Somewhat Unlikely Post Mortem
Let’s put this one to rest: some thoughts on two years as an independent game developer.
Why I Started
It was time. It was almost inevitable that I would get bored of being a studio game designer: while it’s great for a day job, being a line designer (or a senior, or even a team leader) is still about doing the work that someone else needs, to their spec. You get to solve problems in creative ways, but so do other skilled disciplines; if anything a designer’s creative solutions may be that much more visible than (say) a programmer’s, and more likely to be shot down.
There was a particular conversation I had (at Develop, with a former colleague who is welcome to reveal themself if they like) that underpins a lot of my observations now: roughly “if you ignore all the ones with no industry experience, the failure rate for indies isn’t actually so bad.” Still pretty bad, we agreed, but I had a wide variety of skills, some money, a little wanderlust and some project ideas.
I quickly decided on the following. As I’ll describe below, some of these decisions were fair but particular to me, others were probably just bad.
- Independence – Based largely on a fear of letting anyone down (or perhaps making commitments of work etc.), I was determined to go it alone as much as possible. Although this didn’t prevent me buying stuff in, it severely limited my possible sources of funding, and prevented any risk sharing.
- Niche games – I knew I couldn’t compete on quality alone without some kind of ‘quirk’. The quest for such a quirk was a major theme for the next two years.
- PC – Because I favour strategy, RPG mechanics and other deeper mechanics, it made sense to target PC.
This was a bad idea. That is, it was incompatible with a plan to whole-heartedly pursue commercial success despite all impediments, and let’s assume that I made a mistake rather than I wasn’t actually committed to the project.
Maybe I’ll come back to that point later.
My advice, if you’re earlier on a journey like mine, is that you be better than me at doing whatever it takes. Don’t worry about other people’s risk: provided you’re not misleading them, their diligence and risk management remains their responsibility and their problem. Be pragmatic about what funding you could go for; you’ll definitely want to take care what commitments you make to publishers or investors, but there are some funds of public money that may be available just to encourage people like you to be active in the economy.
But there’s a more important point. As a self-employed person you can (and will probably have to) give the company your time at budget rate. (If you don’t already know what that rate is, work it out: what are your actual outgoings, including rent/mortgage, utilities, travel, insurances, groceries, contingencies for broken cars/plumbing/electrics/etc.?) The return for that is that when you make money, you keep it (after costs and reinvestment; whatever proportion your investors and the taxman don’t take…). You are the one taking the risk, and you might scrape by, you might win big, or lose big.
Freelancers manage a different risk: they do short-term jobs (which you need, because you can’t afford to pay a long-term one) and they price themselves with some contingency because sometimes they are out of work between jobs. That’s on top of what they’re worth because of their actual skill and experience (which is the amount you might pay them if you offered them a stable, permanent job). So compared to you charging yourself subsistence rates, they’re very expensive.
(Although I don’t want to give the actual numbers, my headline freelance rate (with quite a discount because I had no freelance portfolio at the time), was around five times what I’d actually want to live. My old studio job (established, with management responsibility) was less than four times subsistence (which is still a heck of a ratio, considering that was a steady job).
A corollary: not only is it expensive to buy things in, but you need to make sure you’re suitably cheap. I have relatively inexpensive tastes so I only tightened my belt a little; if you love full-priced games on release day, all the best foods, an exp[ea]nsive place in the city centre, you will need to be better funded.
So, the point, your options for getting things done on the cheap are to do them yourself, or to persuade others to go in on the risk with you. And unless you’re brilliant at all the disciplines and at working with relatively little feedback, you’ll get better results with appropriate specialists as partners anyway.
Let’s get platform out of the way first: I stand by targeting PC, because I still believe my skills suit those games (and I was able to cut some corners not worrying about mobile- or console-specific concerns), and because Steam would have been a good target platform, eventually.
I also still believe that I couldn’t have competed on sheer quality without some kind of quirky niche. Despite what lots of people will tell you, the old ‘same as before but more polished’ is a valid recipe (*cough* Blizzard *cough*), but it is the domain of studios with plenty of excellent specialists available in all disciplines, and a massive marketing budget. You probably need a cheaper hook than that.
This has an important effect on your planning, one that I didn’t necessarily appreciate. Yes, you might plan to finish a game in a few months (although unless you’re far better at costing than me, it’ll take much longer than you think), you need to bear in mind that it might take a while to make the right game. You’ll probably have several attempts getting to different stages before you get the one that’s worth finishing, and you may be without income for that time.
To be continued…
I’ll stop there. More next week, or whenever.