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July 14, 2020
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The FAQ and A of Starting as an Indie Dev

by Telly Lee on 10/02/17 10:01:00 am

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.


As our studio gets close to releasing our first full game, Salad Hunt, I wanted to talk about the three most common questions that aspiring game developers have asked me over the years.


Q: How do I started as an indie game dev?
A: Make a game


This may sound overly simplistic and a bit condescending at first, but it’s about breadth. Many aspiring game developers are often specialized in one area such as programming, sound, art, writing, etc. Taking the time to string together those components into a cohesive group is something that you can only learn by doing. Former AAA developers have been known to struggle in their entry to indie because the bigger the studio they worked for, the less they saw of the entire process. By making an entire game from scratch, you’ll be able to figure out the importance and difficulty of making each component. Even if you don’t work on those components directly in the future, they’ll allow you to better communicate with your partners/employees that will be working on it.

Online courses are probably the easiest way to get your feet wet and provide you with a framework with basic games that you can later customize to make your own. Game jams are also a great way to force yourself to finish a project, get some feedback, and compare your work to others at a conceptual level. Learning popular game engines like Unity and UE may seem daunting at first, but the size of their communities make it much easier to solve problems that every beginner has encountered before. Making games isn’t easy, but there are a lot of tools that make it easier than in the past.

Nobody ever got good at Dark Souls by not playing either


Q: What kind of game should I make?
A: Not Skyrim


The dangerous answer to this question is “Make games that you like”. While it’s great to pursue your dreams and create something you have great pride for, the problem is scope. Skyrim and other popular AAA titles have a lot of components packed into them that is simply impossible for a small studio to accomplish.

Instead of focusing on what games they like, indie developers should be focusing on which components of a game they like and how they can create a smaller game (but a complete one) around those components. Mobile games inherently have a clamp on scope since they also have restrictions on hardware and screen size.

A famous case of reaching too far is when a certain studio wanted to create a large-scale open world RPG and make it the biggest the world has ever seen. The studio claimed that the game encompased 161,000 sq km of space, had 15,000 towns, and had 750,000 interactable NPCs. They had experience, talent, time, and money… but what they built was a buggy mess that players and critics felt was empty. The game they made was The Elder Scrolls: Daggerfall… by Bethesda. Quite literally, the studio that made Skyrim couldn't even make Skyrim on their second try.

Remember this game? Most people remember Morrowind instead


Q: Can I get funded to make my first game?
A: Unlikely, but possible… and you might not even want to


I’ve made an active effort to keep track of fellow developers I’ve seen over the years, especially those that I’ve exhibited next to at expos. Unfortunately, many of these games never get released due to financial and time constraints. Funded Kickstarter games that don’t get released tend to make a lot of noise, but the fate of the non-funded ones go out with a whimper. In fact, games that don’t get funded outnumber games that do get funded 4:1 in 2016. Early stage funding from venture capitalists (VCs) and publishers are typically even more difficult to achieve for first time developers.

Hope your pitch is in the top 20%


After considering the difficulty of getting funded, comes the problem of the money being sufficient. Assuming that you and your partners needed to be funded in order to finish the game over the next year, would $10,000 (minus Kickstarter fees) be enough to sustain all of you during that time? What about $20,000 or $30,000? Attempting to raise a second round of funding is both more work and can aggravate fans from the first round. Like any fund raising outside of the gaming industry, the less known and credible you are, the sweeter the deal you have to offer to entice people to invest with you. All of these steps to setup and promote the page, manage fans, and deliver perks take up valuable time that you could have devoted to making and finishing a better game.


To summarize, plan out your game before stepping face first into development. Get a taste of making a full game and realistically estimate how much time and money you’ll need to finish your main project (even if it’s measured in weekends). Now take the time estimate and double it if you want to make the game good.

Nothing pains me as much as a great game that never gets released and the developer never gets recognition for their efforts. Our own game is scheduled to be released in January, and I consider the first real success for any developer is going from 0 to 1.0.


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