A lot has been said already about the indie journey. Money or passion? What should matter the most? What should be the focus of our days, our efforts, skills? In this article, I'm not going to tell you the correct approach. I will only tell you about my own experience within this industry, my learnings, my own personal journey. Hopefully, we get to know dozens of different paths from various indies and entrepreneurs, and with time, we'll learn our own way to navigate these extremely demanding and challenging roads.
I have been an indie entrepreneur for 5 and a half years now. I've worked on several titles, none of which has become a hit - not even close. My previous experience did not include any job in games, so I literally started from scratch in 2012, learning my way through during times when we did not have easy access to a lot of tools and education materials we now do.
A lot of people find themselves in the dichotomy of creating games to earn money or following their passion to fulfill their inner gamers. Especially back when I started, I didn't know a lot of people making games who were concerned with business strategy, product-market fit, branding, metrics. I started because I suddenly realized that games could actually be some sort of a career. I had never thought of it at the time. I was a gamer, and have always been a gamer. My first console was an Atari 2600 that my dad already possessed when I was born. So it all started out of my passion for games, for art, and tech.
Funny to compare to my daily work today. I'm a game designer and I am completely in love with the craft, but it has been a couple of years since the last time I actually designed a game. My current tasks these next 7 days include finishing the new version of a pitch to present to investors, paying (tons) of (never-ending) bills, sourcing and selecting candidates for key positions we're missing, coming up with a strategy to maintain the company cashflow positive and read tons of books to learn things that I didn't even know I needed to.
So something clearly happened between the 'Let's make cool games that move people and change the world' and 'How do I pay taxes, again?' moments. Honestly, one can choose one side or the other of the spectrum, be driven by money or passion, but I don't. Not anymore.
I don't choose sides anymore because my challenge has got much more interesting and seemingly impossible: how do I create a valid, sustainable, growing game business while not only keeping our souls, but still producing games that the whole team is proud of, that our players are excited about, with a company culture where top talents can feel comfortable spending their careers at? This will be the challenge of a lifetime. If you'd like to go deeper on that, read Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull, President of Pixar and Disney Animation, terrific reading.
And that brings us to the main part of this article: how to actually solve the need for this dichotomy? If you're an indie entrepreneur, you want both. I love this term, indie entrepreneur. I've first heard of it from my good friend and mentor Jason Della Rocca. It refers to those who realize the importance of actually structuring and growing a business, while trying to stay creative and faithful to their original passion for games. That's a real challenge. When you build a little more experience in your career - and by that I mean failures - you find out that you can't keep creating passion projects that don't pay the bills.
Here are some things I did throughout my journey.
Find a niche you believe in, while also having business potential.
We all know about the discoverability hell that is this industry, so I fiercely believe you have to be real clever about choosing your niche. I don't think we're here to create things based solely on what we ourselves like to play. It's not about ourselves, it's about our players. And also about the market. If you want to create stuff for yourself, call it a hobby and be cool. If you're in business, you need actual growth potential. But how do you choose?
I'd recommend linking the best of both worlds. Start with the things you and your cofounders are passionate about, and then dig deeper. Study market trends. See what's saturated and what's untapped. Actual research. You don't have to choose something just because it's hot right now. Not at all. The current trend will be over or severely different in 5 years' time. And you want to be making games much longer than that. Get up-to-date with the latest GDC, Newzoo, SuperData and other great industry reports. No need to be an expert in order to do that. Read tons of articles, interviews, and have a sense for the specific genres you want.
Find promising intersections between your passion and business potential. I believe that is key: something that you are interested in, passionate about, but you also believe you can get users to, promote and sell. Embrace the philosophy behind the Lean Startup: Don't sell what you can make. Make what you can sell. Uncover a niche where you can excel at, in which competition is not as fierce, and players are not being satisfied enough. I know you love pixel-art platformers, but unless you have a very clever strategy to excel at this subgenre, find something else. Something fewer people are doing. Otherwise, you are simply making it harder to yourself.
To explore more on that, read From Zero to One by Peter Thiel. The introduction of the book is already enlightening: 'The next Bill Gates will not build an operating system. The next Larry Page or Sergey Brin won’t make a search engine. And the next Mark Zuckerberg won't create a social network. If you are copying these guys, you aren't learning from them.' Even if your intent is not to become the biggest indie the world has ever seen and you just want to create games you love and pay the bills at the same time, this is a crucial mindset. Remember that 90% or more of the indies will simply be out of business at any 5 year period. Do you want to be creating exciting games 10 years from now? That's what this is all about.
Create a plan. Don't go blind.
Why would creating a plan help me solve the money/passion problem? Actually, if you could guarantee funding for your development, if you could be sure about sales numbers, market reach, and the like, then you would have lots of creative freedom and peace of mind to work with, wouldn't you? There's a lot of conflict that happens as a result of bad - or entire lack of - planning. If you're a passionate artist creating your dream project together with your friends for years and years, without any strategy for development and beyond, then good luck making that sure hit. If it's not, then you're out of business or will just keep working on your games as a hobby. Likewise, if your entire concern relates to finances and you simply couldn't care less about solid creative vision or high game quality, then you can actually make it for a while, but probably won't be able to gather a pool of passionate talents to your team - they'll come and leave the moment they realize you're a sellout.
Creating boring plans on a spreadsheet can help you quite a lot with allowing you and your team to be more creative and passionate. These documents will clarify the path ahead, even though not perfectly, and give you better tools and a smaller error margin so you can increase the odds of success.
You don't have to create tons of technical documents nor make them super deep at first. Let's have a look at the basic 3: the development plan, the go-to-market plan, and the growth strategy plan.
How much money do you actually need to finish the game? What's the intended scope? What are the must-have, nice-to-have and throw-away features so you can avoid - or better prepare to - the frightening feature creep? What aspects of the game are CORE to the experience? Will you need a publisher? Which ones would fit your game and company and help you grow? It's really easy to deviate from the original vision of a game when you don't have clear guidelines. Midway through a project, it's very common that the only things you concern yourself with on a daily basis are bugs, internal conflicts and minor details to resolve. Creating a development plan will help you stay more true to what the game is all about, the essence and vision you want to deliver to your players.
Practical advice: get an accountant early on. It's not that expensive. Most accountants will charge based on your size and revenue. Managing your cashflow as a studio is one of THE MOST IMPORTANT things you'll ever do. Don't neglect it. Don't do what I did. Have your financial plan by your side. Know your burn rate (how much you spend per month), your dev-month (how much each developer costs to your studio per month), your runway (how long can you survive with your current finances?).
I highly recommend reading The Gamedev Business Handbook and The Gamedev Budgeting Handbook, both by Michael Futter. It's probably two of the best and most precise readings you can start within your game business studies.
Who's your audience? If you said 18-34 males in America, think again. Your audience is probably not going to be defined by these demographics alone. Your players want a specific type of experience, and your games have to deliver that. Why do they want it? Study, understand, research about their motivation, where they play, how they play, and for how long. You must know your player's Persona. Your games must fulfill some of your players' needs, preferably in a way few other titles do. That's how you create fans - not that it's any easy to do. Nooo way. Don't assume I'm very good at everything I'm stating here. But that doesn't mean it's any less real.
Why is your game different from the ocean of constant old-and-new titles available? If you're an indie, you won't be able to compete with big marketing budgets, so what's your plan to acquire, amaze and retain users? Creating a Go-to-Market plan is about knowing how your game and your company will position themselves amongst the competition.
I like to compare for a moment with the world of tech startups. It's very funny to me that if you're creating an idea for a startup, you want to come up with something absolutely new and untapped, and many times it doesn't matter what it is. It may be a new way of building space rockets or a revolutionary weapon against mosquitoes. It doesn't matter, as long as it's innovative, unexplored and compelling enough for customers to buy.
At the other end of the spectrum are game studios. Moved solely out of passion, it doesn't matter if the intended genre or platform isn't promising at all or requires big spending on User Acquisition. If I like the game, surely I can find millions more to play it, right? Well... no. You really must keep your plan in mind.
Another practical advice: even if your team is just three people, one of you must be responsible for the business side, and the marketing. Don't gather a programmer, an artist and a designer and hope for the best. There must be one person not only responsible for the business but constantly learning. You don't know enough. Even if you're a seasoned developer, there are constantly new things for you to study, account for, and learn how to do.
Growth Strategy Plan
This is where you're not only allowed, but expected to dream and be bold. It's where you write down your Vision, Mission and Strategy, remember those? Put simply: Vision is the picture you want to paint for yourself in 5 or 10 years' time. Where will your company be? What are the bold steps you'll be able to take by then? What impact will your games have on your players, your true fans? How will your team feel like working at your company? Paint a clear, exhilarating vision because this will be your ultimate drive. When you're surrounded by bugs, conflicts with your cofounders, demotivation, canceled projects and flopped releases, this Vision has to be the thing that keeps you on your path, keeps you waking up every morning with energy and focus.
Your Mission is how you will achieve your Vision. What has to happen for it to be reached? What are the 3 or 5 big steps? Lastly, your Strategy is the war plan to achieve your Mission, and it starts today. Missions are big goals, whereas Strategy is a step-by-step guide from now until your Missions are accomplished.
You need a goal-setting framework. An efficient way to write down your major goals, prioritize them, and trace it back to the actual steps you have to do to get there, as well as methods to measure progress. OKRs are one such methodology that could prove interesting to you. Here's a good blog about it. They can help you stay focused and get the team aligned on what actually matters at each moment.
Yeah, that's a lot of plans and methods. But don't worry. You don't have to apply it all at once, and you don't have to be right. Actually, I dare you to be. You won't. Your Strategy is dynamic and it'll have to be adapted, pivoted and recalculated monthly or annually. And there's absolutely nothing wrong with that, so it's good for you to know. If you feel bad because you think you're changing route too often, know that it can only get you closer to your goals. Don't be afraid to change, but always keep your Strategy at hand.
If you want to fulfill your creative passion but don't prepare yourself ahead of time with plans and structure, you'll be caught up by the endless obstacles on the way, and you'll either go out of business or leave your creativity behind.
The key to creating a sustainable AND passionate business is to plan your success and creativity. None of the topics in this article can ever guarantee success. But they will be tools for you to get more clarity on your journey, measure the steps, and help you adapt.