Determinance screenshot

How to Be an Indie Game Developer

How to Be an Indie Game Developer

I got an email a while back from someone who was effectively asking, “How do I become an indie game developer?”

I replied to them and did my best, but I wasn’t entirely sure exactly what they were looking for in terms of advice. We get asked similar questions quite a bit, so I thought I would write a post to which I can refer people in the future; a kind of miscellany of advice that might be useful.

Two notes: this is aimed at relative beginners who know a bit about games and will probably have a PC bias.

Who We Are

As one person commented – somewhat ominously – on a previous article I wrote for Gamesbrief:

the future success of the guest poster will solely affect the validity of these ‘tips’.
let the games begin.

Mode 7 is an indie development studio based in Oxford, UK. We started formally in around 2005 and released an unsuccessful multiplayer sword-fighting game called Determinance in 2007.

After that, we moved on to Frozen Synapse, which was released in 2011.

I always feel a bit “my apartment smells of rich mahogany” when I talk about this stuff…

Here’s FS’s rap sheet:

– Over 400k units sold
– 85 Metacritic
– 9/10 Edge, Eurogamer, Destructoid; many other high review scores
– Headlined its own Humble Bundle
– Independent Games Festival Audience Award; PC Gamer Strategy Game of the Year; Indiegames.com Strategy Game of the Year; RockPaperShotgun “Best Glowy Lines in a Game” Award (really)

We are currently working on an iPad version of the game which will be out later this year.

Myself and Ian Hardingham (Lead Designer and Coder) head up the company as Joint Managing Directors and co-owners. There are currently four other people in our office, two of whom are full-time employees. We also work with various freelancers remotely.

Who I Am

I’m Paul Taylor: I do business development, marketing, audio, music, writing, some art direction, some UI design, some single player design…and some other things as well!

The Question

For the purposes of narrowing things down, I am going to presume that, by asking how to become an indie dev, you mean this:

“I want to move from what I’m doing now to being a full-time indie game developer.”

Let me just say at this point that if you want to make an indie game solely for the purposes of creative expression or indeed for fun, then please don’t let me put you off.

In fact, let me do the opposite: some of the most amazing things I’ve seen in the last few years have been games developed by people who didn’t have a commercial bone in their body. Some of them have even made a decent amount of money, even though that wasn’t the primary goal.

Also, you might want to develop interactive stories in Twine or amazing physical experiences like Johann Sebastian Joust rather than the more stereotypical computer games I’ll be discussing, so please don’t think I’m excluding you even though my focus is elsewhere.

That’s the end of this apparently interminable preamble: on with the show…

The Basics

The process of making and releasing a computer game will probably feature the following aspects:

– Game design
– Code
– Level design (or some other, more tactical, “micro” form of design if you don’t have levels)
– Art and animation
– Audio and music
– Writing
– Biz (legal, marketing, PR, bits of web dev and other miscellany)

All of these are necessary and important; all are extremely challenging disciplines that one person can spend a lifetime mastering.

Here’s the rub: you will need to cover all the bases yourself, find willing partners, or start paying others to do the work for you.

Personally, I think from the outset you should be ready to pay professionals to handle the stuff you can’t manage personally: that’s the fastest, easiest and often (somewhat counterintuitively) cheapest way to get stuff done.

If you’ve never outsourced anything before, I recommend The Four Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss: the attitudes expressed there are fairly extreme and quite amusing, but I guarantee that it will make you think.

If you’re lucky enough to know people who might partner up with you, make sure they’re in it for the long game, that you trust them implicitly and that you feel you have shared goals at a profound level. People like that are hard to find, so hold on to them if you do.

Unpaid volunteers will, more often than not, give up when things get hard. They may also not tell you that they’ve given up and waste a vast amount of your time.

Let’s look at each discipline in turn and figure out what we’re talking about…

Game Design

This, by Spelunky creator Derek Yu, is one of the best things you will ever read about game design or any creative endeavour – read that and come back!

Game design is a creative discipline which also requires an extremely analytical mind at a high level; this would seem to explain why most game designers I know are a tiny bit unhinged (in a good way)!

Game designers design game mechanics; yes, they often contribute to the high-concept narrative stuff as well, but their primary role is to design the actual game. I’m still surprised by the number of people I talk to who don’t seem to know that.

There are three ways to learn game design; I’ve put these in descending order of efficacy:

1.) Make games, then watch people playing your games

[GREAT BIG GAP]

2.) Play other games analytically
3.) Study game design theory

I’m not saying that 2 and 3 are worthless by any means; they are just worth less.

Your life as a designer will be a hell of a lot easier if you are a competent coder: the great game designers you read about who are not coders often will work in tandem with a large team of high-level programmers; unless you are extremely rich and risk-prone, you won’t be doing that initially.

It is certainly possible to be an indie designer who does not code at all: however, you’ll have to have amazing “people skills” to compensate for that.

If you’re using game creation software like Adventure Game Studio, RPG Maker or RenPY, you will reduce the amount of hardcore coding you’ll need to learn at the outset in order to start designing. Be aware, though, that until you delve deep into the nuts and bolts of those tools you’ll be severely limited in terms of the designs you’ll be able to execute.

Design is vital, but it is not everything. If you were being so crass as to give game designs marks out of 10, there are plenty of  successful indie games which would score 7 or 8.

That said, there is never a good reason to aim for mediocre design: gamers come for the presentation and concept but they stay for the design.  Also, if you do hit that elusive 10/10 then a lot of other things will suddenly get a LOT easier.

Here are three things I wish designers would do more:

– Try to get the player making interesting, meaningful decisions as quickly as possible
– Try to minimize the total amount of time the player has to do boring things
– Try to include at least one completely innovative element, even if it’s just a small thing

There’s nothing wrong with sticking to a broad genre, but the people who buy indie games generally like such entertainment – at least partially – for its novelty and innovation: if your game is boring in any way then prepare to fail!

Finally, a word of warning. There is something about game design which makes people believe that they can do it, even if they have never done it before. I’m not precisely sure what quality it has which makes it appear so easy: it is incredibly difficult.

My final thought on design is that you need to find your own way and express your own personality. Clarify your goals and maybe even write them down, just like Gunpoint creator Tom Francis did recently.

Concept

Game concepts occupy a weird space between aesthetics and mechanical considerations. They add atmosphere and emotion to the raw mechanics; also, they are often the primary reason that people try or buy a game.

The more generic your concept (e.g. “fantasy MMO”) the more pressure you put on other aspects of the game and the greater the need for quirks or twists on the formula (“fantasy MMO where the combat is four-dimensional Backgammon”).

I wrote a bit about concepts in my Gamasutra marketing article.

Here’s an excerpt:

Scott Steinberg would advise you to aim squarely at the mass market: “Music, animals, sports, raising a family… Keep game premises rooted in real-world frames of reference whenever possible.” – Scott Steinberg, Sell More Video Games

Jeff Tunnell, on the other hand, thinks you should stick to where your passion lies:
“I make games that I want to make, and find out if there is an audience later. Trying to come up with a forecast is not an art or a science, it is an exercise in futility. Back in the day after Dynamix was acquired by Sierra we did have to work with marketing and do the prediction dance, but it was rarely correct, and the games I believed in the most like The Incredible Machine got terrible forecasts.” – Jeff Tunnell, What is My Game’s Sales Potential?

Here’s my take:

There are commercially-successful indie games about gangly kung-fu fighting rabbits, abstract computer landscapes populated by tiny green squeaking things, and small, dribbly blobs of goo. These are never going to be as big as The Sims, but they were never intended to be. By “commercially successful”, I mean “making enough money for their creators to continue making games”. That’s your goal, right?

Go for a “popular” concept only if you have a passion for it: you need passion to drive you through the process of making the game. If you’re coming up with something wackier, realize that you’re going to have to work harder to find the audience, and start figuring out how you’re going to go about doing that before you start development.

Code

That’s enough about design and concept: they both mean nothing if you can’t actually code a game!  There are a huge variety of “How do I learn to program?” resources around on the internet, just a Google search away, so getting access to the basics should be trivial. However, I’m now going to hand over to Ian for his advice on coding for indie games…

“I’m going to assume you’re working with an existing game engine if you’re reading a “how to get into games coding” piece – if you’re rolling your own then you’re already beyond my advice.

Learning to program is something which requires the kind of focus and effort which most programmers by nature don’t have or can’t muster, so it’s always a hard road.

I advise the same approach whether you’ve never programmed before in your life, or (as with me) you have a coding background but are suddenly presented with a hugely complex 500,000 line game-engine you have no idea what to do with. Don’t bother “starting small” – go straight for what you actually want to do, and start doing it. However, within that extremely ambitious framework you must be intelligent about what part you start with. Find a self-contained part of the larger project – something which is achievable in a month with a real payoff – and set that as your first target.

Run head-first, flailing, into the code-base and hack away until you can make something change. Change something’s colour and then celebrate. Badger people in the community for the game engine endlessly – your questions will start off stupid and they’ll be exasperated with you, but every day your questions will get slightly less ridiculous, and eventually you’ll be helping other people. If there are books available for your chosen engine, buy them and read them cover to cover WITHOUT doing any of the actual coding exercises first. Only then should you start doing the actual exercises.

Assuming you have any kind of natural talent for programming at all – and if you have none maybe you should go for the art side of game dev – then the only real enemy you will have is uncertainty. Don’t EVER go into a problem with an attitude of “I don’t know what to do” or, even worse, “I don’t know if this is possible”. Everything you will be trying to do is possible, and if you’re confident of that you’ll find everything much easier.

Learning game programming is as hard as learning anything else: expect it to take six months of very hard graft to get to any kind of position of knowledge.”

You should find a game engine to use that suits your project. If you’re really stuck for ideas, have a look at Torque, Unity or something HTML5-based. Alternatively, you could go for something extremely powerful but aimed at beginners: GameMaker.

Level Design

Game design and level design are different skills: one is designing a system and the other is working out how to present that system in the most rewarding way.

Level design tends to be very specific to the game in question, and is something that has to be worked out on an iterative basis; it tends to take a long time. I’ve included it here just to remind prospective indie devs that they will probably have to get used to doing it or find someone else who is willing to do it for them!

There has been a recent trend towards procedural generation; this requires both strong coding skills and a keen eye for what works in your game: don’t see it as an easy way out! Yes, you’ll get greater bang for your buck, but you’ll probably spend as much time tweaking generators as you would building the levels by hand.

Art and Animation

I have a lot of respect for indie devs who make their own art: I’m currently playing through Size Five’s Ben There Dan That and the very…erm…handmade art in that particular game (especially the character walk cycles) is hilarious and perfectly suits the tone.

If you’re not the greatest artist in the world, then you can either use that to your advantage and go for a super simple style (even using free tools like GIMP and Blender), or you can outsource art to someone else.

Art is probably the easiest part of game development to outsource: if your game engine is reasonably standard you can usually just give the artist a spec, agree a price and leave them to get on with it.

I would recommend using artists who have a good track record. Someone who has completed a lot of projects, and maybe has industry experience, will know all the right questions to ask and will have a much higher chance of doing their work on time. That advice applies to freelancers in other disciplines as well.

You can sink a lot of money into art, so it’s probably worth thinking about the 80/20 rule here. Think about the art that your game really needs. Bear in mind that it’s worth focussing on the things the player will be looking at most – it’s all very well having glossy cutscenes, but if you have rubbish main character animation, people will say your game looks terrible.

Shop around for artists: don’t just hire the first person you find: you’re really after a cost / benefit balance here.

On Frozen Synapse, we made a few decisions that I think really helped:

– Keep it simple

We had almost no art budget, so changed from a fairly complex 2D style to a much more abstract top-down aesthetic that could look good with a low number of assets. I think that simple art works really well for complex PC strategy games – look at something like AI War, which has a nice 2D art style.

– Know where you’re going

Concept art is really useful to give you something to aim for, but don’t go overboard with it.  As an indie, you’ll need to put your limited resources into creating actual assets you can use in your game.

– Focus on aesthetic rewards

When a player gets a kill, they’re rewarded with a nice death animation and blood splatter. We spent a lot of time and a bit of money on getting both of those things to look as nice as possible in the context

– Front-load the awesome

I see so many games with butt-ugly splash screens and menus. I never understand why as they are so easy to get right: they’re mostly just static images!

If a shop has a beautiful interior, but a sign and window which look like they were painted by an aesthetically challenged four-year-old, nobody is going to be quite sure what to make of it.

Having menus animate in and out might seem like a small thing, but if I’m showing my game to a reviewer, IGF judge, or jaded gamer, they are going to sit up and take notice as soon as the first nice thing happens on-screen.

– Polish, polish, polish, polish…

Atmosphere and presentation are about creating a mood: when you’re trying to do that you have to pay attention to all the small details that contribute to someone’s unconscious understanding of a situation.

Apple are masters of this in their product and UI design; just look at the iPad: it’s a proliferation of tiny details which add up to a ridiculously polished user experience.

Think about how you want someone to feel when playing your game, then tailor ALL of the art to this, from the menu buttons to the mouse-click sound effect.

None of this stuff needs to be expensive – it can be as simple as taking the time to ensure that everything is lined up correctly on your login screen – but it does matter. It’s also hard to get right – you’ll miss stuff – but putting the effort in will mean that’s kept to a minimum.

Music and Audio

Audio is the least important of the creative disciplines in indie games: I can think of many, many successful games which have utterly terrible sound and music. I say this with a heavy heart as an audio person myself, but it’s true!

You can still apparently get away with just buying a load of reasonably crappy stock sound effects from somewhere like SoundDogs setting their levels appropriately and shoving them in your game.

However, things are getting a lot more competitive in high-end indie games;I really would recommend outsourcing your audio (or doing it yourself if you’re an awesome audio dude like Jasper Byrne).

Even if you don’t have very much sound, it still adds a great deal of polish simply because other indies still aren’t paying attention.

Voice acting can be incredibly difficult to get right and, as it’s not really necessary, is probably best avoided unless you feel it’s really essential. If you need voice acting, find someone who works in theatre or TV to give you advice on how to go about it: once again, knowing people can come in very useful.

If you’d like to learn how to make music and audio yourself, then I recommend buying Computer Music magazine for a few months (not just because I used to write for them!) and following along with some tutorials.

I like Ableton Live a lot; once you have that and a few free synthesizers, you’ll be able to bash out some early musical horrors in no time. You can also use Live to do all your SFX editing and processing.

If you do have the budget (or skills) for a good soundtrack, you’ll start to get a load of different benefits. Not only can you sell soundtrack downloads, and put the score up for things like the indie game music bundle, you’ll also add an entirely new way for people to discover your game.

Writing

Writing is optional or minimal for quite a few games but it can make a big difference. It can also be an opportunity to inject personality into an otherwise dry game. Again, I’d recommend hiring a freelancer for this if you don’t have any writing experience yourself, or at least checking with some other people to make sure what you’re doing makes sense!

You don’t have to include a huge amount of text (this can be a disadvantage, of course) but try to ensure that what you do have is of a reasonable standard, especially if you’re writing a script for voice actors.

Something I learned writing Frozen Synapse is that the overwhelming majority of gamers want quick, front-loaded exposition: they need to know what they’re doing and precisely why they’re doing it in as few words as possible. As a species, we haven’t really moved on from “avoid missing ball for high score”!

Put your literary aspirations in check and make sure you’ve got the basic context in place, then go back to doing all the ridiculous arty stuff you were planning on doing…

Be aware that many people will take any text in your game completely literally, irrespective of context.

A Note on Freelancers

“Where do I find all these mythical freelancers?” you may be asking. It really is as simple as Googling, looking on forums and asking around. If you are thinking of delving into outsourcing, you’ll need to develop the skills of finding people for yourself, as that’s the entire battle.

Suffice it to say, here’s a few tips…

A big list of forums to get you started:

http://www.pixelprospector.com/the-big-list-of-indie-game-development-forums/

Places like Polycount and even DeviantArt can be good for artists.

I’ve always found coders by posting jobs on GamesIndustry.biz or other industry websites, but freelance coders are not all that hard to come by in general.

But honestly, Google is your friend.

Business and Marketing

Making a game is approximately half the battle! Here’s some info on the other stuff…

Basics

Being a professional indie game developer (even just a one-man-band) means that you are running a small business.

In order to do that effectively, you need to look at a few different aspects:

Small Business Fun Time

You will need:

– An organisation like BusinessLink

– A good accountant who knows what the internet is and (ideally) has other small games companies on his books

– A solicitor, especially if you are setting up a company with other people

BusinessLink (or local equivalent) will be able to give you all the information you need to set up a company: you most likely will want to find your country’s version of a “limited liability company”.

Your accountant will do your end-of-year tax return (or Satan’s Pestilent Administrative Armpit) for you and tell you about how to save money.

Your solicitor will stop you making a massive error when you’re “just trying to get a game done” and inadvertently giving away all of your company to a publisher. They shouldn’t charge you money just to chat to them when you’re a start-up: if they do then tell them where to go.

That’s literally it – it’s not complicated but it is boring.

A quick tip for finding professionals who will be good in the long run: they will travel to see you (within reason!) for the initial meeting and give you genuinely useful advice for free. Anyone who bothers to do both of those things has my attention immediately.

What size and structure suits me?

Personally, I am not a designer or coder, so I partnered 50:50 with someone who is highly skilled at both of those things. That leaves him to get on with designing, coding and managing, while leaving me to spend my time on with a catalogue of odds and ends in various other disciplines.

We also have two brains to apply to strategic issues, as well as two very different personalities to evaluate our products. It helps immensely.

For this reason, I really think most one-man-band devs should look at bringing at least one other person eventually: just an opinion! I don’t think you can hit your full potential slogging it out on your own forever: you need that second perspective.

What are my long-term goals?

If you have never made a game before, please just make one and release it, even if it’s just for free: don’t let planning distract you from that. You need to have that process figured out before you think about anything else. Just do it!

Once you know you can make games, that’s the time to start planning ahead.

If you want to make indie games for your entire career, you’ll have to figure out a way to find a niche, stay ahead of what other game devs are doing and keep trying to make your games stand out.

This is where having a strong creative lead will help you: if you have great ideas and the ability to present them well, you’ll be able to find a market for what you’re making.

Be ready to make your next game and move onto it promptly as soon as you have completed one project. It can be tempting to just sit there milking one thing (especially if you have had a hit) but you absolutely need to keep going.

You might want to grow your business or stay small: both are valid, despite the fact that people will criticise you for doing either. A lot of this is down to personal motivation and drive: if you are not interested in running a big business with a lot of employees then don’t do it!

Strategy

I’ve come up with four ways that an indie game studio can set itself up for the long-term. Obviously these are crude, and there are many other valid approaches. Here they are:

1.) A regular (at least one release every two years) string of strong (but not necessarily hit) pay-once games

OR

2.) A single large-scale – probably free-to-play-with-microtransactions – game with a decent conversion rate and ARPU (average revenue per user)

OR

3.) One singular Minecraft-style breakout hit!

OR

4.) Any / all of the above combined with outsourcing and contract work

Pay Once

Most indies start (even if they don’t know it) with 1.), because they are making a pay once game. They think, “I will make my game, get it on Steam / App Store / Android Marketplace, do some PR and make money”. The reason that we are in a golden age of indie development right now is that this can actually work with the right game!

If you make a good enough game, get a decent distribution agreement from a big distributor, and get some good PR behind it, then you can make money.

However, it’s most likely, even with additional revenue streams like DLC and ports, that you’ll need to do this on a regular basis: that’s the major challenge.

Successful small (or one-man-band) companies who follow this model are Arcen Games and Positech Games.

I still recommend that newer devs start with 1.) because of the challenges inherent in the other categories. Making a successful free-to-play game is more creatively restrictive and simply harder than making a pay-once game, whatever the free-to-play camp will say.

Set a fair price that you feel is appropriate for your game based on the amount of content and depth it has in it. Make sure that you don’t undervalue what you’re doing: you can compete in areas other than price.

Free-to-play

The technical abilities and funding level of many start-up indies probably preclude 2.) but it is certainly worth looking into if you have an applicable game design..

2.) is certainly capable of making many times the revenue of 1.), but is harder to design and requires many more ongoing resources (like servers and support staff for large multiplayer games), as well as continuous evolution and development.

This business model is very in vogue at the moment and so its disadvantages can be overlooked: I have been told by the developers of several free-to-play games that they wish they had gone with a traditional pay-once model.

However, despite idiots ranting on the internet, customers of all demographics tolerate free-to-play models. The only evidence you need that it works in the hardcore space (if that is your target) is League of Legends and Tribes: Ascend. It was recently announced that Valve’s DOTA2 will be free-to-play and monetised entirely by aesthetic content: to my knowledge, this is the first time that a core game as done that and it will be a fascinating test case for that model.

Free-to-play also allows for much more long-term iterative development and practises like “minimum viable product” where you develop your game in tandem with a lot of community feedback and metrics. This also allows you to scale your company directly proportional to the revenue your game is making and build things up that way.

Finally going free-to-play means that many, many more people will try your game compared to one released under a pay-once model (even with a demo). If you want to truly aim for the biggest possible market, and you’re convinced that your game will retain players for a long time, by all means give it a shot.

For examples of successful smaller free-to-play games I’d check out Kongregate (they have a great presentation from GDC this year over at GDC Vault as well). The results that lone developers can achieve with free-to-play games on there are nothing short of astonishing.

Contract Work

Mode 7 switched from original game development to mostly contract work after the failure of our first game, and it was a great move at the time. We were able to get funding to make exactly the game we wanted to make on our own terms.

After Frozen Synapse’s success, we have largely moved away from contract work again for the following reasons:

– It is very unpredictable
– The time spent is always greater than the amount quoted for
– The ongoing support needed for any large project is a huge time drain
– The potential upside is always lower than working on an original product
– There are no long-term benefits like IP ownership

Some successful studios like Remode manage to combine original IP development with contract work in a very considered way. Others, like the brilliant Fish in a Bottle are based pretty much entirely around very targeted game design for brands and other companies.

Again, it’s all about finding your own balance.

Marketing

Here’s the link to my Gamasutra article again, because I don’t like repeating myself…even though I just…did.  Um.

I think many of the things I said there probably still stand up.

The most important thing is to let your game take the lead. It’s pretty difficult to take the lead yourself: you’ll have to be an intriguing personality that the press want to speak with until you at least have some kind of intriguing game in development, and if that’s going to happen to you it will happen naturally, so don’t worry about it.

One thing I am finding at the moment is that frequency matters a lot: blogging regularly and tweeting / posting on Facebook every day is a good way to keep people engaged with what you’re doing.

In terms of people actually buying your game, hitting high-profile sites like RPS and Kotaku combined with a sale or big release is still the best thing to aim for. It’s worth taking the time to get to know journalists who work for the larger sites while your game is in development so that you can hit them up when it comes to launch.

All in all, still the most important thing about marketing an indie game is to think about how it will speak to people: how you can create and execute a concept which people will genuinely love. All of the other activities need to be driven by a strong belief that your product is amazing and that you have put all you can into it.

Video

Video is ridiculously important these days. Here’s a quick idiot’s guide (as in, a guide written by an idiot) to video for indie game dev:

1.) Use FRAPS to capture footage from the game at a good resolution – there’s basically no sane alternative and it’s very cheap. FRAPS is great.

2.) Sony Vegas 11 for editing your captured footage – frankly, it’s a bit ropey and proper video people will laugh at you, but it’s easy to learn and not too expensive. Other editing software is available!

Make sure you set the “project settings” to something sensible when you start a new project, as a lot of the Vegas default projects are stupid – I think 1080p, 30fps and non-interlaced is good.

3.) Export as an uncompressed AVI – this will be an unbelievably stupidly big file, so you may want a spare hard drive handy.

4.) Use Handbrake to encode this AVI to a format suitable for YouTube – you’ll be wanting H.264 – that’s YouTube’s native format so it won’t re-encode it once you upload (APPARENTLY), leading to better quality. The resulting file will be much smaller.

That’s the sum total of my current knowledge and we’ve managed to do alright with trailers!

If you want to film stuff with a camera to spice up your videos buy a Sony HX9V – basically point-and-shoot but can do 1080p video like a badass. Professionals use them as backup cameras, and that means something. I bought a mini tripod called a Gorillapod with mine and that’s been invaulable too – can just sit it on your desk and talk into it then.

Advertising

This is tricky to get right, and most indies don’t do it, but don’t write it off. If you have a site which is metricated using Google Analytics, you can tie that in with Google Ads to figure out where to spend your money. It will take time and persistence but if you get it right, it can be very useful.

Final Thoughts

I believe it will take a skilled person with a strong work ethic starting from scratch a minimum of two years to get any kind of significant financial return from making indie games, probably longer. I dare you to prove me wrong! I would honestly expect most people to take three to four years. In any case, you will need to have some decent savings (or external funding) if you’re going to jump into full-time indie game dev.

It is possible to do it part-time, just be prepared to have no social life (I’m not being hyperbolic here) and to somehow figure out how you can work on something seriously around a full-time job. It’s one of the hardest things you can ever do, but, as I said, it is possible.

Once you’re in the swing of making an indie game, it’s a good idea to start reaching out to other people. Go to events (like Bit of Alright), meet other indies, tell people what you’re doing. Firstly, you’ll start to get a bit of attention and you’ll make friends who can help you. Secondly, this will make you much more likely to finish what you’re doing: the social aspect of committing to do something is usually the most powerful driver for actually accomplishing it.

Always try to think about things from the perspective of the player and customer (when you have them). This can be difficult and challenging at times – also you will face the harsh reality of areas where you’re failing – but it is worth doing and worth pushing yourself to improve. You need to think about your bottom line and your customer experience simultaneously: try not to be either Borders or Amstrad!

While you’re taking community feedback, stay true to your own ideals and don’t deviate from the concepts which drew you to design your game in the first place.

Games are an insanely wonderful, silly, beautiful and diverse artform: if you want to get involved with them you need to respect that and then think about how you can destroy / remake / change / evolve it.

The Independent Games Festival had almost 570 entries this year and that is definitely on the increase: your mission is to make something that will stand out above the crowd in the future.

I have written quite a bit about business and money, but ultimately there is no point doing this unless you love making games.   There are as many different approaches to being an indie dev as there are indie devs: if you think I’m an idiot and you want to go out and prove me wrong then please do so – I look forward to seeing your game.

Good luck and have fun, as they say!

If you’d like to hear more from us at Mode 7 then sign up to our email list and we’ll tell you when, if ever, we do something interesting.  Follow us on Twitter @mode7games

28 Responses to “How to Be an Indie Game Developer”

  1. Train2Game News: Frozen Synapse dev blogs about ‘How to Be an Indie Game Developer’ | The Train2Game Blog:

    [...] How do I become an indie game developer is a question that’s often asked to industry professionals, so Mode 7’s Paul Taylor has attempted to answer that very query in a in a lengthy, but very interesting blog post. [...]

  2. Brian Rowe:

    The problem with starting out small and finishing one project is that, as a beginner, it can be difficult to judge what counts as a small project. If you run into this problem, I suggest looking at music videos as inspiration. You don’t need to have an expansive story or numerous levels to start. Take one kernel of an idea and rock out with it. One of my favorite examples is from Scott Stephan. Remember the Jian sword dancing video a few months back?

    http://scottstephan.org/?page_id=53

    As for video, I operate my own production company and let me say that Sony Vegas is wonderful. Spending the money on Final Cut or Adobe Premiere will not make your work better in any way. In fact, Sony Vegas has been rocking some features for years that Apple is only now getting around to introducing. And, don’t forget, you can always outsource trailers to people like me *wink wink*.

  3. Brownd:

    You should really configure your RSS feed so that it only shows a brief description of the post for RSS readers. One should only see the whole thing when they actually click the link.
    Sorry, but this is really a bit of an issue for those who have lots of subscriptions like myself…

    Interesting read. Might find it useful in the near future… ;-)

  4. George:

    Nice article. I just want to stress how important gameplay is. I think it’s important for someone starting out to play as many different games of the type they want to make to understand why some games feel just right and some bore you after 30 seconds.

    I see too many games (many from big companies) that no matter how good and polished they look, just play so bad… I can’t understand how someone can spend a fortune on a game and leave the gameplay out.

    For an indie developer (I’m just starting out myself, but I think this is just common sense) what you spend your limited time on is very important. Unless you want to spend years on a project (I’m not sure that’s really worth it for a small/lone developer) you’ve got to prioritize. Gameplay should always come first…

    Graphics may affect the first impression, but gameplay is what makes people keep playing the game time and time again…

  5. RodeoClown:

    Thanks for the article Paul.
    Lots of motivation and great tips.

    (And ignore Brownd – full text feeds all the way!)

  6. Dataferret:

    Good article giving the heads-up look to any prospective indie, without resorting to the usual lip-service about ‘passion’. I hope this makes the rounds more.

    P.S. I’m siding with RodeoClown on the RSS feed thing. No offense meant, but the small white text on dark background makes my eyes hurt – and I’m a programmer with a dark themed IDE! :P So being able to read it all in Google Reader is a plus for me.

  7. Archagon:

    I haven’t done this so you may fairly dismiss me as not knowing WTF I’m talking about, but I think there’s one more strategy for long-term success that’s worth considering, especially if you’re in iOS land and working by yourself:

    5. Create a super-simple but unique and polished game every few months, instead of (or in addition to) working on longer projects for years. I believe this is what Jeff Minter is doing nowadays, as well as several other iOS developers I’m a fan of.

    If your games are any good, this will allow you to make a name for yourself and will probably enable you to live off your revenue sooner than later. People love spending a buck on little play-once-and-forget experiences, as long as they don’t look like 3rd-rate high school projects.

    (But again, I don’t know anything about anything. It just seems like it might be a reasonable approach. What do you think?)

  8. George:

    I agree with Archagon, although I wouldn’t call any of the Jeff Minter games I’ve played on iOS a play-once-and-forget experience… I just keep coming back to them because they’re so good… :)

    Also, by building a library of completed games you’re basically showing that you can finish a project, and if they’re good enough I guess it will help if you’re looking to get programming jobs too…

  9. Karunakar:

    Nice Article and great tips. Thanks

  10. danmaz74:

    Very interesting… but I didn’t read it all. This is almost an ebook! Why not publish each chapter as its own post next time? Just a suggestion!

  11. How To Become An Indie Game Developer brandontreb.com:

    [...] [Article Link] [...]

  12. David Parker:

    As someone who’s done the last to Ludum Dare’s and has a great interest in doing full-time indie development, I really appreciate this post. I’ve now subscribed!

    Also, I agree with full text for the RSS.

  13. Archagon:

    Well, we can’t all be Jeff Minter, you know? He’s been doing this stuff for decades. I’m just providing an example high bar to strive for. :)

  14. Dataferret:

    @Archagon At some point, the worry is that the well is going to dry up no matter how smart you are. That strategy is only sustainable for retailers & publisher (ie: farm other people’s ideas). At which point, are you still an indie?

  15. Archagon:

    Well, I didn’t mean as a permanent business model — just as a way to get a relatively steady source of income for the first few years, until you develop your first big successful game. Also, if it’s a game every few months, that’s only 4-6 unique games a year. I think that’s enough time between games to prevent the well from running dry, especially if you force yourself to branch out and experiment. (Look at cactus — he was making a new game every few weeks at one point!)

  16. Como ser un creador de video juegos y no morir en el intento | Haohunter:

    [...] Si quieres ver mas a fondo esta entrevista entra aqui: Link [...]

  17. Chris Polus:

    There are many ways to success, and many more ways to failure I guess. If releasing many smaller games or a bigger one, both are subject to experience, polish, marketing, what players want at that time, who writes about it.

    Being about 9 months into that process myself of trying to become an Indie Developer I can really vouch for everything Paul writes. The time it takes, the polish needed, the strategies you have to develop and so on. If you’re in it purely for the fun, that’s great. But if you’d like to at least pay the bills, this is it.

    Thanks Paul for writing this all down! And kudos to you for Frozen Synapse :)

    Chris

  18. Superlicious | Superlevel:

    [...] How to Be an Indie Game Developer games indie development [...]

  19. Designer weekly crib sheet. | Live. Play. Design:

    [...] http://www.mode7games.com/blog/2012/06/12/how-to-be-an-indie-game-developer/ [...]

  20. w00t zum Sonntag | Superlevel:

    [...] ist einer der beiden klugen Köpfe hinter dem Indie-Hit Frozen Synapse und erklärt im Entwicklerblog in aller Ausführlichkeit, wie man es eigentlich schafft, Vollzeit-Indie-Entwickler zu [...]

  21. Apptlantis » Blog Archive » Blog digest: 5 useful iOS tutorials:

    [...] How to Be an Indie Game Developer [...]

  22. Duwain-Gametrender:

    Superb article will take days to read and digest , thanks for all the effort. It is an exciting time for indie and back to the good old days of bedroom coding thanks to Ios and Android. I’m not a dev, but am one of those crucial tools for indie folk. My blog has a large dedicated Smartphone app interested audience, so if you’re indie and awesome come tell us about yourself and we will feature you.

  23. The Collabs » 100 Days…and then some, hopefully:

    [...] off, I recently read a fantastic article written by a great indie developer about “How to Be an Indie Game Developer.” The article goes over all of the skills and areas needed to develop a video game.  There [...]

  24. Dev Links: Starting From Scratch | The Indie Game Magazine - Indie Game Reviews, Previews, News & Downloads:

    [...] How To Be An Indie Game Developer (Mode 7 Games) “I got an email a while back from someone who was effectively asking, ‘How do I become an indie game developer?’  I replied to them and did my best, but I wasn’t entirely sure exactly what they were looking for in terms of advice. We get asked similar questions quite a bit, so I thought I would write a post to which I can refer people in the future; a kind of miscellany of advice that might be useful.” [...]

  25. Dev Links: Starting From Scratch | DIYGamer:

    [...] How To Be An Indie Game Developer (Mode 7 Games) “I got an email a while back from someone who was effectively asking, ‘How do I become an indie game developer?’  I replied to them and did my best, but I wasn’t entirely sure exactly what they were looking for in terms of advice. We get asked similar questions quite a bit, so I thought I would write a post to which I can refer people in the future; a kind of miscellany of advice that might be useful.” [...]

  26. Indie life | Racing Tadpole:

    [...] friend this week, especially his links on Indie Game Development and in particular this post from Mode 7, which has a lot of advice and further links on topics from coding to finding people to help do [...]

  27. Issue #18 | iOS Biz Weekly:

    [...] How to Be an Indie Game Developer [...]

  28. Fernando Nunes:

    Awesome article!

    Thanks for your time writing it.