Indie Development: Through the Looking Glass

This is my first entry on this TeamBlog. I thought about many different subjects from user centric design to video games as an art form… and decided to start with something a bit more personal. This post will instead be about my experience as an indie developer. Granted our studio is a young one and my views on the subject are bound to evolve with time. Still, a couple years back when I decided to make video games my career I looked for testimonies, interviews and articles about it. Since I am now working full time on a game as part of my own game studio I feel like sharing in return. Hopefully this exercise will be useful for some of you… or at least a fun read.

Image Rights: Christina L. Rozelle – A Spark in the Dark

First of all, in my opinion making games is the best job in the world. I spend large amounts of my time talking about games, playing them, analyzing them, and putting them together. Games are my passion, they have been my passion since I was very young and although the type of games I play do change with time I’ve always spent a lot of time playing them. Being able to make a living from your passion is something very special. As they say, make your passion your career and you won’t have to work another day in your life. (Admittedly, things are not so simple but we’ll get back to it) So, the first and probably the biggest payoff of becoming an indie developer for me is being able to work on something I’m passionate about.

That being said, it is possible to work on games without becoming an indie developer. Many big game studios hire hundreds, even thousands, of highly qualified people to work on their title. Working for a “AAA” studio can be a lot of fun. If you’re lucky there’s a chance you could work on the next Assassin Creed or Call of Duty. As an indie dev, there’s absolutely no chance you’ll ever work on such huge and prestigious titles. Instead you get to work on your game. To me, this is a big deal. It brings me back to the subject of video games as an art form, somewhat. As an indie developer, you’ll be involved in all aspects of game development. The core of our studio is only 3 guys and this means we are involved in pretty much everything: art, narrative, programming, music, animation, testing, UI design, game design, level design, and that does not even touch everything surrounding the game itself like marketing and accounting. Being part of the entire process allows us to have a precise vision and keep it alive and strong much more easily than with a team of hundreds of people. We agree on a user experience, create a vision and make it a reality. As long as we design a game we have the skills to pull off, the game we intend to make is the game we get in the end. We do have financial considerations since we have bills to pay like everyone else, but they remain a small factor in our creative process. Providing enough funds for 3 guys to live on is very different than managing a studio with hundreds of thousands of dollars in monthly overhead. In other words, we remain in control of the creation process. We don’t have investors breathing down our necks and should we feel our game would benefit from another month of work, we simply do it.

Being able to work on your game also means you can make a game you care about, use a theme you like, and create mechanics and a visual style that is your own. For me, it is much easier to work day in and day out when I care about what I am working on. I’ve always had a tough time going to work just for the paycheck. Working for my own company gives me the chance to spend time on something I do care about and it makes all the difference in the world.

Another great side of being an indie dev for me is choosing my colleagues. This is perhaps specific to my situation and not necessarily true for all indie devs. The three of us went to university together and had many occasions to debate about games, work on team projects with one another and, thus, had a pretty good idea of what to expect from starting a studio together. Considering I spend more time with these guys than I do with my girlfriend, it is important that we get along and work well as a unit. After all, being an indie game dev comes with its share of stress, as I’ll discuss shortly.

Image Rights: Christina L. Rozelle – A Spark in the Dark

Indie development is not all about fun and games. I absolutely love what I do, but would not want to let you believe there’s no drawbacks.

Unless you create the next Minecraft, chances are you will not become rich as an indie game dev. The very nature of game development make it so there’s a long development period during which almost no funds will be generated. You have to be prepared to work without pay for many months as you start your studio. So, make sure you have a bit of money on the side to pay the bills while you are making that great game. Also, if you live with someone and share a budget, make sure they know what you are getting into and they are ok with it. Long hours and no pay will put a strain on any couple, just make sure you both know and accept it as part of the equation. If you have a mortgage and children, things will be even more complicated. In the end, there’s a big investment of time that goes toward making a game.

Like I said, on top of this financial strain, making a game takes time. There’s always something else to do, something to tweak, a bug to fix, some content to add, mechanics to balance, controls to tighten, and what not. If you are the type of worker that keeps his eyes on the clock and wants to be gone by 4:59 you should not consider indie game development. Indie game development has to be a work of passion. Long hours are part of the deal, period. If your team is well managed you might not be required to work 60-80 hours per week, but crunches will most probably be a reality from time to time. Being your own boss is great and all, but it also means that if you do not do something it does not get done.

This brings me to another side of being indie that you have to consider. You have to do all the back office work yourself. When you are an employee in a game studio, you do the task for which you are hired and the rest is handled by someone else. Human resources takes care of the pay, accounting does the billing, managers organize the work process, janitors clean the office, etc. I would estimate that about one third of your time as an indie dev will be spent toward things that have very little to do with the actually making of the game. After all, an indie game studio is a business and running any kind of business comes with its share of paperwork and more little things to take care of than you’d imagine before actually having to deal with them.

Staying focused might also become a challenge as time passes by. You are your own boss after all… nobody will tell you not to take an hour off to play a game or daydream on Facebook. You must auto regulate yourself and keep your eyes on the proverbial ball. When your computer is both your gaming station and your work station things can get blurry. Not only that, but no matter how much you like to make games, there’s bound to be at least one aspect of game creation you don’t like as much. Something you keep for last, something that somehow never gets done because you always have something else you’d rather do. Sooner or later, you’ll have to get to it, whether you like it or not.

The last drawback I’ll talk about is the business side of things. Making a successful title is not only about making a good game. I guess it depends on how you approach it, but if you want to be able to make a living out of video games, even a modest one, you will have to consider where in the market your game fits. You will have to consider things like marketing and profitability. You might feel like this is selling out, but unless you want to have a second job or you are already rich enough not to care, then actually selling the game is important. The days of ‘’build it and they’ll come’’ are over… if they ever even existed.

The bottom line:

Becoming an indie developer is the best thing that ever happened to me professionally. I get to work on a project I deeply care about and I am able to have a significant impact on pretty much every part of the creation process as well as the end product. I manage my hours as I see fit and I surrounded myself with teammates whose presence I enjoy. There’s a ton of satisfaction that comes from making something, putting it out there and having people give positive feedback about it.

On the other end, I spend many, many hours working which sometimes puts a strain on my couple. I don’t make as much money as I would if I were an employee, not at this point anyway. It is also pretty stressful and daunting to invest a huge part of yourself in something and have other people judge it. On top of being an indie developer, starting a game studio forces you to become an entrepreneur. There are tasks and responsibilities that come with the territory.

I hope these insights will help young game devs out there who are wondering if they should make the jump into indie game development. Make up your own mind, just make sure you know what you are getting into.

Enough rambling for now.

Stay Epic people!

Frank.

* Cover Image Rights : PaintedFingers on DeviantArt

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