7 truths about indie game development

by Sarah Woodrow @sarahofsandwich

I got a bit tweet-happy recently because I had read yet another “post-mortem” on why someone thought their game was such a “massive failure”

These posts are indicative of unrealistic expectations by new indies on the business of indie game development.

It’s not the first time I’ve seen people go into making indie games thinking that it would make them money immediately. I’ve watched people I know pouring their hopes, money and time into a game that doesn’t sell and then seen them give up shortly after. I’ve also talked to talented amazing people who have decided not to take the plunge because they are so scared that will happen to them.

To be fair stories of success and failure give a confusing picture to people starting out. It seems that either you will become a glorious indie super star or you will fall by the wayside and everyone will point and laugh at your game as the “failure”. It’s either doom and gloom or glory and fame, boom or bust. And there seems to be no one logical reason why it happens to one person and not another, it’s often a bunch of reasons that some people spend a long time trying to deconstruct.

It is not a healthy way to view the early days of any business and it isn’t a realistic representation.

I am a designer. I design websites, games, products and services. I have been running a freelance design business for 7 years, been an employee at several companies in industries ranging from IT consultancy to tourism to science. I’ve seen many different approaches to running businesses. I’ve seen different amounts and types of success.

A few years ago my husband and I set up our own games development business “Utopian World of Sandwiches”. We work in our shed. I support him to work full time in the business. So I have given this a lot of thought…

We need more good businesses in the world. I believe a good business provides a sustainable, encouraging environment for its employees and creates meaning and value in people’s lives with its products and services.

Indie game development will drive the future of games. Indie game developers will be the ones to take games beyond what we know, to create truly innovative and interesting experiences. There are indies who are starting out now who will be the business leaders of the games industry in 10-20 years. We are already seeing a rise of indies, we will see more.

Failure is a good thing if you plan for it. Failure can teach you lessons that no success will ever teach you and I believe it is our ability to take those risks,“fail” and learn as indie game developers that will result in the innovations that the games industry needs.

I don’t think any business should be built around making money alone. I don’t think it has to be about high stakes, all or nothing, win or lose. We need to do more. Indie game developers are free to do more because they don’t have to answer to anyone and they can take the risks that AAA companies dare not take. We can build innovative, creative, sustainable businesses. But only if we stop chasing an impossible idea of success and embrace failure.

New indies coming into this need to know the realities. They need to be prepared and able to make decisions that will help them to do this.

I want to present a constructive, useful, honest view of indie game development business. I’ve learnt a lot from the past 2 years, so here are my 7 truths about indie game development and starting a business.

1. None of us know anything.

Games companies encourage people to take paths, to become awesome at a specific skill. Indie game development is different. Indie game developers have to be good at everything.  They are polymaths, constantly learning and adapting.

You might have researched, you might feel prepared. You aren’t. You will learn something new every single day. Everything constantly changes. You will learn through experience and you will mess up along the way.

Roughly 30% of your time will be spent making games. The rest of the time will be everything else you need to do, especially if you are a one man band. You might find that you spend 4 months a year actually making games if you are lucky.

You probably don’t know a lot of things about running a business because it’s likely that you’ve never run one before. And even if you have, you haven’t run this one.

You probably won’t know much about marketing or networking, because honestly it’s a kind of science where you have to try things out, see what the results are and then build on that.

You know nothing about the future, what platforms there will be in 5 years, how the technology or audience will change.

We are all figuring this out as we go along.

Find someone different to talk through your business decisions with and find objective people to look at your game.

You are not your customers. Respect your customers. Let them teach you. You will need other people to help you, so ask for it.

It is impossible to please everyone, not many people will like your game. It will be specific people with specific needs, tastes and preferences. It’s not unusual to figure out who those people are as you go. It might be a surprise when you realise they are different to who you intended them to be.

You will find your audience as much as they will find you. They aren’t already waiting there for you.

Be prepared to change direction really quickly based on things you find out as you go along. You are not a massive corporation it will cost you relatively nothing to change your mind.

We don’t have a 5 year business plan written down anywhere, because every week things change, it’s like trying to predict the future. We do know where we are starting, where we want to end up and we know the ethos and vision of how we want to get there. We just figure it out as we go.

We may know a lot of things, but we will never know enough.

2. It takes 3-5 years for the average business to make money.

Indie Game development isn’t in a bubble of prosperity. It is the same as any other business. Even Tesla motors didn’t make a profit for its first 10 years.

Each game is a gamble. A huge chunk of why any game is successful over another one is luck. There are very few people whose first game makes them a lot of money. There aren’t any guarantees and even if you do make lots of money you will want to reinvest the money to make the business more sustainable.

You will want to get on to different platforms, be seen by more people, travel to conferences then there’s marketing, running costs, software, hardware, the next dev kit… whatever it takes to get the business to the next level. All of this costs a lot of money, to gain a more sustainable income you will need to reinvest. Your wages will be the last thing you will want to pay.

At the same time you need to have a roof over your head and you will need to eat. So you will need a plan that will keep you warm and fed until you can pay yourself wages.

There are a bunch of ways that you can do this, and you need to research and find a way that suits you and how you want to work. You can get investment, grants, join an incubator, run a kickstarter, get a loan, use savings, or just do it in your spare time.

We chose self-funding. I’m supporting my husband, Woody to work full time. We take on extra contract work and we’re living hand to mouth for now. That’s OK. We’re not planning on doing it forever, but we’re secure enough for now to ensure that we can do this for as long as it takes.

3. No one knows who you are and no one cares.

The bad news… no one knows who you are and no one cares!

You have to build a reputation from nothing. You have to earn people’s attention. You have to make something that those people will care about. This all takes a lot of time.

I said earlier that a lot of success comes down to luck. You make your own luck. You have to get out there and make connections and meet people, because they will be where that luck comes from.

You have to ask yourself a lot of questions every day; Do you have an idea that matters to your customers? Are you selling game features or are you selling something that will make someone’s life better?

Give people something to care about. Give people an experience that they will want to share with others. Then take time to let them know about it.

The good news… no one knows who you are and no one cares!

You are so free! You can try all sorts of things, you can experiment and see if anyone notices.

You have nowhere to fall if no one likes it, because if no one likes it then no one will know. You have no one to answer to if you do mess up.

You can release a rough prototype that looks a bit buggy. You should! Because when people aren’t playing your games you are learning nothing. No one has any expectations of you. No one will steal your ideas. No one knows you.

Continue Reading…

(Source: Sarah Woodrow via Gamasutra)


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