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It's been a big year for indie development, something made very clear when looking at the nominees for the 2023 Independent Games Festival. This yearly award show, held at Game Developer sibling event GDC, aims to encourage innovation in game development while recognizing independent game developers advancing the medium, and its lineup could not be more inspiring.
With some much talent and creativity abound in the world of indie development, how do developers feel about the current state of the field, and what challenges have this year's nominees faced on their road to release? For our latest Game Developer Talks webinar, we sat down with a panel of IGF finalists to discuss just that.
In our discussion, Game Developer was joined by five of this year's nominees for the IGF Seumas McNally Grand Prize: Greg Heffernan (Betrayal at Club Low), Sam Barlow (Immortality), Andrew Shoudice (Tunic), Jay Orbaum (Not For Broadcast), and Andrejs Klavins (Case of the Golden Idol).
Their conversation is an illuminating look at the indie games industry, covering everything from what defines it and the benefits of having (or not having!) a publisher, to how to find a publisher that's suitable for you and working within their parameters to deliver a game that's still true to your vision.
But the best advice came when we asked what lessons each developer learned during development that might've been good to know when they first started in on their project. With the benefit of hindsight, what would you take into your next game? What do you wish you'd known then that you know now? Find some key takeaways for other developers below, or watch the full discussion for free on the GDC Vault.
Managing scope and costs, the indie way
For Tunic developer Shoudice, it's about sunk cost fallacy, or rather, when to let go and not be rigid or prescriptive about sticking to design pillars. "I [now] have a better sense of when it is worth giving up on an idea or rather... making sure that you're not trying too intently on making your design line up with some pillars that you constructed in your mind as holy and immutable. If you're making something and you're spending all your energy making it support that pillar—and making your game worse for it—it's worth stepping back."
Orbaum agreed, saying that he'd learned to "Double all your time estimates. Control the scope. Avoid feature creep." He adds, "Get your naming conventions established early. And make sure everyone knows what they are and actually sticks to them. Never fix it in post. And....surround yourself with people who are better than you. The better the actors you can employ, the less directing you will have to do, because the choices they will make will already be intelligent choices that suit your script."
"Find the absolute best people you can to help you and don't let your ego be afraid of what they tell you." - Jay Orbaum
Heffernan adds that "you don't have to reinvent the wheel", and that while you may have a new or different idea that is worth iterating and testing, you might find yourself going back to tried and true models too. And that's okay. "Don't feel like you have to just start with a concept that has never been done or that hasn't been done in quite this way. Because I think there's a lot to learn from successful models, even when you're in unfamiliar territory."
And Klavins, explaining that his development experience had been ideal, gave advice that went in a different direction, citing the support of other developers. "Reach out to people who have you inspired you," he suggests, saying that the positive support from great indie developers like Lucas Pope was helpful. "Don't sell yourself short even if you feel like you were the small one."
For more on this and other insightful comments on the state of indie game success and other topics, check out the full Game Developer Talks series on the GDC Vault and register for our upcoming events! And be sure to tune into the 2023 IGF and GDCA on Wednesday, March 22 at 6:30 PM PT, either live in person at GDC or via Twitch.