I recently wrote a rather long post about my nearly 10 years in the Indie Game Industry. I touched on some of the changes and my personal journey along the way, but I felt the need to revisit it and provide some advice from what I’ve learned along the way.
It’s probably smarter to work for someone else in the beginning
Looking back on things, I could’ve learned a lot more about the games industry much quicker if I had just gotten a job at a studio or press website instead of creating my own jobs along the way. On the plus side, I had a stable job during the day that paid the bills and pursued my passions at night. I wasted a lot of time learning how to code at night when I could’ve just gotten an entry level job in a more suitable field. My biggest mistake is probably not looking for a game journalism job. There are a lot of smaller sites that would’ve allowed me to work remotely and paid me some small amount to write. Instead, I essentially wrote about indie games for free for 4 years.
Finish your games!
Finishing a game is really hard to do. I’m not much of a game developer and even I have more unfinished games than finished ones and a whole slew of ideas that I never even started. While it’s important to work on your best ideas, it’s even more important to finish what you set out to do and avoid feature creep and stay within your scope. So while I would never advise a developer to continue to work and finish a bad game idea – it’s really important to practice finishing games within real time limits with the basic features that you need. This is why game jams are so fantastic. If I were to ever delve into game development again, I would definitely do a game a week and then pick the best idea from those games to work on a full release. I’d also make all my game prototypes that I made in a week free to download so that I could track and see which one was inherently the most marketable.
Marketing is REALLY Important
When I started in the indie scene, most developers were selling their games directly on their website via a payment processor like BMT micro. That’s definitely changed and now most people just link to their Steam page or whatever which means that most indie game developers are even worse at marketing now than they were back in 2006. Remember that the incredibly successful Minecraft has NEVER been available on Steam. There are way too many games available now so you need to be sure that you’re doing everything you can to get your game noticed. You can’t rely on releasing on Steam and making money off of their massive distribution. Steam is becoming more and more like the App Store – the big games that make most of the money are big F2P games advertised on TV by Kate Upton’s boobs. It’s unfortunate, but true. As an indie developer some of the best advice that I have seen came from Alexander Bruce about his game Antichamber and the SEVEN YEARS it took to be successful. You can watch his talk on the GDC Vault here: http://www.gdcvault.com/play/1020776/Antichamber-An-Overnight-Success-Seven. As an indie, the best way to stand out is to create a very different and unique experience (Antichamber, Minecraft, Auditorium, World of Goo, FTL) or cater to a niche (Democracy 3, Gemini Rue, Geneforge Saga). Honestly, you should think about how you’re going to market your game before you even start working on it. Putting up a Kickstarter and hoping to get the funding you need because your game looks cool is overdone and won’t work moving forward. It sucks but the best games don’t necessarily rise to the top. In fact, a lot of great games are completely lost in the shuffle.
It’s really hard to start your own business
If you’re considering starting your own business, immediately assume the following two things:
- Getting your game, product, website, service ready for market and launched will take you at least twice as long as you think it will.
- You won’t make a dime, let alone a living off of your idea for at least a year.
These assumptions are even truer when it comes to indie game development. Think you can release your game in a year? Ha! Try two or more. Think you can live off of your savings for 6 months – be sure to reduce your burn rate and save up for at least a year before you plan on quitting your day job. Before you take such a huge risk, maybe consider working on your passion project in your spare time. It’s a lot less stressful to have a 9-5 that pays the bills then being forced to release a game just so that you can eat. That last bit of polish on a game can take a lot of time but is often what makes an indie game shine.
Starting your own business will also lead to you never working harder or more hours in your life. Someone once told me that the best thing about being your own boss is that you choose the 80 hours per week that you work. I never came close to working more than 50 hours per week when I wasn’t working for myself. Know that it’s not for everyone.
It’s never been easier to make an indie game
The barriers to entry in the game industry are crumbling to the ground. Distribution is widely available and the tools are a plentiful and cheap as ever. For a few hundred bucks you can grab a very capable game engine and assuming you make something decent – get on great mobile or pc distribution platforms that make your game easily accessible by the masses. Of course, as a result of all of this, you’re one game in a vast ocean so remember that marketing stuff I mentioned earlier.
Don’t be in it for the Money
The indie game scene has already exploded and the bubble has popped. In order to be successful, you need to work incredibly hard, make an excellent game and have a little bit of luck. There are still great opportunities for exceptional people but Minecraft, Braid, Fez, etc. are the hugely successful exceptions – not the norms. I’ve seen plenty of talented indie studios layoff people and struggle to stay open. You used to get on steam and be guaranteed a decent living but now you can release your game and only be on the front page as a new release for a few hours. There’s still money to be made, but it’s better to pleasantly surprised then destitute because you expected your first game to make millions.
Guess what? People on the internet can be mean!
You can absolutely be consumed by the digital landscape with its instant connections, communications and constant stream of information. It’s overwhelming and at its worst quite vitriolic. It doesn’t matter if you have 100 or 10,000 positive comments about your game – it only takes that 1 negative comment to ruin your day and obsess over. When that type of thing happens, remember that the internet is a fickle place with a short attention span. Take a break, do things that enrich your life and come back to it when you’re ready to be productive.
Be true to yourself
When everything is said and done, you have to be true to yourself. Remember that there is way more to life than work, money or even video games. There’s nothing wrong with following your heart and making a business decision because you just can’t live with the alternative (no matter how lucrative). If you’re miserable, depressed and constantly stressed about your work and the game you’re trying to finish and release – it may not be worth it to keep going. Stubbornness is not the same thing as passion. The flip side of that is that there will be quite a lot of stress along the way, but if at every hard, stressful moment you know that if you stop you’ll regret if for the rest of your life, then you know you’re an indie game developer.
If anyone would like to reach me directly, you can tweet me @mgnade or email me at mike at indiegamestand.com. Good luck and keep making awesome games and pursuing your dreams. It's not easy, but in the end I’ve always found that it's worth it.