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On being an independent game developer

Brad Wardell ( 10/12/02)

Being an independent game developer can be pretty awesome. For people who love games, it’s pretty much the only way you’re going to ever be able to make your own designs come true.


I started writing games back in high school on my Commodore 64. I thought I was pretty hot stuff writing my “text adventure” games until my friend Eric, who was 2 years younger than I, invited me over to see what he was working on.  Eric, who was in 7th grade at the time, had made a game called “I survived I-75” complete with joystick support, nice graphics, a sound track, and was just plain fun.  I looked at that and then looked at my crappy text adventure games and didn’t write any more games for years…


I just couldn’t program. It took needing food and shelter to change that. During my senior year at college, I desperately needed a summer job that didn’t involve driving a delivery van. I.e. a job whose salary wasn’t based on minimum wage. I got an interview at a local software company where they were looking for a summer intern to program an OS/2 image viewer. During the interview I exaggerated my knowledge of the C programming language (exaggerating meaning I had heard of C but didn’t actually know how to program in it). I got the job. In the 3 weeks between accepting the position and starting, I picked up “Teach yourself C in 21 days” and began learning it so that I wouldn’t be flogged at my new job making a whopping $10 per hour!


I was already into OS/2 so I was set there. But I needed something to program to learn how to write in C proficiently. I decided to write a game.  That game was called Galactic Civilizations.


The internship went great, I got the program they wanted developed finished and they were pleased with the results. Meanwhile, the game I had started as a learning experience had gotten me interested in making games again.


Bear in mind, I was making this game for enjoyment so I had no financial risks on the line. Just time.   Being an OS/2 fanatic and a regular on Usenet's also helped put me in touch with a lot of like minded people. So off I went. Over the next year or so I finished this OS/2 game.


The game was a critical success but not a financial one. Unfortunately I made the mistake many indies make, a hooked up with a dishonest publisher who didn’t pay royalties.  But the game became well enough known that I was able to make derivatives and sequels to it that generated hundreds of thousands of dollars.


And that money became the “seed” money for Stardock which today is a pretty successful growing company making software used by millions of people such as Object Desktop, WindowBlinds, DesktopX, WinStyles, ObjectBar, and much more.  We also make games like Stellar Frontier, The Corporate Machine and right now I’m working on a totally new version of Galactic Civilizations – done for Windows this time with a real budget.


So in my particular case, becoming an independent game developer paid off big time.  But my case is more the exception than the rule. So how do you increase your odds of becoming successful as an independent game developer?


Game Industry Basics

Only 14% of game developers know to be wary of statistics given to them by those who purport to be experts on the industry.


Truly though, statistics are a dangerous thing because they are usually manipulated. A recent game developer survey concluded that the average game developer could expect a salary of $70,000 or better. Yea right. 


Moreover, the fact is, virtually all games do not sell very many copies. And even those that claim to sell a lot of copies are usually messing with the statistics. A successful PC game sells between 30,000 to 50,000 copies worldwide. That’s if it’s in all the stores too (it’s much lower if it’s not at retail). 


Let that sink in for a moment.  Even if you go and work for Activision or Electronic Arts, unless it’s the “big title” of the year from them, odds are it’s going to do far less than 100,000 copies.


Too many young game developers fall for the spin from game companies.  Heck, technically speaking, the Stardock game Star Emperor sold over 1 million licenses. But it was at $.50 per copy as a bundling deal with IBM.  But that’s the kind of number mucking that game companies regularly make when they do PR on how many units “shipped”.


So during this discussion, let’s bear in mind these numbers. 50,000 units sold is respectable even for a big name game publisher. And if you’re an indie, 50,000 units is the promised land. 


Here’s the deal: How much you make is based on supply and demand. The supply of people who want to write video games for a living is much higher than the demand. If you want to make a lot of money programming, I’m sure there’s some wonderful job programming the front end for a database that tracks insurance claims for a particular district of some insurance company.


You really have to ask yourself: Am I willing to make less money to do something I really enjoy?  Each of us has a different threshold of pain.  Some people need that gold plated house and rocket car. Some people are fine eating lint they find in their shoes in a box and getting all their income from finding recyclables.  Most of you, I assume, are somewhere in between.


The Paths to take


So which way should you go?  If you go the route of the big game company, your game has a much greater chance of being heard of by your friends independently of you. You’ll have tons of resources to work on your game with.  On the down side, it’s not really “your” game, you’ll be the guy coding the path finding algorithms or the game setup dialogs in all likelihood.  So if you take this path, this is something to bear in mind.  When you get older and start looking back at how you spent your youth, you might wonder “Well hmm, I spent 6 years working on Duke Nukem Forever as the guy who makes the internal texture mapping utility that I had to rewrite 5 times and when the game comes out, no one will probably care about it after 6 months.”  That can be true of any job but in the game industry you usually take a salary hit so make sure you enjoy doing what you do.


On the independent game development side, you get to have a lot more control over the final product. But you’ll be much more crunched for resources and odds are few people will have heard of what you made. Plus, there’s always the chance that the game won’t do well enough to pay for food and shelter. But being able to control what you do increases the odds of making something you think is good and enjoy doing it along the way.


Designing your own indie game


The first thing to do is pick something you personally are interested in. Don’t make something simply because you think it will “sell well” or “be popular”. If you don’t start with something that already like, it’ll be hell to program.


And speaking of programming, if you’re an indie, you better know how to code. Ideas are cheap. I regularly get game designs from people who can’t code who are willing to share on the game’s eventual success (how generous!). Every game developer out there thinks they can “kick the assess” of every game out there.


Yea, on paper you can create the greatest game in history. But actually making that game is a much different matter.


Don’t be too ambitious. Come up with a design document that includes the features along with how much time it will take (Double any estimate you come up with for time).  Then start pruning unnecessary features to be used in a sequel. And remember the word “Sequel”. The best chances for an indie to do well is to make a good game that they can make sequels for years to come.  That way you can slowly build up momentum while not having to reinvest all the time to create a new game.


While you want to pick something you already like, make sure it’s also reasonably unique. If you’re thinking of doing a first person shooter, stop now. Your first “big game” better be something that stands on its own. If the description of your game goes like “It’s sort of like <insert popular game here> but better..” stop now.  No one cares if you could do a really good pornographic version of “The Sims”.


Funding your game

Many young game designers will say “Oh man, if I had the budget of a Blizzard game I could make the greatest game ever…” Yea right. Money is only a minor factor in determining whether a game will be good or not.  A good, fun game should still be a good fun game even if you’re using X’s and O’s for the graphics and humming the Maqerana  as the sound track.


That said, most games will cost something to make. If your idea is to put together a kick ass game design and maybe a demo of it and send it off to publishers, forget it. I know people often suggest this but…


When I was visiting my friends at Infogrames not that long ago they showed me the game submissions room where hopeful developers from around the world send in their games that are of various levels of completion.  The room these games were stored in looked something like that huge endless warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Arc.


Most of those games were completed games mind you. Not some alpha demo.  If it’s your first game, you’ll be on your own. So bear that in mind if you want to get together with a publisher later on.


What we’ve done traditionally at Stardock is find gamers of a similar mind as us and let them join the beta program by pre-ordering the final version of the game at a discount.  So your $49.95 game you sell at $40.  If you hit on a topic that is somewhat unique that people are interested in you might be able to get 500 to 1000 people to join your beta. That’s up to $40k before release which might be enough to tied you over.


One thing I will say, don’t ask your friends or relatives for money or even help. It is only going to create problems for you later on.


Programming the game


Perfect is the enemy of good.


You’re making a game because you want to play the game. You’re not making a game to go on some programming odyssey.   Too many developers work on perfecting every little piece of their game that they never get it done.  Perfectionists usually don’t do well at this.  When hiring developers, we have to be careful about those with “4.0” grade point averages because the last thing we want is some anal retentive perfectionist who has lost track that we’re trying to make something that we can ship and sell.


In the last game we worked on, The Corporate Machine, we shipped with a screen that showed your company in it. It had a big old parking lot in it.  Some people on our team were aghast that we shipped it without the “car populating” code in.  That is, the parking lot was supposed to fill up with cars as your company grew.  So in the shipping game, the parking lot is empty.  Nobody ever noticed. No review mentioned it. The game wasn’t perfect but it was “good enough”.


Make sure you keep your game in working condition. As long as it’s always playable, you’re always in a position to take advantage of opportunities. If some publisher has heard of your game on the net and emails you about it, you want to be able to say “I can fed ex you a beta of the game tomorrow.”  Similarly if you find out Computer Gaming World is going to do a round up of college related strategy games, you want to make sure your game “Cow College” is ready to be sent to them right away even if it’s still in alpha so that you can get some press from it.


Okay, it’s done!

So now you’ve finished your game. What should you do next?


You can try to publish it yourself or submit it to the various game publishers out there. If the game is pretty solid, it can’t hurt to send it to the publishers. They may even offer an advance on royalty depending on how good the game is. If they publish it, your royalty is going to typically be around 20% and they get 80%.  That’s because distribution has a lot more to do with a game’s success than anything else.  If Take 2 Interactive publishes your game, you’re definitely going to sell more than 5 times as many copies as you would have on your own.


But let’s say you go it alone.  If you go just electronically then it’s not going to be that hard to get it out there.  On the other hand, you won’t make any money.  I’m not aware of any games that are available exclusively electronically that have sold more than 5,000 units.  I think even we would have trouble selling much more than that electronically and is ranked in the top 10,000 websites world wide (Take 2 <Grand Theft Auto> is ranked at nearly 31,000th).


No matter how you slice it, if you want to sell a decent quantity of games, you have to be at the store and that is very difficult.  So early on, you will want to decide how much money you need to make from your game.


If your game only cost you your time and $15,000 to license stuff, then hooking up with someone who can sell 5,000 copies electronically will still get you $40,000 on your $40 game which isn’t bad if it’s not your only source of income.


On the other hand, if your game gets accepted by a big publisher and they get it into the store and sell 50,000 copies at wholesale of $25 per copy, then that’s $5 X 50,000 = $250,000 and life is good because if you planned things right, you can milk your game that you already enjoy for 2 or 3 sequels for the next half decade.


It’s really all about setting up your expectations. If you’re getting into making games because you want to be rich, then you’re probably better off doing something else. You should do it because you want to have fun doing something that can very possibly pay off pretty well.


I’ve been making games professionally now for 10 years and I’ve not regretted it. There is really no substitute for working on things you like. And if gaming is your passion and you’re good at writing code and have the discipline to finish what you start, then making games might be a viable career.