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The Strengths and Weaknesses of an Indie

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Level 15 Extraplanar Programmer
Alignment: Chaotic good
Location: Toronto
Posted on October 14, 2009 at 6:21 am

I’m a fan of indies. Whether it’s independent games (like us!), independent music, or independent film (warning: contains Rick’s poor acting; may be unsuitable for connoisseurs of good films) I like the kind of freedom that’s enjoyed by a team working on a low budget with nobody to answer to. Of course, it’s not all rainbows and lollipops; indie development certainly has its flaws, and there’s a number of strengths to the traditional model which are easy to envy, so this week I thought I’d talk about the strengths and weaknesses of indie development.

Before I go on, I want to be clear about what I mean when I talk about “traditional” model. In this model, you approach a publisher (or a producer, or a record label, in the case of film and music) and convince them to buy your idea. In reality, they’re not really “buying” your idea; yes, they usually take ownership of your idea, but they’re not actually giving you any money for it. What they're really giving you is just the loan that you need to bring your idea to fruition (and usually with a rather high interest rate to boot). Luckily if your idea fails, the publisher takes the fall, and you don’t have to pay back your loan. They’ll also typically handle most of the business stuff like marketing and distribution; the sort of stuff most creative types aren’t interested in.

Publishers and Risk Aversion
Because of the way this system works, publishers are very risk-averse. If they’re not sure if they can turn a profit selling your game, then they’re probably going to take a pass on it. As a result, a publisher is going to be far less interested in a pitch like “It’s like nothing you’ve seen before!” and far more interested in a pitch like “It’s just like <insert last year’s best selling game>, except it’s set in WWII!” This is part of the reason you see so many cookie-cutter games out there.

Once your idea is accepted by a publisher, you still don’t get to make the game you pitched, because the publishers will keep sticking their fingers in the pie, asking if you can add more lens flares, or if you can put the player-character in a cowboy hat, because “cowboy hats poll well with 18-24 year olds.”

And the moment you throw publishers into the mix, you’ve automatically increased your overhead. All of a sudden, it’s not just the developers that have to turn a profit, but the publishers too. This means your game need to be capable of selling many more copies before a publisher is even willing to give you the time of day. Ultimately, this further exacerbates the problem of risk averse publishers.

If you’re an indie, you don’t need to sell as many games to turn a profit, so you have much more freedom to try something unproven!

Indies and Risk Acceptance
One of the other benefits of being indie is that you don’t need to convince a publisher that your idea will sell before you can go ahead and make it, so you’re free to make any game you can think of. But this is a double-edged sword. There’s a very real chance that your game won’t sell. If this happens, you may be putting yourself in the poorhouse – remember what I said about the traditional route? In the traditional model developers are allowed to fail, and they don’t have to pay back their debt to the publisher. The corollary to this is that indie developers have to foot the bill themselves, and that can be awfully costly. If your game fails to turn a profit, you may find yourself wondering why you didn’t just pile all of that money into the centre of your apartment and burn it. At least that way you could have saved money on your heating bill!

But it’s a risk with a lot of reward, because if your idea is popular and you become the next Jonathan Blow or Kevin Smith, you don’t have to split your profits any publishers, and you may just end up with a game that you’re proud of!

Big-Budget Blockbusters
Of course, the biggest dilemma with the indie approach is that you have a limited budget. It can be deceptive how costly it is to make a video game. After all, you don’t need anything more than a computer and some software to make games, right?

Well, it’s usually not the hardware and software that eats up your money. It’s the employees. Between design, art, and programming, there’s very few people that are capable of all the skills necessary to make a good game. You’ll need multiple people to complete your game, and unless it’s very simple, you’ll probably need to spend a whole year (or five) of full-time development to complete it.

That already sounds pretty expensive, but what I’m talking about is still relatively low-budget, at least compared to the kind of games that the traditional model is capable of producing. If you want to make a photo-realistic sandbox game with fully-animated cutscenes, mocap, and lip-syncing, well, that sort of stuff takes manpower. Five guys in a small office aren’t going to cut it; now you’re talking 100 employees or more, and there aren’t many people with pockets deep enough to pay the salaries of 100 people on their own.

So while indie teams may make anything they can imagine, it’s not necessarily true that they can make anything they can imagine. The limited money that you can spend on employees is a very real limit to your capabilities. Luckily, indie types usually have pretty good imaginations, to they can often think of ways to work around these limits.

The Battle for Middle-Earth Middle-Ground
Ideally, we would be able to find a middle-ground that gives us the best of both worlds. One of the best solutions is to make your low-budget indie game on your own and prove that it’s a good idea, and if it’s great you’ll have publishers breaking down your door to get you to sign a deal. Publishers love to be the “first to be second”, and as part of the deal you’ll likely be trusted with full control over your game. Just look how well this worked for the Narbacular Drop guys.

I recently heard a tongue-in-cheek mantra for this kind of development. It goes like this:

We’re fiercely independent. And we’re for sale!