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Being Indie: A Survival Guide

Kicking off a new monthly column for GI.biz, indie dev Scott Brodie shares lessons learned from 5 years of keeping the lights on

Five years ago this month I left a job at a large game studio to become the owner and (then) only member of indie studio Heart Shaped Games. The journey so far has been a rollercoaster, with many mistakes made and hard lessons learned. I often see new indie developers making some of my same early mistakes, so in the spirit of giving back, I've collected some of the most important advice I've received and lessons learned while surviving a half-decade in the independent games business.

Learning How and When to Grow

My earliest struggle was understanding when to spend money. Because I was self funding development, I was hyper focused on spending as little cash as possible. In my mind, it seemed best to save budget by doing everything myself (art, programming, design, music, PR), but that approach quickly produced average results and creative burnout. What became evident was that while I was spending less in the short term, I was actually spending on the wrong things, wasting time and limiting my game's earning potential.

"You may end up paying more for partnerships and freelancers over the long term, but the tradeoff has always been worth it for me, especially when viewed in light of the solo alternative"

My advice is to identify your team's weaknesses early, and find a way to get expert help in those areas. If you don't have the resources needed to hire that help like I did, there are a number of creative ways to still find the help you need:

1. Offer revenue share. Many freelance artists & programmers are willing to take risk in order to gain a share of profits from a game they believe in.

2. Form partnerships around the project. Many times the best option is to find a partner company, like another studio or indie-friendly publisher, that excels at what you don't.

3. Use asset libraries or non-exclusive services. You can get high quality work done for a more affordable rate if you can stomach not having all parts of your game be exclusive. For example, the music used in our game Highgrounds was from a royalty-free music library from Lucky Lion Studios. Very few players will ever play the small set of other games that may use the same music, so the savings is worth it. The same goes for programming and art, with places like the Unity Asset Store being a great way for small developers to get high quality work done for very reasonable rates.

You may end up paying more for partnerships and freelancers over the long term, but the tradeoff has always been worth it for me, especially when viewed in light of the solo alternative. You get the help you need to make a high quality game, the team members are invested in the game's success, you don't take on huge debt during production, and you raise the ceiling for how successful your game can be.

A few words of caution though: Hiring is the most important thing you will do, but I don't recommend growing for growth's sake. My teams are generally 2-3 people. but we've been as large as 9 including partners. It's important to grow when it's needed to fulfill your vision of the game, but otherwise you want to make sure you hire the right (reliable) people, have enough financial runway to comfortably release your game, and not go out of business if the release doesn't go as expected.

Choosing What Games To Make

Gaining a feel for what type of game to make, and how large in scope it should be is another area I had to work at. Getting it right has had significant impact on my ability to survive.

I've found that the size of a game's potential hinges on three main factors:

1. Unique and clear hook.

2. Skilled/experienced team.

3. Quality of execution (art, tech, elegant design, etc).

Each of these factors contributes to the game connecting with a player, and the more players your game connects with, the larger your potential audience.

Smaller studios generally aren't able to hit high marks in all three categories. For example, it's much harder for a small team to compete with the quality of execution of a Bungie or Bethesda, or the pedigree and visibility of a Blizzard or Double Fine.

"You are not in competition with other developers, especially other small independent ones. By being open with your work, and developing a mindset of giving back to others, you'll find yourself with a better game and support system"

The projects I've found the most success with are those that I worked hard to find an amazingly strong core hook, that have a low cost of creating content, that inspire a strong passion and drive to completion in your team, and that find their own audience via word-of-mouth. For example, some of the design choices I've made that have worked out: choosing niche genre mixes (Roguelike/4X Strategy/Collectible Card Games) to create unique hooks; choosing polished 2D-artwork over 3D; choosing procedurally generated content over hand-crafted levels; choosing emergent gameplay that generates shareable player-created stories over elaborate narrative.

For a more in-depth take on this topic, I recommend Ryan Clark's (Crypt of the NecroDancer) great article on how to choose the right design.

There are other important factors that affect a game's success (marketing, choosing the right release platforms, pricing - all topics that probably deserve articles of their own), but choosing the right game to work on is the thing most directly in your control. Getting that up front choice right will establish a strong foundation for your studio to work from.

Community

Another hard won insight is the importance of building strong relationships with your peers in the developer community. While I've worked hard, I credit the successes I've had to the incredible help and support I've received from other indies and friends.

You are not in competition with other developers, especially other small independent ones. By being open with your work, and developing a mindset of giving back to others, you'll find yourself with a better game and support system for when you run into problems. I've never encountered a problem where another developer has tried to steal an idea or use knowledge of what I'm doing to hurt my business. In most cases, it's the exact opposite - most developers want to help you make your game better and do what they can to help you make something great. It was wonderful to be a part of the growth of the Seattle Indies community, and I highly recommend you seek out your local dev community ASAP as well.

This also extends to your players and fans. It never fails to surprise me how much players appreciate being able to talk directly to the developers of their favorite game. Be active in your forums and on social media to help set the right tone. React quickly and politely to even the nastiest "troll." I've spent the time to foster these relationships, and over 5 years I've seen that attention pay off in the form of word-of-mouth, trust, and loyalty to our games.

Staying In The Game

Above all, the most important thing I've learned is that indie development is a long term endeavor. It's very unlikely that any of your games will be immediate break out hits, but if you can find a way to survive and continue to release games, you'll develop a sustaining cash flow from the combined sales of all games. As well, the longer you stay with it, the more experience you'll gain, which increases the quality of your next game and the chance of it performing better. Having released two games, multiple updates, and now a third game in active development, I'm beginning to see this effect.

Most indies, and businesses in general, fail not because they didn't have the skills to succeed, but because they quit too soon. There are obviously legitimate reasons that a developer might need to choose a different course, but I've found that staying small, picking achievable high-potential projects, and being obsessive about maintaining a healthy financial runway have enabled me to stay in the game.

Scott Brodie is the Founder & Creative Director at independent studio Heart Shaped Games. He is the designer and programmer of IndieCade Finalist Hero Generations and online CCG Highgrounds. Prior to Heart Shaped Games he was an XBLA Producer for Microsoft Game Studios on 20+ titles, and a Designer and Programmer on a variety of AAA PC and Console titles.

Latest comments (8)

Darren Adams Managing Director, ChaosTrend2 years ago
Good list, though I suppose another one you could add is;

Be prepared to do external work if your game isn't the success you hoped it would be
We all need cash flow and sometimes just doing a bit of software work (or something else based on team skills) on the side can get you over a cash shortage. Obviously this comes with a cost and that would be the schedule for your current game, depending on team size of course. I have been doing this for 7 years and I have had many ups and downs, but as mentioned the key is not giving up. If you do find yourself in a cash black hole, look for some external work and try to keep working on that game in your spare time.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Darren Adams on 14th October 2015 4:11pm

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Scott Brodie Founder, Lead Designer, Heart Shaped Games 2 years ago
Thanks Darren! I agree that external work can be a good way to address short term cash flow problems, but that recommendation comes with some important caveats. I've taken on a few part-time consulting and teaching positions along the way, and I would only recommend those that are short term and pay an above-average rate. Long term contracts can feel nice because they are stable income, but in my experience they are just a distraction from the goal of improving the core business. They also require you tofragment your time, so you are less efficient when it comes time to ramp up back into your indie work. In short, I wouldn't recommend it as a strategy for success, but it's definitely an option available when there are short-term financial gaps to fill.
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Darren Adams Managing Director, ChaosTrend2 years ago
I agree, it's only meant as a short term fix to get you back on track, though I should have mentioned that, doh! As for the distraction part; you are right, it can be very difficult to keep focus when you are juggling more than one project and it can be a tricky transition either way.
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Show all comments (8)
Nic Wechter Senior Designer, Black Tusk (MGS Vancouver)2 years ago
Great article, really interesting, I look forward to the rest of the series.
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Excellent advice for indie game devs. Being flexible with the size of the team is a key point, start small then ramp up when needed.
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Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development2 years ago
I would actually advise against doing external dev work, based on bitter experience. Others' mileage may vary, but we got shafted almost all the time, and the stress caused by chasing up the money further crippled our minds when trying to get back to the main event. The client also knows that you're a tiny firm desperate for money - remember that before you go in at least.

Also, at contractor rates it wasn't putting a large excess of money into the pot, mostly just treading water and ultimately wasting time. It was a small net win to be fair, but I think it would've been more optimal to stuff envelopes in the evenings and reduce the time to ship.

I guess what I'm saying is that it can work for you, but don't assume it just will because.

Simon Bailey, formerly of Asylum Entertainment Ltd, Asylum Entertainment UK Ltd. and doubtless several other phoenixed dev firms by now still owes me 40K. Do not work for this man regardless.

edited for typos.

Edited 3 times. Last edit by Paul Johnson on 15th October 2015 11:27pm

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Darren Adams Managing Director, ChaosTrend2 years ago
Yes, getting paid can sometimes be problematic when doing external work, it's something that can and does happen. Saying that though, all the work I have done was paid for.....eventually.

But like I mentioned, sometimes you will find yourself with no cashflow and there are only a few options; find work (company or personal), borrow money or give up. You can't make games for free.
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Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development2 years ago
I would advocate a simple flow chart:

Genuinely believe you can make it? Because it's good, not just because you want it to work?
Yes? Borrow money
No? Get a job at a larger firm and make small mobile games for fun in the evenings or something.

I don't even see KS as being all that useful for the sort of people we're talking about here. If you're so small and invisible to be even having this conversation, you won't be getting any KS eyeballs unless you truly, genuinely, have something awesome cooking. That's almost never true.
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