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.