Tony Gowland ponders the future for independent developers – and asks indies what they're aiming for
I’m not usually particularly prone to overthinking things or introspection, but recently that’s changed and I’m finding myself a little bit lost. Directionless.
Some background might help you understand where I’m coming from, I think. After a decade and a half in the games industry working for other people, I recently self-published my first indie game, Binaries. Don’t worry if you haven’t heard of it, not many people have. That’s sort of the problem (one for a different post). While it hasn’t been completely indiepocalypsed and I know of plenty of games that have sold worse, I’m also not currently browsing property listings to work out which mansion to buy.
Players enjoy it (hello 96% positive Steam reviews) but getting eyes on it has been hard, and something I couldn’t honestly say I’ve made a great job of. Had I made the wrong game? Am I kidding myself thinking this is the right move for me?
Having gone through what at times were some pretty low feelings (I’m reluctant to call it depression, but sitting glumly with my head in my hands for an hour with zero motivation isn’t my usual routine), and severely doubting my own judgement on what’s a good idea because the last one didn’t exactly work out as planned, I’m now trying to work out the whole “what next” bit. This is easy when you’re working for someone else – they tell you what game the studio’s working on next and you do. Is this kind of planning a skill I actually have?
Assuming that the good people of twitter would have something interesting to say on the matter (ha ha ha I know, but remember I’m feeling quite down and generally doubting myself and besides, this time they really did) I done a tweet…
Have you ever thought about what your actual long-term goal is with this #indieDev thing?— Tony Gowland (@FreakyZoid) May 24, 2016
I was thinking that other people must surely have at least a vague plan or direction for what they wanted to achieve, what they currently thought would be a success for them, and if I could get them to share, maybe one of their answers would strike a chord and I could copy their homework, so to speak.
Did people just want to make enough money to retire on? Build a studio and then sell it? Release a few games then go and get a “proper” job?
One of the first replies hit home to a source of a lot of my anxiety around the “indie lifestyle”.
@FreakyZoid Get good, make great games, help others do the same. If I can do that, money won't be a problem. Besides, life is cheap.— Erlend Grefsrud (@Slaktus) May 24, 2016
@FreakyZoid (Full disclosure: No kids, no car, no property, no savings, no insurance, no nothing -- but lots of fun, so I'll carry on.)— Erlend Grefsrud (@Slaktus) May 24, 2016
Full disclosure: I have two kids (one 3, one 8 months), a car (though it’s full paid off), a mortgage, various insurances and other essential outgoings.
For me, I worry about my kids. I worry about what I’m able to provide for them, what I will leave them. Will I be able to afford good educations for them, help them with deposits for houses, weddings, holidays, that kind of thing? And if not, am I doing the wrong thing here? Indie game development isn’t a particularly reliable way to get cash monies, am I indulging myself by spending my working life this way, and is that indulgence unfair on the children?
So like I say, “anxiety”. Especially when a bunch of people who are doing what I’m doing are saying that money isn’t really on their radar in terms of goals, and they just want to create.
@FreakyZoid I'll tell you one thing, it has absolutely nothing to do with money.— Christer Kaitila (@McFunkypants) May 24, 2016
@FreakyZoid To create something I can be proud of, that will survive me and that has some integrity (apart from Bionicle: The Game obvs)— Robert McLachlan (@RMMcLachlan) May 24, 2016
The majority of people replied along the lines that they are content as long as they can keep a roof over their heads right now…
@FreakyZoid every single day :D "Pay the rent" basically.— Gareth Noyce (@korruptor) May 24, 2016
@FreakyZoid keep making games without having to make them for someone else. Making modest income a bonus— Pete Shea (@pete_shea) May 24, 2016
@FreakyZoid To make cool games I want to make with other passionate people, that also happens to financially support my modest lifestyle.— Tom Pickard (@TPickardDev) May 24, 2016
@FreakyZoid more seriously...I've always just wanted to do something which makes sense both creatively and commercially...— Paul Kilduff-Taylor (@mode7games) May 24, 2016
@FreakyZoid make games that I'm proud of and not live in a box under a bridge (ideally) :D— Aidan Price (@aidankjprice) May 24, 2016
The day-to-day survival thing I think works for me as a short term plan, but like I say – I feel I need to plan for more than that. In all honesty I don’t want to be having to release games well in to my 70s because I simply can’t afford to stop.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ll probably still be making games at that age, but I’d like it to become a choice, a hobby, rather than a matter of basic survival at that point.
I’m lucky/fortunate/forward thinking enough (delete as appropriate) to have worked in AAA for over a decade, and this has helped me build up some pension money, so there’s a little something there to keep me going in my old age, but I’m fairly convinced what I’ve got squirrelled away there isn’t going to be enough by itself, and as another reply put it – you never know what support the state will offer by the time you need it.
@FreakyZoid All the time. It is constant manifest terror. Especially in age in which the government are asset stripping its subjects.— Nick Dymond (@NEDymond) May 24, 2016
So by this point I was starting to feel a lot like the dirty capitalist jabbing my grubby moneythoughts in to the world of the artists. Am I wrong to be so worried about money and the future and where this is all going and to let this line of thought dictate what stuff I’m thinking about making next?
Should I just be “trusting the game”, making whatever I want and hoping it all comes out?
I want to build something that lasts, I want an outcome that does right by my kids, I want to grow a thing where I can eventually afford to leave and be able to do this whole games development lark as a hobby rather than as an incredibly stressful and low-paying job.
Of course this line of thinking isn’t really that uncommon, particularly in the investor-heavy world of mobile gaming. You don’t have to spend much time around a bunch of “c-level executives” (yeah, I always read that as c*** as well) before you’ll hear chat on growth and exit strategies.
In indie developer circles? Not so much. Not so much at all.
As I said before, I’m quite deep in a pit of self doubt right now, so it was a relief to find other indies thinking the same way as me…
@freakyzoid My hope one day is that my games make enough for me to be able to hire a team to make all the games I want.— Byron, game designer (@xiotex) May 24, 2016
@FreakyZoid My goal is make my next game better - how do I achieve constant improvement? Find it hard to see how I fund the next level tbh— Frank Arnot (@frankarnot) May 24, 2016
@FreakyZoid yup! Build the company, raise investment, and one day sell up and retire/go on to new ventures :D— Spilt Milk (@SpiltMilkStudio) May 24, 2016
@FreakyZoid gotta aim high, and frankly growth without investment is hard. Investment without an exit plan is nearly impossible.— Spilt Milk (@SpiltMilkStudio) May 24, 2016
@FreakyZoid if we fail, then we should at least be stable enough that we can keep making games for a decent salary.— Spilt Milk (@SpiltMilkStudio) May 24, 2016
But ultimately, it seems business analysts think games aren’t the right kind of industry for this.
@FreakyZoid ...so it's all about putting happiness before profit. In that scenario, "Getting by" would be enough— Freekstorm (@FreekstormUK) May 24, 2016
@FreakyZoid ...which is great in theory, but hey, as you say, making enough to pay the bills and bring up the kids is also a requirement— Freekstorm (@FreekstormUK) May 24, 2016