Tales of the Rampant Coyote

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Ten Tips for Becoming an Indie Game Developer

Posted by Rampant Coyote on January 12, 2012

Post-Mortems on indie games always seem more interesting to me than post-mortems on big-studio games. It may be because they are just less conventional overall, or that the post-mortems I read of mainstream games usually conform to the Game Developer Magazine “5 things that went right / 5 things that went wrong” formula. I dunno.

I really enjoyed Sophie Houlden’s post-mortem of Switft*Stitch, and the things that really hit home for me were the following comments:

“Swift*Stitch is my first finished commercial game, and probably the only game I’ve spent more than a couple of months on that has actually been finished. Suffice to say, I didn’t have the skills to finish a game when I started it. I thought I did, but that was me being an idiot again.”

Followed by this (the bolding is mine):

I finally managed to become the kind of person who can finish games. Basically it comes down to making lists of what has to be done, and doing it no matter what. I’d only take a break if I’d been productive enough to not feel guilty for taking a break, and that got me through the bit that people who haven’t finished a game call the last 10%, and the people who have finished a game call the last 90%.”

This has to happen with every developer. I still struggle with it, and I had help from a career in mainstream games where I was driven to that point by my team and management. As much as being an indie is about individualism and being true to your own creative self, I think there is a part of it that is really about that transformation – perhaps into an ideal, the person you want to be, or “becoming who you really are.” I’d never thought about it that way before reading this, but it rings true to me.

It’s kind of a mindset thing – and again, something I struggle with. Some days I am that game developer, other days I am not.  Maybe if I was that person all the time, Rampant Games would be a full-time business for me and I’d be rolling in the dough with a couple of full-time employees by now. I don’t know.  I think that’s something I may have to work on, and I’m glad Sophie explained it in that way. It’s food for thought.

But that’s also why I, heedless of my own hypocrisy, urge new aspiring game developers to START SMALL (which I say in big caps here). You may possess the raw abilities necessary to ship a larger game, but they haven’t had a chance to grow in experience or disposition to handle something like that. You aren’t that person yet. But you can be.

The process of shipping a commercial game (as opposed to just throwing quick demos up to the public… I’m really talking about the quality and player experience of the game here, not whether or how it is monetized) is a massive undertaking even for the simplest games. I’ve done it several times, and I still underestimate the difficulty on a regular basis. People who haven’t done it really can’t grasp the challenge (thus the oft-quoted 10%/90% thing Sophie mentions).

Becoming a game developer – someone who can finish games as Sophie puts it – is a growing process. It probably involves making changes to your life. Not necessarily huge or sweeping changes, although for some people it might. And the changes won’t be the same for everyone, as everybody works differently, and some folks may already be further along in the process than others. But iIf you aren’t already shipping finished games, you may not be that person yet.

Some suggestions on how to become an indie game developer. Completely serious, this time:

#1 – Commit. Make indie game development a priority in your life. Be willing to juggle, shuffle, and sacrifice lesser things to be an indie developer. And you should be willing to make that commitment right away. This is a tough one, as making games may require you to sacrifice a significant chunk of game-playing. Since most of us become indies because we love games, this is a hard thing to do. It may not be worth it to you. But decide right now – is this what you want to be, and are you willing to do what it takes to be that person? Then once you do this, recommit often, daily if needed, until it’s practically part of your DNA.

#2 – Become a Time Manager. A lot of game development is not sexy stuff like making explosions and brilliant gameplay ideas. It’s a lot of “scut work.” And time management is about as unsexy of a term – and action – as I can think of. But it’s completely necessary. I still suck at it, but I’m getting better. Get a book on time management from the library, or read up on it online.  If you want to actually have time to play games or catch up on episodes of favorite TV shows once in a while, this is necessary. That’s the hidden sexiness of time management – it allows you to have ‘spare time’ while still being productive.

#3 – Become organized. Lists. Lists work great for me, and apparently work great for Sophie. Task lists are critical. Prioritizing, scheduling, reevaluating, and executing those lists are all part of the process. The exact system you use may vary! Something that works for me may not work for you. I find that simpler prioritized lists work best for me – too much complication screws me up. But one way or another, you have to organize your tasks and execute on them in order to see them (and your game) through them to completion.

#4 – Be humble and ruthless. Novel writers talk about “killing your babies,” or cutting things from their stories that they love but detract from the finished version. Good writing is often more of a case of good editing and good cutting. The same is true of games – except its best if you cut a major feature or section before you spend two weeks or more implementing it. A person who finishes a game has to be both humble and ruthless when it comes to shipping the game.  Humble enough to realize that not every idea that proceeds from their brain about what will make the game “cool” is actually worthwhile, humble enough to realize that a lot of great ideas may actually detract from the game they are building in one way or another. Humble enough to accept that your game is not going to be perfect no matter what you do, and willing to accept criticism. You must be ruthless enough to carve all of that away for the sake of making a better experience for their target audience, and ruthless enough to kill even those super-awesome ideas that WOULD be awesome, but can’t be finished with reasonable timeliness or quality.

#5 – Understand that the Perfect is the Enemy of the Great.  It’s part of being ruthless, but it’s really easy to get caught in a loop where you endlessly tinker with one feature or idea until it’s “perfect.” It’s never perfect, and you’ll never get done if you get stuck here. As much as we try and claim that we go after perfection and quality, we have to set tolerance thresholds and be willing to be satisfied with these.

#6 – Be Willing to Learn. This scares a lot of people, and it’s something that will definitely hamper your ability to be an indie developer. Indies have to be a little bit of everything, and have to know a little bit about every part of the process – even the parts they hate. Marketing, business, programming, art, sound, new platforms, UI design, new tools, color theory, storytelling, new technology, etc. A good indie needs to be pushing outside of their comfort zone. It takes courage and effort to go beyond that. As an indie, you can’t just stay in your own little box and assume it’s somebody else’s job. Because even if you aren’t a lone wolf, you will need to provide input and act as an intelligent sounding board for the dude (or dudette) who is in charge of that stuff, and if you are the one shipping the product, the buck still stops with you.

#7 – Accept Risks. Making indie games isn’t safe. You are going to be sacrificing time and money, and possibly your reputation and self-image, with every game you make and release. There’s no guarantees – and often, even any likelihood – that you’ll get back what you put into it, let alone improve things. You need to determine how much risk you can accept to meet your goals. Is it worth a second mortgage on your house and quitting your day job? Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. But you are the person who has to decide where you’ll draw the line.

#8 – Practice. Work on sketches. Work on short “game jams.” Write up quick one- or two-page designs for new concepts. Read a book on programming or project management and implement parts that might work for you. Use your growing Time Management skills to devote some time to honing your craft in a way that’s not strictly devoted to getting your current project out the door. You need to constantly exercise and grow your skills (and gain new ones).

#9 – Start Small. I said this already, didn’t I? I’ll say it again. If you bite off more than you can chew (and you have no idea, starting out, how much – or how little – that is), you will probably choke on it, quit, and never come back. This is on the job training. Work your way up to your mega-project.

#10 – Finish. Don’t jump into a new project and leave an old one hanging. Some developers can do several projects at once – usually with a lot of outsourcing – but most of us work best on one project at a time. If your current project is just not working out, cancel the it (been there, done that), back-burner it until another project is completed (ditto), or whatever. But it needs to be a serious, carefully considered decision to change or quit your goal. If you keep starting new projects, you’ll never finish any of them.  Don’t be wishy-washy about when and how you will release the game to the public.

So there you go. If you really want to be an indie game developer, these are my suggestions for what you need to do to get there. It’s not for everybody. It shouldn’t be. But it can be for almost anybody if it is important to them.

Filed Under: Game Development, Indie Evangelism - Comments: 6 Comments to Read

  • jzoeller said,

    Something important I’ve learned after thousands of hours..

    Take time once in awhile to recoup, relax and enjoy things. When you come back, I believe most people will find a renewal of motivation. There is a lot of tedious work in game development, but it needs done, and it needs done well.

    If you are getting tired of what you have been working on for the last several hundred hours, you need to recoup, because rushing it “to get it done” always shows.

    Just be careful not to stray to far during your period of recoup!

  • Robert Basler said,

    That’s a great list. I totally failed at #9, still working on #10, but #6 is key – I never could have predicted I’d need to learn how to do this: http://onemanmmo.com/?doubleentry

  • Hexachron said,

    This is a great list – thank you very much for writing it. I think #5 and #9 are especially helpful and important!

  • Califer said,

    #6 is looming up at me again now that I’m getting close to finishing my current project. Even being able to build a game by myself is no good if I can’t market it and put it up for sale 🙁 Would love to hear your tips on this.

  • True to Design: What I’m Reading « Managing the Game said,

    […] Ten Tips to Becoming an Indie Game Developer: http://rampantgames.com/blog/?p=3785 […]

  • Bryce Pelletier said,

    Mine biggest issue isn’t even on this list. As a father of 5 and an electrician (of 11 years) turned developer, I simply lack the knowledge. I have the rest, but even with good time management I struggle to find time needed to learn game development, languages needed to write a game and pieces necessary to put it all together. I think one of the biggest parts for self taught indie devs is (a) mentor(s) or a equally exuberant person willing to give pointers. I find I am still looking for help despite it all, and yeah I am kinda smart (no John Carmack or anything).