8 Misconceptions About Independent Game Development

March 27, 2015

Creating an indie game is something many game developers dream of doing at some point in their career. There’s nothing more exciting than seeing your own brainchild come alive with hope of it becoming the next big hit. It is how games like Minecraft and Braid got their start: in the mind of one person, or a few people, only to become some of the most played and memorable gaming experiences of our time.

Of course, with all these dreams and goals come a lot of misconceptions. Some look at popular indie games with their pixel art graphics and lack of cutscenes and think making indie games is easy. Others see surprise hits that make a lot more money than the developers could ever imagine and assume their game will also make them rich.

If you’re a future indie game developer and plan on whipping up your own awesome title one day, keep in mind the following list of common misconceptions that many have toward indie games:

1: Indie games are easier to make than big-budget titles.

It depends on how you look at it. Did a game like Super Smash Bros. for Wii U require more people, time, and resources to make than Limbo? Of course. Games that massive obviously require a larger team, with each member using their talent to contribute to the whole. But when it comes to indie games, the job doesn’t get easier for you as an individual.

This is because being an independent game developer means that you’ll be spending close to all your time working on your project. Whereas in a studio you eventually go home to relax and sleep, as a full-time indie developer there’s no such thing as “clocking out”. Instead, you’ll spend most of your day working on your game and then your free time thinking about it. As a part-time developer, that little free time you had will be taken up by your project.

Not only will working on an indie game take up more of your hours but you’ll also find yourself having to learn and utilize different skills. You won’t just be the programmer. You might also have to write dialogue and stories, all while also writing press releases and content for your social media pages and website. This may involve sending and answering e-mails as you beg sites to write an article on your game.

In short, you’ll find yourself wearing a lot more hats than the typical game designer at a large studio.

2: Releasing an indie game will make you rich.

Rich? The lucky indie game developers are the ones that manage to even turn a profit. This false idea comes from the fact that a few indie games a year do end up selling millions of copies and making their creators a lot of money. As most indie devs will tell you, however, their only hope is to at least break even once the game they’ve been working on for months, if not years, finally launches.

This is because making any kind of video game isn’t cheap as an individual. From paying your bills and buying necessary programs, to shelling out cash for needed hardware, there are plenty of expenses that tend to stack up. This is perhaps why it took Jonathan Blow three years to make Braid. He not only had to use his own time to make the game, but also had to pay for the artist, musician, and anyone else who contributed.

The good news is that a lot of publishers are now taking more interest in smaller game developers. Receiving funding has its benefits, but may also come with disadvantages, mainly on the creative level. However, if you stick to doing things on your own or in a small team, don’t be surprised if you end up losing money after the project is all set and done.

3: You will get paid in a timely and consistent manner.

If you game does manage to start selling copies, don’t expect to receive that money when you most need it. When it comes to the cash flow problems affecting most small businesses, indie games are certainly no exception. While some are fortunate enough to receive a check once a month, others have to wait until their game reaches a certain number of credit and/or sales. Once it does meet the requirements, it can be a long time before you actually ever see that cash in your bank account.

Other issues come into the mix when it comes to PayPal, which also doesn’t provide a very fast process for transferring money to your account. There is also the issue of PayPal fees, which can take a small but valuable chunk out of your profits.

As an indie developer you’re better off budgeting your expenses under the notion that you’ll only get paid once a month.

4: There’s no need to spend time marketing if my game is good.

If you don’t tell people about your game, they probably won’t play it. This is one of the biggest lessons almost every indie game developer learns after releasing their first title.

Yes, this even applies if your game is not only good but possibly one of the best indie projects to launch all year. Here’s another way of putting it: even big-budget titles need time and money spent on marketing, what makes you think your game doesn’t?

There are tons of games releasing these days and yours is only one of them. Instead of assuming your game will experience the same (very rare) occurrence that something like Flappy Bird did, prepare to do some marketing. You will need to do some studying to get good at this because, contrary to popular belief, most of us are terrible at marketing at first. It also doesn’t help that the general public also tends to be very good at noticing “bad”’ marketing.

5: If you do market your game, it only needs to happen near release.

There have been developers who only started spreading word about their game near launch and found success. However, there are a whole lot more who started marketing well before their game was complete and ended up with a nice, healthy fan base ready to purchase their title on day one. Which of the two sounds like the situation you would want for your game?

What’s great about today is that social media and the internet make it very easy to hype up your game while it’s still in development. You can start a Twitter and/or Facebook page where you post screenshots of art as it is developed, new features about your game, and more. Many developers even have live Twitch sessions regularly, where people interested in the game can chat with the devs while they work on content.

6: You can rely on retro visuals or cheap art to make an indie game

While many devs are genuinely interested in making 8-bit games with that retro NES feel to them, some teams take this route simply because they assume it will make development faster and easier. But if you were to ask the people behind Shovel Knight if this is the case, they’d probably laugh at you. Since games tend to be difficult to make, whether you’re talking about 3D models or 2D sprites, you’re better off choosing a visual style that actually matches the game you want.

As for the idea of using “cheap art”, we’re talking about investing less in art than you should. This often involves using volunteer-made content that rarely turns out as good as stuff made by someone you paid. Even if you don’t plan on having the breathtaking visuals of the next big-budget titles on the newest console systems, you should still plan on either spending some cash on art or finding an artist partner with whom you can split profits.

Good artwork can really make a huge difference. For example, although not everyone is a puzzle fan, it’s hard not to admire the visuals of Braid.

7: There are no constraints when it comes to indie game development.

It’s true that you will have far more creative freedom making an indie game than while working at a studio with publishers and investors breathing down your neck. Since millions of dollars aren’t riding on your game being a success, you’ll have the opportunity to be more unique, creative, and risky with your project. However, if you think you won’t have to abide by any restrictions whatsoever, you’re in for a shocking revelation.

In many ways, you’ll actually have more constraints. Just like the huge games being whipped up by large developers, you will also face the problems that arise from limits in the form of technology, budget, and time. You’ll have to cross off awesome features, work twice as hard during what little free time you have, and so on. In fact, you may even have to change the direction of your game if you study the latest trends in the industry and want to stake a claim in whatever is currently popular.

8: Making an indie game guarantees that I get a job at a big developer.

First off, it’s important to point out that making games is without a doubt the best thing you can be doing if you ever want to land a dream job at your favorite game studio. Even making a simple game or two will turn you into a better prospect in the eyes of major developers. Yes, even compared to the game design degree graduates that haven’t even made anything yet. Developers want someone who can demonstrate a knack and passion for game making, and there’s no better way to do this than by actually showing them games you helped craft.

[su_note]This is why the New York Film Academy School of Game Design takes a learning-by-doing approach. Upon graduating the program, you will have released at least one digital game.[/su_note]

The sad reality is that many younger developers are currently whipping up indie titles in hopes of using it as a way to get their foot in the door at a certain studio. While they will have a better chance than others, they probably will be overlooked when competing with someone 10 years of development experience at a different big studio.

So, instead of becoming discouraged because you’ve been an indie developer for a few years and still can’t land your dream job, keep making games and reaching for that goal. Making indie games doesn’t guarantee you’ll get the job, but it serves as a bigger step forward than anything else you could be doing.