So You Want To Make An Indie Game… Don’t Get Ahead Of Yourself

My Kickstarter page for “James – Journey of Existence” ( is doing lousy, and probably won’t succeed unless a mob of backers comes in during the last week. But I did get some attention, especially from Russian indie gamers on youtube. I also got a lot of interested people hoping I would hire them onto the project (see previous posts). One interesting person making his own indie game contacted me, which is what inspired this post…

I won’t say who he is, but he contacted me about worrying that his game’s story and themes were similar to mine. After emailing, he suggested that the two projects could be connected somehow through a collaboration. We found each other on Skype to continue the conversation, and it turned out he really just wanted an animator for his small indie team working on their game. Flattered as I was (I haven’t taken any real serious effort in visual arts outside a few classes, I am a programmer first and foremost, or an artist in the most general sense), I listened as he talked about his hopes and dreams for the game to become a huge success, and how a friend of a friend might get him the press he needed to get there.

Sadly, my schedule fluctuates and I tentatively backed out of the project out of fear of what my commitments will be later in the year (outside the chances of my own indie games ever being completed). That’s a shame, because there were good ideas in his project, and it could very well turn out to be a success. But I thought I should take the time to point out flaws in dreaming so early on, for the sake of any hopeful indie devs out there.


Like this one person on Skype, I know several other people with great ideas for games. I also happen to know several other people with no ideas at all, who just like to introduce themselves in case they want to work for the company you start years later. The problem is, as many other sites will tell you, ideas are easy to come by. Millions of people have ideas. Only a very select few of them ever get far enough to actually show off the idea, and that tends to get people’s attention.

“But I don’t know how to make a game!” you might say, to which I would shake my head. Most indie game developers don’t know how to make games either. Have you noticed how the majority of indie games feature pixel art and really basic gameplay? That’s usually because that’s all the developer knows how to do. To date, I don’t think I’ve seen anyone who can program, paint, and write music with the Godly talent required for a great product. But you can at least get started proving that the game is possible. And if you’re clever, you can take what you are able to do and make it unique enough to stand out.

Thankfully, programming is the most important part to just make the game exist, and is also the easiest developer skill for someone to learn. The majority of students who take a programming class will understand all of it within days. And programmer or not, there are dozens of great, free software tools to make that game demo as polished as possible. If you know what you are doing, you can program an entire game within a month. Yes, the art and music are kind-of important to show this off, but getting this far helps prove to yourself that it is possible.

  • Don’t rely on others where possible.

Some people might disagree with this one, but I stand strongly by it. In your mind, when you have a great idea, only you can accurately make that come to life. Most people claim they can’t program, or paint, or compose music, and get scared to make the game themselves. If that describes you, you shouldn’t be making games.

“… Basically, you need to be the project’s director and main programmer at the very least…”

Yes, games require a lot of work. Some AAA games use nearly 1,000 people to make it but they don’t need to. If you are making a game and need help, make the team as small as possible. This makes it easier to manage, and you don’t have to pay as much for more labor. You probably only need one programmer, one/two artists and animators, and one musician. Voice acting can be done by these people, or hired for a week late in development. The “director” would likely take multiple jobs, and ideally should be the programmer.

The problem is, if you have even a single person helping you make a commercial product, issues will appear. One, legal issues need to be sorted out at the beginning. The Skype fellow said he had a friend in law that would help finalize agreements and payments just before the game’s release. Don’t do that. Even if you can come to a friendly agreement at that time, your partners will have no idea what they will get out of the project until months later when the game is complete. Try to be upfront and tell them exactly what flat-rate/percentage-of-profits they would get. Two, try to get some funding to pay these people during development. Otherwise, your partners will look for other “real” jobs to support themselves, and will not be able to spend much (if any) time to what they think is ultimately your game. Three, your partners can leave at any time during development. They have commitments, they get fed up, they move on. If your project relies on them staying until the end, it’s doomed to fail.

Basically, you need to be the project’s director and main programmer at the very least (the Skype fellow wasn’t the programmer). Programming code can get messy, and if a programmer leaves half-way, you can assume the code is worthless when another programmer comes on-board. But YOU won’t give up on your project half-way, if you did, then everyone else probably would too.

If you don’t have money to pay during development, ask your government for art grants. Ask for crowdfunding through Kickstarter, and promise a cut of that to your team right away. Suggest that your team only make a demo to start (for free), then see what money you have available.

  • Show early to get real feedback.

As good as your idea is and as good as a game demo might be, there is no possible way to know whether anyone would like it until you show it off.

My game, “James – Journey of Existence” is a great example. Even now, I think it’s one of the most incredible things I’ve seen (despite knowing the art can be better). But the feedback I got was mixed, and it’s clear that I have a lot of work to do before I ever think of releasing it.

And it’s not hard to get free feedback (the Internet is kind-of infamous for this). Post your game on Steam’s Greenlight “Concept” area, post on Reddit, post on Youtube, etc. If you have a demo or trailer, send it to indie game websites and press, try to spread the word. Do this seriously, as if your game was being released next week and you needed followers. After all of that, you should have an idea of how likely it is for your game to stand-out and sell, or even if your game is good in the first place.

After years of planning and working on the next big thing by yourself in a dark room, you need to step out into the light to see if the thing you’re making is as good as you thought.

“… After years of planning and working on the next big thing by yourself in a dark room, you need to step out into the light to see if the thing you’re making is as good as you thought…”

  • Ask yourself why you are doing this.

The fellow on Skype already had plans for what the game would cost, how many he hoped would sell, and even how he might make his own official indie studio upon the game’s success. The pricing and sales prediction was unrealistic for an indie, he was likely looking at larger titles in the same genre for reference. More important was his mistake on assuming the game would succeed.

As far as I know, this is his first game he plans to release publically, and has no press or fans yet. As far as I’ve seen, the only demo is a main menu that doesn’t lead anywhere, with a layout design quickly fashioned together by a preschooler. I’m worried he may never get the first level done without incredibly loyal  partners with a lot of spare time. And he was already dreaming of starting a company. I politely nodded when I heard this during our Skype meeting, but it turned me off a bit that he was this naïve.

Honestly, the game is a good idea, and could sell well. Game-of-2013 contender “Gone Home” sold over 50,000 despite being criticized and praised equally by gamers as a self-righteous pro-gay drama instead of an actual game (I haven’t actually played the game myself, I have no right to judge, but believe the story is very moving if played first-hand). We all know about “Super Meat Boy” having sold over 1,000,000 copies to date. “Fez” did as well, although it took a while. But how many games get that much press, that much attention? Check out Steam’s Greenlight page of SUCCESSFULLY greenlit games, or Kickstarter’s list of indie games asking for funding, and ask yourself how many of those games you’ve actually heard of. Take a look and see if they are as good as yours.

So while your game could make some money, it probably won’t. Especially on your first try. And with indie developers putting stuff on Steam and Apple’s App Store every day, it’s getting harder and harder to stand out. So stop and ask yourself: why are you trying to make a game?

If your answer is “to make money” or “to get famous” or “to create a new company and hire my friends,” then good for you, but go back to school and get a real job. The right answer should be “because I love doing it.” Sure, the other reasons are nice, but should not be driving you. “Fez” ‘s main developer Phil Fish dropped out of game development altogether after a supposed argument with the press, saying “I take the money and run.” You should never quit game development because you can’t. It’s in your blood. You have dozens of games in your head that you just have to make real. If you were left alone in a room for ten years, you would make games. That’s the attitude all indies, either in film, art, music, writing or gaming, need to adopt.  After multiple tries, you may one day catch a break, but even if you don’t, you’d be ok with that, otherwise this type of work just isn’t for you.


And those are my thoughts. I wish the best of luck to that dude on Skype, and hope I can come back to his team one day to make that game happen. Indies need to support indies after all.

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