Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Dem Indie Game Dev Blues

Posted by Rampant Coyote on March 24, 2014

When I was a kid, I thought making games for a living was a dream job. I mean, I loved games. And while I wasn’t good at it (except in my parent’s eyes, I guess), I taught myself to program well enough to make games. I loved doing that. I’d come home from the arcade and try to replicate (usually not too successfully) the games I’d played. With, of course, my own twists and weird ideas.

And the idea of getting paid to do this? Unreal! That would be awesome!

The dream came true. But after getting my first job as a professional, full-time game developer, I discovered the reality wasn’t quite what I imagined. It wasn’t all fun and games. It was crazy hours, sometimes testy nerves, office politics, and stress. It was a lot of very hard work. I still consider it a dream job, but the reality is that the word “job” has more emphasis. I was being paid to make someone else’s games.

I didn’t really have a concept for “indie” back then, but the idea of breaking free from the publisher-driven market, to make your own games the way you wanted to make them without anybody telling you “no,” sounded amazing. It was how making games ought to be.

Well, again, reality is something of a bear. Everything I’d imagined was technically true, but there have been a ton of rough edges and surprises in store. Again, it’s not all fun and games. It’s still hard work, disappointment, frustration, stress, etc.

Indies don’t have it easy. Sales aren’t what we’d expected / hoped for. We spend hours trying to hunt down bugs that testers encounter that we cannot replicate. Our servers go down on the day of release. We get rejected or ignored by the press. Or maybe a major site that actually gives us the time of day gives our game a poor review. We get hate mail. It all comes with the territory. If you are a full-time indie, it comes with the additional stress of your life – or at least livelihood – depending on it.

Sometimes it’s easy to get depressed or brood over it, trying to figure out what we’re doing wrong – why some guy with a crap game managed to get onto Steam and make as much as you make in a year in a single week.

Yeah, I don’t make a living as an indie. As much as I’d like to transition over to just making games, for now I consider it a good thing. I do have a good job (hopefully that remains true… we’re in a lean period right now) that pays pretty well, and that actually allows me to experiment on the indie front, and not have to wake up in a cold sweat at night wondering whether or not I’ll be able to make my mortgage payment next month because the game is delayed or not selling great.

Maybe that hinders me, because I’m not hungry enough. My games are profitable, as long as you are only counting my hard costs.I still aspire to make something approaching minimum wage on my time. It’s a business that makes me (a little bit of) money, as opposed to a hobby that costs me money. \

In that respect, I also consider myself lucky, though I do have those black evenings where I’m swearing at the walls and wondering what I’m doing wrong and cursing at myself, or my luck, my genre, or the ways the industry seems to be headed that I’m not happy with. I realize I’m doing better than most indies out there, although I am in a totally different league orders of magnitude down the scale from the more successful ones. I keep telling myself that the key is persistence, but there’s no guarantee in that. I know some very persistent indies who even had some lucky breaks (getting on Steam, getting in a Humble Bundle) who are still having trouble making rent.

There’s no shortcut or easy path. What worked for a successful company a year ago may not work for most of the host of imitators today. That’s just the way it goes.

Even the term “indie” has been stretched beyond comprehension. I admit it, and I’m still fond of the term. It’s like describing music as “not classical” now. There are tons of companies producing games now that might technically be “indie” but they do not embody the spirit of the term. Indie was originally a marginal end-run around the traditional publishing model that rules the industry with an iron fist. I won’t say that model has been marginalized, because it’s still the biggest game in town. But it’s no longer quite the 800-pound gorilla it once was. It’s now merely the biggest of many approaches. It’s never been easy to truly define “indie,” and it’s only grown more complicated.  Indie is an axis, like a primary color. While it can be difficult saying which of a shade of yellow versus violet is “more green,” it doesn’t invalidate the existence of green. There are lots of folks out there laboring away in exactly the same way we’ve called “indie” for years.

And for these people, working at it in the clearly “indie”-esque way, the pot of gold may seem eternally moving out of reach with the rainbow. But with so few guarantees and so many complications and frustrations, it really keeps coming down to the same thing that motivated their predecessors in the dark ages of the mainframes and 6502s:

The love of the games.

Yeah, it’s tough to be satisfied with this intrinsic motivation when you are spending a couple thousand dollars of hard-earned cash on artwork and tools and keeping a website up and running, and you end up with only a few dozen people actually playing your game. It’s brutal. But in my mind, ultimately, that’s where our passion has to be. We have to simply love what we’re doing enough to keep at it, improving our skills in both making and promoting our games, sticking with it in spite of only incremental (and not always consistent) improvements. There’s got to be enough passion to get through the drudgery and hard work and times where making the game isn’t all “fun and games.”

It’s how, in spite of everything, we’ll win in the end.

Filed Under: Indie Evangelism - Comments: 4 Comments to Read

  • Brian 'Psychochild' Green said,

    I know that feeling. Sometimes you just gotta remind yourself that you didn’t get into game development for the fame or the money, but because you had this passion that just wouldn’t be satisfied otherwise.

    Keep up the good fight, Jay! We’re counting on you.

  • Dave Toulouse said,

    Oh I can so much relate to that feeling. I wish I had more passion in making games though than I have in wanting to be my own boss.

    What I mean is that it’d feel easier to just do games for fun without expectation and then one day waking up and realizing that I “made it” instead of always having this self-applied pressure of wanting to “make it”.

    But my main motivation to work on games is sadly to start my own business even if I can be passionate about my work. I only have me to blame for approaching the matter such way but I’m stubborn like that I guess. I tried to consider it another way but that just doesn’t work for me.

    Either I’ll hit a wall and quit or I’ll call that perseverance and give speeches about it at GDC 😉

  • McTeddy said,

    In the we’ll win… or die trying!

    What drives me nuts is that I’m darn good at making games. My own published work has had great responses from players and publishers. That said… the money for board game design is horribly poor.

    Yet… without a publisher I can count plays on one hand. I don’t have money for art or advertising, and I struggle for every single play I make. No matter how good they are… or how hard I try… no one will come.

    But, honestly, I’ve reached this creepy level of satisfaction. I’m proud of the work I do and I’m happy doing it. I might be a failure in the traditional sense… but I don’t feel like one.


    A few twitter followers this week, and one new youtube subscriber today. Even if the numbers of painfully small (and the money smaller) it’s one step toward success. Many more to go… but I’m willing to keep walking.

  • Gareth Fouche said,

    Know how you feel, Jay. Sometimes game dev feels great and you’re hyped, other times it feels like walking into a blizzard. Hard to just keep moving forward.

    Keep up those spirits, man. 🙂