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To Indie or not to Indie

About a year and a half ago I made the decision to start my own indie studio. Why would I do such a crazy thing? Find out here.

Just before I started Lioncode Games I asked a popular Indie developer for their advice: based on the idea for the game that became Mech Armada and my situation, would they start an indie startup to make the game, or look for a job at a well-established studio? He said don’t go indie.

I’ve been making games in some shape or form since I got my first computer, in 1986. Looking back, I’ve been wanting to make my own games essentially since then. I trusted the developer and his advice kept me up at night for a week, but I didn’t follow it.

It’s a hard life

If you run around in indie game dev circles, a lot of people talk about doom and gloom almost all the time. Stories of failure after years of work are common, the business keeps changing and becomes more competitive every year, opportunities are few and far between, and luck plays a huge role on whether you can put food on your plate or not.

A number that is often discussed is that only 1 in 20 indie games will be financially successful. One. In. Twenty.

As you can see in this chart, I estimated that the median revenue for indie games up to the end of 2019 was $1.4K:

Before I became an indie developer I had worked in the games industry for 18 years as a programmer, a lead programmer and briefly a producer. I want to acknowledge that as a white male a bunch of doors opened for me when they would’ve remained closed for other people. By the end I was making a bit over $125K USD a year – that may sound like a lot but with my experience I probably could have been making much more working for Big Tech.

I have a wife and a young son to feed, and we lived comfortably with my salary. Why in the world would I change all that, just to make a game?

Fame and fortune (yeah, right)

When I was younger I naively thought that, if only I worked hard and applied myself, I would eventually be successful. Success is measured by releasing a popular game, that is well reviewed and enjoyed, and makes me financially stable. And work hard I did, but we’ll save the stories about crunch for another post.

That success never came.

It’s obvious when you think about it: working hard is necessary for success, but not sufficient. What I didn’t realize back then is how fragile that potential success is, and how easily it can elude you due to circumstances outside of your control. One day an executive in your studio makes a poor decision and the hard work of dozens if not hundreds of people is wasted. And even if that success were to be reached, that same executive would take the glory and the bonus, while you’re left running on your little hamster wheel – or worse, laid off.

I know I sound like I’m just burnt out, but hear me out. I’m still willing (even eager!) to work hard.

At the end of the day though, knowing that success is unlikely no matter what, I’d rather scale down and have creative control over my game, than work on somebody else’s dream (or a sequel to somebody else’s dream).

This is why I didn’t follow that advice.

Of course the trick is to remember that this is still a business and I need to work smartly to make it sustainable. I’ll be talking about this in my next post.

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