'Indie' maestro Stewart Hogarth explores why people put up with it all...
To me, and many others, the indie scene is the most important creative movement happening in games development right now.
That might seem like a strange choice of words, because “indie”, or “independent development”, is supposed to mean simply “game development without the help of external backing or investment”.
Surely that's not the same as a 'creative movement'?
The term has come to mean much more than its original intent. Dundee based behemoth Realtime Worlds, for example, is technically an independent company, but isn't likely to spring to mind when discussing indie studios.
Conversely, creative powerhouse Media Molecule is certainly rocking the indie spirit, but of course while their roots are in independent development, they now have a symbiotic relationship with Sony.
The word “indie” has instead, to many, come to symbolise an attitude, and more than anything else, a community of like-minded people. It has also become associated with a certain type of game too.
Smaller, more experimental, concept driven games, and it has to be said, they're not typically as polished or complete as most commercial releases. This doesn't stem from any lack of ability, it's because of the mindset of the people who populate the indie scene.
This article is an exploration of “the indie mindset”.
It starts with a simple question, which I posted to my Twitter stream.
“Why are you an indie developer?”
I would like to extend my thanks to everyone who replied. Here is a choice selection...
“Because I was born this way”
“It is the only way I can make the games I want to make with artistic integrity and independence. And I want to own the IP I create.”
“I'm in INDIE game dev because being a professional non-INDIE game dev is not that much fun! ”
“Im an indie game dev because ... no one writes the games I want to play”
“Because of all the hot groupies, of course!”
“I have too many ideas; if I don't do something about them there's no telling what might happen”
“Because I want to design games and then make them, without them being horribly compromised.”
“I'm an indie developer because I don't have the opportunity to work on games I want to play with any local games companies.”
“because freedom of creation is a way of life !”
The answers were pretty much what I was expecting.
Two things jump out straight away... Firstly, 'Freedom' is clearly a driving factor for everybody operating in this scene. The other interesting thing to note is that almost nobody mentioned money.
Mike Meyer, who is ex EA and who left his job to make his own games, was much more vocal...
“The best and most valuable work I did for EA was the stuff I was not technically supposed to be working on. I need to be able to do that without getting in trouble. I will always want my own little projects. EA only let me share them or even work on them at all if I got prior approval for each project. (though this had improved a lot since I started). The contract I had to sign to get hired basically said that every idea I ever had while working for them belonged to them. Fuck that.”
He was also quite unhappy with the development process, something he clearly wants more control of;
“No more pointless meetings! I am shit at working under pressure.”
Ultimately though, it seemed to boil down to the desire to create the games he wanted to work on, but he was sure to add that his time in mainstream game development wasn't all bad;
“Madden was going to get made anyway. The games I'm working on now would never get made if I worked for 'The Man'. Time is too valuable for me to give 8-9 hours a day of it to some corporation if I don't have to. I liked the mainstream games industry too though! Giving that up for being indie instead was not easy!”
When you have a spare minute, I urge you to go to his site and try “1,2,3”. It's made of awesome!
While financial success might not be at the at the very top of indies priority list, common sense should tell you that if you're going to make it long-term, you at least need to be able to earn enough to survive.
One person who knows this all too well is Robert McDowell (affectionately known to his many friends as Bert), who also abandoned his stable job to start his own company and peruse a serious career in independent development.
I spoke to him about his motives. Initially, his answer sounds much the same as everyone else...
“I've worked for three separate companies some more fucked up than others. Back at the start of my career I was full of enthusiasm and excitement. Not so much now.
"[The reason for breaking away was] to build shit that we want to build. It's quite simple, at some point in your career you will end up building stuff that you just can't be bothered to build, but you just have to it's part of the job. It's much more fun and satisfying if you buy into the project.”
But after 2 years, he acknowledges that his priorities have changed.
“I started the company 2 years ago, and have struggled to make any kind of a wage or name for myself.
Making money is at the top of the list of now, two years of struggling has been enough. I want to to have a life, and unfortunately you can't have this with out money.
Bert is currently exploring non-game related iPhone apps, such as Payday, a 'Fun finance management program for the rest of us!' And despite a fairly negative experience as an indie developer, his spirits remain remarkably high, and the desire to work to his own schedule still remains unchanged!
“I'll try again once I have another pile of cash in my back pocket!”
After collecting all the responses together, sneaking around their blogs and playing their games, it turns out that no matter their background, there are some unifying ideals that everyone with an active interest in the indie scene shares.
I have compiled what I think are five key principles which unite the people who make their own games.
Perhaps they have seen bad management decisions in their previous roles, and as Mark Sparrow alluded to in a recent blog, they have been frustrated that they weren't in a position to do anything about it.
Perhaps they felt that they were putting in loads of effort and weren't being adequately recognized for it. Perhaps they simply want to realize their own ideas, and know that the only way they can do that is to roll their sleeves up and do it themselves.
One thing is for certain, they want to be masters of their own destiny, and they want creative freedom.
Fans and participants of indie development hold personal ability and drive in very high esteem. A working game, no matter the quality, is what indies value far above pages upon pages of theory and hot air, and the community is certainly no place for 'ideas men'.
This was perfectly demonstrated in a recent audacious job posting by Hello Games, which clearly hints at some still burning bitterness from an undisclosed trauma earlier in their careers!
“We’re a micro studio, so we need people who can actually make games. We like people who can program, draw, animate and make things fun. If you are an artist who can design or programmer who can animate or whatever, then even better.... We don’t really need people who just have ideas or want to tell us what to do. Don’t worry though, there are lots of jobs for you in the proper games industry.”
Games, not Personalities!
It's all about the games with Indie development. Indies really don't give a shit if you had a minor role working on GTA, or have Mark Rein's phone number in your Blackberry's phone book.
None of that qualifies you as 'successful' in the eyes of an indie. But if you've made a simple game about a Panda who paints shapes in the sky using bamboo sap to coax emotional responses from all who see them... then that's awesome!
Points for Effort
In the indie dev scene, points are awarded for effort. If you get a project into a playable form, the quality and execution comes second place to the working concept. Coder art is more than acceptable! And even if the concept doesn't really work, indies will love the fact that someone tried it.
Spirit of Co-Operation!
Indies hate the thought of being exploited. Furthermore, they have a unyielding need to help and encourage others to make their own games.
Through organized game jams (Rapid prototyping weekends), articles encouraging people to try game dev, promoting the tools that we use and sharing code openly, indies seem hell bent on getting as many other people to try game development as possible.
Now, that all sounds very noble and all, but thinking in this way can, on occasion, turn the indie developer into their own worst enemy. The biggest issue stems from the indies definition of what qualifies as 'success'.
Most indies, especially the bedroom based ones, never seem to truly 'finish' their projects. Most get abandoned or released prematurely after a few months of work, and seldom is time spent on polish. I'll happily put my own hands in the air here and say that I am a prime culprit.
I haven't released anything outside of my professional career in over a year, and haven't even bothered to put my last few Jam games up on the web.
The reason, I think, is that since a lot of indies derive pleasure from simply seeing a concept realized, and seeing if it works.
Once they do, they'll jump immediately to the 'Show and tell' stage (Spirit of co-operation), other members of the indie community give them a pat on the back (Points for effort) and after that they're likely to have derived all the pleasure they're going to get from it and see no point in taking it any further.
That's not going to change any time soon. It's a taboo for one indie to criticize another's work. It's in contrast to the 'spirit of co-operation' and 'points for effort' principles, and it may discourage them from starting anything new in the future.
Another issue facing indie developers is that the majority of gamers simply don't care about small, experimental games. In fact, it's much worse than that. The games media don't really care either!
They only start caring about a game once it's reached a certain level of polish. Unlike the indie, they don't give points for effort. Coder art doesn't cut it and having to download and install plugins to get a game working won't fly. They're looking for a full product.
And you know what, that's totally understandable.
They're consumers, and of course they're going to want to see finished, polished work. We can't just ask people to accept simplistic games with placeholder graphics simply because the concept behind it is really engaging.
The movement to rectify this issue has to come from the developers, because what most are doing now is just not enough to stand out, and eventually, more polished games that will eventually begin to eclipse the homebrew efforts.
Not that your average indie would care about that. That's not why they make games, and that's not why I'm writing this article. The motivation behind this article was to shed light on the real reason a majority of indies break out.
It's logical to suggest that it's because there are new platforms and routes to self publish, and if you can develop and distribute games on your own, why the hell wouldn't you? Well... because a good team is better than an individual. That's not the reason.
It would also be logical to conclude that one person making a smaller game, in less time, obviously, needs to make less money to stay afloat than a team. Yet we've already established that financial success is not a strong motivational factor for your average indie developer.
Sadly, of all the people I've spoken to about this, by far and away the most common reason they give for 'going indie' is that they were sick of feeling under-valued, creatively stifled and exploited. I'd hope that any developer reading this would agree that a good team, with some money behind them, can make a much more realized and complete game than an individual in their bedroom.
It's my hope that any games companies reading this, who have perhaps seen good people leave to start on their own, will contemplate the real reason as to why they left. And who knows, some may even be brave enough adjust their working practices to accommodate the indie mindset.