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Indie Game Developers Talk About Why They Struck Out On Their Own

timothy posted about 7 months ago | from the you-can-hire-someone-to-flog-you dept.

Businesses 49

Nerval's Lobster (2598977) writes Technology writer Jon Brodkin sat down with a group of indie game developers (as well as a professor at the University of Southern California's game-design program) to talk about why they decided to launch their own small studios rather than stick with comfortable (albeit stressful) jobs at major firms like Disney or Zynga. The answer, as you'd expect, boils down to control. "Working for a bigger company is a good way to gain experience, and learn how games are made," said Graham Smith, one of the co-founders of Toronto-based DrinkBox Studios. "It's also nice to have a steady salary coming in as you learn the ropes. On the flip side, depending on the company, you might not have much control over the game's design, or even be making the types of games that you enjoy playing." But startups come with their own challenges, not the least of which is the prospect of an economic downturn quickly wiping you out, or not making your Kickstarter goal.

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Profits for Kickstarter (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#47408001)

KS gets a nice slice of that $1B pledged.

Grass is always greener (5, Interesting)

djupedal (584558) | about 7 months ago | (#47408037)

While attending Apple's WWDC a couple years back and looking around during the lunch break, I noticed indie devs looking at the corp devs with envy, lamenting how great it must be working for a big company with all those perks, resources, tight social connections, regular paychecks, etc.

Listening to the corp devs, they were all eyeing the indies, jealous of the perceived freedoms to set their own project priorities and schedules while eft alone to focus on whatever they liked at a given point in time.

Re:Grass is always greener (2)

i kan reed (749298) | about 7 months ago | (#47408113)

I'm pretty sure what everyone actually wants is to be a successful indie dev, like Notch.

It's not hard to recognize that video games is an overcrowded field, and jumping into it, on either "side", isn't an economically smart decision, but people choose to become artists and musicians too, because it's their dream. Some are going to succeed, even.

Re:Grass is always greener (5, Insightful)

Charliemopps (1157495) | about 7 months ago | (#47408423)

I'm pretty sure everyone DOES want to be a successful indie dev like notch... the problem is the chances of that happening are pretty slim. I don't do "games" so I'm not really in that boat, but I am a musician however. I'm damn good to. The problem isn't that you're not good enough, or don't put in enough time... there are plenty of people that are very smart, very creative, and put in enormous amounts of time. What has to happen is that what you are interested in and doing has to, completely by random, end up being the "Thing" one year.

How many silly puzzle games were there before Tetris took off? It wasn't that tetris found some magical formula that, if discovered a few years earlier would have gotten just as huge. It's the combination of the programers skill, the design of the game, the hardware coming out at the right time and most importantly, the publics fickle interests just so happened to swing in the right direction at the same time that game came out.

In music, if you were a Banjo player in the 80s and 90s, you'd be hard pressed to find work. Fast forward to todays music sceen and even pop starts are featuring Banjo in the background... who'd have thunk it. How are you supposed to prepare for something like that? It takes 10yrs to get good at an instrument. But the time you do, public interest has shifted.

Luck is the most important part of commercially successful art. As such, being an independent is very risky.

Re:Grass is always greener (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#47408913)

If your definition of success if only to be ridiculously wealthy, then sure. Otherwise, in my experience the main predictors of success after having some competence at the task -- whether app development or music -- is the ability to promote, and to adapt your promotion and your business model (but not necessarily your game or music) to the market. I have plenty of friends who are wholly dependent on themselves for their living -- musicians, authors, journalists, indie app developers -- and all of them are smart and talented. What distinguishes how much commercial success they've had is entirely their ability to promote and find less obvious ways to make money from doing what they love.
Coincidentally, the most successful of my friends are doing the least trendy and popular things. The one in a band that's on-trend has only recently gotten any traction at all, and that's because she's been finding other ways of promoting the band. She's still not making a living at it. Meanwhile, the friend who makes weird computer music (written lovingly) had her ticket written for the year with grant research money.

Re:Grass is always greener (1)

Charliemopps (1157495) | about 7 months ago | (#47409525)

Ironically you're kind of proving my point.

Your idea of what's "trendy" is simply wrong. Trendy = Sales. So if one persons playing what you think is trendy and not making money and the other is playing something that you think isn't trendy but is making money, the markets move and you just don't realize it yet. Which is part of the problem. It's really really really hard to figure out where the trends are. Who would have thought speed metal would take off in the late 80s? and then die overnight when Nirvana released their second album?

Re:Grass is always greener (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#47410277)

A trendy genre or category equals sales on a macro level, it doesn't mandate significant sales on an individual level just because you happen to be in that trendy genre or category. The counterpoint to that is that just because a genre "dies", individual bands in that genre are still able to make a living at it if they're good enough at finding ways to promote themselves or find related ways to make a living. "Figuring out where the trends are" has fuck-all to do with the success of most musicians that aren't in cover bands. Most creative types who succeed have their own point of view, a desperate drive to do it, and then figure out how to make a living around that.

Re:Grass is always greener (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#47408501)

Yes, but only the top notch guys can make it, and the name plays an important role in success, too. For example, I myself call myself "lamePissCunt" on game developer forums, and I have doubts whether I'll ever be able to give up my daytime job. :(

Re:Grass is always greener (1)

Bill, Shooter of Bul (629286) | about 7 months ago | (#47408619)

Some people choose to become artists, musicians and even game developers because they like art, music, and games. Unfortunately, a sizeable number of them in all categories lack the talent to succeed. That part is really sad to watch. I understand the idea of a dream isn't supposed to be realistic, and trying to be successful for very talented people is like trying to winthe lottery. but for these people iwith abitions that don't match their talent : its like they don't even have money to buy a lottery ticket.

Re:Grass is always greener (4, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#47408253)

The way to do it:

Get a job for a big non-gaming company, if possible in IT. Shape your IT department into something that can run day to day without your meddling, but make sure that there is at least a few areas in which you are indispensable, or at least able to fix in minutes what takes everyone else hours.

Arrange a four day work week for yourself, even a three day if you can swing it. It helps having half an year of unused vacation from the years where you did not have a department, worked weekends, and could not take any days off.

Become active on the indie development forums of the games you like to play, participate in betas, offer input, and look for an opportunity to make a killer mod. Ingratiate yourself to the owner of the company. Make sure that his design vision matches yours, as much as possible. Make damn sure you use different handles for each indie, and do not mess them up.

Get hired to write self-contained modules for indie gaming companies. Game AI, especially strategy in action games, or single (hero) unit specialized tactical routines... Shit all over NDAs, but be moral about not using code from one project into the others. Feel free to use what you've learned, though.

So... you have the best of both worlds. A steady paycheck and great benefits from your CTO job, and the chance to do lean and mean work for gaming companies that are creating great games... or at least games you think are great.

No recognition, and credits only under your forum handles, but then you also get the chance of kicking ass and getting a great reputation as a player.

I love it.

Re:Grass is always greener (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#47408411)

Wow. Moderating an anonymous post with a score of 0 as 'Overrated'?!

Talk about labeling yourself a bitter asshole.

Re:Grass is always greener (1)

tepples (727027) | about 7 months ago | (#47413059)

Become active on the indie development forums of the games you like to play

How does that work if your favorite games happen not to have any official modding capability?

Re:Grass is always greener (1)

Dutch Gun (899105) | about 7 months ago | (#47408595)

I guess I can speak only for myself as a relatively new indie developer. I've been at both ends of the spectrum of game development. My last commercial project before I left was enormous - almost 100 million in development costs and well over a two hundred developers. It was a great job and I had good friends there. It was not an easy decision to leave. I'm now head of my own one-man studio, developing my own game for the past year.

The reason I started my own company was pretty simple. I wanted to chart my own course - make the games that *I* wanted to develop. I'm in this industry because I love games and love making games. I could have made a lot more money by working at Google or Microsoft, but it's hard to beat really enjoying your work. And for me, the ultimate expression of that is to not only program games that someone else designed, but to try my hand at creating the entire thing by myself.

It's an incredibly risky endeavor - I figure I only have about a 50/50 shot at making it past the first game to continue with a sequel. But I'd rather regret trying this and failing then not failing at all. I harbor no illusions about becoming super successful like Notch - it's not wise to plan on lightning striking, but hell, I sure wouldn't mind, because that would let me continue doing this indefinitely. Rather, I'm hoping to be successfully enough to continue self-development. I require only a modest amount of success because I have reasonably low overhead, being just me developing the game. So, that's my definition of success - just successful enough to make a sequel, and I can start building my company from the ground up that way.

When I talked to my colleagues at work, I was surprised to hear how envious they were at what I was attempting. After all, they're working at what I'd consider to be one of the top game companies in the world, and probably the best place I've ever worked in my career over fifteen years. It's not that they were unhappy there, but it seems like every game developer has the same sort of desire - to try their own hand at creating their own game, with no strings attached.

After over a year of working on my own, I'm still loving being independent. I work long hours, but I set those hours myself, of course. It's hard to stay motivated all the time, except that I see my savings slowly draining to zero (I'm funding my own game). When I run into a technical problem, I can't walk over and ask one of my colleagues for advice. Nor can I really do that when making a design decision (a new job for me, as I'm a programmer by profession), and that's sort of difficult. But overall, I wouldn't have traded this experience for anything. If I do have to go back to work for someone else, I know that I'll be a much better programmer as a result of broadening my experience like this (having to build a modern game by myself from start to finish).

Re:Grass is always greener (1)

binarylarry (1338699) | about 7 months ago | (#47409077)

LOL regular paychecks

Re:Grass is always greener (1)

UnknownSoldier (67820) | about 7 months ago | (#47411323)

Agreed. The cliche is:

The grass maybe greener [on the other side of the fence],
but it still has to be mowed !

Software development cycle (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#47408041)

Idea, startup, going concern, acquired by someone who wants to use the brand, resign, repeat. The only difference this time is that indies this time around are more likely to be first-timers that couldn't get cozy studio jobs and don't want to put up with contract work.

Do they need to give a reason? (3, Informative)

Torp (199297) | about 7 months ago | (#47408189)

Google "EA Spouse" for why you shouldn't be in the "mainstream" gaming industry.

Re:Do they need to give a reason? (1)

i kan reed (749298) | about 7 months ago | (#47408245)

Or for a reason why every other entertainment industry profession in California(whose Hollywood friendly laws EA was exploiting) is unionized.

Re:Do they need to give a reason? (2)

Dutch Gun (899105) | about 7 months ago | (#47408857)

Or for a reason why every other entertainment industry profession in California(whose Hollywood friendly laws EA was exploiting) is unionized.

The last thing I want is my industry to become unionized. I'd prefer to negotiate my own salary rather than be paid some standard scale based on seniority, etc, and pay union dues for the privilege. Maybe that's attractive to some, but not to me. But then again, I'm okay with a higher risk-reward ratio than many, since I threw away a very attractive and well-paying job for a chance to make my own game.

Keep in mind that not every company is like EA. While "crunch time" horror stories abound, there are companies out there that promote a healthy work-life balance as a selling feature of the company, like my last company. I think that more companies are realizing that forcing your best people to burn out on death marches doesn't produce better products and simply makes your best talent flee. From those inside EA, I heard that the "EA Spouse" story helped to turn things around inside the company, although I've only heard this third-hand. I've witnessed myself how a team forced through an insane crunch all but disintegrated at the conclusion of the project. I had a friend who worked at Sierra On-Line, and suffered for many years under incredibly poor and abusive management practices. Eventually, there tends to be something of a Darwinian process at work, where a company will get a very bad reputation inside the industry, and it suffers as a result. I think that this is one of the reasons EA had to clean up its act - you couldn't have paid me or a number of my friends any amount of money to work there.

Many former devs have started at companies with these stupid policies, and have vowed not to make the same mistakes (like my last company, in fact). They understand that "crunch time" is really nothing more than an admittance of poor planning at the management level, or poor execution at the developer level, or even simple exploitation. In well run shops, a certain amount of ramping up is inevitable at the conclusion of a project, but extended death marches are all but an admittance of a poorly run development cycle.

I'm fortunately at a point in my career where I can afford to pick and choose my employer, and can ask questions such as "what's your company policy on work-life balance and extended crunches without overtime pay?". It's harder for someone trying to break into the industry.

What's worse, to me, is when I hear other developers bragging about their death marches as though it's some sort of fucking rite-of-passage or some heroic war story. No, idiots, it just means you were being exploited. Granted, some developers (especially young, single devs) don't seem to mind having no life outside of work, but that's not acceptable to many of us. The sooner that permissive mentality dies a quick death, the better off the industry will be.

Re:Do they need to give a reason? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#47412137)

The EA spouse blog isn't representative of games as a whole. It's not even representative of what EA is like today; they've cleaned up their act to a significant degree, even earning the praise of said blog's author. Yes, most game jobs are going to require some overtime, and most will have at least a few weeks a year of total crazyness, but EA circa 2006 was a nearly unique level of bad.

Re:Do they need to give a reason? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#47413091)

From everything I've heard from every inside-industry dev, this isn't true at all.

same for any art (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#47408235)

I don't know why these types of issues are always framed as being specific to one group of people when it's only a small portion of the total group of people affected by the phenomena. I suppose it's lack of empathy between those affected. TL;DR it's not just gaming. It's any artistic endeavor, including writing any type of software, or building any type of gizmo. In America, this is the same difference as either owning your own small business or working for a publicly traded one, regardless of the industry.

Ads (2)

korbulon (2792438) | about 7 months ago | (#47408283)

I can no longer disable ads on Slashdot. Is that right? Must have missed the memo.

Just looked it up. What a load of horeshit. Guess I'll cancel my subscription. Oh that's right, I don't have one.

Move along. Move along.

Re:Ads (1)

Infiniti2000 (1720222) | about 7 months ago | (#47408343)

AdBlock? NoScript?

Re: Ads (1)

arielCo (995647) | about 7 months ago | (#47408893)

I still have it (unchecked). You must have been naughty.

Explain the glut (1)

asmkm22 (1902712) | about 7 months ago | (#47408285)

I wish they'd explain why they thought it was a good idea to flood the market with crap like 16-bit retro titles. We have something like more indie games released in the first 3 months of this year than 2013 entirely.

Re:Explain the glut (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#47411611)

Independant people making the games they want to make happen to be making 16-bit retro titles right now.

There's no "they" to think it's a good idea for many of them to do that. If there was, it wouldn't be called indie games now, would it?

Game devs don't go indie to make what you want, they go indie to make what they want. When those things magically overlap, you get happy gamers and financially successful indies - but financial success is not the primary motivating factor for all indie devs.

It probably helps that, for an indie, these retro titles that they lived and breathed as children are so well understood by both them and players today that it makes them into very attractive and fun titles to 'test out' your indie skills with. It's hard to make a game! It's easier when you mostly know what you are trying to make!


Re:Explain the glut (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#47412107)

The only glut I've seen is everyone and their dog somehow getting their RPG Maker games on Steam and thinking they're worth something without at least putting in the effort to use non-generic tilesets, spell effects, etc, or at least coming up with a good story (I was much more engrossed in sending some old man To The Moon than I had been playing most of the 50 other games where I had to save the world yet again)

Other than that, "16-bit retro" is an artistic decision, not a genre. I can play both Risk of Rain and Shovel Knight without worrying about them directly competing with each other.

Re:Explain the glut (1)

Opportunist (166417) | about 7 months ago | (#47413121)

Maybe because 99% of the crap of the 16 bit era was more inspired than 99% of the AAA titles of today?

Because today, all that props the average AAA title up is the "oohhhh, shiny!" effect. Once that's gone, you're left with an aging stripper without a boob job.

Re:Explain the glut (1)

asmkm22 (1902712) | about 6 months ago | (#47416721)

Aside from the nostalgic value, I just don't agree. I was a gamer back then, and I remember the vast majority of games were basically rehashes of a few popular genre-defining ones. You had your generic fighters with questionable controls and a roster that looked like a ripoff of either Street Fighter or Mortal Combat. You had your side scroller platformers with varying degrees of control accuracy or level inspiration. You had your JPRG's which were all so similar that you could probably mix and match screenshots from half of them and not only would it look the same, but the story would probably be about as cohesive. Of course, just based on your ID number, I think it's safe to assume that this argument is pointless with you, much like arguing which decade has the best music with someone will generally boil down to them choosing the decades they spent their teens and 20's in.

Making games you want to play? (1)

Opportunist (166417) | about 7 months ago | (#47408471)

Certainly not at a big studio. All big studios crank out today is the n-th iteration of their franchise. Either by applying new textures to the same old crap and changing the year in the title to the current one or by simply increasing the version number. All the while touting some minor flavor changes like it was the reinvention of the game industry, or at least the redefinition of the genre.

Be honest, do you really want to play that? I mean, sales numbers tend to indicate it... though my inner cynic would say that people just buy the next iteration of the game 'cause the multiplayer servers for their favorite game goes offline and they don't want to learn the controls to a new game.

If you want to be part of an exciting game, most of all one that does not simply rehash what has been done a billion times before, your only bet is to do it on your own.

Re:Making games you want to play? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#47408587)

Yes, it's sad that only very few AAA games are long-term enjoyable at all nowadays, after huge studios have figured out that people will buy their games even if they are complete crap just so they can find out whether their hardware can handle them. No matter what genre (except sports games and simulations), games seem to be only about killing hordes of copy&paste enemies. Instead of immersion and getting a gripping story, players are bombarded with uninteresting achievements and even advertisements for DLC!

However, I've tried some Indie games and they fare hardly better. Many of them remind me of those 100% commercial "grunge" bands that major record labels pushed after the sudden success of Nirvana & Co. Some indie games even use that same "alternative" style music in their games, but replacing realistic looking game characters with hipster cartoon characters doesn't make a good game either.

Where is all the procedural content, all these endless universes to explore, the dynamic campaigns and levels that never repeat unless you want them to, and all the great stories? So much is possible technically, and so few things are done.

Re:Making games you want to play? (1)

exomondo (1725132) | about 7 months ago | (#47412609)

No matter what genre (except sports games and simulations), games seem to be only about killing hordes of copy&paste enemies.

That's true of even the most successful ones from decades ago. Doom (particular standout), Rise of the Triad, Streets of Rage, the various Mario and Donkey Kong games, etc... Not quite sure where you get the idea that it was so much better "back in the day".

Of course you have the standouts like Monkey Island or Abe's Odyssey just like you do these days with titles like Alan Wake or Limbo.

Re:Making games you want to play? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#47408665)

If you want to be part of an exciting game, most of all one that does not simply rehash what has been done a billion times before, your only bet is to do it on your own.

Hilarious. [slashdot.org]

I wish they'd explain why they thought it was a good idea to flood the market with crap like 16-bit retro titles.

Re:Making games you want to play? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#47408821)

Here's the truth. They all suck. BIg studio games, little indi games. Social games, Mobile games. It really just went down hill after super mario 3.

Re:Making games you want to play? (1)

AmazingRuss (555076) | about 7 months ago | (#47412981)

I actually prefer working on games I would't want to play. Working on the games I like ruins the immersion... I'm think of the systems an nitpicking instead of enjoying the game.

Disney (1)

DarthVain (724186) | about 7 months ago | (#47408993)

Since Disney bought the rights Starwars and Lucas Arts, I would think it would be a much more attractive prospect. Who doesn't want to work on the next Starwars videogame!

Then again if you want to make the next X-Wing VS Tie Fighter, and all they have you do is Cantina Simulator, Degobah Swampville, or Princess Amidala Fashion Workshop for facebook... that might also be very depressing.

Re:Disney (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#47410189)

Since Disney bought the rights Starwars and Lucas Arts, I would think it would be a much more attractive prospect.

...said no one who has ever slaved for The Mouse, ever.

You work there because either a) you are young, dumb and naïve; or b) you need a year or two to pump your resume for your next gig.

Re:Disney (0)

ruir (2709173) | about 7 months ago | (#47410559)

Who doesnt want to work on the next starwars? Is that a joke? I dont even want to hear about a new startwars movie anywhere!

Re:Disney (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#47411389)

Disney has entered a licensing agreement with EA wherein EA makes the Star Wars games, with the exception that Disney has retained rights for free to play / casual games if I recall correctly. So far, Disney has even already had a failure in their cancelled free to play space combat game.

Indie? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#47409691)

Will somebody please explain to me how this Drinkbox company is an "indie" developer. They are a company with a payroll employing people to make games who publishes through Steam and Sony and has never self published a title. How exactly do you get less independent?

Re:Indie? (1)

exomondo (1725132) | about 7 months ago | (#47412673)

That's what I was thinking, they're just a small company and they use the biggest publishers in the industry, that's not "independent".

Sometimes you have to publish through Sony (1)

tepples (727027) | about 7 months ago | (#47413065)

Sometimes you have to publish through Sony, such as if your game is designed around a controller and would be hard to adapt to a mouse or a touch screen. And what makes Steam any less "indie" than, say, GOG?

Re:Sometimes you have to publish through Sony (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#47413625)

Sometimes you have to publish through Sony, such as if your game is designed around a controller and would be hard to adapt to a mouse or a touch screen. And what makes Steam any less "indie" than, say, GOG?

Sometimes you do, but doing so means that Sony is advertising and distributing your game for you and you are relying on them to make any money at all. If you are relying on any publisher, whether it be Steam or GOG to make all your money for you it doesn't strike me as particularly independent.

In the earlier days of Minecraft, if you wanted to buy it the only way was to go to Minecraft website and get it directly through them. The same goes for Dwarf Fortress, Kerbal Space Program, Mount & Blade and many more. Some of these are now available through Steam or other publishers, but they were well established way before that happened.

Re:Sometimes you have to publish through Sony (1)

tepples (727027) | about 6 months ago | (#47414347)

So are you claiming there are no indie developers on iOS? Apple's published cut is equal to Steam's rumored cut.

Re:Sometimes you have to publish through Sony (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 months ago | (#47422849)

If some guy told you that he never said anything without getting his wife's approval first, and that she refused to allow him to say anything that had any swear words in, or words used to describe genitals or drugs (which is how IOS works). Would this person strike you as particularly independent?

Now how about if he checked for her approval for the odd Christmas card before posting it, but the majority of the time said whatever he wanted?

Re:Sometimes you have to publish through Sony (1)

tepples (727027) | about 6 months ago | (#47423763)

So by indie you appear to mean relying exclusively on sideloading for deployment as opposed to a download store with multiple developers' software, even the one run by the hardware manufacturer. Then let me restate my previous comment to confirm to your definition:

Sometimes you have to become not indie just to get a game published. I'm told that only a commercially insignificant number of people have machines that 1. are connected to a monitor big enough for couch multiplayer and 2. can run sideloaded software. Retail consoles can't do the latter, and I've read that gaming HTPCs are virtually nonexistent.

Phil fucking Fish (1)

buckfeta2014 (3700011) | about 7 months ago | (#47410379)

Do I need to say more?
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