What is an independent game developer?
Small developers have been around since forever but it’s only in the mid-00 that a new idea of independent game development started to emerge.
I think it makes sense to locate the indie games movement in the context of a broader indie / DIY culture.
Which includes indie rock via punk.
Independent comics and publishing
Indie != obscure or marginal
And we can connect it to broader trends like the DIY/maker movement, open source, local farming etc.
As both a rejection of regimented factory and office work.
And an affirmation of an excess of creativity that is not captured (yet) by the capital.
Independent from what?
The machinery of gaming has run amok… An industry that was once the most innovative and exciting artistic field on the planet has become a morass of drudgery and imitation… It is time for revolution!
-Greg Costikyan Death to the Games Industry – An early indictment of the game industry
the typical development budget for a PC game was as little as $200,000
For A-level title is around $5m
For triple-A title $10m is common
Average AAA TITLE BUDGET: $28M
Factors include: Moore’s law, CD-ROM, 3D
Today, art assets (not programming) are the main cost driver. As machines become capable of rendering more detailed 3D models in real time, the market demands more detailed 3D models
- Sales are growing but production costs are growing faster
- The average game (not the industry as a whole) loses more and more money.
- The publishers make up the losses on the few games that hit.
- Big budgets breed conservatism. Publisher don’t want to risk a lot of money.
Only 20% of games that start production will end up with a finished product.
And of that percentage of finished games, 20% will make a profit.
This means that 4% of all games which start production will eventually make a profit.
-Electronic Entertainment Design and Research 2008
Before digital distribution the issue of shelf space was crucial. Most of the sales were concentrated in the first 2 weeks after the release. Marketing was (and still is) a big part of the budged.
The result was a Hit-based market where big budgets bred conservatism and there was little room for niche products or risk taking content.
So you want to work in the game industry
The EA spouses controversy. Cutting costs by establishing up to 80-hour work weeks instead of hiring new developers.
You don’t get a game out like that with a bunch of people who don’t have any passion about the quality of the product and don’t want to spend that one extra night.
– Epic CEO, who stated his company would not hire people willing to work for less than 60 hours a week
Geek culture takes such strongly held commonalities of interest and consumption far more seriously than most other subcultures.[…]
The exchange is simple: you will work 60-hour weeks for a quarter less than other software fields; in exchange, you have a seat at the table of your primary identifying culture’s ruling class.
They’ll work new employees until they burn out and then replace them with another fresh face who’s eager to prove themselves in the industry – working harder for less money.[…] The developers that work their way up at these studios are either the most determined or the most stubborn – but not necessarily the most creative or the most fulfilled
Gender (wage) gap
“Layoffs are more than just losing a job; they’re gaining a mountain of uncertainty, stress and financial concerns. I have moved my family more than seven times over the last 16 years, across the country and up and down the west coast. I’m a pro at living with very few material possessions, as I grew tired of lugging them around. As you can imagine all those moves put an enormous stress on relationships, both personal and professional. Your circle of immediate friends shrinks to zero with every move.”
In big budget game development publishers set hard release dates for a game (e.g. Christmas), the studio hires as many developers possible and it may find itself bigger than it can afford to be.
At the end of a successful project developers may get laid off because they are not needed for the pre-production of the next title.
Why Game Developers Keep Getting Laid Off (talks about good practices too)
INDIE IS MORE THAN “SMALL BUDGET”
The indie games movement emerged as a response to all these issues. Indie came to signify:
- Self-directed creative work: experimental, personal, risky…
- New distribution channels (in part provided by major players): Steam, app store, itch.io, festivals/party/new arcade
- New funding models: Indie Fund, humble bundle, Kickstarter, Patreon
- New game criticism/journalism: expanding the notion of pleasure, complicating the notion of quality, reaching new types of players.
- Community support: belonging to a scene of practitioners, collaborating rather than competing.
- Different development cycles: prototype often > release early > polish and commercialize only if it works
- Soft deadlines
- Creating a more inclusive community in term of gender, class, race and background (informal education, alternative conferences, advocacy)
- Reframing game making as artistic and cultural practice, not necessarily an industrially organized job
Solo indie developers earned an average income of $11,812
57% percent of indie game developers made under $500 in game sales. On the other end of the spectrum, 2 percent made over $200,000 in game sales.
The opening of marketplaces like Steam to indie led people to believe that saturation will produce an “Indiepocalypse” pushing revenues down and forcing small developers to consolidate to compete – mirroring the evolution of the App store.
It’s an ongoing conversation.
Meanwhile, common wisdom if you want to be a professional indie:
– Don’t quit your day job or find a job that doesn’t suck the entirety of your time
– Don’t start a company if you don’t already have a product/prototype that was received well
– Don’t Kickstart a project unless you proved yourself “worth”
– Be part of a community, go to conferences, participate to game jams, hang out with other developers. See resources.
– Beware of the survivorship bias
Triple I and Alt games
Successful independent games like Minecraft and the willingness of publishers to invest in small studios (e.g. Playstation and Thatgamecompany) prompted a gold rush, a “get rich or die trying” mindset that came ad odds with the values of some members of the independent community.
The category of Altgames was created to shift the focus toward individual financial sustainability and inclusivity.
Find the game developer/designer you want to be. Research her/his background and career. Read all the interviews, biographies, lectures and podcasts you can find. I don’t want to know what these people did but how these people established them in the game industry at large (indie or not). How did they get there? What were their breakthroughs or crucial experiences?
Use Google, filtered by date to find old news coverage.
MobyGames is a good resource for credits.