How to prepare yourself for the indie scene

How to prepare yourself for the indie scene
Stephen Caruana

By Stephen Caruana

May 2nd 2013 at 3:00PM

Pixie Software's Stephen Caruana on getting ready to enter the independent development scene

[Stephen Caruana is managing director of Pixie Software, an independent game studio based in Malta, focusing on casual games for mobiles and the web.]

Over the years, the term indie has been used and abused in so many industries that one cannot come up with a succinct definition which incorporates everything this term embodies. Even within the game industry itself, sometimes it is used to indicate the size or culture of a company, reflect the complexity of a game, or even simply as a buzz-word.

However I think we can all agree that the general, basic underlying principle of being an indie (independent) game developer is primarily the lack of financial support by a publisher. This means that most of the time, independent development studios are working on a tight or restricted budget, a significant part of which is earmarked for salaries. Hiring the wrong person for the job can prove to be very costly and, for an indie studio with an already limited budget, the repercussions have a much larger impact. Therefore finding the suitable person is paramount, which means that an employer will probably be less lenient when evaluating job candidates.

As if this wasn’t enough, smaller budgets often mean smaller teams which also means that there are less posts to fill thus making the situation that much more competitive.

So do not be mislead by the “indie” label...applying for a job with an indie developer is just as tough and competitive as with any other company, irrespective of its level of funding. If you intend to work in the indie sector you still need to develop yourself into a desirable candidate, just like with any other job. However an indie studio might just be looking for a slightly different skill set than what might be expected.

Below are some pointers on what you should focus on if you are trying to enter the indie game development industry or if you wish to position yourself amongst the best and brightest in the indie development world.

Personality traits

I’m sure this will surprise quite a number of people but I consider one’s non-technical skills and attributes to be amongst the most important aspects when evaluating job candidates. One could have the best educational background, lots of relevant experience and excel at what he or she does, and this is fine for the short term.

However, the better long term investment for the team is that candidate who can holistically contribute towards the success of the team. Remember that as an indie company with a small team, the ideal individual is one who can multitask between roles and take proper initiative, and this has absolutely nothing to do with one’s academic merits.

I’m talking about being well-learned; cultured; outspoken; having good manners and knowing how to behave professionally and with respect; being neat in one’s work and in personal appearance; confidence; alertness... and the list goes on.

Anyone can acquire academic qualifications, and over time everyone gains experience. Many will be good at what they do, but the unfortunate reality is that people usually stop there.

Take a look at yourselves and focus on developing your personality traits and if nothing else, I can guarantee that you will stand out from the dozens of other individuals competing against you for the best industry positions. Naturally, all this needs to be backed up with proper competencies in the relevant areas, as discussed below.

Education

Formal academic training and education should be way up on your list of priorities. Although this applies to all roles within a game development team, I feel that is of particular importance to those seeking employment in game design or programming.

As I have discussed in an earlier article, I would just like to offer a suggestion to those who have yet to start their academic journey. However please note that this is just a personal opinion and can be highly subjective to the situation and individual.

Do make a distinction between a general degree in computer science as opposed to specialised game development and design courses. As an employer, I would much rather employ someone with the former rather than the latter (both is obviously better).

Game design and development is an application of computer science. Most of the material covered in specialised game-centric courses is based on and builds upon principles of computer science.

Someone with an understanding of what goes on behind the scenes will, more often than not, be quicker to adapt to the ever-evolving technologies and to learn new ones. This is not to diminish the worth or importance of specialised courses, but personally I would use them to supplement a background in computer science, not replace it.

Industry experience

There are two main schools of thought in the debate of education vs. experience. Some believe that formal education is just a piece of paper stating that you can do something in theory, but that the proof of the pudding is in the eating.

Therefore, their conclusion is that proven experience in the industry which has produced and delivered good results supersedes academia. On the other hand there are those who counter this argument by saying that a strong academic background is critical if one wishes to develop the proper experience. Personally I think that the truth, as always, lies somewhere in between.

However, I’m slightly partial towards the second argument, favouring academia over experience, even though academia on its own will never completely prepare someone to face real-world industry problems.

But, I believe in giving people the opportunity to gain experience on the job and develop their areas of expertise, and to do this properly they need to draw from solid academic principles. With the guidance of experienced colleagues, one can learn the proper lessons and will avoid a lot of heartache down the road.

Multi-talented

When talking about personality traits, I briefly touched upon the concept of adopting different roles within a small team. In well-funded projects, really specific distinctions are made between roles and it is common to find roles such as Audio Programmer and a Special Effects Programmer.

Projects running on tighter budgets simply do not have the scope or the resources to make such a distinction. Therefore a well-rounded person is generally more valuable than someone who is an expert in one field but can contribute very little to anything else. Such a person would be more suitable for the big studios developing triple-A titles. Within a small team, a good “all-rounder” programmer who is also good at creating artwork is probably worth his weight in gold.

I do not claim that this article is the gospel all employers in indie development abide by. These are not hard and fast rules one should blindly apply to each and every scenario. Rather, these are educated opinions developed through my observations and experiences in managing Pixie Software.

You need to understand the core principles being highlighted in this article and apply them to your own specific situations. Consider it to be an exercise for your analytical and discerning mind... any excuse to keep developing those personality traits!

[Interested in contributing your own article for Develop's readers? We're always on the lookout for industry-authored pieces on development-related topics. Email craig.chapple@intentmedia.co.uk for more details.]