The barrier to entry for independent game development is often cited as being extremely low, but with the ease of entry also comes the ability to fail just as easily. On a Saturday afternoon at PAX‘s Wolfman theater, Fire Chief of Fire Hose Games, Eitan Glinert, hosted a panel of budding independent game developers. Throughout the duration of this 60 minute meeting, panelists cited examples of some of the best and worst practices in the business.
The Vertical Slice
The panel opened with Jake Kazdal, who works as Art Director for Haunted Temple Studios (Skulls of the Shogun), stating the concept of the vertical slice. Never underestimate how important it is to have one solid piece of work to demo to a publisher or an audience. “Define the game with one initial kernel,” was Kazdal’s opening statement. Rather than have a series of incomplete thoughts, utilize one clearly defined product which will represent a solid portion of the rest of the title, specifically something that will inform viewers of what to expect in the finished product.
Manage Your Scope
Co-founder of 24 Caret Games (Retro/Grade), Matt Gilgenbach, was next to offer his advice, citing the overly ambitious Battlecruiser 3000AD as his title of choice to criticize. The tagline for the game was “The last thing you’ll ever desire,” and came across as pompous to most gamers, resulting in what would ultimately come to be known as a failed product. Costing millions of dollars and spending nearly ten years to development was absurd in 1996 and still is by today’s standards. This was the standard case of a developer biting off more than they could chew.
“What are the resources I have, and what can I do with them?” Gigelbach instructed the audience to ask themselves, should they ever decide create a title of their own. Kazdal chimed in shortly after, reciprocating with “Don’t bite off more than you can chew.” Chris Harvey, Co-Founder of DrinkBoxStudios (About a Blob) was the final panelist to get his words in, stating “There’s an ego element in game development. You always want more, more, more.” Feature creep is a common occurrence during the development process, however at some point every project needs to come to an end.
Leave Room to Fail
We’ve all had failure in our lives at one point or another, it’s inevitable. What many developers don’t understand however, is that failure is an essential part of success. “Success is the rare thing,” Harvey began, “Failure happens all of the time.” He continued, “Develop a prototype you are happy with, before asking for money.” Without time or finances put aside should you not meet an immediate goal, the chances of your project falling by the wayside increase exponentially. However, with the knowledge that failure and success often go hand in hand can not only put your mind at ease, but also help to get your project back on the road to success.
Have Experience Before you go Indie
This bit of advice may contrast what many people believe, as successful independent developers are often those with little to no industry experience. The knowledge and experience earned from on-site training can be some of the best information a developer can take for his or her own project. “You need to understand the process behind game development,” Chris Harvey proclaimed. By learning from the mistakes of others within your previous development teams, you can save yourself both time and money.
Kazdal was quick to point out that some of his most useful industry lessons came in the form of style guides, rule sets, and designer’s bibles, which he would otherwise have never known about. A newcomer to game development may never recognize the importance of such tools and how essential they are for keeping a team on the same page at all times.
Find Help Within the Indie Community
One of the benefits of working as an independent developer are the breadth of resources available to you. The International Game Developer’s Association (IGDA) is one such organization, with the goal of uniting developers across the world either through conferences or local chapters.
Cities commonly have their own indie meetups as well. The panelists spoke of their own glowing experiences at Seattleindies.org and Bostonindies.com. Why not check to see if there is one in your city?
Embrace your Indie-ness
Another major advantage of being an independent developer are the freedoms granted to you. One such freedom is the ability to “Say what you want, and make want you want,” as Gilgenbach pointed out. Without having a publisher or investor to report to, the sole responsibility of recuperating funds rests on your shoulders, which could be a blessing or a curse. “Publishers are risk adverse,” Kazdel proclaimed, and rightfully so, as they are the ones placing a financial investment on your success.
Often, independent developers who are new to the industry come off as timid or shy when approaching industry veterans and ournalists at gaming events. They need not be, however, as the diminutive size of the gaming industry allows for “everyone to know everyone,” as Kazdel put it, and most are very friendly. “Once your foot is in the door, you’re in,” he added shortly after when discussing how easily individuals and teams can network.” Considering the size of the gaming industry, it would be wise to network with as many people as you can when attending events as they are all there for the same reasons you are – they are passionate about what they do!
So now that you know how to go from zero to indie in just enough steps to count on one hand, it’s time to make some moves and get to it. Start networking, gather some troops, and organize an uprising. The interesting part about the independent development scene is that many individuals come from Tripla A studios and with distinguished careers in the industry, while others make their mark with no experience at all. Who knows, maybe your studio will be the next big hit.