Epic CEO Tim Sweeney, Karateka and Prince of Persia creator Jordan Mechner, Doom designer and Loot Drop founder John Romero, Minecraft creator Markus "Notch" Persson, and Canabalt creator Adam Saltzman all took part in a special GDC panel today on independent development and how it's reminiscent of the old days of garage development.
Romero remarked that designs on Facebook and iOS are very similar to what developers came up with in the old days, given that many are 2D and utilize pixel graphics - he said it's like the early '80s all over again except that the monetization methods are obviously now far different.
"Be prepared to reinvent yourself every few years."
For Saltzman and many on the panel, having the freedom to express one's own creative vision instead of working for others is one of the real joys of being independent. Many developers or people seeking to get into game design often express the desire to do this, and Romero pointed out that there's no reason that aspiring developers can't teach themselves in their spare time using a PC and books on programming and design. "You don't have to wait for permission," Romero said.
Sweeney, of course, coming from the Unreal Engine side noted that it's also easier to develop now with tools like Unity and Unreal. "You can make games with minimal technical knowledge," he remarked.
The downside to being independent and having a creative vision is that your ideas can be stolen. It's become a huge problem in the social and mobile game sectors, whereas in AAA console development it's not a problem because it would be too much money for most companies to risk.
Perhaps the best quote on the panel came from Sweeney, who responded to the cloning topic with: "We came to the decision early on to make games that a Zynga couldn't clone. We've always tried to find that special sauce."
Sweeney, who got started making games as an indie out of his parents' basement and mowed lawns to fund his development and promotional activities, also described the burden that indies must face, noting that independent developers also have to be independent marketers, producers, etc.
Mechner chimed in, agreeing that marketing can ultimately be just as important as having a fantastic new game idea. Persson said he discovered that at Mojang he ultimately needed to hire other talented people because he couldn't wear all the hats necessary. He added that as he became more famous, this meant spending more time answering questions from the community too, which takes time away from development.
One of the keys for independent developers, the panel agreed, is forming strong relationships with other colleagues that may be hired to help on a project and with members of the press. Sweeney said that it's important not to waste the press' time, and if you're showing off a new screenshot, it should be the best possible one to communicate the essence of the game.
After an independent developer hits it big, though, what happens next? How can a hugely successful title be followed up? For Romero, the key is to adapt to new platforms all the time and to be prepared. There are always new things out there, he said, and ultimately one day Facebook will go away and Google will go away.
Sweeney probably summed it up best: "Be prepared to reinvent yourself every few years."