Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

I Got Them Indie Game Developer Blues

Posted by Rampant Coyote on December 8, 2010

The fist-pumping internal manifesto:

I’m an indie game developer!

I’m here to change the world. To fight back against The Man. To show the industry how it’s supposed to be done. To do it my way. To go back to how it was done, when teams were small enough that an individual could make a difference, and imprint their games with the stamp of their own style, personality, and uniqueness.

I’m here to do something awesome.

And then the reality sets in:

There’s not enough time (or money) to do everything I want to do. I don’t have enough talent or skill to do things as well as I wanted to do them. Some of my most brilliant ideas are really duds. On some things, The Man was right all along, having learned from hard experience.  A tiny team means individual weaknesses and faults show through, too.

I have made the same mistakes I’ve been ranting against. Sometimes knowingly. And continue to do so.

And ultimately, the reality of the release falls short of the awesome vision of my imagination.

It’s the indie developer blues. Or maybe it’s just that I suck. But my ego demands that I assume this is common for all – well, at least most – indie developers. I keep saying that game design was easy back when I didn’t have to do it. It’s easy to be a game player and see the weaknesses in your favorite games and tell yourself, “I could do better if I had the chance.”

But indies seize the chance. And discover (Sophie Houlden’s encouragement notwithstanding) that making games is hard. And a lot of not-so-fun work. But I salute the ones who make it happen, who face the frustrations and disappointments of reality and produce something cool anyway.

UPDATE: The point (does there have to be a point?) of this post was not to whine, and I am glad that this isn’t the case in the comments.  I was just noting that going indie is a tough road, and to state the respect I hold for the indies as a community for persevering and doing what they do. While this isn’t my first rodeo, it’s always a challenge. When I come up for air and think “How the hell am I gonna pull this off?” it’s these indies I look to for inspiration.

Filed Under: General, Indie Evangelism - Comments: 9 Comments to Read

  • Breakdance McFunkypants said,

    I 100% completely and utterly feel exactly the same way you do. I too thought the weaknesses in AAA games was obvious and that I would be the one to correct these mistakes in my own games. But after releasing a handful of mediocre games I’ve become much more humble over the years: I see now that I too have weaknesses and I too fall prey to the same norms. I have put my all into projects only to see that the final product was OK, but not as spectacular as I’d imagined. I too have found that the game I wish I could make would take 10 man-years of labour and more money than I can invest.

    I think the indie game dev blues are very common. Don’t give up! You CAN do it! You are definitely not alone. =)

  • Greg Tedder said,

    Ouch! Ouch! and Ouch! Reality sucks.

    I know in several of my previous projects I had these incredible ideas on how something would work. When I finally got around to implimentation I would find myself staring straight up trying to see beyond a seemingly insurmountable task, and I often shifted course and did something I felt comfortable with doing rather than pushing that boundary.

  • Brian 'Psychochild' Green said,

    I think that you can take two attitudes about indie game development. The first is what is posted: Wow, I didn’t do as well as I had hoped. I made mistakes and things didn’t work out well. I could have and should have done better.

    The second is to realize that releasing a game is VERY hard. It’s a long process involving a lot of very not fun work. But, this could energize you instead. And, if you actually manage to release a game, you might see it as the tiny miracles it is instead of something that didn’t live up to expectations.

    When I look back on what our tiny team did on Meridian 59, I’m amazed that we did what we did. It also gives me the push necessary to continue working on projects. Hopefully I can learn and improve. I think this is why releasing a small game, now matter how simple, is so very vital to indies.

  • LateWhiteRabbit said,

    Definitely not uncommon feelings.

    I wanted to talk about team size for a moment, and the difference between indie and mainstream teams. I think one major advantage to mainstream teams, regardless of size, is have a command structure, and it being everyone’s JOB. Orders can be given, egos suppressed or stomped on (unless the ego is at the top, and at least then it is only ONE ego), and everything can be efficient with one cook in charge in an entire kitchen.

    Small indie teams, and sometimes mainstream small teams as well, run into problems. First, lack of man-power means everyone has to do more, and the game has to be smaller or have a longer development time. Second and most important, however, is that everyone becomes a cook and everyone is friends. You can tell an employee, “Get it down now, or you’re fired”, or “No, you can’t add or spend time on that, it isn’t in the design doc”. It is much harder to tell a friend or a volunteer that.

    I’ve worked on teams where there were just too many cooks cooking in the kitchen, and all of them had a different idea of what the dish should be, despite there being a final approved game design doc on their lap. Friendships get strained as egos bump heads. A team member misses a milestone and holds up the project and suddenly hanging out together gets awkward. I’ve seen friendships just flat disappear doing indie development together.

    The game Sanitarium is a professional example of too many cooks. The game begins in a very promising way, and is genuinely engaging and thought provoking in the first couple of chapters – then it becomes disjointed and weird, with the story ceasing to make sense, level themes apparently made up at random, etc. I read the postmortem on Gamasutra and it turns out the game had SEVEN designers, all friends, all wanting to do a different game. So they decided to combine all the different games into one, then AFTERWARDS try and come up with a story that could connect them. Wow. Not a good idea. Not to mention that there were more than 7 people on the team, and it created a lot of internal strife because with so many designers getting a say, the rest of the team became upset that THEY didn’t get a say too.

    I guess all that relates to MY developer blues. I prefer working alone now. I get all the say, and I do the work to my satisfaction, and at least the damn thing is cohesive. It takes a hell of a lot longer, but no friends are lost, and it is truly my game.

    I still occasionally work with a small team, I just think they could all benefit from organizing themselves like a mainstream team. Of course, without them being payed, there isn’t much authority anyone can have over an indie team.

    Or maybe I’m just too used to being in the military . . . .

  • McTeddy said,

    I’ve been making game’s since I was 8… so I’ve got some experience. I’ve reached the point that I can code fancy things extremely quickly… and I’m fairly good judge of which ideas will succeed and which need work.

    That said… my big weakness is art. Sure… I’ve created a game that can be customized as much as NWN. Items, characters, quests… all easily customized. Positive responses from all my testers… including Shooter Fan. Yet, I look at it and feel sick knowing that I can do better if I “had the money and art”.

    It’s good to know it’s not just me with such thoughts.

    As for the what LateWhiteRabbit said about the team. I agree entirely that an organized team structure is key to working as a group. Though it is important that the ones up to understand everyone else’s job.

    When I was in mainstream we were run by business people. Our lead literally thought all we do is change zeroes to one. He didn’t realize that programming require’s some thought into the future to prevent breaking the build.

    GOOD leadership is what will lead to successful games. I’ve worked on one well coordinated project in college… and we accomplished more in 3 months than I did in a year with mainstream or solo.

    As for the main point, I usually try to convince myself that I am the harshest judge. It doesn’t really help much and I highly doubt it’s the truth… but it’s all I’ve got.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    I keep telling myself that “the perfect is the enemy of the good.”

    Too many indies NEVER release. Or release an early, unfinished alpha version, and then disappear. It’s too bad. Releasing, putting a stake in the ground and saying, “This is My Game” is a pretty big deal. Especially for indies. As a mainstream developer, I can explain what happened with the crappy licensed games I was on, hide behind the politics of the studio and the rest of my team, and say, “it’s not my fault.”

    But as an indie – that’s a piece of you on display, for all the world to criticize. All the world that cares, at least, which can also be a disappointingly small number. There’s nobody else to blame. That can be damaging to an ego. And I think you can’t BE an indie developer unless you have some ego to begin with (or we’ll just call it a healthy self-confidence).

    But I’m inspired by the guys who do it anyway – the ones who find a way to make it work, and to continually improve and be energized, as Brian is saying, by the challenge rather than shrinking from it. And thanks, LWR, for sharing just how *you* managed to find a way to make it work.

  • skavenhorde said,

    I got one name for you, Cleve Blakemore. He has taken perfecting a game to the next level and should be a considered a cautionary tale for those who pursue perfection. It will never be achieved in any lifetime no matter how many people are working on a project. There will always be one more thing that could be done better, one more quest that needs just a bit more tweaking, one more improvement that would make the game great. He got so wrapped up with this that he has never released his game.

    Now, on one hand I can understand why he hasn’t. I believe he has the same worries that you do and that has crippled him. He wants to release it or he wouldn’t keep announcing it year after year, but he just can’t bring himself to do it unless it is 100% perfected. That will never happen.

    On other hand I think he should just release the dang thing and then improve upon it for the second game. That’s what Eschalon did. Heck that’s what almost everyone does. They take what works and add onto that for the next one.

    Well, that’s my two cents worth. I for one can’t wait for this game even though it won’t be perfect, but what is?

  • Blog of War » Blog Archive » Them Indie Developer Blues said,

    […] posted about ‘them indie blues’ on his blog recently, I’d just like to chip in with […]

  • James McNeill said,

    Scope reduction happens on every game that ships, I’d wager. It’s been my experience working on big-budget games, anyway. You start out with plans for five islands and five enemy gangs, say, and then whittle it down to two and a half islands and two and a half gangs. It’s a continual process of re-evaluating where your efforts will pay off most, and you want the whole product to come out with approximately equal level of polish. Otherwise players tend to focus on the glaring blemishes and ignore the rest.