Will Freeman catches up with the independent studios and individuals currently making waves...
How did you come about being an indie developer? Was it through necessity or choice?
Simon Oliver, founder, HandCircus: I guess a combination of the two. My background is in digital design (for the web and installations – but my passions took me towards game development. I'd spent a couple of years learning, prototyping and trying to get into an established game studio, but having no previously published titles under my belt proved to be a significant stumbling block. 2DBoy with World of Goo, Jonathan Blow with Braid, and the Media Molecule guys were a huge inspiration, giving me the confidence to go it alone and set up HandCircus.
Sophie Houlden, developer of BOXGame: It was a choice for me, I originally wanted to go the traditional route and go to some big company and work my way through the ranks to a lead designer position, but at university it dawned on me I didn't want to wait before making the games I wanted to make, and there was the very likely outcome I wouldn't ever get the position I wanted, and I certainly didn't want to compete with co-workers for it.
Amy Casson, developer, Littleloud: Definitely through choice. After graduating I started out as an e-learning flash developer and was soon itching to be involved in more creative projects. After looking at local opportunities, I realised that Brighton based studio Littleloud produced exactly the type of high-end content that I wanted to be involved in. I've currently been with them for three years.
Alex Amsel, CEO, Tuna: We started in 1996 essentially as an indie developer. We've worked on many titles since then but felt that we should return to our routes and create our own IP. This was for both personal and business reasons.
Sean Murray, managing director, Hello Games: It was definitely by choice, but I would describe striking out on my own as something I needed to do. It's something I've wanted to do since I was a child. Having worked at much larger companies like EA and Criterion, it became a raw need to find my own path. I think that's the same for everyone at Hello Games.
What are the key benefits of working as an indie in today’s industry?
Murray: Games development has grown up very quickly and seemingly settled into a lot of very predictable routines of sequels and licenses. Developers seem to often find themselves in that work-for-hire cycle, creating games to hit milestones. Being independent we can circumvent that. It seems crazy, but for the first time since joining the industry I'm thinking about the kind of features I want to add, for the people who will want to play our game.
Casson: As a result of working in a small company, where I am one of three developers, I am given ownership of the projects I work on from a development perspective. Consequently, I am continuously challenged and my learning curve is always steep - I find this set up extremely rewarding and ideal for personal development.
Amsel: The key benefit is that we get to work on the products that we want to. In addition, we can work to the methodology that suits us best rather than the various constraints and time scales put upon us by clients.
Simon: Two of the things that I love the most about indie development are the freedom to create and flexibility in the process. Our team is small, our costs are low, and so we can afford to take our time crafting a game that we are really happy with. On most occasions, our games have changed significantly during their lifetime, and in a more traditional project framework, it would have been a real challenge to steer the project in this new direction.
Houlden: The obvious one is freedom, I can do whatever the hell I want, take any risk I want. If my game sucks; who cares? Each day I feel like working on something different, sometimes its something pretentious and arty, sometimes it’s cheesy with lots of explosions, sometimes it’s totally random and I'm just playing with game mechanics like they are toys. But they are all valuable because of the other main benefit: Ownership. Each and every game I make is mine, and when people are playing with it they are playing with me personally on some level. It’s great to be able to say ‘I made this’ instead of ‘I made bits of this’.
Many observers today paint a picture of the indie scene as the place to be as a developer, but what are the challenges for indies in the sector?
Houlden: Personally, the biggest challenge is money. It is the root cause of every other problem, and I think you feel it a million times harder as an indie. If money wasn't a problem I would be able to spend an infinite amount of time on my projects, and I could follow out each whimsical idea I have to its conclusion.
Amsel: Quite simply, financial. A one or two man team has very different financial requirements than five-to-10 man team. If you're making console games then one-to-two people usually won't be enough. Beyond that, indies have to understand that they need to market themselves and their product, yet it can be hard to find the time.
Oliver: Its certainly crowded. One of the most significant challenges is getting your game noticed. The sheer volume of high-quality titles being released on the App Store on a daily basis means that levels of competition are insanely high. The fact that most indie games have such small budgets (and resources) for marketing and PR compounds the problem. The lack of structure can also present some difficulties, and it can be a challenge to stay on track and stay motivated, particularly if your team is geographically separated.
Is it possible to make a living as an indie developer today?
Casson: Yes definitely. I'm not able to go on six-week cruises or buy myself a Porsche, but I can pay my mortgage and treat myself to a weekly mocha!
Amsel: Absolutely, but you may need to support yourself for the first couple of years. It's risky.
Murray: I certainly hope so, but it's undoubtedly an incredibly risky business. Our development is entirely self-funded and to make Joe Danger, everyone at Hello Games has made incredible sacrifices, both financially and personally. More than any developer, we rely on the success of our games to allow us to keep doing what we're doing.
The fact is that looking down the list of top-selling download titles, the majority are coming from indie developers. Hopefully that shows the potential for success. It's the ultimate commercial democracy though, if gamers like what we do, we can afford to give them more. If they don't, we probably won't be here next year.
Houlden: I can't really speak from personal experience, but I know plenty of indies that do get by. I'm working on my first commercial game and my hopes are that I make enough to not be a burden on anyone, and often I lay awake at night thinking my hopes are probably too high, but I wont know unless I try.
On the subject of finance, how easy is it today to access suitable tech and tools?
Houlden: Really easy, and it's only ever getting easier. Looking at all the software I use for making games, I've paid £30 total – not including OS – and that was a personal luxury. You can totally make high quality games with just free software. It's no longer a case of 'you get what you pay for' with tools.
Oliver: The majority of our tech and tools are either open-source or created in-house. The availability of high quality open-source libraries such as Box2D, Bullet, Ogre, Recast has been amazing for us and has allowed us to keep budgets down, and given us the opportunity to focus more on game creation than tech. Commercial libraries and engines are certainly getting more indie-friendly though. And hats off to Unity - their platform is awesome.
Casson: At Littleloud, we assess on a job-by-job basis, the most suitable software that will deliver the high end quality content we are after. We mainly use paid toolkits such as Flash and Unity, but these are often used in conjunction with an array of fantastic free resources that aid and speed up our development process
Amsel: I don't think tech or tools are problematic. Few indies are going to be making massive, complex games and there are plenty of Open Source tools around now. Access to console hardware and console distribution systems is a much bigger problem.
Could you detail the kind of space do you work from? Perhaps it’s an office or maybe you work from home?
Amsel: We have a single, open plan studio in Sheffield. Space Invaders line the walls, just in case we forget what we got into all this for.
Murray: Hello Games started out crammed around my dining room table, but we quickly outgrew that. Now we're crammed in a tiny little office above a bathroom tile store. We find we have to be in the same space to work effectively, we're very much a band. It's a very noisy, unruly, collaborative kind of development we foster.
Casson: I work in a quirky little office based in the heart of the Brighton Lanes. It's full of character and we even have a cat.
Oliver: We've got a small studio space in East London.
Houlden: I have a PC at the foot of my bed, it's a little cramped so I don't quite have the room to hang my legs over the end of the bed. It means I have to keep moving around to prevent my knees from aching, but the bonus is I can take a nap anytime I want.
Placed as you are in a highly creative sector of the games industry, from where do you get your inspiration?
Oliver: Predominantly the usual suspects - film, books, TV, other games. I have a mild obsession with animal behaviour though which definitely adds some flavour. I go swimming a fair bit, and this provides some sort of bizarre catalyst for banked thoughts as all manner of and ideas seem to present themselves.
Casson: The majority of my inspiration comes from other online or interactive content, combined with keeping up to date with development books, blogs, recent artwork and console games.
Amsel: Other games of course, films, and pop culture generally. However, in our case we're being inspired by unique art styles, whether it's Anthony Flack's stop motion work or Tado's urban vinyl look.
Murray: Our little company of four actually feeds off each other a lot for inspiration I think. We tend to have our best ideas as a group. We've got a lot of similar frames of reference and spending two years in a tiny room together means we have developed some kind of hive mind.
When we discuss design decisions though, lots of childhood influences definitely get mentioned. Cartoons, movies, games we grew up with are big inspirations. Joe Danger came about from a session playing with a box of toys and mocking up game ideas. Every idea sounds better with Lion-o in your hands.
Is it easy to meet and work face-to-face with your fellow indies? Are you involved with any ‘community projects’ that prevent professional isolation?
Oliver: Conferences are obviously great for this, where you really do get a chance to meet a ton of people at the same time, though its been fun popping in to see some of the other indie guys nearby.
Murray: We try to get involved anywhere we can. It's a huge relief just to be able to pick another developer's brains, or discuss your current ball-ache. Something we definitely noticed as part of the Independent Games Festival at GDC was that meeting and collaborating is something the US indies are far better organised at. There is a very tight-knit community there. As the only UK representative at the IGF, we felt a certain jealousy of that, but it's something I'm definitely keen to see grow here in Europe.
Houlden: Sadly I live in a really scenic beautiful location, great for when I want to look away from the computer screen, not so great for bumping into others who like to look at computer screens. That said I've found indies online are super tight. We help each other out at every opportunity; just look at the credits list on an indie game, you will likely see a whole bunch of other indies there under the 'thanks' bit.
Do you feel indies today get enough recognition for their work?
Murray: I think we're very lucky to work in an industry where there is a very vocal, progressive and seemingly popular collection of underground websites that go out of their way to unearth and support the indie movement. Gamers and the community at large are always surprisingly receptive and respectful of the smaller outfits, the underdog.
Oliver: The prominence of indie scene continues to grow, thanks to the huge efforts of the IGF committee and many, many, other members of the community. The IGF awards felt enormously glamorous this year. I think the recognition is definitely there now, and the scene is well covered in games journalism, both online and in print.
Casson: Fundamentally, in interactive space, there is a culture of indies escaping credits and appearing faceless. However, this model is changing as the gap between TV and interactive content is merging - often allowing TV style title sequences and opening credits. The level of recognition we receive is very much project based. This ranges from us including these opening credits down to remaining completely nameless under a white label agreement