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"There are so many amazing stories out there that don't end in success"

Rami Ismail and Mike Bithell on the industry's tendency to "romanticise" indie developers, and the value of hearing more stories of failure

Aspiring indie developers can easily learn about success, but what about its necessary opposite: failure? Speaking at Reboot Develop, a panel of prominent figures in the independent scene said the industry falls short when it comes to stories about anything other than prosperity, and overlooks the many privileges that success affords.

On the last day of Reboot Develop, Rami Ismail and Mike Bithell participated in an informal Q&A session, in which the idea of struggle surfaced again and again. Is the Indiepocalypse over? Did it ever even happen? How has over-crowding in the market affected the way indies build businesses? Most provocative of all, though, was a question on the dominance of "middle-class" voices at conferences and in the media. Does the industry, Bithell and Ismail were asked, only allow its more privileged and successful voices to be heard?

"Yes," Ismail said, definitively. "The answer is yes."

"People don't want the story that shit sucks, and making games is hard, and not always fun, and most of us will probably fail at it"

Rami Ismail

Particularly at conferences, Ismail continued, the games industry is given to survivorship bias, reinforcing the idea that success is the product of a series of right choices, masking the good fortune that almost always plays a vital role, and ignoring the experiences of those that fail. Hence a panel about indie development, a notoriously unforgiving space, in which every speaker was from the successful minority.

"My family didn't have money," Ismail said. "Our computer was a loan from an uncle, but as I grew through the industry I'm now in a rather comfortable position. One of the reasons I'm speaking at an event like this is because we are successful. It's why we get invited.

"One of the biggest challenges, as an industry, is how to make it clear that the voices you do hear have had a series of accidents that somehow led to [success]."

Bithell agreed, adding that successful people tend to believe their standing is directly in proportion to their talent and canny decisions. Given that stories of success dominate both conferences and the media it can create a skewed impression of the value of their advice, while other stories - which are more representative of the experiences of the majority of indie developers - can be difficult to find. "Find those stories," Ismail said. "They are so important, and there's so much you can learn from the people who go through that."

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Ismail referred to occasions where he's offered truthful feedback to a developer about their game, the kind of truth that not everybody enjoys hearing. Every now and then that feedback prompts the person to leave the industry altogether, and those people are often "much happier" for having taken that step.

"That's also a valid outcome of working in the games industry. It doesn't have to end in ruin - in retirement or death," he continued. "There are so many stories in this industry, so if you ever feel like you're only hearing one of them, please search for the others.

"I can tell you, there are so many amazing stories out there that don't end in success."

Bithell admitted that, although great attention is paid to what he and Ismail have to say, their relative success places "limitations on how well we can convey that story" - that being the story of surviving and, in some cases, not surviving at all. "Me and Rami, when we see articles about that I know we highlight it," he said, "because we see it as a massive failing on the way we talk publicly."

"It's generally true that we romanticise indie devs, and make out that everyone comes from nothing or appears from out of nowhere"

Mike Bithell

Ismail added: "Privilege is a huge part of why we're here, and yes, the voices you hear are mostly successful people. Because people don't want the story that shit sucks, and making games is hard, and not always fun, and most of us will probably fail at it."

Another aspect of the problem is the way that success begets success. Ismail and Bithell had different takes on whether it is genuinely more difficult to be successful now than five years ago - the former believed the ratio of success to failure is still broadly the same, but the total number of developers is higher; the latter cited the impact being featured on Steam had back in 2012, the force of which has been severely eroded - but both agreed that there are privileges only available to people who found a significant audience when they did.

Ismail said they were both "part of a lucky group in that regard. When we were growing people had just started to take indie seriously, so a lot of indie stuff that big companies do was specifically built around our needs." Bithell spoke about his relationship with the press, which was formed on the strength of Thomas Was Alone, and gives him an advantage to this very day. "There are a lot of doors open to us," he added. "Honestly, it means that we're really playing on easy mode at this point."

The paradox here is that figures like Bithell and Ismail are inspirational for many indie developers - people from whom advice is both actively sought and greatly valued - and yet they seem acutely aware that their paths to success are almost impossible for others to reproduce. Both acknowledged the need for greater balance in the way the industry is represented; in indie development failure is simply one outcome of doing business, and not an indication of a person's talent or application. There are best practices, of course, but best practices can be very different for a business with no audience or severely restricted resources.

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Bithell talked about one outcome of this bias towards survivors and success. When he is asked to teach university students, he said, he always asks the room to choose a preferred path once their studies have finished: work for Rockstar, or start an indie studio. According to Bithell, only a few people ever opt for Rockstar, while the rest are eager to go it alone.

"Absolutely, you should go for it if you can," Bithell told the Reboot Develop audience. "If you can fail a few times and survive and make something cool, go for it. But there is the other path, and the other path is the one that's more travelled."

"There are a lot of doors open to us. Honestly, it means that we're really playing on easy mode at this point"

Mike Bithell

It is also one that Bithell took in his early career, a detail that those who admire his work as an indie don't often understand. Roles at Blitz Games and Bossa Studios gave him vital experience; particularly Bossa, where he was the company's first hire outside of the founding team. "I learned enough on the job that, when I started my own company, I remembered what they did. I copied what I liked, and did things differently in the areas I disagreed with their decisions.

"It's generally true that we romanticise indie devs, and make out that everyone comes from nothing or appears from out of nowhere. But Phil Fish worked at Ubisoft, Jon Blow did awesome work at a bunch of different companies. Every indie superstar you've ever heard about probably has a background like that."

Ismail agreed, arguing against the notion that working for a bigger company is tantamount to giving up on or working against your ideals. "Having a good job on the side is not defeatist - it's smart," he said. "Have something on the side that can carry you through until your game is good enough that you are certain it will make some money.

"The recommendation I give to most people is do not quit your day job before you're making money. Before that, please, please keep that job... Risking everything for something that might or might not work sounds really romantic; you've heard a version of that story a few times, but you haven't heard the other stories of the people who did that exact same thing and just crashed and burned.

"Those people don't get invited to speak at conferences."

GamesIndustry.biz was a media partner for Reboot Develop. Our travel and hotel costs were provided by the organiser.

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Latest comments (7)

Alan Blighe Research Associate 6 months ago
Interesting take on this issue. We have a parallel problem in research, whereby only studies with 'successful' outcomes get published. So you don't get to learn about things that haven't worked out, and the literature on some things (like drug efficacy) is massively biased.
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Very sobering article. Should be required reading for all game development students and people planning to enter the industry. It is always the cinderella stories you hear, not the ones that are far more common in reality.
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Hugo Trepanier Game Designer, Behaviour Interactive6 months ago
The irony in this article is that GamesIndustry.biz is also guilty of chronicling Ismail's every move. His comments seemed to me more directed at the press than at indies or would-be indies.

My own advice as an unknown developer is to get a good job at a bigger studio as a decent way to learn and build proper experience, while paying the bills. Work on your indie projects on your own time, as a hobby, but be sure to get serious about it before you have kids and a mortgage.

Yes, there comes a point in your life when priorities change and you may no longer dream of that elusive goal of making it big on your own, or at least not at the risk of losing everything else you've worked so hard to get (family). If you can stomach the insecurity of independence while living your dream and creating something more personally significant, then go ahead and do it now.
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Matthew Handrahan European Deputy Editor, GamesIndustry.biz6 months ago
The comments were mainly about the people who speak at conferences, and he included himself in that number. The media was mentioned in passing, but I actually played it up a little as I felt that it's a relevant part of the problem that was maybe overlooked just due to the fact that we were at a conference when the discussion took place.

All comments were in response to questions from indie developers, so I'm not sure where the notion that they're more directed at the press comes through. In both the actual situation and in the piece, that really isn't the case.
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Hugo Trepanier Game Designer, Behaviour Interactive6 months ago
I'm sorry Matthew, my comment was not meant to be taken as a stab at you guys or the integrity of your reporting. I love this site and think you're doing excellent informative work overall. I'm only speaking from the point of view of a reader who did not attend the talk, and I'm basically agreeing with the speakers' original point that exposure is mostly given to the success stories.

I guess I just get the impression sometimes that some people in this industry are overrepresented as a whole. There's obvious reasons for that but it's also good to read important stories about others as well :)
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Aleksi Ranta Category Management Project Manager 6 months ago
Lets all be honest here, we should all know life isnt a free lunch or a free ticket to stardom.
We all know this, and it doesnt depend what industry you are in. There is no golden ticket.
It is very suprising that this needs to be said, although the way media is today versus what it was in the 80's for example, everything is pretty much painted as one big success story. No wonder the 12year olds think that game develeopment is easy, or that by posting some videos on youtube will make you a millionare.
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James Coote Independent Game Developer 6 months ago
There's two parts to failure:

Commercial failure is more the sort of thing you chat about down the pub, one to one, or in small groups.

"I poured my heart and soul into the game, and between you and me, it only sold 500 copies."

"Oh.. that's pretty good! My game sold 50 copies, half of which were my Mum"

Then there's failure in the game itself. The implication is if you knew the design flaws before launch, why didn't you fix them? Typically, those issues that are found during development are designed out, and so never make it to the final product. Only the solutions are talked about, and less so what was tried first (or second or third).

For failed prototypes, part of the creative process is being able to move on and not get too attached to any one idea. That makes it especially hard to talk about. As well, because they never make it into full production, I think the attitude is that prototypes are somehow less valid as a subject to talk about. They're just half a thing, not a whole. In a sense, it's rummaging through the trash can.
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