Indies met challenges, learned lessons in 2012

The developers behind games including The Binding of Isaac, Dear Esther and Spelunky reflect on some of the biggest challenges for indies, and come away with some important lessons.
Recently, I spoke to a number of well-known independent game developers to find out if they too shared the sense that this has been an extraordinary year for indie games. Part of that conversation focused on the lessons other small teams might learn, as indie games move from niche to mass-market, via digital distribution hubs on consoles, mobile and PC. What have they learned this year as they strove to get their games noticed? How have they been able to find success?

Maintain the indie spirit

Derek Yu, creator cave-exploration hit Spelunky says this year has seen a big improvement in the core issue of getting games out there. "Funding and distribution have always been a big issue for small teams but thankfully that's becoming better as more indie-friendly channels open up," he says. But ease-of-access brings greater competition. "What's maybe more difficult these days is finding your own voice amid an increasingly crowded, successful and commercial field," Yu adds. "I feel like that environment has put a lot of pressure on small developers to focus too much on making money and winning awards." He wants the indie spirit to remain different from the processes and motivations that drive mainstream commercial game development. "The rise and success of indie gaming has been wonderful to watch and be a part of, but I'm wary of letting it affect my reasons for making games," he says. "It's really important to remember why these 'small' games made such a big splash in the first place -- because we put a lot of love and care into them."

Don't be a hit-chaser

This challenge also concerns Edmund McMillen, part of Super Meat Boy's Team Meat and creator of The Binding of Isaac. He says, "The biggest challenge now is simply not falling into the mindframe of trying to make a hit. You can't worry that much about your game's success, just focus on making the game good and your fan base will be there for you when it's done. If you start worrying too much about how to sell your game, or who your target audience is you are shooting yourself in the foot from the start because it's these kind of thoughts that push you into the mindframe of a large budget studio with big money on the line."

Go for the risky Big Idea

Dan Pinchbeck of thechineseroom created the island-exploration experience Dear Esther (pictured at top). He says, "I get a lot of emails now from small teams asking me to look at their games, or for advice for getting on Steam, or whatever. It's really hard to answer those questions -- it takes a long time to look over something and give good advice, which I just don't have right now, and getting attention is really, really tough because the market is just so flooded. The quality bar to get picked up by Greenlight or IGF or Indiecade or press outlets is high as hell now, so those middleground titles are going to struggle increasingly. "I think right now, the biggest challenge is making a game that shoots way over mediocre into super-amazing, as that's really the only way you are going to get the kind of escape velocity you need to start being noticed. This is a time when big ideas, risk, innovation will pay off -- clones and variations are not going to make it. And that's a good thing really. So make something completely brilliant and do radical things."

Make it truly interesting

Steve Gaynor is working on The Fullbright Company's point-and-click mystery Gone Home, which has attracted a lot of positive media attention. "The biggest challenge will always be making a truly interesting game that a lot of people want to play. That's the price of entry, right?" But there are still plenty of practical concerns, even for those with great ideas, such as "having enough money to keep you going long enough to get the game made," says Gaynor. "There are more options than ever for this too, like Kickstarter and Indie Fund, but it's still a rare thing to be able to drop your day job and put the time required into building a thing."

Get the word out

Dean Dodrill is the creator of fantasy side-scrolling adventure Dust: An Elysian Tail which released this year for Xbox 360. He says, "There's always the issue of money and self-motivation and often enough, the two are related. Also, I see a lot of multi-person teams fall apart very early." He adds, "However, I think marketing will always be the biggest hurdle. The worst thing that can happen to your game is to have no one talking about it. Even bad publicity is better than nothing. There's a reason large publishers pump millions of dollars into their launches, and it's up to us, as indies, to get the word out. I learned some valuable lessons with Dust regarding this, and I hope to do better with future titles. When I started development, I underestimated my role as publicist and marketer." Tomorrow: Indies talk about the lessons big publishers might (and might not) have learned from the success of small teams working on small games. [UPDATE: See part two here.] Colin Campbell is a feature-writer for IGN.

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