How has the delicious bread and butter of indie development changed over the years? What did it mean to be an indie developer back when it was hip? And how are those plucky creators getting on as we stare at the closing months of 2020 like a moth gazing at a flame?
As someone with precisely zero experience working in the world of indie development, I thought it'd be best to search for the answers to those age-old quandaries by asking two folks who're what the cool kids would call 'in the know.'
The delightful duo in question? Lair of the Clockwork God developer and Size Five Studios co-founder Dan Marshall, and Ant Workshop founder Tony Gowland, whose award-nominated microstudio is currently working on porting the sharply written side-scroller to consoles.
Long-time fans will recognize Clockwork God as the third entry in the Ben and Dan series, which began with the launch of Ben There, Dan That! back in 2008 and officially turned into a franchise with the arrival of the 2009 sequel, Time Gentleman, Please!.
12 years is a long time in any industry, but in the fluctuating world of video games -- where technology, trends, and consumer tastes can change in a blink -- it might as well be a lifetime. So, to learn more about how the state of play has morphed in the decade since the last Ben and Dan misadventure hit shelves, we asked Marshall and Gowland to talk us through the past, present, and potential future of indie development.
Gamasutra: You've been creating games for over a decade. How has the indie development landscape changed in that time? What did it mean to be 'indie' back then, and would that definition still hold water in 2020?
Dan Marshall: It's unbelievable to think of it now, but when I first started making games, I used to be able to get press coverage off the fact that I was a solo developer just making games. That was enough. It was an oddity.
Indie development meant something clunky but personal, there was a link to one-or-two people as developers, when you were playing something it was like being in a room with the designer, and I think that spirit has kind of been lost as indie development teams scale up and up to potentially hundreds of people. I think peoples' expectations of the quality of even a basic, entry-level indie game is now so high that it's becoming near-impossible to remain a one-man-band, as I traditionally have, and make something with the sort of scope that people don't feel short changed shelling out $20 for it.
Tony Gowland: I haven’t been doing the indie thing as long as Dan, 10 years ago I was at Rockstar. My first indie game got coverage on Rock Paper Shotgun and The Observer. For a Flash puzzle platform game. It wasn’t even about feelings or anything -- try getting that now. "Indie" as a term I think is largely meaningless when on one side you have someone sitting making a game by themselves in their spare time, and on the other you have big teams that are going to be bought by Microsoft for millions of dollars any minute now.
Gamasutra: How has your creative process evolved over the years -- what are some of the key lessons you picked up as you moved from project to project that you were able to implement on Clockwork God?
Dan: The process remains much the same, to be honest: get up and on at the desk and work sensible hours until the thing is done. I don't know that a lot has changed there, it's a state of mind thing where, in the early days I'd bunk off or lose a day playing a new game. I think as I've got older and more worried about money, I'm less likely to skive off and more likely to keep my nose to the grindstone. I don't know that I have the luxury to do anything else.
I think the key thing as I move from project to project is to really focus on the one thing people were critical of and think "well I'm not making that mistake again, how do we fix it this time around?" So a lot of people hated the controls in The Swindle, so I spent a lot of time focussing on them for Clockwork God, I got them tested by my peers and punters and made sure everything felt right.
Gamasutra: Getting technical, if we were to dive into your development toolkit what would we find? What tools and software have been mainstays for you over the years, and are there any new additions you now couldn't imagine being without?
Dan: When I first set up the company, which... I mean it's a very scary process, it's all forms and government and lawyers and stuff, and I was adamant that everything be above board and properly done, even when I was starting out, so I forked out £1500 for a copy of Photoshop CS5 which I still use to this day, and I will continue to use until it represents value for money. After 11 years it's working out at £136 per year, so some way off yet. In fairness, it's been very helpful and still works great, I've been able to do all sorts of different art styles on it, from Vector to pixel art, and all my social stuff or advertising. It's kind of critical and boots up most days by default.
Tony: On our side of things we’re currently a Unity-focussed team, which means we’ve been able to build a set of standardized code and tools both for our own original IP as well as when we tackle porting someone else’s game. As this code’s been battle tested across multiple platforms and more SKUs than I care to count right now we know it’s a solid working base - though we still occasionally find an edge case coming up here and there that we fix and save back into the shared codebase repo. There are a few Unity assets we use regularly to take the pain out of things as well - the big two being Rewired for controllers and I2 for localization. Both are very well supported so we feel comfortable using them heavily, I really wouldn’t be surprised to see Unity buy both.
Gamasutra: I'm also keen to hear your thoughts on the shifting state of game marketing. How can indies that don't have a huge budget generate buzz and bring in sales? Have tweaked your approach over the years as storefronts and social media became increasingly saturated? What are your golden rules for indie marketing in 2020?
Dan: I have no idea, demonstrably! Lair of the Clockwork God has been getting great reviews, really positive buzz, it looks great, it's well-written and clever and unique, and still getting coverage for it has been like getting blood from a stone.
In all honesty, the way to get press to talk about your game is for it to be immensely popular long before it's released - I don't know how websites work but I'm pretty sure the rule is that if a game isn't already a guaranteed hit, and will bring in clicks, the chances of it getting covered dwindle rapidly. If your game's gifs get 1000 retweets on Twitter every time you post them, odds are it'll wind up being worth their while to cover it. If people are talking about the game of their own accord, that's a good sign. If you have to engineer the conversation, you're on the back foot.
Everything else is a case of begging and pleading and calling in every single favor you've accrued in order to snag column inches. I mean, it makes sense, I'm not being pissy; if you're paying an author to write news articles and it's costing you £X a day to employ them, you need to make sure what they're writing about has enough of a zeitgeist to bring in advert clicks.
Tony: Yeah I pretty much agree, it seems like marketing and marketability have to be right up there as amongst the first things you look at critically with any game idea, before you spend any serious time making it. It’s worth binging podcasts like the Future Friends one, as they get guests on who know what they’re talking about in a way that I don’t.
Gamasutra: Looking at the platforms out there right now, there are a bunch of options for indie developers - ranging from mainstays like consoles and mobile to nascent streaming services like Stadia. You've released Clockwork God on a huge variety of platforms, but how did you know which ones were right for you?
Dan: I think mobile games need designing with a touch screen interface in mind. There's no way I'd consider porting any of my games to mobile, purely because they've all been designed to work with a gamepad. The best mobile games, the ones that do well, are the ones that lean into the hardware.
Anything else, anything with a controller, I'd consider. But porting games is very much not my bag, so Tony is best placed to answer questions about where the game goes!
Tony: Ant Workshop have released games on all current gen platforms now, as well as mobile and AppleTV (our game Dead End Job was an Apple Arcade launch title). To my mind there are very few good reasons to keep your game just on a single platform. It’s true that some genres will do much better some places than others, and the Switch has a reputation for being more friendly to pixel art indie games than say Xbox players are, but once you’ve done the hard work of converting your UI and controls to work with a joypad (or if you built the PC version with full controller support) the actual platform-specific code is relatively simple (and easy to carry over to your next title).
Once you’ve got your game working on one console, the costs for each subsequent one basically become a lot lower and it makes sense to put it on every platform you can as you’re reaching more potential players. Especially now that the platforms are so open to small developers, and IARC means that digital age ratings are free.
Gamasutra: Carrying that thread, what do you make of subscription services like Game Pass? They seem to be doing a job for Indies right now in terms of exposure, but is there a risk that services like those could ultimately devalue titles in the long-term? What's your take on the potential impact of that model?
Dan: I think it's a real danger, and I'm designing my next game on the assumption that games will earn their money on a Spotify-like service before long, and that every minute someone plays your game you earn £0.00001 or whatever. I think that's going to have a big knock-on effect to the sorts of games you're likely to see: more things like Spelunky where you can theoretically keep people playing for 400 hours, and the 8-10 hour single player narrative experience like Lair of the Clockwork God isn't going to survive. I hope I'm wrong, and that a sensible market appears that accommodates both types of game, but I honestly can't see it happening.
And it's already informing design decisions. My next game will be endless, and I know a lot of indies doing similar things.
Tony: As I said earlier, our last game was an Apple Arcade launch title and that was brilliant for us. But equally I can see that a £5 per month “all you can play” service launching might have made life harder for developers trying to sell their £5 game on iOS at the same time. With these services being curated it’s essentially moving the walls of the garden. It used to be that to even get your game on PlayStation was a huge hurdle only available to a very small number of indies -- now that’s easier, but getting a PS+ deal is harder, for example. I’m not sure I share Dan’s pessimism about a death of short-mid length single-playthrough experiences though, as Microsoft have certainly been investing in some of those on GamePass already.