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People tend to view the indie lifestyle with much envy, believing it liberating - a way to break free of the AAA treadmill; to innovate the industry from within. In reality, the freedom to choose your own hours often actually acts as a straight-jacket.
July 26, 2013
11 Min Read
[This article is reprinted from the Best of British column on PocketGamer.biz]
My friend Dave – his name changed to protect the identity - has just found out that tonight, he will be homeless.
A once eager indie developer, Dave had just been to an industry event – one he barely scraped enough money together to go to in the first place – when he found out he'd missed the last train home and didn't have enough cash to cover a night in a hotel.
But is this a common story? Is the tale of an indie sleeping rough after splashing their cash to attend an event one other developers would recognise? Just how much does it cost to do what we do?
During the writing of this article, I reached out to the indie community to identify the hidden costs they wish they'd knew about before they set out. Outside money matters, however, what really surprised me was the number that vocalised the loneliness that's part and parcel of the indie lifestyle.
The original and exciting image of being your own boss with the freedom to choose your own hours often actually acts as a straight-jacket.
Developers actively felt guilty when spending free time playing games or with loved ones knowing that their own project was waiting to be completed and only they could finish it.
Conversely, when working, many developers also feel they're missing out on life events, closing themselves off to alternative opportunities. It's a vicious circle.
People on the outside, of course, view the indie lifestyle with much envy, believing it liberating - a way to break free of the AAA treadmill; to innovate the industry from within.
It certainly can be. The key, however, is realising that even as an indie, you are running a business – and a business that's losing money from day one, to boot.
A lot of the worry comes down to financial concerns, so the typical advice given to any aspiring indie is to have 6-12 months worth of living expenses saved up prior to diving into full-time indie development.
Work-for-hire is useful for topping up, and in some cases necessary to continue, but ideally most people would prefer their games to self-enable their lifestyle.
So, 12 months living expenses would equate to a year's worth of monthly rent or mortgage feeds, food and the cost of developer licenses, right? Sadly, this kind of calculation only gets you so far – there are a host of extra costs involved, but costs that you can actually account for ahead of time.
Said costs can generally be categorised into inward and outward facing expenses. Inward-facing tends to cover development costs whereas outward-facing will cover public events.
Inward facing fees
As an indie, you're typically a one-person workshop, comprising of a developer, QA, producer, business-owner and more.
If working on mobile, generally you only need a development computer, the required developer's license ($99 for iOS and Windows Phone, a one time $25 fee for Google Play and $100 for BlackBerry) and a number of mobile devices for testing purposes.
As new devices are announced and issued, it can become an expensive affair to maintain your current suite.
Current Best of British chief Jake Birkett has made an interesting observation, however: the setup for a mobile developer is remarkably low when placed in comparison to other businesses. A plumber, builder, landscaper, shop or restaurant owner have to suffer astronomical costs, yet they only has the same chance of success as you do.
Nevertheless, during the development of your game, little costs like this begin to appear here and there – too many for me to possibly cover in this column, in fact.
Based on my research, Adobe Photoshop was cited as an additional by a large majority of indies. It is still the de-facto standard amongst the creative industry - even amongst solitary developers.
Although your game's artwork may have been outsourced, the ability to check the work or even edit a piece slightly is a blessing. The costs can be negated by looking at the free options, however you may need to consider if the extra time spent converting between formats is worth it.
Tying into artwork is the use of fonts. Although there are some fonts supplied with the devices or the OS, generally a custom font is obtained that gives your games the extra touch.
The large amount of "free" fonts available on the web are actually covered by a personal-use only license, so you need to be extremely wary.
The good fonts will have licenses that cover a certain number of sales, or they may even be unlimited. When using several fonts, these licenses can start to add up so please be aware. The same applies to royalty free music and sounds.
Making an impact
Ideally, you'll have been keeping the press and community aware of your game throughout development, and that requires media material.
They say images are worth a thousand words and videos are worth millions. As such, making professional promotional pictures and trailers is critical in this current mobile climate.
Recording straight from the iOS simulator simply won't cut it, so be prepared to invest in a high definition capture card. FRAPS and Reflector are also great for those on a shoestring budget. Don't forget to factor in the cost of your video editing software as well.
Additionally, as part of your PR, business cards - considered antiquated by some - still have merit. A highly visual card combined with an impactful meeting leaves people with a strong reminder of who you are. In the fast-paced world of journalism, being a figure people remember does wonders to your reputation and increases awareness of your games.
Also, although not technically considered a cost, be aware of fluctuating exchange rates. With the majority of markets controlled in US dollars, quite a few European indies are stung by horrible rates when being paid from overseas.
The same also applies when outsourcing work internationally or even paying for hosting companies or domain renewals. The live market rates aren't the same rates banks or Paypal charges.
Tied in with these payments are account thresholds or the ‘minimum amount accrued before fund release'. Effectively, your money is held with the vendor until it has reached a certain level.
If the current total doesn't quite reach it, the money is then rolled over until the next month. This can be rather annoying, so make every effort to push it over the threshold as it can quickly accumulate if there are multiple portals are involved.
An anonymous developer told me he's got more than a thousand dollars spread of 12 different accounts that, as a result, he can't access – a sizeable fund for any indie!
Outward facing fees
Fellow Best of British member Byron Atkinson-Jones recently wrote about the importance of meeting other developers on a regular basis.
Not only are games a communal affair, but the exposure to differing work practices and hard-earned advice can, and often does, speed up development. There is also the opportunity to network with others from different fields - suddenly you can now access a full team of games industry professionals or given an introduction to a lucrative deal.
Many major cities have their own local meet-ups which are typically free and relatively easy to attend. Depending on the locale, this can range from five people all the way to a hundred plus at bi-monthly events such as the eagerly anticipated LUUG (London Unity User Group) and GameDevNorth.
These events are ideal for meeting local developers, but what about the national and international ones? The events that reach out and include guests from beyond the shores?
Events where there's an opportunity to talk to studio managers, international indies and console holders? Id they're your target, GameConfs has nearly every worthy conference on its list.
Here in the UK, the Develop Conference is the must-attend event of the games calendar - a three day pass retails at $1,090 (£715), with an indie variant coming in at $236 (£155). Looking further ashore to Sweden, Unite Nordic is priced at $887 (£582).
However, the largest gathering of games industry professionals is GDC in San Francisco. The opportunities for learning and networking are stratospheric but, of course, the prices can be a bit high. A GDC all-access pass is priced at $1,975 (£1,295), although an indie variant is available at around $400 (£262).
Some would question if these events are worth attending. Consultant Nicholas Lovell has revealed he often doesn't pay for tickets but, instead, comes for the surrounding events.
Indeed, costs for just the three events mentioned above already amounts to around $3,350/£2,200 ($900/£600 if you're savvy enough to purchase the indie tickets at early bird discounts) and these are only a subset of the events available.
An alternative "purchasing" scheme is also available if you have an interesting story to tell or useful knowledge that can help others.
Developer events are routinely looking for speakers and are willing to offer tickets in exchange for your time. Not only does this raise your profile but also makes you an expert in your field - another bonus for attending these events.
Developer events are fantastic for networking but what about showing off your games?
Everyone has heard of the IGF (Independent Games Festival) and IndieCade - if you haven't, you really should! These publicised events offer nominated games incredibly high visibility and the accolades are respected within the industry that, in turn, leads to more press coverage.
I was fortunate to be an IGF judge and an IndieCade exhibitor this year, so I got to see both sides of the submissions process. For the IGF, the number of international submissions was staggering and the process of whittling it down was difficult.
I can only imagine the IndieCade process is the same. It speaks volumes if your game is selected out of the hundreds that get submitted.
With the high number of submissions, the system that holds it all together needs to be maintained and, hence, organisers offset the cost by asking developers to contribute via a submission fee. The aforementioned events are priced at $95 (£62) and $80 (£52) respectively.
Whilst festivals are generally free to submit to, some come with restrictions that amount to even higher costs.
BAFTA's highly prestigious awards allows developers to make one game submission for free. Additional entries, however, incur a $335/£220 fee. Promoter has an curated online calendar that lists major festivals along with submission fees - very useful for planning out events throughout the year.
Events such as IndieCade, EuroGamer Expo and Develop are fantastic as they hold curated areas designed to provide exposure to indie developers ordinarily unable to exhibit due to costs.
But what about if you weren't shortlisted, or the event you're interested in doesn't offer this option?
Public-facing events such as PAX and Rezzed offer tens of thousands of game loving audience members who are willing to play, spread the word and drive up anticipation for a game. If you have a game launch soon, the timing is excellent for lots of press (both professional and amateur) to have a chance to play the game and report back.
Of course, space is at a premium at these events and initiatives such as Kelly Wallick's Indie Megabooth can help out indies, but it still comes at a price - around at $1,800 - $2,600 (£1,200 - £1,700). Be careful to read the small print as well - some events require you to pay for electricity that can, at times, be double the stand cost.
And the fees don't stop there, either. For both events and exhibitions, the costs of traveling to events and staying for one, two, three or more nights can quickly build up.
As such, it's worthwhile factoring in travel costs and hotels when considering how many events and festivals you are willing to submit to and attend.
Travel wise, it's a case of hunting for the best flights or train tickets. When it comes to accommodation, however, indies tend to love AirBnB - the costs are generally a significantly less than staying at a hotel chain and you can get a local's understanding of the area.
So, with all these costs added up, where does this leave us?
They say, realistically, it takes 2-3 years of hard work before your work can self-sustain your lifestyle. Being an indie is incredibly difficult, but planning the financial outlay for the year can help to alleviate money worries, making the job far more enjoyable.
Have you discovered any hidden costs since becoming an indie? Let me know in the comments below so well can all help those just starting out get a clearer idea of what they need to prepare for.
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