how to make indie games

Over the past few years we’ve done a series of “So you want to be … ” episodes talking about what it takes to fill the various roles in the game industry. Lately we’ve got more and more requests for suggestions on how to get into Independent Games Development, since it’s something that James has worked with a number of people on, we figured “Hey why not?”. Hopefully this helps some of you take the first steps towards getting more fantastic games out to the world.

Without further ado, Lesson 1:

The first thing you have to know as an Indie Dev. is that you are not going to be making a game with the scope of a “God of War” or a “Call of Duty”. For your first project think simple, think small. Whether you’re self financing for a few million dollars, or you’re living off of ramen, doesn’t matter, you want to keep your first project achievable. Something you can get out to market and into the hands of real people. Your first time through this process will teach you a great deal, even if you’re already a wizened veteran coming out of the Triple A industry. It’s a totally different experience working with a small team, actually getting to help call all the shots. If you’re not a veteran the amount you’re going to learn from this is just staggering! I can guarantee you this, your second project will be so much better and go so much smoother than your first.

“There’s a lot more to succeeding in this industry then just “Build it and they will come””

When it comes time to start your second project, think simple, think small again. James has an enormous amount of experience estimating project timelines, to this day when he makes these estimates he always adds an extra 50% to the schedule and budget. These projects always end up with a thousand little pieces and complexities you can’t possibly foresee before you’ve gotten stared.

Lesson 2: Being an Indie Dev. involves a lot more than just building games.

I have known plenty of teams that were great at building games who’s studio died on the vine because they didn’t know how to do marketing, or p.r., or how to get the project distributed. There’s a lot more to succeeding in this industry then just “Build it and they will come”. This is where the fantasy of being an Indie separates from the reality. You’d like to dream about working on games all day, but honestly you’re going to be wearing a lot of hats. If this company is your baby you’re probably going to be spending almost as much time answering emails, taking meetings, worrying about taxes and money, and so on, as you are actually developing your game.

If you’re working with more than one person I would highly recommend getting a lawyer from the outset. You don’t have to use them much, until it comes time to deal heavily with contracts, but someone who can help you set up your company right can save you a lot of headaches in the long run. If you can spare the $500 -$1000 to hire a lawyer when you start to get serious about launching a game it will be well worth it.

Once you’re all set up the key as an Indie, assuming you’re not working with a lot of money, is how to get viability. The best method is going to differ wildly for different games and different studios, so here I would recommend really studying how other games have done it. Whether it’s building in to the game things that people want to share, like in Minecraft, or using spaces like Kongregate the way Team Meat did, there are a thousand different methods to help your game stand out from the every growing crowd of indie titles out there. Remember, going viral is something that you work for, you have to stay on top of it, it’s not something that happens by itself, at least not 99.9% of the time.

Beyond that you’ll need to figure out how you’re going to get your product distributed. Getting on Steam doesn’t just happen. Many of the much smaller digital distribution services aren’t going to glean you more than a few dozen sales. Really think about and give yourself at least six months prior to launch to work on pursuing distribution.

Lesson 3: Is budget.

This might seem simple as an indie studio, you just take the minimum amount you all need to live each month, multiply that by the number of months you expect the project to take and voila you got your budget! Wrong. No. It turns out there are licenses you’re going to have to buy, legal fees you’re going to have to pay, then there’s taxes, and of course somebody’s cars going to break down at some point. Then one of the computers is going to burst into flame, you’ll have to replace that, plus all the work that was on the hard-drive that people forgot to back up. All that’s just the start of it!

Often you build your first games simply to get people to know who you are, and to gather a small following of fans. To get people interested you as a company, and make your work stand out amongst all the less well crafted Indie games out there. Often, even if your first game wins some awards and gets some press it’s not going to sell phenomenally well. Honestly, just getting noticed is probably a more important goal for your first game then sales. That does mean that you’re going to need to plan a way to survive long enough to release your second game, just keep that in mind.

Another important thing to know, many game distributing companies aren’t going to pay you until thirty-ninety days after they start selling it. James has seen to many indie teams suffer because they ran out of cash while waiting for that first decent size check. Of course, it’s not the end of the world if this happens, if you’re game is selling well enough people will be willing to front you some money; but that money is going to be a lot more expensive then you’d ever want it to be.

Finally, Lesson 4: Mechanics trump content.

This advice is for your actual game design. As an indie you can get away with a game that’s short. Your game could be a five minute web game that touches us in some deeply emotional way, or even a gripping eight hour adventure. What it absolutely must not be is twenty five hours of ehhhh, it’s all right.

Polish and scale are the weapons of the Triple A world. Indies can’t really compete with that. Unless you already have something spectacular, or novel, to offer your focus shouldn’t be about building more of it. Instead, concentrate your efforts on making that play really stand out. To often I see new indie companies cobble together some baseline, functional mechanics and then start building levels and creating new content. Doing that feels like a games getting made, it feels like tangible progress. That is the wrong way to go about things.

If you don’t make sure your mechanics are right first, you’re just going to have to redo all of that level design when you polish those mechanics. Or, worse, you’ll be afraid to change your mechanics for the better because of all the level design you already did. You’ll be stuck shipping a mediocre game.

Remember to test early, it may scare you, it may feel like your game isn’t ready or that people won’t understand it, but it’s almost never to early to test. You can always get valuable feedback. It’s often our own egos, our fear of being hurt, of having this thing we love misunderstood or rejected, that keeps us from showing it to others in an unbiased environment. An environment where it’s okay for them to rip it to shred right in front of us. To succeed as an Independent Developer, that’s something you’re going to have to step past.

To review:

Lesson 1: Plan your game scope well.

Lesson 2: Know what you’re getting yourself into.

Lesson 3: Keep your budget realistic, with hopefully enough in the war chests to make another game if the first one doesn’t sell

Lesson 4: Mechanics trump content.

Good luck! We hope to be playing your game soon.

SCHOOL OF GAME DESIGN