There’s been a, seemingly, influx of articles and columns circulating throughout the games industry and, specifically, the indie game development community about “great games” that completely flopped commercially. This has led to a lot of different conversations, as such a thing is wont to do, but the thing that stood out to me is that most of the discourse wasn’t: “well, yeah. What were they expecting?”
A major turning point whenever I give a talk to younger developers (or college students) is — universally — when I say this: “absolutely do not go straight into indie game development out of school. Please. I beg all of you. Get a job, then ideally stay there for a while and finish at least one project, get another job, finish that project, and then if you still want to go indie, then do it.” There are, always, a barrage of follow-up questions that follow. I remain unrelenting in my discouragement of going indie immediately. It takes a solid ten minutes after that bit before any of my jokes ever start landing again.
I was watching the behind-the-scenes of The Force Awakens the other day (which is something I’ve never done, but it started immediately after the credits ended and i was too lazy to move initially and then it had stuck its claws in me). The one thing tentpole films, indie films, and, uh, whatever the categorization is of movies in between all have in common is this: they’re creative risks. Even if a studio focus-tests the hell out of a movie, goes through numerous punch-up rounds, and so on: it can still fail. And it can fail bad:
Budget: $150,000,000 (estimated)
Opening Weekend: $21,508,490 (USA) (17 February 2017)
Sure, it eventually was up to $45 million a month later, but imagine if that was your studio: you’d be looking at getting up to 14% of your total budget within the first week. And, while it’ll go on to make more eventually, it doesn’t bode well a vast majority of the time. And while, like all movies these days, there was surely a fair amount of CG employed in the film, so you might use that to balk at where this section arrives, but take into account that the CG employed in movies is (generally; Pixar stands out as the rare exception here) authored using well-established and pre-existing methods. Sure, may be a new software package, but it’s not a software package that’s being developed alongside the CG artists’ work.
Earlier this year — while I was at GDC, incidentally (this is relevant) — Amazon’s S3 service completely died. As it turns out: a whole lot of things depend on S3 being a completely stable, reliable service. Well, it wasn’t on February 28th, 2017. I was at an Amazon Lumberyard sponsored session that day and, for some reason, they were unable to demo half of what their talk was about.
But, it was bound to happen eventually (which makes things like this a little terrifying). That’s the drum beat to which the constant progression of technology marches to. Any technological change is going to come at some cost, whether it be man hours, QA time, user/focus-testing, soft launches, etc. But all of that is intended to ensure that the day a new service/application launches that it is prepared for (what the company hopes is) the barrage of launch-day users that strain every system they have prepared.
Which, fyi, that strategy generally has failed major games for ages (the World of Warcraft launch was particularly brutal). Point is: technology is risky; not for a creative or artistic reason, it’s just a whole lot of complex things all having to work perfectly and constantly to avoid failure.
So, naturally, what do we do as game developers? HELL, LET’S COMBINE THOSE TWO THINGS. So, we end up with video games being a mix of the creative/unpredictable risk of mass media products which are developed alongside work-in-progress engines/code bases. That’s why game developers get paid the big bucks in the tech world — wait, I’ve just been informed that this is almost universally a false claim.
More to the point: there’s a reason that game developers tend to burn out young (I remember a Game Developer Magazine survey which categorized “veterans” as anyone with 5+ years of experience), projects fail, studios close, and so on. And these are studios with money, backing, and, theoretically, a capable team that end up folding pre-release or shortly after release. There are just so many different ways a project can go horribly awry during development, much less the unpredictability of its launch and post-launch success (luckily, post-launch success can make up for poor launch-day performance now, if planned for and handled properly).
Hopefully that all set an appropriately dark and hopeless tone, because now there’s the bright side: indie games typically do not take on the same degree of technical risk that AAA games do. There are exceptions (No Man’s Sky being a rare example of a “small”(-ish) team succeeding with a game that was risky in terms of design and technology. And, no, don’t bring that gamer hate on this, No Man’s Sky was wonderful; it wasn’t what it was hyped-up to be, but that’s why I don’t follow games’ press tours.
More often, indie game developers take on a far greater creative risk with their games, while relying on as sound a technological backend/engine as they can (and thus we have proven the reason for Unity’s popularity). This makes the development process less of a risk, and it’s a great mitigation of a potential disastrous launch. At the same time, that approach still leaves you with the other half of the problem: whether the game will be commercially successful.
The story that incited some of the “indie game development is too risky to ever pursue” discourse is the story of Introversion’s follow-up to Prison Architect: Scanner Sombre. Scanner Sombre being a game that I didn’t find out about until I read the Gamasutra article on the matter. And, here’s the first of a few points I’d like to highlight: I still get a weekly (maybe monthly?) update about Prison Architect. And yet, despite all that, I still had no idea that Introversion was working on, much less launching, a brand new game. I still know nothing about the game (this will change after I finish this article, but I wanted to keep its existence a mystery while writing it). But I do know that Introversion has been an independent developer for a long time and was coming off what seems to have been a very successful game; there could be a dozen of different reasons that Scanner Sombre flopped — I don’t know them — but it does seem an uncharacteristic slip-up for a developer that has constantly surprised with clever, successful titles.
The other story that was adding fuel to this fire is a post-mortem onTumbleseed. I haven’t played it personally, probably because I’m a horrible person, but it’s widely-regarded as “a good game”. This led to one of the oddest angry responses that I’ve seen in ages which I’m summing up as thus: “if a great game can’t even succeed, what hope is there left for indie games?” We are not, nor have ever been to my knowledge, living in a utopia where great works of art/entertainment are guaranteed commercial success. It doesn’t matter if it’s a video game, a film, a book, a painting, a sculpture, or whatever: quality never guarantees commercial success. It absolutely helps, but it’s not the sole variable in this elaborate formula.
A game’s success can never be guaranteed, but that doesn’t mean as much as it may sound like. At every moment of your project’s development, be evaluating what’s working, what’s not working, and what you can be doing better whether it’s workflow, marketing, remembering to eat three meals a day (I fail here), planning for tomorrow or the week after or the month after, etc. Always, always, always plan for the worst while simultaneously underpromising on what can be delivered (if you’re in a position to do so; I don’t recommend this as a way to woo funding sources). And, sigh, here are… maxims. I swear they’re one of the only ones I think are universally applicable:
My studio director in days yore, the wonderful and divine Dylan Jobe, drilled the latter maxim into my head so much that it sits right alongside “hi” and “thanks” and “how are you?”. But it’s things like that which gave me the confidence to strike off into independent game development at the beginning of this year. I spent nine years working in a myriad of types of studio environments. I think my job at LightBox Interactive (working on Starhawk) was my favorite by a light-year or so, but that doesn’t negate all of the wonderful things I’ve learned to do (and, more accurately: not to do) elsewhere.
And that brings us to what I think is a nice point to end on: as you go through your career at other studios, you’re going to learn so so so much from your teammates. So much. To reference LightBox again: our Technical Director was a lovely man by the name of Bruce Woodard. Whenever I ran into a bug or a technical issue, I’d generally IM him about it, and he’d invite me over at some point to show me if he had reproduced it properly. And then he did something wonderful: when he had fixed the issue, he’d invite me over again and give me a thorough explanation of what was causing the problem. My job at LightBox was as Sr. Game Designer; I wasn’t anywhere near the game or engine codebase ever. There was no practical reason that I had to know why the bug existed. But he explained it anyway. And to this day, I think those moments were what rekindled my interest in graphics programming years later, as along the way he actually helped me understand some of the fundamental concepts that I had always gotten wrong when I was starting out.
I have no idea. None whatsoever.
But I do know this: there are never a dearth of sources from which you can learn about every aspect of the game industry. I was lucky enough throughout my career thus far to, at some point or another, interact with pretty much every aspect of a project’s development cycle (including creating, producing, and delivering a full game pitch to an external studio — which was stupid fun). I’ve learned a lot of great things along the way, but the best things I’ve learned are exactly what not to do. Do not assume you’re going to be successful, do not assume because your game is good it will reach a wide audience, do not assume that you know some super special secret that no one else does.
At the end of the day, it’s just work. I tweeted this last night, but it actually remains one of the rarest of moments where I look no what I said and actually don’t dislike myself for it:
Going indie in games with the expectation of profiting has never really been a "thing" -- even the, ugh, "indie bubble" was ex-AAA devs— Trent Polack (@mittense) June 23, 2017
Also, even if you've got all that, it's still not going to ever be easy. Ever. You're not escaping the AAA workload/commitment.— Trent Polack (@mittense) June 23, 2017
Or, shit, maybe you are. I don't know. I know I'm not, but I'm also the guy from a farm who thinks you push something long enough it budges— Trent Polack (@mittense) June 23, 2017
That’s not to say you should be spinning your wheels on a thing you’re stuck on; it’s more: if you want to make sure you’re doing everything possible to ensure your project’s success, there’s never a good time to think you’re all set. Just keep going. Just keep swimming, just keep swimming, just keep swimmiiiiiing.
That would have been a great ending to this article, but it’s not the one I want to end on. If you do end up going through a fair amount of time in studios, are around people smarter than you thought people could be, and those people go out of their way to help you and mentor you, there is only one thing that you can do to repay them (aside from saying “thank you”, obviously): Do the same thing for others you encounter in the future.
That should go without saying, but it doesn’t seem to at times. If you got to where you are and are a mega-success without the help of anyone, then you’re a unicorn and why am I talking to a horse? Never forget how you got to where you are and the people that facilitated your journey to where you are. Because, eventually, it’s your turn. And since I had two LightBox examples in this article, here was our design team (and below that is just the image for this article’s header which is by no means casting shade) ps I'm the guy in the center: