Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Ten Reasons *Not* to Become an Indie Game Developer

Posted by Rampant Coyote on November 18, 2011

Considering going indie? Hey, I’ve been calling myself an “indie evangelist” for years now (before it was cool!). I’m always encouraging folks to make their own games. I think it’s awesome! You don’t need to quit your day job (in fact, at first, you’d best not…) and live in a cardboard box to do it – it’s quite possible to be a part-time indie.

But I recently read “Seven Reasons You Don’t Want to Work in the Videogames Industry” (tip o’ the fedora to indie RPG maker Moumita Paul of Over Cloud 9 Games for the link). It made me grin (or was it wincing?). So I thought that in the interest of fairness, I do feel the need to take a small break from the cheerleading and pay attention so some very good reasons why you might NOT want to go indie and make games for the world.

So here we go…

#1 – You like having “spare time.”

I find that one of two things generally happen to part-time indies: Either game-making devours what used to be “spare time,” or the games never get produced. Sure, we all find the time to play a few games here and there, and maybe watch a television show or two, but making indie games is a hobby / side business that – if you are serious about it – will devour your spare time like some voracious indie Pac-Man. And it will still take four times longer to complete than you imagined in your most conservative estimates.

#2 – You want to get rich making games.

There are lots of ways to make more money in your spare time.   Some of ’em might even be very lucrative. But making games probably isn’t one of ’em. Sure, there are plenty of great success stories, and if you persist at it you could turn it into a sustainable part-time or even full-time business. But as “get rich quick” schemes go, indie games are down pretty low on the list of likely candidates. Somewhere below “become fry cook at Burgers A-Go-Go” and just above “Buy a metal detector and comb the park for buried pirate treasure.”

#3 – You don’t want to deal with that business & marketing crap.

Yes, you can make indie games for the sheer joy of it, dump them out somewhere on the web and take joy where you can with the dozen or so strangers who stumble across it and play it without comment. But if you are actually intending to have your hobby finance itself in any way, you are going to have to devote (an often inordinate amount of) time to business-y and marketing stuff.  Even if someone else is handling the nuts-and-bolts of it for you, there’s a lot that you’ll personally have to do to get your piece of the ad revenue share that isn’t purely devoted to making-your-game, from making decisions on what web-hosting solution to use to development monetization strategies. When you thought you’d want to pour your soul into making games, you probably didn’t expect this soul-sucking aspect, did you?

#4 – You want to persist in the illusion that making games is an artistic Nirvana of fun and creativity.

Making games is awesome. I’ve been doing it since I was twelve, and I’ll probably be doing it until they stick me in a coffin. And there’s a wild, wonderful stage at the beginning of each project where making games is everything one might imagine it to be. It is exciting, fun, creative, and wonderful. But if you actually want to complete a game intended for public consumption, you will hit a surprisingly long, painful, challenging stage where making games isn’t all fun and games. It’s WORK. It takes discipline. Progress is slow. You’ll spend a couple of hours tracking down one little stupid bug that you can’t be sure you’ve fixed until you’ve spent another three hours of testing. It’ll be a painful slog. This is where 95% of the indies quit. And, sadly, they think they are at the 80% or 90% complete stage, but they really aren’t even halfway there. This is a rude discovery for some people. If you are one of those people, please forget I said anything – making games is all rainbows and lollipops.

#5 – You want to believe that you are God’s gift to game design.

Back in high school and college, before I had to really put it on the line, I was the world’s best game designer.  It’s true! I was a legend in my own mind. I knew games and stuff. I could critique AAA games with the best of ’em, and tell anybody who cared to listen where the designers went wrong.  Then… something weird happened when I become a professional game developer. My skills mysteriously degraded when it was *ME* making those game design decisions, and those decisions were far, far more complicated than they’d been when I was critiquing games from the comfort of my own armchair.  Somehow the game in my head was always far cooler than the one on the screen, which had to be controlled with real IO devices instead of just responding to my obvious thoughts and desires. My experience is not unique. Actual game development does this to everyone – it’s a horrible, mysterious power.  Don’t do it if you want to remain superior to all game designers in the field!

#6 – You are doing it to make your ‘dream game’ a reality.

Your ‘dream game’ is probably best left in your dreams. Because – if you are anything like me – your ‘dream game’ would actually require a team and budget to make Electronic Arts go broke making it, and you don’t even realize it. Especially if the description of your “dream game” begins with the words, “It’s just like <Insert name of big-budget but technically obsolete AAA game that inspired you> but with <insert radical experimental addition that would at least quadruple the development cost, unbeknownst to you>.”  What you will get to do, instead, is fulfill a lot of little dreams, and see your imagination take form on the screen. If that’s not good enough, and you absolutely HAVE to have your Halo / World of Warcraft / Modern Warfare killer of your dreams, maybe being an indie isn’t for you.

#7 – You don’t want to learn new things.

I started making games professionally in 1994. That’s been… uh, a long time. I’m still learning new things almost daily. Being an indie means you must wear multiple hats (like the “business and marketing”  hat in #3), and nobody starts making games as an expert in every one of these areas. Nobody emerges from the womb coding mad C# objects, writing scintillating dialog, drawing fantasy art to rival Frank Frazetta, designing levels with Blizzard-league quality, and animating 3D characters of Pixar quality. Even if you contract out help to do some of these things, you are still going to have to gain some minimal levels of understanding, because you are ultimately the place where the buck stops.  Hey, I worked on the port of a pro-wrestling game for the Sega Dreamcast back in the day, and had to learn way more about professional wrestling than I ever wanted to know. If I could do that, then you can learn a little bit of scripting or color theory.

#8 – You only want to hear compliments for your efforts.

If this is the case, your target audience is your mom. Because unless people just ignore your game entirely, you will get criticism. A lot of it will be constructive and useful, if damaging to your pride. But some of it will be amazingly venomous anonymous hit-and-run spewage that wishes death upon you for daring to foist a game upon them that cost them nothing but time, but somehow they want those three minutes extracted back out of you through your fingernails, and they will continue to berate you for your stupidity. ‘Cause, you know, they are like you were back in reason #5, having not been corrupted by actual game development themselves, and they can tell you in great detail everything you did wrong. And they will tell everyone else who listen, too, attempting to provide as much public humiliation as they can generate to punish you for the sin of trying to make something of value to other people.

#9 – You really want to work for a giant studio working soul-sucking hours on uninspired clones and sequels of mega-hits.

Maybe the above article link actually sounded like heaven to you. I think once upon a time some aspects of it might have appealed to me, too. I’m an indie, so I obviously have some kind of masochistic streak, which might explain that reaction when I was young and stupid. But uh… yeah. ‘Nuff said. It used to be that I’d recommend working for a big studio for how much you could learn there, and it’s still not terrible advice. But times have changed and things have gotten so big and specialized, it’s a lot less true than it was when I got my start. But I admit, there’s still some appeal to having your name in the credits of a blockbuster best-selling game, even if it is only as the guy who created all the bathroom fixture models (with exploding toilets!).

#10 – You don’t want to experience the joy of creating something cool for others to enjoy.

The total kick in the pants for me in game development is seeing people enjoying your game, and talking about your virtual world. Strangers emailing you to thank you for your efforts, and to tell you about their experiences playing you game. Knowing that what you have shared with others has brought them some entertainment, joy, inspiration,or provoked thought. Connecting with an audience, no matter how small. There’s nothing quite like it in the world.  Maybe if you are cut from the same cloth as J. D. Sallinger, you’ll have an allergic reaction to this. But I have trouble imagining it.  Games are meant to be played, and I love being able to provide that for others. Maybe it doesn’t cure cancer or anything, but making somebody smile and giving them some happiness and fun for a few minutes or hours is what it’s all about.

Filed Under: Indie Evangelism - Comments: 18 Comments to Read

  • splucas said,

    WOW. Excellent list of 10. They are so spot on, it’s not even funny.

  • M-squared said,

    That was funny and thoughtful. I am not an indie game developer. I’m an indie writer. A lot of the same things apply.

    And thanks for Frayed Knights. 🙂

  • Celso Riva said,

    The first three are not true, are the ABSOLUTE TRUTH.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    I guess I should have included “full-time indies” for #1 as well. Though I don’t have first-hand experience. Sounds like the idea of ‘vacation’ and ‘weekends’ are sometimes foreign concepts for the full-timers. 🙂

  • Wolfos said,

    I answered “no” to all these questions :p I’ll still be looking at some job vacancies first, as I’m a programmer, it shouldn’t be too hard to find a job in the current climate.

  • Sophie Houlden said,

    I agree with pretty much everything here, except that rather than ‘reasons not to-‘, I’d say ‘things to think about before-‘, and also they (mostly) only really apply to pro indie developers, amateur devs should not be put off by anything here IMO 🙂

    still, an imformative post about some of the realities faced when we put our lives into our games, nice one 😀

  • Charles said,

    Good thing I’ve known this for a while. Being in kind of a slump as it is, it could have discouraged me.

    Us french may retweet, but we don’t give up 🙂

  • Craig Stern said,

    I literally cannot imagine a functioning human being to whom reason #10 could possibly apply–but otherwise, this all sounds about right. 🙂

  • Corwin said,

    A spot on list, but fortunately, number 10 makes it all worthwhile when you finally produce a masterpiece like FK. Now, hurry and get part 2 finished. I’ll give you until I finish Skyrim. 🙂

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    #10 was because I didn’t want to finish the list on anything approaching a down note. 🙂 The list was intended to be taken with a bit of humor (and more than a few grains of salt). But it’s also a little bit of a reality check for newbs. I figure if you are an indie at heart, the list will be taken as an invitation and a challenge, not as a dissuasion.

    I really do want more indie games. Not that I have time to play them all. But I think we live in a wonderful time where there’s little barrier between making games and getting them to your audience. This is awesome.

  • Craig Stern said,

    Oh, I agree. I love the random emails I get from people wanting a blurb on IndieRPGs.com; it makes me feel connected to a community of people who are all in it to make and share awesome RPGs. It’s a really nice feeling, almost on par with the exhilaration of actually sharing my own work.

  • Uberpink said,

    Some good points here, but dont let this list stop u from trying to become an indie, it wont make your goal any easier. Do what you want to do,one thing at a time, you dont have to be 100% professional out of the box. But dont quit a fulltime job to go indie,cuz its not given money. Gamebusiness is probably the least forgiving business. Work for 5 years with blood and tears, lose girlfriends,get sore ass, change underwear once a week, and get 1 out of 10 in score the releaseday and noone want to buy your game. Thats gamebusiness.hehe Or it could be opposite. A good advice ; if ure in need of urgent money, making indie games is not smart, you earn more by cleaning McDonalds nighttime. Think of indie as a hobby atleast in the start.

  • tewen said,

    Nice. Still not put me off though 😀

  • Craig Stern said,

    Oh, on the topic of reasons not to be indie: I don’t know if you’ve seen the Mega64 Indie Dreamin’ clip, but I thought it was pretty hilarious.


  • qptain Nemo said,

    While #6 is a seemingly very serious and objective reason here, it’s not true. Because it assumes big companies have perfect managment and understanding and money can achieve everything. But they really don’t and it really can’t. Things get done when you do them, not when you assign random arbitrary amounts of manpower and money to them. Things like optimisation, effectiveness and wisdom do exist. Which means that you don’t necessarily have to have 300 people to do something that other 300 people did. You can be clever, you can be stubborn, you can be risky. Being indie isn’t about not being able to do certain things and doing something else instead. It’s about doing things in another, almost always harder, way.

  • Xenovore said,

    @qptain Nemo, regarding #6:

    Jay is spot-on here, 100% truth. What it’s really saying: You’d better dial back your dream to something you can actually achieve, or it won’t get done. Ever. Sure, you think you can be clever enough, or stubborn enough, but even the most clever, stubborn developer in the world only has 24 hours in a day, and you have to sleep sometime.

    And if it takes 300 people to build something (like your average MMO), it’s going to take you alone 300 times longer to accomplish the same thing. (And that’s assuming you’ve even got the abilities to match.)

    Not to say you can’t accomplish some part of your dream game…

    For example, my dream game is something like Soul Calibur + World of Warcraft + Mirror’s Edge + Ultima Online + Alternate Reality + Farcry 2 + Starcraft + the Elder Scrolls games + Baldur’s Gate + Minecraft + Diablo + Quake + Dungeon Master + Left 4 Dead + Fallout 3. (Yeah, imagine that game — pretty cool, huh.) That’s not something I could accomplish solely on my own in my lifetime!

    But I can still make something that — while not my “dream game” — is still fun and interesting to me (and preferably to others as well). It’s just a matter of carefully picking and choosing features that are within my abilities and time constraints.

  • Ridnarhtim said,

    #1 has me a little worried – and my job is very demanding too. But since I’m OK with all the others, I guess giving it a go can’t hurt, right?

  • DJMidKnight said,

    Excellent write up! I am an Indie and thankfully none of the points you brought up are hang-ups for me. I really think you drive it home with some of these points though. If you think your going to be rich, famous, or any other sort of diva just because your an Indie game developer you need to stay in dream land.

    I do have a dream game I plan to develop but unlike many Indies I have a plan to reach that goal, it may begin with 3 other FAR FAR simpler games to set the tone for the game world, but MEH my goals are still attainable!

    Thanks for relighting my inspiration with your warnings.