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So You Want to Be an Indie Game Developer?
by Robert Boyd on 02/14/12 10:33:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


So You Want to Be an Indie Game Developer?

First off, enjoying the playing videogames is not the same as making them. Seems pretty obvious, but you'd be surprised at how many people assume that just because they like to play videogames, they'd also enjoy making them. If anything, deciding to make videogames will actually cut into your time playing them, at least until you've made it big and have enough money to turn game development into your full-time career.

Making games is not about the sudden burst of inspiration and brilliant ideas. Oh, don't get me wrong - you'll get those too (and if you don't, game development might not be for you), but they account for a relatively small percentage of your game development time. The vast majority of your time will be spent slowly constructing the game, whether that's by writing line after line of code, drawing sprite after sprite, composing song after song, or any of the other tasks that needs to be performed to have an actual game. While having a completed game is rewarding and fun, the process itself also involves a lot of tedium and frustration along the way.

Start small and work your way up. When you're just starting off, you're not good enough to make your dream game. For that matter, you might not be good enough to make a game that someone will be willing to buy. Doesn't matter. The time you spend now making Text Adventure Game Extreme! or The New Adventures of Bootleg Pac-Man is time that you'll be learning your craft so that you can make your dream games eventually. It is also crucial to see a project through to completion - even with a simpler game, the experience you gain from finishing a project teaches invaluable lessons on how to proceed with more ambitious games.

You're probably not going to make much if any money at first. Don't let it discourage you. When you see a successful indie developer, chances are they made several games before they had their big hit. The successful indie developers are the ones who don't stop when they hit a setback.

Learn from your mistakes. When you release a game and it doesn't do as well as you expected, figure out why. Maybe the gameplay was good but the amateurish graphics scared people off. Maybe it was too similar to another game. Maybe you released it on the wrong platform. Maybe the price was wrong. Figure out what you did wrong and how you can improve in that area so that you don't make the same mistake next time.

Before you make a game, plan out the game's scope. Individual features will often change as you come up with new ideas or discover that old ideas don't work out as well as you thought, but if you have an idea of the general scope of your game, you can avoid it turning into a project that's beyond your time and abilities. Perhaps the number one killer of indie game projects is feature creep.

Don't do it alone. A few people are multi-talented geniuses and can make a fantastic game all by themselves. Most of us are not. Once you have some small confidence in your talents, find someone or a group that can compliment your strengths and make up for your weaknesses. Share ideas, insight, and progress - this will help keep everyone motivated.  Motivation and momentum are absolutely crucial.

Make games that people will want to buy. It's not enough to just make good games. Your games need to be different enough from what else is out there that people will want to buy your games instead of the alternative. Remember, you're not just competing against other indie games, you're competing against big blockbuster games, older classics, and in short, everything out there. You need a unique hook, in gameplay, concept, execution, or whatever - if you don't, then why go for your game over someone else's?

Seek feedback especially before but also after release. Don't become defensive when someone offers criticism. Analyze the complaint and see if it's valid. If several people have the same complaint, it's probably valid.

Spread the word. You can have the best and most original game in the world but if no one knows about it, it won't sell. Create a list with media contacts to send news and free copies of your game to. Become an active user on various forums or where people who might like your game gather. Create a website, a twitter, a facebook, and other forms of social media for your company.

Be nice. If you're nice, people will help you to succeed. If you're nice and your games are good, people will buy your games. If you're not nice, they'll just pirate them.

Start now. You're never too young or too old to begin game development. The sooner you begin, the sooner you'll gain the skills necessary for you to eventually make the best game ever!

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Jane Castle
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Aspiring indies read this article...... This man speaks the truth!

Rey Samonte
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Definitely agree 100%. Especially about the scope. I've been fortunate enough to have worked in the AAA and casual gaming space. Even small games take a lot of effort to make. I've talked to several people who wanted to get into game development and most have under estimated the development cycle. A lot of people have said, let's make a retro 8-bit looking game...should be easy right? Every time I hear that, I shake my head! Then I run. LOL!

But I definitely respect Robert's advice because he does speak a lot of truth. As a small developer, there's a lot of little things that come up that can potentially extend the development time. When you allow your ideas to grow too fast and you don't have the time and resources to get them done, that's the start of a failed game project. It's so easy to get motivated but many times harder to execute. But regardless, don't let those little things discourage you. Learn from your failures and successes and you will grow as a developer.

The more you do, the more pieces you'll have as time goes on. Eventually, you'll get to a point where you can start developer bigger games because you've got the systems that will support those ideas. As hard and frustrating as it can be at times, it's also a lot of fun!

Luis Guimaraes
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"Spread the word", it's harder than it sounds.

Matt Hackett
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Start small, ship early, find a niche! All good stuff Robert, nice article.

Jamie Roberts
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Even if you are a "multi-talented genius", you still need other people to test your game and give feedback. Those interactions can motivate you to avoid stagnation.

Anthony Boterf
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So...... I guess having a dream of producing a AAA game might be tough to execute. I've been reading and following the news here, and soaking up everything I can about game dev, and I am still determined to get this project off the ground.

I fully embrace all that is being said in this article, but at the same time, I cannot help the extreme drive and desire to go through with my dreams. With a possible investor seeding the first $500,00+, and seeing the success of the Double Fine kickstarter project, I feel that I could pull this off with the right team.

Maybe it would be a good idea to develop a few smaller titles, possibly for mobile platforms, that can be actual pieces to the full game (in disguise, so to speak), thereby generating income prior to the big title release.

Maybe I should just start a thread on this....

Robert Boyd
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If you've never actually made a game or led a game studio, being given large amounts of funding is just asking for a disaster. Doing a MMORPG would be a double disaster. The amount of work involved to just make a generic MMORPG and maintain it once it's made is staggering, to say nothing of any innovations you may be planning.

You should definitely start with something smaller.

EDIT: AAA games have budgets in the tens of millions. Big MMORPGs have budgets in the hundreds of millions. You're not getting that kind of funding as a new developer. Half a million is less than your average $10 XBLA game costs to develop.

Also, after Doublefine, the second highest earning videogame kickstarter project is like $70k or so. Many new indie developers have trouble getting even a few thousand via kickstarter. Kickstarter is not a viable route to getting large sums of money unless you have a strong reputation already.

Jane Castle
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While I agree with Robert here.... The 500K or more (more than likely more) to develop an indie game on XBLA involves hiring developers, artists, designers, having an office, phones, computers, software tools etc. etc.

Now how I have saved costs is that I am a developer who owns his own engine developed by me over SEVERAL years. I work out of my house and I contract out my artwork and sound needs to people I know and trust. The bulk of my savings are from the fact that I own and maintain my own technology and I do not hire programmers I develop everything myself.

To give you an idea of what is involved, my current engine has been in existence since early 2003 (so nearly nine years of CONTINUOUS development!!!) It consists of 1500 C++ files and over 800,000 lines of code. This does not include the code for tools and exporters or any game code..... While my engine is no Unreal or Crysis it is certainly up there in terms of the feature set.

This being said if you came to me and told me I have 500K, go build an MMORPG for me my answer would be a FLAT OUT NO..... With all my experience and a working engine (actually several) behind me, I still do not have the ability to pull something like that off. So unfortunately you will have to start off with something much much smaller.

I also live very frugally even though I am starting to see good revenues from my game. You can never be too safe financially in this or any other industry. That 500K will go by real quick if you aren't careful.

I hope you don't get the impression that it is IMPOSSIBLE to make a successful indie game. You do need capital, a ton of drive and lots of experience. You need to start very small and build from there. Also realize that it will take YEARS before you are good enough to make games. And even after years of experience you will ALWAYS be learning new things and facing challenges.

Now Robert's comment about needing 500K+ This applies more to triple AAA studios that have large overheads. For example DoubleFine! They need $400K minimum to make an adventure game. And they most certainly do. They have offices in San Francisco (expensive!) talented and highly paid employees (well most of them) they have to pay, furniture, heating, electricity bills etc. etc.

You can save substantial costs by being your own lead programmer with lots of experience (hard won and painfully obtained I might add...) and outsourcing your artwork (a whole kettle of fish in itself) to developers you know and trust.

Please take the honest advice on these boards which is what makes Gamasutra so great. I wish I had this advice when I first started out making games back in the early 90s. But back then the internet was nowhere near what it is today. So on that note you have access to information that I couldn't even dream of.

Do your research and plan accordingly......

Rey Samonte
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Regarding Double Fine, I think we have to be careful as using them as an example that anyone can get crowd funding can be misleading. For one, they are an established studio who already had a following for their games. They have proven themselves worthy of such funding.

Speaking from experience, I've been trying to create a start up for the last 2 or so years and I've failed more than I've succeeded when trying to create a small team of guys I can trust and work with. It's not as easy as you think because when it comes time to making the game, that's when you see how serious they were. Not to mention, I've learned that if you give everyone equal say with the direction of the game, you will see more indecisions when it comes time to making the hard calls for the good of the game. When you see your team stuck on an idea and no one wants to budge, you learn how important leadership comes to play. Without that leadership experience, it's hard to convince others that a certain direction is the right one.

Despite my failures in trying to get a team together, or even finding the right game to develop given the time and resources I have, you still need to work hard on your own, get the experience and confidence you need that will allow you to gain the knowledge and experience required in leading a team. Through your trial and errors now, you will learn and can apply that later on. Not only from a technical point of view but from a leadership one as well. Definitely hold onto the dream and be persistent.

The more baby steps you can make as an individual, the more prepared you will be when it comes time to run with a project full time in the future.

Ramon Carroll
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Thanks Rey. I think people keep forgetting that tiny little important fact about Double Fine that separates them from first-time amateur startups.

Mikhail Mukin
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Estimate how many engineers do you need. One engineer who can work on MMO server = at least $120K/year for you with taxes etc. Typically, you will need several people to work for at least a year+ on a server. For most AAA games it "somehow" takes at least 2 but often 3+ years (well... often cause the tech management do not quite understand how to approach it... and they go by trial and error... and it is indeed not an easy technical problem... but finding a really good tech lead on MMO server tech is next to impossible and will cost a fortune).

Set up development, testing, production server clusters. Decide on server-client movement protocols, inventory/actions protocols, separate sign in/authentification servers, DB servers, caching servers or tech, possibly separate chat servers, possibly separate cheat detection servers, do proper load balancing, monitoring, logging etc. Yes, you might speed things up if you grab existing tech... just do not expect it to work out of the box.

Estimate how many environment art, character art, animations etc do you need. Ask fellow art lead current outsourcing costs... it will be quite a lot for MMO to not feel "empty". You will need some senior tech artist on site to correct the mess outsources often produce and art director to quide the style.

Do the same estimate for number of VOs, music, sound FX.

You will need world builders too. Do not expect Unreal to just work :) with a big world. 3rd party engines work "out of the box" only for smaller or specially prepared demos. To make them work for a real big game requires quite a lot of work.

You will need a person to monitor community, do the web site etc.

You will need billing and some kind of customer support if you plan to make any money on it. And a lot of "I bought this item but it disappeared" issues etc.

Add testing budget, hosting, etc.

Basically - don't even think about any MMO with < 10 million. with 10, you will probaly fail but it will take you a bit to realize you are failing. With 30 - you have a little chance with the right people and *very* small scope... but why the right people would work for you, and not for Blizzard or Bioware or somebody who already made games?

If you have somebody willing to invest $500K into games... You best bet is to find a company doing "social-mobile" games. They can cost even from $300K - depending upon quality/design. Have good idea and money - the company I'm currently working for can do it for you (and of cause there are many others). Actually, if you just have money - it can work too, we have more good ideas then money right now :) I have an idea people saying is great (and would take < $400K to make).

If you have > $500K (around $1M) you can try XBLA/PSN game... but you still might be better off with 2-3 social mobile projects and can split the risk this way.

Forget about Double Fine. What they are doing might be a bit misleading to beginner game devs. Plus, it is *way* simpler to make then MMO or even a multiplayer XBLA game (of cause, minus the creative/fun to play part - but it is hard to measure in $ :)


Christer Kaitila
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Hear hear! When I first started out, I suffered from the typical newbie errors. In particular, I had "the arrogance of youth" where I consistenty overestimated my own abilities. My game designs were always overambitious, full of features, and most of my projects died of featurecreep.

Now, when I talk to brand new indie gamedevs, I tell them to make ten tiny simple one-screen, one level games to get past the learning curve. Sadly, everyone still falls prey to the "second system effect" as popularized in the mythical man month.

The BEST way to become an indie gamedev pro? JOIN 48hr GAME JAMS. Great for practise, for learning to limit yourself, and to learn how to get to the finish line.

Gregg Williams
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Starting small is certainly a good step I'd say. When I started out, I easily ended up spending tens of thousands of dollars in artwork/sound/music/biz expenses for projects which were along XBLA level, that never ended up getting finished or even gaining much traction.

It was a slow and costly decline in project scope, down to the eventual mobile space and web space, before most projects actually started shipping. Now I'm trying to slowly work back up out of mobile and web. Wish I still had the cash flow I once had.

One interesting alternative to small games as well, if thats not your primary passion, is open source projects and the emulation scene. I spent a good number of years in the Ultima Online server emulation scene working with other developers/designers/communities/etc that taught me a ton of things, which I'll eventually use.

In many ways I think its almost ideal for anyone really interested in design, there is just nothing like having an active audience that is playing your game, and will very loudly give you feedback when you roll some change/new system into their universe.

Jason Carter
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I cannot tell you how much I've learned in a compact time because of 48 hr (or in my case 72 hr) game jams. Sure the game may not always have come out as well as I would have expected, but the experience was priceless. Refining coding techniques and learning how to appeal to people judging it for only a moment is a great thing to experience.

Anthony Boterf
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As far as developing the game, I've been looking at probably utilizing Unreal or Hero as the dev toolkit. I know the professional level license isn't cheap, but the starter kit may work for, well, starters! There seems to be alot more available to a new indie developer/studio than even what was there 5 years ago, so I still think it can be done. Not for $500k, and not alone, and not without a LOT of hard work and dedication...but still possible!

First things first, tho...I need to get myself a fine project manager, perhaps one with some Unreal or Hero experience, to start my crew. But, that will be something I need AFTER the first round of funding.

Oh, and I am not thinking I can produce a AAA title in less than 5 years. I'd be a fool to think otherwise.

Anthony Boterf
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Any further comments can be posted on my personal blog intro post...don't want to totally hijack the thread here

Dave Toulouse
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The best thing I get out of this stuff is "do stuff". Everything else is related to manage hopes and expectations. Well unless the topic of this post was "So you want to be a successful indie game developer from day one" but I don't think it was.

For example: "Start small and work your way up"

Well I didn't. First game? Sandbox MMO with the client written in JavaScript ( No I didn't made millions out of it. Yes it's flawed in many ways. It was however for me the best way to get my 2 hands into game development. I learned a lot and that's what kept me doing it. Five years later I'm still going at it.

I'd have a hard time telling people to start small. When I'm asked "How do I get to do games" I just tell them "Just start and finish something then move on to the next project and try to learn something in the process". That's all I tell them. That's all I feel I can tell them as I didn't follow any of these "tips list" I've read for the past 5 years now.

What really helps most is just telling the story of what you did and let people learn from it without trying to guide them in specific directions as there's no way to predict how things will go for different people. I learn a lot more from reading stories than reading "do this and not that" lists.

But yeah if the point is to give a recipe that will succeed on the first try then I can't help.

Luis Guimaraes
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If I had to refute a point it'd be "Don't do it alone", as I only was able to actually make anything complete when I went alone. "Plan out the game's scope" works better when you can't count only on yourself.

When anybody asks me how to get started:

Make a classic Shoot'em Up. Don't write design document. Don't build engine. One player plane, one mode of fire and one simple type of enemy.

Robert Boyd
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What kind of background did you have going into Golemizer? Somebody who has a general programming or art background going in (or who previously worked at a mainstream game studio) is going to be able to start off with much more ambitious projects than someone who is coming at game development completely from scratch. If you did make Golemizer with no programming or game development background at all, then kudos - that's very impressive.

IMO, what you use to learn the craft should relate to your goals. If you want to make action games, a classic shmup is a great way to start. I wanted to make RPGs so I started out with text adventure games (which taught me basic stuff like text manipulation and menus which I was able to use later).

Dave Toulouse
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Yes I had a web programming background but if I would have gone on forums saying "hey I'm going to make an MMO as my first game" people would still have laugh at me. It would have been worst if I would have tell them that I was going to use JavaScript for the client and VB.NET for the server. Again it doesn't mean that any of this was actually wise or destined to be successful but that got me started.

Since "I did it all wrong" according to most "top ten advice" lists I tend to be careful about them. Sure not everyone can do it like I did but that's my point exactly. I'd have a hard time writing a "top ten advice" list as people would tell me "well it worked for you this way but might not for most people".

Jonathan Jennings
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I totally agree Dave i am a junior game dev myself but have also gotten this question a few times and truly the best info I would give is " just start" and keep building too. granted i went to school for game programming so i received a nudge in the right direction but the true deep down, I could reproduce it in any given situation " knowledge" that i acquired came from working and trying to implement features in my own small projects. still yeah 90% of the information I read from game devs is " just start" and now it's easier than ever so why not? very one says they want to make a game but it says something when a person buckles down and moves forward to actually do it.

k s
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Really great article Robert. I've already experienced at least a few of the pit falls you mention and can say you right on all counts. My personal strengths are in programing and design, I'm also okay at writing. Where I suck is art and music and this is why I feel your point about don't do it alone is so true.

I have 4 games solely to my credit with only 2 ever really being publicly released, and only 1 of those being a commercial product.

My first was a slap together made with RPG Maker XP and done in about 3 months (I'd never even tried to make a game before that). I titled that one as Quest for the Maiden. - JRPG

My second, the commercial one (also with RMXP but a lot of pseudo-code). I called that one Zyhen Legacy of the Past. - Action RPG/Zelda clone

My third was written from scratch in python (first game I ever wrote from scratch) and was done in my mother's honor as she was diagnosed with ALS. I named that one Bead It - a puzzle game

My fourth was a simple text based adventure written from scratch to help me get used to C# (my background is C++). It's called Adventures in Text - text based RPG

My fifth is still a work in progress and also written in C#. It's called Conflict Imminent - RTS

With each project I learned more and more, about various sub-fields and game development in general. With my current level of experience I understand that Robert is right (at first I wouldn't have agreed) and it's very hard to do everything myself but I also realize that finding people locally with the skills I lack is problematic so I prefer to "contract out" the art and music instead. Another thing I learned is you my fellow developers are an incredible source of inspiration, help, wisdom, information, etc. While my experience counts for quite a bit, having the opportunity to interact with others with even more experience then myself is invaluable. I don't think my skills would be as developed if it weren't for others willing to help me work through various problems and I strongly recommend anyone else just starting out to take every opportunity to learn for those with more experience.

Oh and thanx again for a great article Robert.

Jimmy Long
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I to agree, this and previous articles have been well done and insightful. Thanks

Pieterjan Spoelders
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Good read, wholeheartedly agree.

Nobody said it would be easy.

You can't become an expert and write a successful game in a couple of months.. what it takes is an incredible amount of perseverance.

Benjamin Quintero
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"find someone or a group that can compliment your strengths and make up for your weaknesses."

Sadly this tip falls under the "lucky roll" category. Other than that, everything is pretty spot on here.

Great article.

Kevin Reilly
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"Be nice. If you're nice, people will help you to succeed. If you're nice and your games are good, people will buy your games. If you're not nice, they'll just pirate them."

Truer words have never been spoken. Great article Robert. Now going to look for some of your games.

Jason Carter
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Good article! Hah I'm currently in the build a portfolio and finish my current projects stage, but I hope to work for an actual studio one day :). (or start one someday for profit)

But I feel it takes a certain kind of insanity to spend your free time working for free outside of your normal job and spending hours on your days off programming new ideas into your game. But it's just so much fun. I've always loved the ability to think of something and make it happen that programming and game design bring.

Rikki Robertson-Brown
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What an inspirational post. This really puts things into perspective as I spend a lot of time thinking about the "perfect game" rather than actually trying to make one! I shall dig more into making games and may even do a blog diary to show the progress, thank you.

Tony Yotes
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I was trying to remember where I read these words and I finally found this article on Google. This has basically been the guide carrying me through college. It got m to start up my own little indie games in order to build up to something great.

Thanks to this I have to keep me going.