Indie devs share insight on going solo

PAX 2010: A panel of independent developers discuss the pros and cons of starting out on their own and the obstacles they face without a publisher.

by

Who was there: James Silva from Ska Studios, Ron Alpert from Headcase Games, John Krajewski from Strange Loop Games, and Brian Mitsoda from DoubleBear Production.

What they talked about: Before jumping into the meat of the PAX 2010 discussion, the panelists were asked to define what makes an indie game. While they all had their own take on the answer, it seemed that the majority agreed that a game is "indie" when the creators have full control during the entire development cycle.

Ska Studios' The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai was an indie hit.

Krajewski said, "Well technically it's a game that's independent, but what does that mean? I think it has to do with the creativity and personality that's put into it that a big studio and a much bigger team and budget can't experiment with and that kind of shows itself in a lot of indie games."

For others, like Alpert, it means that "someone doesn't own you" and you're free to take a lot of risks.

While these risks come with total creative freedom, the downside is that in reality, people need to get paid. They could also use some health insurance, which Silva said he didn't have.

Mitsoda mentioned that senior developers in the mainstream industry do have high-paying jobs, as well as health insurance, so it's a big risk to leave that behind, especially when they have families to support. However, he said that there seems to be a much larger fan base for indie games now and that there is more awareness.

But games can't sell themselves. Alpert pointed out that developers may know how to make games, but they can't sell them. The ability to pitch a product is "as important, if not more important," he said. He added that a lot of people who come from development do not know how to sell their product. It's something developers need to learn, he said, but there is no roadmap for that.

The measurement of success is also dependent on the individual. Some believe that success means that a game sells enough to make another. In Krajewski's case, he said that "the experience of making the game is rewarding in itself."

Everyone agreed that the game needs to be good enough to stand out on its own and that going to conferences and participating in contests is a way to get the word out.

"Embrace the community as much as you possibly can. Do things that you aren't comfortable doing," suggested Alpert, who advised that developers need marketing. If they can't afford to get it, he said, then they need to get out of their comfort zone and figure out how to do it.

Krajewski mentioned that initially he was an AI programmer who never saw the business side of things, but he suggested that all a person can do is jump in and figure it out along the way.

It helps that the indie community is also incredibly supportive. The panelists suggested to reach out to one another for help. There's no reason to be shy; they noted that everyone is coming from similar backgrounds.

The subject of going with a publisher came up, and Alpert said that they can be useful if they're working with you.

Krajewski recently signed on with a publisher and said that every studio does it differently and it's important to find one that is "willing to work with you and build around what you want to do. It doesn't mean they'll exploit you or change your game."

However, shopping for a publisher can be as hard as getting gamers to notice your project. Silva pointed out that the scene is "flooded with garbage" and that standing out is difficult as long as people continue to pour money into games that aren't very good.

In order to create a good indie game, a solid team needs to be working on it as well. Krajewski said to go after those who "make games in their spare time for fun. Those are the kinds of people you want on your team."

Much of the recent surge in indie games has to do with the technology that is available. It is much easier for developers to create a game using today's tools instead of having to code everything from scratch. This also accounts for the increase in clones that are floating around on the market. Mitsoda felt there should be more variety, but Alpert stated that it is a lot easier to sell something that is already familiar to players, and it makes good business sense sometimes when there are mouths to feed.

If given the chance to go back and do things differently, Krajewski stated that it is important to revisit the idea and do a lot of play-testing. One thing he learned is to let the game grow and to find itself in the process.

Quote: "Avatar bejeweled zombie massage game." --James Silva, who combined everything that seems to be popular into one game idea. Mitsoda responded by saying that the idea will likely happen in about a week.

Takeaway: Life as an indie developer is not glamorous and comes with difficult obstacles to overcome. It is possible to be successful with a motivated and hard-working team, as well as a good business sense to get the word out there. If no one knows about the game, it won't sell regardless of how good it may be.

Discussion

21 comments
DiscGuru101
DiscGuru101

Some insightful comments that I agree with. I will buy an indie game if it looks hot. I have come close to buying several, then, elected to buy PC games I neglected to buy the past few years. There are sooo many bargains on great games, I'm less likely to buy indie. But, I don't rule it out.

Gen007
Gen007

ah if only someone could combine the pros of being indie with the benefits of having a publisher. Good games would out far more often.

RealFabioSooner
RealFabioSooner

I love good games. If they're indie or not is completely inconsequential save for a couple of generalizations one can make, and for the fact that may be harder for an indie game to reach its audience. But still, the market is so saturated that it is difficult even for good non-indie games to really reach the success they deserve (The Darkness comes to mind). I just wish people stopped clinging to generalizations such as indie = good, non-indie = derivative. If all games we had were indie ones, a number of genres would be stagnated as all hell or even downright non-existant, since not all types of games can be made by a crew of less than 5 people. There's room for everything and everyone, and there'll be creativity and mediocrity all around, indie or not.

Toysoldier34
Toysoldier34

I love Indie games and support the community on Steam heavily and a little on XBL, though the Live is flooded with garbage.

2w-sephiroth
2w-sephiroth

I love the possibilities with Indie game. It allows for bigger companies to see your game in a smaller state and then re do it or make it better. The best is that big companies can see that you have talent and ideas and that you managed to sell a game. Games like Braid and Limbo has made me see that Indy projects is more an attractive choice than looking for work and doing some stupid garbage party game with unicorns and barbies for 5 year old girls that want to play the wii, and work your ass off as a pixel monkey while you have another 200.000 indians/chinese compeating and getting paid bananas to do the same job. Now I have to think how to put my ideas in a small budget project.

The_Gaming_Baby
The_Gaming_Baby

[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

Humorguy_basic
Humorguy_basic

Let's be honest here.... Indie and retro PC gaming is taking off hand in hand - play an indie game with 1999 graphics and it's easy to dig out that copy of Thief collecting dust and play that again, that helps you notice a horror-stealth indie title and that reminds you you never finished your System Shock 2! Another reason for the success of the indie market has been the development of DOSBox, which has had 6 million downloads, meaning millions playing DOS 256 colour games with tons of gameplay. Indie titles are most strongest in the gameplay, so there is another link between retro and indie PC gaming. But lastly, let's consider the No.1 reason for the growth in retro and indie PC gaming: The lack of decent hardcore style PC games and the huge growth in shallow, dumbed down console conversions! For example, do you really think any PC gamer in the 90's would have seen Jade Empire or Mass Effect as Computer Role-Playing games, derived from the table top roleplaying games of the time, or would they have been seen as 90's Action-Adventures like Terra Nova: Task Force Centauri, Tomb Raider, Fade to Black or the original Half Life!?

KuRf
KuRf

zombie sales!!!!sex scene sales....and gore sales...oh and simple addictive games sales.....like tetris...or space invaders..

LOXO7
LOXO7

Oh cool 7 more comments. This is big. For indie games. @lightwarrior179, Story shouldn't be that important in a game. If it is then it is following books and movies because thats all they have. People play games because they're puzzles. They need to figure out how to finish the levels. They need to feel like they accomplished something. Do they want to play because they are anxious to know if blue dot is going to fall in love with red square? Read a book.

Moloch121
Moloch121

Reccettear the latest indie game I have bough, waiting for it to unlock, I have enjoyed the demo sooo much for a rpg. It's so simple yet so fun. Indie developers since they dont have big budgets actually make their games fun first and flashy second.

turtlebird95
turtlebird95

I love indie games because they rely on creative design and not mass marketing to sell there game. Kudos to them. :D

lightwarrior179
lightwarrior179

Having creative freedom is a dream come true for any artist whether it's in gaming industry or elsewhere. It's good to see these games getting the attention they deserve for their innovative ideas and unique presentation. However,I must say this. Many developers misuse their creative freedom to make "artsy" games without any solid game mechanics. A game needs to be a game FIRST before harbouring any intentions of having movie-like storytelling or anything else. If a game doesn't have solid mechanic to tie it down, very few people will want to listen to your story no matter how good it is.

relentlessH52
relentlessH52

In some ways, I can actually relate to this. As someone who is trying to make stories in his spare time (when I'm not gaming) it's hard to deny that, no matter how good you make your product, it's no use if people don't even know about your stuff. It's especially evident if you're basically working with no advertising budget. That's not to say it's actually 'impossible' to market. Nowadays, there are several sites and other things you can use to advertise without actually hurting your pocket. Like this article states, there is no roadmap for you to traverse, so every path is different. Even so, if you have faith in your work and show it enough, people will come.

Pete5506
Pete5506

Indie is great, its good to know that little no name company's can still be around and still make great games

StJimmy15
StJimmy15

Indie devs are probably really good at going solo....

gbrading
gbrading moderator

Fascinating stuff. Indie games I feel are extremely important to keep alive in this big-budget industry.