GameTunnelThat’s right, 10 new indie games a month – not every day.  When I started following indie games, Rock Paper Shotgun was still a year away, we were years away from Polygon, Steam was in its infancy and IGN pretty much only covered the big guys. We did have TIGSource, but it looked like this:

Tig Sourceand IndieGames.com was a Gamasutra Newsletter:

As graduation approached and I was faced with finding a career in Economics, I decided to embrace the years in my basement as a teen making games in Klik & Play with my brother.  I wanted to be an indie game developer!

All of my experience was in Klik and Play, so I grabbed the newest version (Multimedia Fusion) and started working on my little action game, Meteor Mayhem.

As one would expect it was absolutely terrible, but I did finish it before I graduated.  Faced with a decent amount of student debt, I found a “real” job back home in Delaware to support myself.  The job was in Real Estate development and allowed me to move out of my parents’ house before the end of 2006. 

At this point, I had reconnected with a friend back home and we had grand plans for our video game opus. He would do the art and I would program it.  The game was to be an epic open-world Metroidvania game.  You would pick from five different bounty hunters, there was a galactic map that played like Asteroids as you battled your way to each new planet.  My friend and I wrote up an epic space opera story that spanned well over 30 pages.  Oh and there was going to be a comic prequel that introduced everyone to the backstory.  I’m sure many indie game developers reading this can see the pitfalls of this game. The scope of the game was just too big.  Every new idea was awesome and had to be included.  The game never really got beyond the first bounty hunter’s tutorial level, but I have to admit that it’s still the game I wish I could make (so if any big investors are reading this, hit me up).

I started a blog (gnadegames.blogspot.com) where I reviewed and tracked all the games I was playing and documenting the indie stuff I was working on as well.  Eventually I got my own domain and this evolved into Graduate Games (www.graduategames.com).  I made a conscious decision to work on casual games to greatly limit my scope.  Hopefully it would mean that I could actually finish them as well.  Over the next 4 years, I made three games for Graduate Games in my spare time.  First up was the incredibly tedious puzzle game Storked! (Oct 2007).

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I think I made a whopping $500 total from this game.  Next up was my physics based puzzle game, The Magic Toychest (Aug 2008). 

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I actually thought the game had a fun little sandbox (it was inspired by the Incredible Machine), but it looked too cutesy for the core gameplay mechanics so it never really got distribution.  I didn’t make much more than $1000 on Magic Toychest either.  Keep in mind that back then, most developers sold their games directly via BMT Micro, Plimus, Fastspring or some other payment processor.  There were no Humble Widgets and Desura didn’t even exist yet. The indie scene was incredibly small back then.  Getting press coverage on major sites was very difficult and there were only a few sites covering indie games and social media wasn’t nearly as prevalent.  There was certainly a smaller pool of games to choose from, but you would have to find the developer’s website and buy directly from them so there was no cohesion with your purchases.  You just had a bunch of email receipts with direct download links or registration keys.

I finally had a decent hit with my final game, Best in Show Solitaire (Fall 2011) because I looked at Big Fish Games and picked a game on their site that I really liked (Fairway Solitaire) and then made a game around that concept.  The game never really made enough for me to live off of, but it was definitely leaps and bounds more successful than my other games. 

I was never very successful as an indie game developer myself, but I do believe my passion and heart has always been in the right place.  When I was working on these casual games, there were tons of sites focused on this kind of thing: Reflexive, Big Fish Games, GameHouse, Popcap, iWin, RealArcade and more. In fact the indie craze back then was a lot about emulating Popcap and making small casual games available for digital download.  Even Klei started out in this space with Eets. In fact, Eets was GameTunnel’s 2006 Casual Game of the year. 

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Eets was seeking out puzzle pieces long before Shank was murdering fools.

Eventually, Amazon purchased Reflexive entertainment and the others started evaporating, merging, closing, etc.  The point is that these casual sites were king long before Steam was selling indie games.  Keep in mind large developers didn’t start publishing on Steam until 2007.  The iPhone released in late 2007, opening up the market of mobile games and essentially killing the Flash Game scene and Xbox Live Arcade on Xbox 360 started bringing indie games to consoles.  At some point during this time frame, Indie Gaming had become a movement and Gamasutra, GDC other industry folks were taking notice. It wasn’t long before big publishers were offering deals to IGF winners.   

2008 – 2010:  The Birth of the Indie Game Magazine

When I first started working, I would come home every night and work on my own game or play another indie game and write up a review for my blog.  My girlfriend worked different hours so I would always game it up until I she got home at 8pm.  When I got engaged to her back in 2008, she left me for an entire Saturday to go dress shopping so I spent the day taking some of my favorite indie game reviews from my blog and laid them out in Adobe to create a magazine to test out Magcloud when it launched. IndieGameMag was something that naturally grew from my personal blog to a collaborative website and magazine.   There was definitely a point where I believed that IndieGameMag could actually become my profession and save me from my boring 9 to 5 job. It may have started out as just a weekend project, but the indie scene was booming and it deserved a dedicated magazine covering all of the games that these passionate developers were making.

IGM started with a 90s Grunge Look of my own design

It was awesome how many people gravitated to IGM. Without any advertising, the site quickly reached over 20k unique visits within the first few months.  I took all the money that I had made with IGM and reinvested it to give it a facelift and a truly professional look.  I worked my ass off trying to create a job for myself with IGM.  I got the magazine on Zinio, we got an iOS app, I acquired GameTunnel.com and DIYgamer.com and I worked with Fully Illustrated to design an awesome new website:

2010- Spring 2012: Entrepreneurship

My life changed drastically when I was laid off in June of 2010.  It was great having indie game development and IGM as a hobby and release, but I hadn’t saved up or prepared to go full indie.  I was lucky enough to start a successful hosting company during this timeframe and it also gave me more time to complete my shelved indie game, Best in Show Solitaire for release that autumn.  Best in Show really helped cover my bills while the hosting company was ramping up that year.  I naively thought that I could take IGM to the next level. It doesn’t make sense to write about it all over again, so here’s some links I thought were relevant if you’re interested in the magazine:

http://www.gnomeslair.com/2011/02/little-something-on-indie-game-magazine.html

https://web.archive.org/web/20140401005558/http://indiestatik.com/2013/12/06/im-sorry-rise-fall-indie-game-magazine/

http://simpsonsparadox.com/2013/12/im-not-sorry-thanks-indie-game-magazine.html

The reality is that making money from covering indie games is very difficult.  I’m actually really happy that IGM is still operational and seems to be on the right track.  There are a lot of other indie gaming sites that have died off over the years: IndieStatik, GameTunnel, SplitKick, and most recently Shoost.co.  Even Penny Arcade Report closed down.  IGM had its ups and downs along the way, but it was my attempt to support and help indie game developers.  It afforded me some great opportunities to attend GDC and helped me connect with a lot of great people along the way.

Summer 2012-2014: I’m 30+ years old!

All of these experiences ultimately lead to IndieGameStand.  Early in 2012, I had this concept of an indie gaming deal site that focused on 1 game at a time.  It was Groupon meets Pay-what-you-want.  The point was to spotlight the game and the indie developer rather than be another bundle site.  I’m sure indie game developers can relate, but IndieGameStand took way longer to get off of the ground than I expected.  I thought it would be a 3 month project and it was closer to 10 months – and we didn’t even launch with the store.  It was just one game at a time.

Bundle sites were becoming very popular over thepast few years, but I was a hardcore indie gamer and saw them as overly devaluing indie games.  As a consumer, I was tired of rebuying the same games in bundle after bundle and as a former developer, I knew how hard it was to make a living off of making games. I wanted the deals to be about each individual game and developer – not just an incredible deal.  IndieGameStand launched in September of 2012.  I was thrilled with the coverage we got and how quickly I made back my investment of $6,000.  It was super exciting.  Best of all, I was actually making money for indie game developers and charity.   I pretty much instantly loved running IGS more than IGM. I’m not that great of a writer, and I felt that I had found a much better way to uplift and support the indie scene.  Instead of hoping that an article or review resulted in a sale for an indie dev, I was actually writing checks to developers.  We had a booth that first year at PAX East and I volunteered at the IndieMegaBooth at Prime and finally felt connected and involved directly in the indie game scene. 

A year later we opened a dedicated storefront, had made paid developers out over $200,000, made over $20,000 for charity and had well over 50,000 customers.  Best of all about 1 in 2 of our customers made multiple purchases on our site.  But even as the site was growing and doing well, there was friction with my fellow co-founder.  The core problem between us really was a difference in vision for the company.  I wanted to continue to build tools for developers and new features for the site and he just wanted to maintain what we’d already built and make money off it.  He may be right in the end, but I wanted to reinvest all the money IndieGameStand was making back into the company. 

Eventually my frustrations culminated with me taking out a loan to buy out the other owner of IndieGameStand.  I signed the purchase agreement with my month-old daughter in my arms.  Crazy? A little.  It wasn’t so much a financial decision as a life choice.  I love indie games, but have to admit that I was doubting whether or not the games industry was right for me.  All the GamerGate stuff really had me questioning whether I wanted to be involved in a sexist and misogynistic industry, especially as a new father.  GamerGate may now be an online movement concerned with ethics in game journalism but it started as a personal attack on a woman in the industry.  I had learned from my days at IGM that sometimes it is better to quit and walk away… but that’s really hard to do when it comes to your passions and dreams.  Futhermore, the industry is only going to improve if people try to make it better.

2015 and Beyond: Things have changed

Recently, a developer said to me that it’s not 2013 anymore – referencing the immense amount of games being released and the fact that it is much harder to make money as an indie game developer.  2014 was a year full of conflict in the indie scene.  There was a lot of evidence and discussion about the indie game bubble popping.  The indie scene has definitely changed since I first started following it.  Successful indie games are less and less about individual artists or small teams making experimental games. The indie scene is evolving much like the independent film industry did back in the 90s.  Ex AAA developers have left their jobs to launch Kickstarters and there are a bunch of small label publishers focused on scooping up great indie games.  Humble Bundle sells Ubisoft games and there are a way too many other game bundle sites out there to name them al.  Steam has become a near monopoly and Desura has been bought and sold at least two times in the past year.  I’m not here to judge whether the indie scene is better or worse as a result of all of these things.  I just know that it’s very different from my days on the indiegamer forums. 

Things have changed and I’m not sure if purchasing IndieGameStand has shown how passionate I am about independent games or how blind I am to the game industry and market at a whole.  I definitely feel overwhelmed when I delve into all of it.  I can get lost in all the discussions, hurt by a critical tweet or lost in my own head trying to analyze everything.  In the end, all these distractions and doubts don’t change who I am and what I really want to do.  So for now, I’m continuing to follow my passion and have already put in a lot more of my time and effort into IndieGameStand because it’s an awesome concept.  I’m really excited to continue to develop new features and tools for indie game developers.  It’s risky and a little crazy – but isn’t that what being independent is all about?

The first big thing I’ve done with IndieGameStand since taking total control of the site went live this week.  It’s called IndieGameStand Elite and it gives members access to all of the indie games involved in the site’s 96-hour spotlight sales, as well as site-wide discounts on all games and merchandise in the IGS store.  There’s a lot of benefits for developers and gamers with this new service, but the main goal is to connect our hardcore community of indie game fans.  I want to appeal to my younger self: that recent graduate enamored with games and striving to have a career in the games industry.  My younger self would love the convenience of discovering unique new games and directly supporting the people who make them.  The indie game movement is bursting with games to discover.  This year we have a new focus on curating and discovering those little gems that may be missed by the larger gaming market.  The reality is that the market is so flooded that

IndieGameStand isn’t a faceless corporation – we’re a small indie team that wants to work with other indie teams.  We want to collaborate, interview game devs on Twitch, sell our favorite indie games, and hang out with other passionate gamers and developers when we can.  The core mission of IndieGameStand has always been to spotlight game developers and give each indie team a time to shine and we’re going to continue to strive to promote indie game developers and evolve with the indie game scene. 

If anyone would like to reach me directly, you can tweet me @mgnade or email me at mike at indiegamestand.com.  Good luck and keep making awesome games and pursuing your dreams.  It's not easy, but in the end I think it's worth it.


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