A Call To Arms Pt.3 – Indies

If you are just catching up in this series, we have so far talked about the issues plaguing the video game industry and one possible solution in the form of unionization. In this article, I hope to talk about another avenue available to us: Independent Development.

Before we talk about the pros and cons, we should first understand the definition of independent development I will be using. For the purposes of this article, independent development covers small companies and individuals that produce games of their own design and IP. I am not including companies that mainly do work for hire, outsourcing, or are a division of a giant corporation. I have no issues with those business models, but they are a completely different beast. Now, on to the breakdown…

The Good

Over the last couple of years, the indie scene’s rise has been positively meteoric- it has quickly become mainstream. No longer are these games relegated to a small clique of hardcore gamers. In fact, some of the most popular titles around, be it Xbox Live Arcade, iPhone, or Steam, have been spawned by small groups of dedicated developers. Games like Castle Crashers, Braid, and Limbo, have made us all realize that you can craft an amazing experience without being part of the traditional funding model. These people are also very generous to the dev community through providing things like the Indie Fund and the Humble Indie Bundle. On top of that, there is a plethora of tools like Unity 3D, Game Maker, and Flash Develop that allow people to make games for next to nothing in cost. It is a truly exciting time to be out on your own.

Here are some other good reasons:

Creative Control

Probably the number one reason why people choose to become an independent developer is the freedom to make whatever you are want (or more accurately- what you are able to muster). Most game companies aren’t able to work on their own intellectual property, instead they contract out to licensed properties. This means that all decisions will be made by stakeholder decree, with the IP holder, publisher and who knows who else sticking their fingers into the mix. There are many horror stories from developers regarding the disastrous choices made by executives and publishers.

Hence, the trade-off in creating your own title is that you may have to address scope right off the bat, but if you are able to come up with necessary resources, you can take far more control over the fate of your game’s direction and quality by being captain of your ship. Working on your own IP allows you to explore themes, mechanics, art styles and more. Another factor to consider while you’re cutting out the traditional role of the publisher-  you also control the public relations, marketing and distribution for your products. You can also explore different funding models, such as the film style “bank and bond” which Big Sandwich and Timegate Studios are trying.

Work Life Balance

Another consideration is the ability to work wherever and whenever you want to. When many developers first break into the industry, they are lured by the concept of flex time and core hours, and by numerous creature comforts which wily studio heads have installed to make the office feel more like a dorm room and social space. Unfortunately, at the end of the day, a gilded cage is still a cage.  Traditional game development has never really managed to grow up and move past disorganized production cycles where death-marching crunch became de rigeur. Most people want a significant other, to one day have children, to be able to travel and see things. It’s incredibly difficult to do any of that if you are shackled to your desk for months of excessive overtime. And should you happen to be ‘seasonally rolled off’ after giving up an extended period of unpaid overtime, the experience can bring on serious bitterness. If you’re going to work that hard, why not ensure that you are able to reap the benefits at the end?

Going indie allows you to set your own priorities, schedule, and location. If you want to be at home when the kids get back from school, you can do that. If you want to take off to some tropical locale for a month, you can bring your laptop and develop there. A great example of this mindset is 2D Boy, where their workspace is “whichever free wi-fi coffee shop they wander into on a given day.”

Distribution

For the longest time, there was very little choice but to work for a publisher if you wanted to release a game, either in work-for-hire arrangements or internally at a publisher-owned studio. Accordingly, there were also very few avenues available to get your product onto store shelves. The supply chain was retail-only, which meant having to harness massive resources and financial reserves in order to move product.  The console manufacturers made developers jump through many hoops to fulfill their requirements and limited access to pricey development kits.

While this ‘bricks and mortar’ route still exists, there are so many more distribution channels available today. Mostly widely known are the portals like Armor Games and Kongregate that allow you to submit games and earn money through sponsorship. You can earn money through advertising from sites like Mochimedia. You can develop for Facebook, iPhone, or put games out through Steam. You don’t need a publisher anymore, you can do it all yourself. There never has been a time where you can so easily distribute your work.

The Obstacles

Many of you might be tempted to rip the shackles off right now and become an independent developer, but hold on for a moment. As with everything in games, there are risks for those rewards.

Keeping Motivated

All this freedom can make it hard to keep motivated and goal-centric, especially if you are your own boss. The hardest part about striking out on your own is that it up to you and only you to get the work done and noticed. It is incredibly easy to get distracted if you don’t have a boss or a publisher demanding their deliverables. Even if you can maintain your schedule, are you able to work in isolation?  The reason many people enjoy making games is the synergy and camaraderie a team brings. It can be extremely lonely to work on a game by yourself.

How to counteract this? It is important that you remain active within the indie scene. Most major cities have some type of meetup where other developers gather to talk shop and stay up to date. Going to these will allow you not only to become energized by seeing other people’s games, but will keep you on track by having others wanting to see yours. More importantly, you can take advantage of a very savvy crowd to act as your sounding board before you even ship the first version of your title.

Skill Set

One of the biggest frustrations of being an indie is that there is so much for you to do, and it doesn’t stop after you ship your end product. In fact, the traditional model of shipping a game doesn’t really apply in the indie space- you will likely maintain certain upgrades to existing titles for a long time to come, depending on how much of a tail they have.  It’s crucial to look at the big picture for your enterprise before you even begin, and make some realizations regarding your strengths and blind spots.

In terms of development itself, you may be an excellent programmer / designer /artist, but are you all three? Are you also a project manager? Familiar with business development? Marketing? At a big company, they will have people in highly specialized roles. Just because you are small, doesn’t mean that those jobs don’t have to be done. The core game development industry is great at building specialists, but indies need to be much broader in their grasp of required skills. Also remember that your budget will likely be quite limited, so to be successful, it means that everyone you consider working with will likely need to wear multiple hats.

How do you tackle this? First off, it’s crucial that you invest time in learning project management and personal organization practices, so that you can create some kind of plan and stick to it! Secondly, take a good look at all of the skills and work required to execute your vision, and if you feel you have gaps or blind spots, try to find people who can work with you to correct this. Networking helps, and there are all kinds of professionals starting to appear on the indie landscape as hired guns- p.r. and marketing, audio etc.

Standing Out

Hopefully you can get past these first two obstacles and are able to create an amazing game. Then the real question beckons: how do you stand out from the glut of crap that’s competing with your title for potential audience? There are literally hundreds of thousands of competitors out there. Sites like Big Fish Games release a game every day. The iPhone app store has over 300,000 apps! It is incredibly difficult to get noticed within the abundance of entertainment choices available.

It can be done, as we have seen with many of our favorite games, but it takes work. There is no easy answer for this issue as it is wide ranging and constantly changing. To start, you have to thinks in terms of your brand and what you want to be known for. That will at least get you onto the right path. Don’t forget to talk to your fellow indies, especially the successful ones, as they will have insight on the challenges you face. Most importantly of all, promote, promote, promote!

Conclusion

Independent development can be one of the most rewarding experiences of a game developer’s life, but also one of the hardest. For every super successful product there are literally thousands of failures. If you go into the endeavour expecting to make a good salary, you may end up very disappointed. However, if you choose this route because you really just want to make games, even it it means taking a day job to pull you through the tough times, then you are halfway there already.

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