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Book Review: The Indie Game Development Survival Guide

As more and more game developers strike out on their own and wade into unfamiliar territory, Justin Lloyd finds this tome to be a great starting resource.

Back when the world was young a lot of smart, young, upstart programmers created a new form of entertainment that has “grown up” to be a multi-billion dollar industry that now provides jobs to tens of thousands of people worldwide. In those halcyon days the “industry” was so small it was unable to support more than a few hundred lone-wolf developers and a rare few manufacturers of console hardware. You were either scraping a living putting the next version of Hunt the Wumpus for the likes of Commodore, Sinclair, Apple, or Acorn home computers, or working for one of the “big boys” with weird names such as Atari, Coleco, or Mattel.

The concept of a large third-party publisher was unknown until the likes of Activision and Imagic came along and changed the landscape forever. Almost every available ecological monetary niche for two decades has been filled by these large, powerhouse publishers. It is only in very recent years that the industry has become large enough to support more than a handful of completely independent development studios working on small-scale projects to make a profitable living.

It’s a sign of the times when a visit to Game Developers Conference in San Jose means that one can meet just as many lone wolf or independent developers as there are employees of the large development studios and publishing houses. There’s no better time to be considering going independent, either as a break-in or break-away.

Just at the right time a suitable book, The Indie Game Development Survival Guide (Charles River Media), is launched. In it, author David Michael has pulled together a lot of industry wisdom and knowledge in 384, covering a broad range of subjects that most solo developers won’t be entirely familiar with.

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Title: The Indie Game Development Survival Guide
Author: David Michael
Publisher: Charles River Media
ISBN: 1-58450-214-2
Published: August, 2003
Pages: 384

Rating (out of 5):
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Pros

  1. Focused and to the point.

  2. Covers a lot of essential information in a single resource.

  3. Results from an indie survey included in an appendix.

Cons

  1. One person’s perspective on the indie game biz.

  2. Bibliography is useful but could have been better.

  3. Covers the bare essentials; further reading is required.

David Michael is co-owner of Samu Games, publisher of Paintball Net, a multi-player, first-person paintball game, and Artifact, a multi-player, real-time strategy game. Samu Games has been making independent games since 1996, and Michael regularly writes for GameDev.net with some articles appearing in the book Game Design Perspectives, also published by Charles River Media.

Michael attempts the not particularly easy task of informing and educating independent developers, both aspiring and currently practicing, on what it takes to be an indie, the risks and rewards that can be expected, and the long, hard road to profitable independent developer status. This man really has practiced the subject he is now preaching.

Indie Game Development defies immediate classification. It is certainly not a programming or art technique book—the twenty-eight chapters run through production, marketing, design, and management. It’s squarely aimed at programmers and artists looking to either break-in or break away.

In the opening chapters Michael attempts to define the nebulous “indie” label—a label that has a certain amount of cool cachet attached right now. Regardless of what the word means, there are a lot of developers currently labeling themselves indie/independent as they chase the vague dream of being the next PopCap or Gamehouse. The first few chapters just fill in detail for those who have to ask what this whole “indie thing” is all about.

The real meat of the book is when Michael starts covering project size, realistic goals given the inherent limitations of most independent developers and those common pitfalls to avoid like taking on a project that is just too ambitious or beyond the capabilities of the team, e.g. a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG). We can’t all be the next multiple award winning Puzzle Pirates and reading the forums at the more popular independent developer websites, e.g. Garage Games and Dexterity Software you’d be led to believe that creating the next EverQuest -killer was currently being simultaneously undertaken by hundreds of small three-person development teams all across North America (the overly ambitious crowd seems to reside solely in North America; probably a result of the “build it big” gene that the American people possess in abundance).

Almost one-half of the book is given over to marketing and promotion of a product, this is “101” material for anybody who majored in marketing or sales, but for programmers it will seem like an alien culture waiting to be explored.

Michael is very big on making sure that a potential indie is realistic, stays focused, uses the best techniques available to them, and remains productive throughout the project cycle. Each chapter introduces a new concept that is likely unfamiliar to most programmers and artists—subjects such as planning, scheduling, and a design document. All kidding aside, Michael really pushes the notion that an independent is no longer “just a programmer” or “just an artist”. An independent developer has to wear many hats, and most of those hats have nothing to do with caffeine-fuelled, all-night coding sessions at the keyboard. Okay, some of them are, but an indie concentrating solely on programming or art to the detriment of all else will find that their new “killer game” just released into the wild is not turning out to be the raging success they were hoping for. Not unless they are extremely lucky.

Indie Game Development offers tips on “creative funding”—for example getting people to work for nothing, or bootstrapping a company into existence by performing consulting work, along with team compensation when the dollars do finally start to come in. Michael cleverly segues in to the differences between leadership and management and team management an area many lone wolf developers may not have had to deal with until they attempt their first game that requires outside resources such as art and music.

The tail end of the book is the usual collection of appendices with a single gem; the results of an indie developer survey that gives a good overview of how the current crop of indie developers function. The usefulness of some of the survey results should probably be taken with a pinch of salt; just because 75% of respondents don’t use any form of project management software or 37% don’t use any form of formal source control doesn’t mean all others should follow blindly along the same path. Many of the results are insightful though, so long as they are used as guidance and not gospel. The appendices are followed by a short bibliography that really could be more comprehensive. It was a nice start, especially as this book is aimed at people who won’t be very familiar with most of the resources available on marketing, scheduling, and project management. I am disappointed to see that many books that would have been enormously useful to an independent developer were omitted, namely books by Tim Sweeney, J. C. Levinson, Michael Gerber, and Herb Cohen.

A testament to how big indie game development is becoming can be found by looking at this year’s Independent Games Festival winners and the millions of dollars generated in the past twenty-four months by the likes of PopCap Games, Big Fish Games, Gamehouse, and Real Arcade.

As a developer tired of the multi-million dollar large project grind contemplating becoming a break-away independent developer or a nascent game programmer/artist/designer considering how to break-in you will need all the good advice you can find. This book goes a long way to offering the kind of help you’ll need to begin a career as an indie developer and escalate it beyond being a hobby into a sustainable business with real growth potential. The Indie Game Development Survival Guide is required reading for anybody even tenuously contemplating this area as a possible business venture.

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