The Continuing Struggle of Being an Indie Dev

Independent developers have more tools than ever at their disposal, but the challenges they face are still great.

Article by Daniel Starkey, .

Game development is hard.

We hear, again and again, that with tools like Unity and the App Store that it's never been easier to make a quick buck cranking out some games. At its peak, Candy Crush was raking in well over a million dollars every day. Flappy Bird, Five Nights at Freddy's—these games dominate news stories and make their creators huge lumps of cash, but they are exceptionally rare rags-to-riches success stories. The real stories of independent developers that want to keep making games is much grimmer.

Mike Bithell – Mike Bithell Games

Thomas Was Alone was something of a sleeper hit. Released in 2012, it took quite some time for it to find an audience. It's not hard to see why, either. It doesn't look particularly great, and there's nothing that seems outwardly special about it. To just about anyone it looked like a game about boxes jumping around.

Even creator Mike Bithell didn't expect much it. It was a "hobby game," that he put together in his spare time. He'd already been in game development for some time, but a good chunk of his work was tie-ins for kids shows and movie. "There aren't a lot of 9/10 scores to my name," he quips. It seems unlikely, then, that Thomas Was Alone would have ever sold a million copies—a threshold many full-retail releases with huge marketing budgets don't always cross. But looking back, Bithell thinks it makes sense.

"[It] did well because it was a critical darling. It was slightly highbrow, slightly left leaning and it was about friends and feelings and shit. That tends to align with what critics typically like. I was fortunate in that my politics, my age, my gender I share in common with the vast majority of game critics... So they often share the same taste, worldview, nostalgia and all these other things. I made the game I wanted to make, but it's not surprising why critics picked it up."

Times are changing though, and as YouTube personalities and Twitch continue to gain popularity, the traditional critics (i.e. people like myself) probably won't be the gatekeepers much longer. Realizing that, Bithell says that for his next game, Volume, he's given some thought to how his game might be picked up by streamers and Let's Players.

"With Volume we're not making a game that's meant to be funny YouTube fodder," He said. "But we've made a deep level editor that will let people make lots and lots of content and people can make lots of videos about it as they do with roguelikes. I don't obsess over it, but I do give some thought on how it will look in a video. It's not just an artistic pursuit. If you need to be successful, you have to consider the commercial aspect as well. These are concerns that you have to have if you want to be viable."

Mike Bithell's putting about half of what he made from TWA into Volume. Solid numbers are hard to come by, in part because just about every digital marketplace refuses to let developers publish exact numbers, but it's not hard to get a pretty solid guess. I threw out a few numbers for the sake of argument and came to $350,000-500,000 as the budget for Volume, and while Bithell "couldn't confirm or deny" anything, he said I was "in the ballpark." By contrast, Thomas Was Alone hit £7,000 or just over $10,000, and even that's steep for a "hobby game."

Despite the cost, Bithell says he cut corners with Volume. For example, the main character wears a mask. Right there you don't have to worry about facial animations or lip-syncing. The environments are abstract meaning the team can use fewer textures, and have an ex-PS1 artist design most of the levels. He calls this the "Kevin Smith approach."

"All he had to do for Clerks was throw in a single line to explain why the shutter was down, and he could film at night savings about a million on what a proper set would cost. Every choice we've made has been made to make the game we want to, and cut around the expensive stuff. No one in history has had a perfect creative career that has hit after hit after hit. Even if you're the greatest genius in game devs history, you're not going to have a perfect record. In the face of absolutely certain failure at some point, and it just makes sense to make sure that in five years' time or even in ten years' time I'm still doing what I love."

Steve Gaynor – Fullbright

Steve Gaynor, lead designer on one of 2013's biggest indie hits, Gone Home, takes the opposite approach. When I mentioned that Mike Bithell was careful to make sure he had enough cash to have a fallback, Steve abruptly said, "See I don't agree with that. I don't like Plan Bs. When I was in college I thought I'd start towards an English degree and get my teaching certificate. And then I can keep working on my art, and if that fails, I can always go back and be a teacher."

He paused for a minute. "But then I thought,'Man fuck that!' If you have a Plan B, you might use it. So unless you actually want to do your plan B, just remove the net. Because I'll go with the knowledge that if I can't make that work then I don't have anything else, so I have to make it work. Why not make sure it has to be good and remove the ‘or else?'"

Steve was easily the most optimistic developer I spoke with. His company, Fullbright, revealed their next game, Tacoma, at The Game Awards late last year. He was confident that they'd succeed because "we've done this all before." Gone Home was self-funded in much the same. The team, realizing that they wanted to strike out on their own, pooled together their money and figured that they'd have a year and a half to make the best game they could.

"That was it," he said. We knew it would be either break even, it'd bottom out, or we'd make it all back. I think that's a really important motivator. There was no,' Can we can an extension for six months?' No. Where is that money coming from? No, we can't get another six months. We have to make the game."

Most of the Fullbright team also worked together at 2K Marin on the BioShock 2 expansion "Minerva's Den." He said that great experience because while the expansion was important to 2K as a whole, if they needed extra time, they weren't important enough to get an extension. "If we didn't deliver, they would have told us to fuck off. We're putting all of our available budget into our next game… so if we released and nobody bought or failed to launch then yeah, that'd be a problem [laughs]. If it doesn't work out... we'll go back to AAA, but until then this is what we're doing."

Adrian Chmielarz – The Astronauts

Adrian Chmielarz's The Vanishing of Ethan Carter has a lot in common with Fullbright's Gone Home. Both were narrative-heavy games, sometimes derisively labeled "walking simulators." Some gamers dismissed them because there wasn't much to do, or because they thought the games were too short. Adrian's company The Astronauts, like the folks at Fullbright, were a group of seasoned developers even before they started work on independent games. And while he's loved the experience, Adrian says he's also learned quite a bit more than he expected in the few months following release.

"I had no idea that gamers were so insatiable. The average completion time for Ethan Carter is four and a half hours. But we never hear the end of ‘it's too short.' It's illogical. If you multiplied the price by three, to get a standard retail price, you'd get 13.5 hours – which is decent by any standard. It doesn't matter that most people don't finish games because they're too long. Gamers want husbands and wives, not flings. When they buy a game, they want to be with it, have it around, cherish it. It just needs to be something gamers can invest themselves into with all their heart."

Ethan Carter was about as revered among many critics as Gone Home— picking up excellent review scores all over. It's story was a gripping mystery about the disappearance of a supernaturally gifted child. You, a paranormal investigator, have been sent to explore a decaying village in the Northeastern United States, only to find a string of strange murders and disturbing monsters.

Even so, Adrian was a bit disappointed by the reception. Few critics analyzed the game to the degree that he had hoped, with most saying that the ending was cliché, or relating some of the character to their own lives.

"No one dug even deeper. I don't want to spoil too much, but no one noticed that the game is a metaphor for the five stages of grief, with each murder representing a stage… It's a sad realization of the place games are in right now. I am inclined to believe that no one dug deeper because most people do not expect a video game to have many layers of allegory. We take what's on the surface; maybe look one floor down, and most of the time that's it."

So much of modern game development has tried to push games towards a more literary, adult-focused medium. As the average age of gamers creeps higher and higher, companies have done their best to change up the subject matter and the depth of games. But for Adrian it's not yet enough.

"This situation is totally understandable, and I blame no one. Video games will be the dominant form of entertainment, but still have a long way to go before they are able to compete consistently with movies or books on the level of interpretation and reflection. The most surprising thing was how hard it is to design a narrative game that makes story and gameplay indistinguishable. It took me over a year to get to the point where I was content. And the ingratitude of this work is that in the end the game looks as if it was easy to make."

Adrian and his team have a few other parallels to Fullbright. Both companies emptied their bank accounts to fund their games, and both would not have continued without a hit. Failure, for them, was not an option. But the stress of balancing financial viability and artistic vision is a heavy one to bear. "We wanted to show the world we had something valuable to offer, something we could only do when in full creative control." Adrian didn't want to take an easy path, he didn't want to make a shooter, or something that could be spat out by any other studio.

Ethan Carter was ultimately a success. While not quite as popular as Thomas Was Alone or Gone Home it still accomplished more or less what the team at Astronauts wanted it to. But what if it had failed? When I him, Adrian bluntly says, "I cannot and do not imagine my life outside of games."

Mike Roush – Choice Provisions

"Mobile gaming has ruined everything," Mike Roush tells me, "and I like mobile games." He'd just come back from paternity leave, and I could hear the exhaustion in his voice. Mike is one of the cofounders of Gaijin Games of Bit.Trip fame, recently rebranded as Choice Provisions.

"The other night I invited some friends over to play some things on my Amazon Fire, and these are non-gaming people. They we stunned that it was free. How can we compete with that? I keep thinking we need to jump on that bandwagon." Mobile games, he says, are contributing to the mental devaluation of games. Why buy something that costs $5 or even $1 when you can get it for free? If there's anything that we can take away from last year's Threes fiasco is that the majority of players don't really care where their games come from. They want something cool and they want it cheap.

And can we blame them? This is basic supply and demand. Independent development is easier. People who may have heard about the success of Braid or Super Meat Boy or any other popular cheap-ish game wants a piece of that seemingly very large pie. Mike notes that it was far easier when he founded the company. "When we first started, we were just three people. We didn't have to do anything, really. People were so hungry for fresh ideas they'd buy anything. Now? Indie games are a dime a dozen."

Exacerbated, no doubt, by Steam's prolific sales. Hundreds of critically acclaimed games all for a few bucks a piece? "Sounds great. Sign us up," we'll say. Every sale, Gabe Newell and Valve are lauded as heroes of the consumer, of the common man because they bring seemingly endless streams of great, cheap games. But that comes at a cost. Instead of paying up front for a game, many specifically wait for the sales. Suddenly a $60 is now worth $30, then $15 and eventually $5.

The flip side of this, is that it can increase the potential audience for games. "There's only so many people willing to buy Runner 2 for $15. Once we've hit all those folks we can knock the price down and down again and again. After a while we get to the point where we realize people just want a game for the Steam trading cards and we'll give it to them for $1." But he worries that this business model isn't sustainable. "I don't know how long things will stay like this, y'know? Everything's changing. We might hit a point where no one wants to buy our game at $15 on Day One."

A few years ago, he was more cavalier. Looking back, it wasn't really possible for the team to mess up too bad. They came in with nothing, and if they left with nothing, "Well at least we'd have a cool game out of it." Now he's struggling to manage a growing company of 20 people with an office in the heart of San Francisco. He won't discuss exact numbers, but just to keep the doors open is "well into" six digits every single month. These kinds of expenses can creep up on you he says. "Certification, paying benefits, paying rent for the office – these things add up really fast."

Their most recent game, Whoa Dave! was profitable, but it's getting tougher to hit those critical numbers.

"To adapt, we've divided up a lot of things. We're like an onion now – we can peel off a lot of layers before we'd have to shutter for good…. But this is still a very different world than we started. We have employees that have lives and families. People rely on us. People need us. I have kids now... We can't fail."

Despite all of these precautions, Mike's afraid of the future. Looking at how hard it is to get noticed on Steam, or how fickle the market seems to be, he leaves me with the following: "The state of gaming is so grim. I think the writing is on the wall for a lot of us, we just can't see it yet."

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Comments 10

  • Avatar for VotesForCows #1 VotesForCows 3 years ago
    Hearing these stories reminds me of my wife, who was a professional ballet dancer. Dancers are only ever one mistake or one minor injury away from their career ending, because there are hundreds of people desperate to take their place. The proliferation of cheap games is similar I guess.
    I have great admiration for anyone who put themselves out there to do what they love, whatever the risk.
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  • Avatar for Mikki-Saturn #2 Mikki-Saturn 3 years ago
    I basically think this devaluation issue is a consequence of moving to digital. I'm not sure what the best solution is. Part of me thinks that if developers could keep physical version out there, that could keep the digital version's price higher. So if Gone Home had a $20 physical release, then the digital game wouldn't have to fall below $10, because that price point could still be presented as a bargain.

    The basic issue is that when there is only digital, it isn't clear why the product (I say 'product' because this same issue is facing all sorts of media) should have any particular price at all. Supply is infinite; demand is finite - in any traditional market this means prices should fall. How low should they fall? Until an equilibrium is met - but supply is infinite, meaning the equilibrium is 0. Digital products, of all kinds, under a traditional supply and demand model should be borderline free. After all, what would you pay for a single blade of grass?

    I could go on and on about this, because I find this topic fascinating. The digital revolution is a paradigm shift that will totally transform the economy and society. Many people haven't even started thinking yet about how 3D printing will change. All the problems that currently plague entertainment media and professional software, etc, will soon expand to all manner of low level manufacturing. Depending on how sophisticated 3D printers get (and how quickly) it may ultimately take over all manufacturing - for example, will you ever be able to 3D print a car? Obviously you would have to assemble it, but could you 3D print all the parts? If so, teenagers may soon download their cars for "free" on the internet. Who knows what could happen! The whole economy could collapse.
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  • Avatar for KaiserWarrior #3 KaiserWarrior 3 years ago
    Video games have been devalued because, quite simply, we as consumers are receiving far less product than we used to.

    In the digital age, we don't get a box, we don't get a disc, we don't get a manual. We certainly don't get all the nice, premium packaging niceties that we used to back in the days when, say, Working Designs was relevant with their excellent Lunar releases. When all I'm getting is a download code for a couple hundred megabytes of data -- maybe a gigabyte or two in the case of some of the fancier indie games -- which are DRM-locked to an account such that I cannot lend, trade, or re-sell them as I can with physical media, how much is your game actually worth?

    Recall, if you will, that Cave Story was freeware for a very long time before it became popular and started selling copies. And those copies were enhanced with better graphics and more features than the original version. So now, compare your game to Cave Story. Are you Better Than Cave Story? Because if not, you have a problem on your hands: you are offering inferior product to a Free Game, and expecting to be paid for it.

    I'm a hobbyist and collector. I go out of my way to obtain copies of older games that have all of the packaging intact and in good condition. Now this can get pretty expensive in a number of cases, but in just as many of them, I can get a 20+ year old game with full packaging in good condition for around $20, maybe $30 on the high end. So let's do another comparison: For $20 on the second-hand market, I'm getting

    * A physical product that was produced in finite numbers, which have only gone down over the years as copies have been lost, destroyed, or rendered into 'unacceptable condition' (cracked cases, missing manuals, etc.)
    * Out of print, meaning that no more will ever be made
    * Well-preserved, which is quite difficult to do over the course of decades
    * A physical cartridge, disc, or card that isn't locked to anything; I can lend, borrow, trade, or re-sell it as I see fit
    * Just as good, if not better, than your indie production as a video game

    And you propose to sell to me, for $15 or sometimes even more, something that is likely no better as a game, while simultaneously being a digital product that:

    * Cannot be lent, borrowed, traded, or re-sold
    * Can be reproduced infinitely at effectively no cost
    * Has no physical form to be preserved or hold any sort of value

    Yeah, good luck with that.

    It's not that mobile gaming or Steam sales have hurt the value of video games. It's that video game consumers aren't idiots, and they understand the value of money. They can do rational price comparisons on the open market, and figure out when they're not getting something of equal value to the dollars they're being asked to spend, given what else those dollars could be procuring in the same sector. The simple fact of the matter is, video games are no longer expensive-to-manufacture specialty products for a tiny, niche market. They are mass-market, mass-consumption entertainment, and they are valued accordingly.

    The AAA space has the exact same issue. Consumers have figured out that spending $60 on day 1 is a silly idea when they know, for an absolute certain fact, that there is content missing from that game that will later be sold as DLC, and eventually packaged up in the "Actually Complete Edition" 12 to 18 months later for a much more reasonable price. And that the game in question is very likely not substantially better, as a video game, than the game that came out three or four years ago that they can easily get for $20.
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  • Avatar for BeeZee #4 BeeZee 3 years ago
    I'm an indie dev, and I can definitely attest to the mobile side of things being rough. When we launched Blowfish Meets Meteor last year -- our iPhone brick-breaker/platformer hybrid -- we were really adamant about it costing $1.99 up front, and then never, ever costing players again. We figured it was a labor of love that we genuinely cared about, so making it free and sticking microtransactions into it felt like it would undo everything we were trying to achieve. We had a fair share of publisher interest, which was initially awesome, but then every. single. one. of. them. wanted us to go the F2P route. We decided against it, and ended up launching the game on our own, to really positive reviews but really iffy sales.

    Just a couple of months ago, we made the game temporarily free for Cyber Monday. 25,000 people downloaded it overnight -- more than the entire previous year of sales combined. We didn't see a dime from it.
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  • Avatar for hal9k #5 hal9k 3 years ago
    @KaiserWarrior Great points, you covered a whole lot of my feelings on the issue. I've said it before, but I think that at least part of the "devaluation" we're seeing (the precipitous price drops that happen within a few months after release) has always been there, in the form of used game sales. To an extent, this is nothing new. The difference is that now, the developers get at least a little revenue directly from sales of a deeply discounted game - unlike the old model, where the developers saw nothing and profits went directly to Gamestop (or the local pawn shop - same thing, right?).

    Still, as the field gets more crowded and the technology to make and publish games gets ever more accessible, I can sympathize with creators who have a harder time getting noticed. It's a bit sad to read the first developer's statements, which sounded to me like his plan to get noticed is to court specific constituencies - critics or video streamers. I think that strategy may work sometimes (witness the rise of Flappy Bird and Goat Simulator), but it seems awfully cynical and prone to backfire, as it does annually for some attempted "Oscar-bait" films.

    Instead of targeting the very high- or the very low-brow audience, I find that the best art comes from people who just make what they like and to hell with focus testing. Make the games that you yourself would want to play, then figure out how to market them. Yacht Club seemed to have that philosophy down, and I hope more studios follow their example.Edited February 2015 by hal9k
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  • Avatar for mattcom26 #6 mattcom26 3 years ago
    The Ethan Carter developer was getting at an essential point about the perceived value of digital gaming, and of video games in general, when he lamented that users and critics didn't look deeper into the allegories of his story. Convincing consumers that video games are a valid artistic medium alongside films, books, music, is a great ambition in its own right, but all the aforementioned mediums still suffer from the same malaise of declining sales resulting from ultra-cheap downloads and piracy... with no solution in sight.
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  • Avatar for garion333 #7 garion333 3 years ago
    @BeeZee Ouch. I'll be checking this out on my iPad when I get home.
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  • Avatar for KaiserWarrior #8 KaiserWarrior 3 years ago
    @hal9k Exactly. The games may be "Devalued", but at least the developers are getting SOME value out of them with the lower price points. Previously, people just flat-out wouldn't buy the game until it got down to that price via being on the second-hand market.

    It's part of why I always chuckle when big publishers complain about used sales. As if they haven't always been a huge part of video games as a medium. Funcoland was a going concern as far back as the early-mid 90s. It's a major case of Expectation Creep -- some of the greatest video games of all time from the 16- and 32-bit eras struggled to break the 1 million sold mark back in their heyday, whereas today you can have games like the Tomb Raider reboot that sell multiple millions of copies and are still considered to be commercial failures.

    I paid a very substantial price to obtain my complete, very-good-condition copy of Panzer Dragoon Saga for the Sega Saturn. There were only 30,000 copies of this game (it's North American version, at any rate) ever manufactured. It's downright impossible to fathom ANY major studio these days producing a game and actually bringing it to market without any hope of even breaking 30,000 copies sold. PDS was a big, sprawling RPG for its time, especially coming from the likes of Sega, and part of an at-the-time quite popular franchise. Only 30,000 copies in existence, let alone actually sold.

    @mattcom26 This really touches on something else, linking up with what Hal was saying with regards to "Oscar-bait" films: Are video games really the proper medium for what some of these indie devs are trying to do?

    I take issue with the whole concept of games like Ethan Carter or Gone Home, and "walking simulator" is a very appropriate genre label for them. They really aren't games. Now bear with me, put down the pitchforks -- I'm not saying this as some kind of "hardcore vs. casual" thing, or to say that they shouldn't exist as ideas. But what is a "video game", and what makes it different from a book or a movie? Well, I'd say the interactivity is something everyone can agree on, but I'd go a bit further than that. There's got to be something to do with that interactivity. There's got to be a point to it. Some task to accomplish, something you can succeed or fail at, or at the very least a choice to be made that presents different outcomes depending on which choice you make. But you take a game like Gone Home, or Ethan Carter, and... well, where's the choice? You're walking from Point A to Point B and Clicking On Things. Sure, you might get the (deliberately-) disjointed story in a different sequence depending on which order you Click On Things, but does that actually change anything about the narrative? Does it actually have any real effect on your understanding of the story being presented, does it actually change anything about that story? Or is it just a fancy series of hoops you have to jump through before you're allowed to turn the page in what amounts to a digital book?

    I think that both of those games would have made pretty decent short stories. I think that those short stories would have gotten people thinking about them and their themes a bit more deeply, because that's what you do with books -- as a medium, they convey ideas through text, giving you plenty of time to absorb and think about those ideas as you go. But as video games, your focus shifts to the interactivity, or lack thereof, and what effects that interactivity brings to the experience. That's the essential quality of a video game. It's why Spec Ops: The Line was such a powerful experience, and such an excellent game -- because interactivity was CORE to the message that game was conveying. It wasn't just Walking To A Point and Clicking On Things. It was making a decision between firing into the crowd and firing into the air to scare them off, and realizing later that you actually had a choice there, a choice that isn't often presented because we don't often think about it -- and that being the deeper message and theme for you to chew over and consider.

    Games like Gone Home and Ethan Carter are interactive only in the most token sense. "Well, we've made a video game instead of a book or a short film, so I guess we have to let the player do SOMETHING. Let's have them Walk Around and Click On Things".

    Maybe that's fine as the video game equivalent of Oscar Bait. But it makes for lousy Games, and certainly not things that people think deeply about.
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  • Avatar for mattcom26 #9 mattcom26 3 years ago
    @KaiserWarrior I guess my point was that if you buy into the idea that video games are an art form, then you have to be willing to look for the artistic intent in order to fully appreciate the work. Much the same way that the lines bleed between architecture, sculpture, graphic design, I believe a video game can represent very minimally in one area (e.g. gameplay), and lean very heavily in another (e.g. storytelling), but still be considered to contain both mediums. If the artistic intent drives you to point and click to finish the story, or perhaps solve only one puzzle, then I still feel that constitutes a video game – just not necessarily one that everyone wants to play.
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