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Nowadays, ‘indie’ is a complete buzzword. Just look at the rise of the hipsters- those ironic douchecanoes are pretty much everywhere. Indie musicians and actors are considered far more artistic than their ‘mainstream’ counterparts, as if success and integrity are mutually exclusive. Indie games are on the rise and the success of games such as Minecraft and Slender indicates that this trend is not going away.
When I began my internship with a local independent game developer, I thought boys in tight pants and hipster-Ariel glasses would flock to me, drawn in by my new indie cred. Instead, I’ve been learning about the indie gaming market, and the rewards of working on independent games. I've also seen some of the problems developers face.
Problems such as:
#5. No Funding
“Duh,” you might be saying, “These developers are independent, of course they don’t have any funding.”
But think about what that means. No funding means very few incentives for other people, which limits your labor pool to yourself, your friends, and perhaps some unpaid (and inexperienced) interns. You still need a place to work, not to mention computers and different design programs. How exactly are you planning to pay for all of that? All of you will have to be working at other jobs in order to pay for the necessities.
“But that isn’t true!” you say, “Can’t you just do fundraisers?”
Sure, sites like Kickstarter offer a whole new way to raise money, but it isn’t actually as simple as putting up a page and watching the money roll in. First, there’s the part where you have to persuade people to part with their money in order to fund your potential. That’s harder than pulling a celebutante away from a camera.
If you are lucky enough to reach your goal, it presents an entirely new set of challenges. Sometimes, the demand can completely outstrip what the creators can do. Kickstarter is full of small-scale operations, and success can end up utterly crushing them.
But let’s say you do have a great group of supporters who can’t wait to fund your project, and you have enough people behind the scenes to make it happen as soon as you get the money. It can still go wrong- just look at the information on this campaign, where they raised more than enough money for their project, but underestimated the costs of their pledge gifts. Most people who are using Kickstarter do not have the experience with financial management that will make the campaign the first stop on their success tour.
This isn’t to say that fundraising can never be successful, as you can see from many of the projects from the Kickstarter site. But it definitely isn’t easy.
The resources available to independent game developers are entirely different from those available to big-name studios. For example, take a look at Beyond: Two Souls from Quantic Dream. Beyond is an upcoming game from the developers of Heavy Rains. It involves motion-capture technology and required 160 actors, including Academy Award-nominee Ellen Page.
Let’s compare that to an independent and underfunded studio, where we only see Ellen Page in our dreams, and motion capture is when we film ourselves falling down the stairs. It simply isn’t on the same level.
But hey, games don’t have to be fancy to be good. They don’t even need pretty girls.
#3. Protecting Your Work
If you’ve ever been on Facebook, you’ve probably seen the reactions of people who have had their accounts hacked. Usually it’s nothing more than a stupid status update, but sometimes people take it seriously and completely freak out. You probably laugh at those people- I know I do.
Now think about what you would do if your personal project, which you have worked on and loved and sacrificed your Netflix account for, was stolen by someone else and marketed by them. And you couldn’t do anything about it.
That’s what happened to Rodain Joubert, the developer of Desktop Dungeons. He discovered a clone called League of Epic Heroes and attempted to rescue his material. However, as stated in this article, “Copyright can protect artwork in a game, or the specific code behind a game, but game mechanics themselves cannot be protected.” Although the Joubert got lucky, managing to scare the other developer with threats of legal action, what if he hadn’t been able to afford a lawyer? Many independent developers definitely wouldn’t, and would have to helplessly watch and/or attempt to blackmail the clones. The risk turns any independent game release into Russian roulette.
#2. Flooded Market
Developing your own game can’t be as horrible as it seems, though- otherwise, why would anyone do it?
There are actually many people leaving more established companies, hoping to work on their favorite game ideas in their own way. Creative freedom and bragging rights are far more fun than rigid rules and little control over the finished product. It also forces developers to think outside of the box in order to get the work done and promote their games successfully, and we all know how popular it is to go against everything mainstream.
The only problem with this is that new developers are not just going up against the big studios- they are facing seasoned competitors in the independent sphere. Just to illustrate how difficult this is, think back to the Kickstarter campaigns I mentioned earlier. Now think: who are you more likely to give money to, the unproven newbie or the seasoned professional?
The market is also absolutely flooded with games. When anyone can take a few classes, download various programs, and produce simple games, it opens the door to so many new options. Although many games require more in-depth knowledge to produce their more complicated qualities, the fact remains that the number of independent games is increasing.
Check out the funding for games on Kickstarter:
That’s literally millions of dollars over an incredibly short period of time, funding many different games. Imagine what the gaming world will look like if every game campaign manages to produce fully-funded games.
Perhaps the greatest difficulty for independent game developers lies in gaining and maintaining a paying audience for their games. Sure, you can sell your first-born for the money to develop your game, but what does that matter if nobody will play it? The question of how to create awareness is always on the minds of game developers.
There are, of course, options such as Steam Greenlight (which allows users to vote for games to be released on the Steam system) and Indie Games Uprising (which promotes independent XBox Live games). But some of these types of sites require a consideration fee, and there is no promise of success even after that payment. Some people market their games by allowing potential players to choose how much they want to pay, trusting that their games will be good enough to inspire payment and word-of-mouth.
Independent developers often turn to social media, taking to Twitter, Tumblr, and various blogging platforms in order to be heard. But when your marketing plan depends on a site that gained popularity through Ashton Kutcher, there is so much that can go wrong.
Developing games independently involves a great deal of risk, but it can also be a reward in itself. As I always think, when/if my child self manages to jump into the future to meet my present self, is she going to be more impressed if I'm making steady money, or if I'm interning with the team that created Metacell?