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5 ways to be a successful indie developer

Zeboyd Games founder Robert Boyd (Breath of Death VII, Penny Arcade Adventures Episode Three) shares his five pillars for being a successful independent game developer.

Mike Rose, Blogger

June 28, 2012

3 Min Read

Fortune has favored indie studio Zeboyd Games over the last couple of years. While the studio started out creating text-based adventures for Xbox Live Indie Games, it soon found small-time fame with Breath of Death VII: The Beginning, a retro parody RPG that took multiple digs at RPGs of old. This success continued into quasi-sequel Cthulhu Saves the World, another big hit on XBLIG, before the two titles were finally brought to PC via Steam and received the full recognition they deserved. This week Zeboyd Games released what is its first crack at a big-name franchise. Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness -- Episode Three takes the original, polygonal RPG franchise and gives it a complete 2D Zeboyd-style make-over. On the back of this rapid success, Zeboyd founder Robert Boyd plans to release the fourth and final Penny Arcade Adventures game in 2013. After that he'll either continue to work with Penny Arcade on new IPs, or crack on with the studio's own titles. Either way, Zeboyd plans to take a break from turn-based RPGs after Episode 4, and try something different -- perhaps a 2D Legend of Zelda-esque action game, hints Boyd. For now, however, Boyd is all too eager to share with Gamasutra what he believes to be the key pillars to his studio's quick march success streak. Zeboyd's big plans for indie scene domination followed five key points, which he shares with us now.

1: Don't do it alone

"Find someone who is reliable, wants to make games as much as you do, and is skilled where you are not," begins Boyd. "You can do so much more when working as a member of a team - not only will you have more talents to draw upon, but it also helps with motivation and getting a clearer view on the viability of your ideas."

2: Focus on your strengths

Says Boyd, "I'm very knowledgeable about RPGs and Bill [Stiernberg, Zeboyd founder] is a talented pixel artist so our path was clear - make a retro-style RPG."

3: Begin by working on lots of smaller games rather than a huge and lengthy project

"Rather than spend years making a magna opus like many famous indie developers have done, we would make several smaller games to gain experience, to build up a fan base, and to raise money," explains Boyd. This approach allowed the duo to eventually work on game development full-time last year, accelerating its potential output.

4: Focus on what the big publishers are missing

"Since we can't compete directly against huge companies since they have far more resources than we have, figure out what they're not doing that's within our reach," states the Zeboyd designer. This came down to a few different pillars of focus for the Zeboyd team. "In our case, that meant a focus on comedy (despite the success of the Portal series, there are far too few funny games being released these days), fast-pacing (most RPGs are huge epics that take a long time to get to the "good parts"), and accessibility without sacrificing depth (again, most RPGs these days have a very high learning curve but if you look at most classic 16-bit RPGs, they were very easy to get into)."

5: Improve with each game

"If you look at our games so far, you can see drastic improvements from Breath of Death to Cthulhu Saves the World," notes Boyd, "and later from Cthulhu Saves the World to Penny Arcade's On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness." These enhancements are most notable in three main areas -- "gameplay, story, and technology (from pseudo 8-bit to early 16-bit to mid-era 16-bit)." Building on the foundations of your first titles is key to expanding your horizons, he says. Overall, Boyd believes that what every indie developer should keep in mind is the following: "Find something that you can do well that other game developers aren't doing and do it. And don't get discouraged if your first game (or first several games) isn't the big success you were hoping for."

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