Rami Ismail: You Don’t Stand a Chance in Indie Game Development

If you’re a new indie game developer hoping to make a living in the current market, you’re doomed. Supposedly.

At Control Conference 2015, Rami Ismail of Vlambeer, creators of Super Crate Box and Nuclear Throne, spoke about how unlikely a new indie game studio will survive its first game’s release.

He compared the ease of indie game development to the ease of photography. At some point in its history, photography became available to the masses, and professional photographers had to compete with amateur photographers who could point and shoot with results that were often good enough. It shook up the market for photographers. I’m sure somewhere there is an archive of articles about the photopaclypse.

Some of his arguments sounded familiar, and it is because they are. He makes the same argument that Jeff Tunnell made 10 years ago in his blog post Five Foundational Steps to Surviving as an Indie Game Developer, the biggest one being “Don’t quit your day job.”

Ismail highlighted specific aspects of running an indie game development business that most new indies haven’t thought about or don’t know very well.

Whether it’s underestimating how much funding is needed, overestimating the number of people needed to work on a game, or not giving enough attention to your sales plan (or your personal health for that matter), you are ill prepared to do at all well in the market.

Quite frankly, the arguments he made, as insightful as they are, are depressing to hear.

But then he reminded you that this isn’t about making a living from your first game. It’s about surviving to make that next game. And the next.

It’s about building upon your successes and your failures. It’s about learning all of those things he said you don’t know so that you go from having no chance to having some chance.

A bit of insight into that kind of hard-earned learning comes early in another talk from Control Conference 2015. Vogelsap’s Jeroen Van Hasselt gave a presentation on why the highly-anticipated The Flock failed in the market:

You can catch something interesting at 1:34 seconds in.

During his introduction, we hear: “Vogelsap is a studio that specializes in making thrilling 3-D experiences that we present in an event and adventurous-like manner.”

Part of the presentation talks about how the student-run studio grew up, and I recognized that statement above as a mission statement.

Most new businesses don’t give enough attention to vision, mission, and purpose, and in fact Ismail says “vision” is just a word that doesn’t mean anything, but it’s clear that the people at Vogelsap at some point learned about them in the course of their own thrilling adventure while creating and releasing The Flock.

Worrying about vision, mission, and purpose isn’t bureaucratic corporate mumbo-jumbo. It’s not a pointless exercise to pretend you’re running a real grown-up business.

Vogelsap is not just making games. They have a focus, which most indies don’t have. When you hear about a new game with their name attached to it, you are going to have some idea of what to expect, and it won’t be a casual match-3.

What’s great is when indies share their learning and hard-earned lessons with the rest of us. Sometimes we pick up the lesson easily because it is intuitive. Other times, we might not grok them until we go through the experience for ourselves and come out the other side with a realization that this was exactly what they warned you about.

Your goal is to grow your indie game development knowledge, which is why it’s important to, as Ismail suggested, prepare for failure while aiming for success. Experience is infinitely more valuable as a teacher.

But keep your day job in the meantime.

Or don’t. I didn’t, ran out of money after a couple of years, and eventually got a day job again. I was stressed more than I have ever been stressed before, but I learned much more rapidly.

You’re an indie. You get to decide your path.

1 comment to Rami Ismail: You Don’t Stand a Chance in Indie Game Development

  • illMadeCoder

    At the moment I’m twenty years old and almost done with my BA in Comp Sci looking to release my first game (likely for free) towards the end of this year. It seems that the games industry is simply not a healthy one for the general workforce, whether indie or ‘AAA’, although of course this pattern seems to have emerged in all mainstream entertainment. This is by far the most significant reason I went for Comp Sci and Math instead of Game Design, and looking back, I’m happy with that decision. Anyways, I’ve been attempting to put together a plan for myself going forward. I’ll likely be here (college) for another two years, in the attempt of getting an accelerated masters, and in the meantime I’ll take advantage of the long breaks to develop a game here and there, but try to keep the scopes small, and just get some games finished. With this, hopefully my production name will gain some traction, and unless I get lucky I’ll pickup a day job programming to pay off my student loans, while still maintaining small scope games on the side and continue to build from that point until I see a valid opportunity to put it all into indie development. I’m not sure what that opportunity might be, I’m hoping it’ll be a “you’ll know it when you see it” sort of thing.

    Games are the artform I identify with along with care for the most, and nothing else can so consistently drive my mind to wander in the pleasantries of its ‘poetic’ qualities. I’ve cared about games all my life and although only in the last five years have I began to study the craft of game design and production, it’s the core of what keeps me moving forward. So whether or not I’m successful as an indie developer, unless I change dramatically as a person, I can always fall back on small scope game development as a place of comfort and more importantly meaning. I don’t need to make a living on games to find purpose for their existence.

    Thanks for the blog, from Jesse Bergerstock AKA illMadeCoder.

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