Anatomy of an Indie Game Developer

I firmly believe that it holds true 99.99999% of the time that for someone to get into video game development they must love video games, to be truly passionate about them. There are probably a few people out there that fell into the role or chose it for the short hours (HA!) and great pay (double HA!) that go along with it, but those people are the anomalies. The rest just drool over the latest games released in the genres of our choosing and have a desire to make those games.

Of those people that get into game design and development there are only a small fraction that get picked up by the major gaming houses either through university relationships or friends of friends in the industry. The vast majority of game devs come from other job functions, whether it is business software developer or coffee house barista, because of the aforementioned passion for video games. And it is these people who become independent game developers, or indiedevs.

It takes more than a passion for video games to become an indiedev, or at least to stick with it. Game enthusiasts are analogous to American football fanatics – there are millions of people fanatical about football and while a good part of them are the best armchair quarterbacks in the industry, only the tiniest of percentage will even go so far as to help out a local peewee league, let alone step foot on the field themselves. Video game fanatics are the same way; so what does it take for them to take those steps into becoming an independent game developer?

In my opinion there is often an unhappiness in their current job which sparks the final motivation to jump into game development. As the saying goes, “Contentment leads to complacency,” meaning persons who are happy with their lot in life are less likely to make drastic changes. This can be said true about any person making a change in their career path, so what is it that inspires them to game dev? I think it really comes down to four ideas, or thought processes, which spur each of us into this brutal and rewarding field.

The first of these is the belief that they can make a small fortune doing this. There are many software houses that started in a garage only to grow to become a major contender in the gaming industry or to be purchased as an expansion to an existing giant. The unfortunate truth is that these stories are few and far between, and of the thousands upon thousands of indiedevs that start each year only a small percent will even make enough money to pay our bills. That is not to say that it is not a hope we all have, but there is a difference between a hope to become the next big name in video games and it being the reason to enter into the gaming industry.

The second reason I see is as an entry point to learn or showcase talent with the ultimate desire of getting recruited by one of the big name software houses. This is a bit more reasonable of a reason, imho, than fame and fortune, but it takes the will to grovel and crawl your way into the industry. Effectively the ego has to go, or at least be put aside in exchange for the opportunity to learn and work. I have seen it time and again, those that succeed in entering the video game industry with this route are those that are willing to take every gaming job that comes their way, no matter how small the job or how small the client. You MUST be willing to learn all you can and work with whomever you can, no matter how “beneath” you the work might be. That small indiedev asking for help on their insignificant video game might just hang out at the bar every weekend with the lead developer of your dream job. It also shows willingness to work, and even in the top gaming houses you get a ton of crap work thrown on you.

I am going to sidetrack my post here to give one of my own stories on just how unexpected finding the “right connection” might be, because I really hate seeing people miss out on an opportunity for a lack of trying. At the last company I worked for I often had to travel to Europe for a month or so to help out each of our offices in the various countries. One of the offices is located in Stockholm Sweden, and as I loved Stockholm I would often ensure my weekends corresponded with remaining there for some downtime. During the process of reaching out to the various European managers our Swedish manager asked if there was anything in particular I wanted to do or see while in Stockholm this time around.

Honestly anything in Stockholm is great for me, but it is also the home of Mojang, the creators of Minecraft. This was prior to the Microsoft purchase of the company, but even then Mojang was notorious for being reclusive and did not have many visitors or even interviews. Still, if anyone could arrange a visit it was our Swedish manager, so I asked.

Well a few weeks later and I was in Stockholm, only it was a no-go on getting to visit Mojang. Our manager hadn’t even been able to reach a live person at their office on the phone or through email. Although slightly disappointed, I knew it had been a longshot (to put things mildly). The work week started and come Tuesday we had a meeting scheduled with one of the software vendors the office was looking to migrate some functions over to. It was a quick and easy meeting with their salesperson and a sales engineer to ensure they could do what we needed and we could provide the information they needed.

As we were wrapping up and the salesperson was shaking my hand, he joked, “That was easy, I hope you didn’t come all the way to Sweden for this.”

I joked back, “No, I came to visit Mojang.” Before the week was over I was getting a personal tour of Mojang by Daniel Kaplan. All because of an off the cuff comment to the right person without ever knowing he could possibly have been the right person. The software development industry is like that. End of sidetrack.

Back to the list, the third idea that draws someone into this industry is that they have a dream game which they have yet to see fulfilled elsewhere. I fall into this category with Omega Connection. There may have been similar games, Alternate Reality on the Atari and Commodore were definitely similar to my dream for Omega Connection, as are many other games out there (Skyrim, World of Warcraft, etc) but none of the games I have heard of, seen, or played quite cover my dream. The same can be said for many other independent developers out there and breathing life into one’s dream can be a powerful motivator.

The last reason goes back to the American football concept of the armchair quarterback. We all have had thoughts or made comments on how an existing game could be made better, how it could have been done differently, or – for those of us with a god complex – how we could have done a better job. For some of us, and I fall in this category, we eventually wind up with lists of aspects of video games we would like to see changed or improved upon. The game improvement list makers often enter the industry with the hope of implementing these improvements through a game of their own.

There might be other reasons people become indiedevs and if you can think of any I missed, please feel free to comment. In the meantime, I believe I have a post of my game improvement list that is wanting to be written. Tack!