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TIGSource ForumsDeveloperBusinessDOLLARS AND SENSE: Staying Afloat While Staying Indie
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Author Topic: DOLLARS AND SENSE: Staying Afloat While Staying Indie  (Read 4453 times)
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« on: March 07, 2011, 06:44:31 PM »

OK, I think it's time that we all have a talk. It's going to be uncomfortable but it's about something important: paying the rent. For some reason, there seems to be a distaste for discussing finances in the indie scene and I think this distaste needs to be cured. The independent games movement is about the accessibility of expression via the creation games without publisher or, in some cases, monetary restrictions. What I don't want to see the independent games scene turn into is a mirror of the independent movie world, where, in the past decade, 'independent films' have received larger amounts of financing and studio support to the point where the big indie films nearly mirror big studio films, albeit with less known actors. This 'pro-indie' culture has yet to take hold here, and I hope that it never does. To that end, I think we should talk more about money, so we can have an idea of how we can have food and shelter while practicing our art and craft, as well as to establish an idea of how much our time is worth when we're selling our time (read: skills) or games.

We need to talk more about how to be a part- or full-time indie game developer if we want to change an industry as opposed to remain a 'scene'. We can encourage many more people to quit crappy day jobs programming Madden 12 or moving buttons around webpages and make indie games instead. These games are not all going to be good, and that's fine, but I'd like to see a world where there are as many Limbos and Super Meat Boys and Osmoses as there are CODs and Halos and Bulletstorms. Acting like monetary considerations compromises art means that people need some combination of privilege, PR talent, and luck to have an opportunity to make a larger-scale indie project.

After my company dissolved, talking shop with other developers at GDC made up my mind to try to continue making independent games on non-weekend-days (that is, as more than a Sunday hobby) . I realized that there were, in fact, flash portals that pay more than 2k for a game, that even some of the biggest names out there only have a six month buffer of income, and so on. Suddenly, staying indie seemed much more attainable if I worked hard and continued to level up.

Rant said, I'm going to outline strategies and sources of income I've either done myself or talked to others about.

Try selling your games. The nice part is that you're making your own games and honing your craft. You can still make noncommercial games in between commercial projects if finances allow. One downside is that the income stream can be hugely unpredictable for very arbitrary reasons. The biggest downsides, in my opinion, are that you're going to reach a smaller audience than with a free game and that you may have an idea for a game that you really want to make which you know won't sell, and financial pressures will prevent you from making that game.

Take financing. This seems fun because, in many cases, it seems like free money. The part that sucks is that, Indie Fund excepted, you're probably going to wind up spending a lot of time doing investor updates, getting pressured into raising more money so you can hire and expand etc, listening to tips on 'monetization' and 'user acquisition', and you'll probably have to field multiple requests to make your games social. I'd actually recommend against this unless your financiers are attuned to your needs, and, as far as I know, the Indie Fund is the only real option. Feel free to clue me in to other investors who are amenable to creative indie games.

Do contract work. If you're selling games and you're short, you can do some contract work on the side. You can also rely on contract work to stay afloat and keep your games noncommercial. I'm doing this right now, and it seems alright, aside from the time overhead of managing contracts. mcgrue points out that available contract work "varies wildly from person to person, mainly due to different social networks" and warns that "Contractors in the programing world have a high turnover rate because it's hard and the nub contractor trends to screw himself out of pay and get pushed around a lot."

Kickstart. I know at least one person planning a kickstarter to finance a game that will be released free or charge with source code available upon completion. There are, unfortunately, few examples of this, so I don't know how it will work out. Seems to work well for films so far, no? mcgrue: "Zeboyd Games just raised 6k for an attempt to go full time making games … I consider this to be a relatively good [data point] if you already have a fanbase."

One last consideration is whether you want to start a proper company or just work as yourself / in a casual arrangement with your friends. Starting a proper company results in more tax overhead, but you have the chance of getting acquired, which means trading a few years of your life for a few million dollars*.

*(I wouldn't recommend chasing that unless you /want/ to get acquired, like in the case that you're making games that are tributes to a certain genre of game and you'd like to obtain a leadership-type role at a larger company to produce larger-scale versions of your older games. This is a different kind of 'indie', IMO, and I'll avoid passing judgment.)

What are some other things we should know? I'm thinking it would be good to know:
- the $ difference between the different flash portals
- typical contractor rates to help people make better bids on projects
- the best way to get health insurance for yourself

Anything else? Thoughts/comments?

I'll share my story, including numbers, in the next post, and I'll write a follow-up article summarizing new info. Please share your stories as well, at least as much of your stories as you feel comfortable sharing.

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« Reply #1 on: March 07, 2011, 06:46:46 PM »


In 2007, I entered the AAA industry with a job at Harmonix. I started in QA and worked my way up to spec-writing and jr. design. After appx four months I burned out and did other things for the proceeding three years, including consulting for educational non-profits, starting a research group, and freelance writing.

In 2010, I re-entered the games scene almost by accident. I was tired of making shit pay writing dumb articles for stupid magazines, and my roommate/best friend was looking to take his hobby making board games for iOS to a full-time job. We applied to Y Combinator, got in, and started a proper company. Due to various reasons, we pivoted from making a platform for developing turn-based games with a social elements to making multi-touch games for shared devices. To be perfectly honest, my heart was not yet in to making games – I'd fallen out of touch with the indie community and had become bored by the commercial games scene. We were also beholden to investors to build a Real Company and make money and try to hire people and so forth. During the following months, we tried a few different tactics – freemium releases, IAP for both levels and for aesthetic modifications, cross-promotion, etc – and experienced modest returns.

Our numbers:
Finances raised: X
Free game downloads (board): > 500k
Free game downloads ('action'): X
Paid game downloads (board): X
Paid game downloads ('action'): ~4k
In-app purchase conversion rate for new boards for boardgame: X%
IAP conversion rate for full 'action' game: ~1% (f*ck*)

* A loophole whereby in app purchases could be made without re-entering the password for 15 minutes (meaning kids could buy things without their parents knowing for 15 minutes after their parents installed the app for them) was recently closed; I imagine everyone's IAP conversion rates are going to drop significantly.

(Xs will be filled with numbers in a few months)

In 2011, my company dissolved as the other founder decided to move to other (more boring =P) pastures. That was fine with me. TIGJam last year inspired me to make games for the sake of making games, and I appreciate the freedom I now have to, say, make socially critical noncommercial games and to take responsibility for drawing juvenile pictures of crappy game journalists (you may have seen the trenchbloat v daphaknee fallout). I'm currently trying to stay afloat via contract development while working on a few noncommercial games. As a backup, I'm searching for part-time jobs since that would leave me with lots of free time as well as stability.

I currently pay $100/mo for Anthem Blue Cross health insurance with a $5k deductible. I bid $40-$60/hr on most contract work; there are always exceptions.
« Last Edit: March 20, 2011, 01:08:42 AM by dongle » Logged

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« Reply #2 on: March 07, 2011, 07:54:56 PM »

I'm young and a college student.  I had good luck with Kickstarter for a strange online project of mine which doesn't show much commercial potential.  The same project also got me to Sense of Wonder Night at the Tokyo Game Show and into this year's experimental gameplay workshop at GDC.

That project helped me prove myself, to some extent, to a producer I propositioned at GDC.  The deal with this person (who has demonstrated himself to be very respectful of the creative process; such people exist beyond Indie Fund) appears to be going forward, and my team will likely be developing for a major platform this year.

Essentially, the free games myself and my friends have made helped us to demonstrate our ability to get things done.  Between that and a very promising prototype, we're now going to be working on something really cool!

Creativity births expression.  Curiosity births exploration.
Our work is as soil to these seeds; our art is what grows from them...

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« Reply #3 on: March 08, 2011, 06:28:33 PM »

Live in a box.
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« Reply #4 on: March 11, 2011, 03:14:12 PM »

I think my career history goes a long way to explain what I'm doing now.

I started thinking about doing commercial indie games in college, once I realized I had somehow managed to get the skills to actually make games "for realz." I actually considered dropping out back in 2004-5, but I really wasn't experienced enough yet to go for it, and I kind of knew that, deep down. It worked out because the next year UCSC's game design program started and through that I connected with some peers I know to this day Tears of Joy

Still, by the end of school, I had a free summer where I said, "OK, I'm going to make a Flash game." So I did - it was a TD-style game - and I just threw it up on Kongregate to see what happened. (I thought that maybe I could ape Desktop TD's success, though it's now clear to me that that was never going to happen.) This was in 2007, back when Kongregate had extremely low comment quality, and I recall getting tons of angry comments since the game had some odd graphics and interface choices, and didn't deliver on fun. I had tunnel vision about the product, something which I'm gradually getting better at.

Not long after that, I graduated, started work on a second version of that game, and in early 2008 got a console studio job - as a designer - on the strength of the TD game, which I demoed to a producer at a local meetup around GDC time.

Some months of crunching later(a somewhat transformative experience), the game I was hired for shipped, I got laid off and on a whim, made a declaration of interest in startups on Hacker News, which led to a week as a possible third co-founder at Heyzap. The mindset of those guys was an eye-opener; earnest ambition, utterly focused on getting funding and profitability - very deep into thinking about business strategy, an interesting game in its own right. At that time, they were big on leveraging viral feedback loops, which I've thought about since then. However, the work wasn't fun for me, since web services for games aren't like making games, so I parted ways.

Then I bugged my old employer, since I didn't really want to move again yet, and managed to get back my old job. (They really liked having me around.) That lasted another six months or so, and then they laid off everyone. Still wanted to go indie, so I decided to make a "big" game - Deep Sea Descent since I had time, savings, unemployment benefits, etc. Again, I indulged myself with some risky design decisions - a large sized game for Flash with a lengthy and strict tutorial, too much scripted gameplay/story for the style of game, and features that are cool but end up hurting the overall integrity of the game(extensive fire mode selection). Perhaps most importantly to this discussion, even though I aimed for portal distribution, I went for a very old-school demo/full version content paywall instead of a sponsorship. Eight months later I completed something that has made (checks) $16.80 in micropayments.

Summer-fall of 2010 I had a break of a few months where I sort of idly toyed with technology and the stock market, lost an absolutely frightening amount of money with the latter(through which I have firmly driven into my head that yes, I can take financial risks, and they have consequences), and after poking around to see if I could hustle up some quick cash, decided I had to move home. Since home is San Francisco, this is actually a good thing career-wise considering all that's happening in the area. At first I thought, "I'll get another job," but my finances had stabilized after the move, so soon I started at it again with another Flash game, Magnate. There is only one goal with this one, and that is to make it successful - in terms of popularity, money, fans, etc. I know my limits and skills pretty well, and this time I'm combining that with a set of constraints to lower business risk.

As such I have a new set of strategies:

  • Ultra-high-leverage production that uses my coding skills to good effect, aiming for just enough art effort to be lively and readable for mass markets. Procedural techniques all over the place, 32x32 pixel-art graphics, etc. I couldn't have done this game last year, I had to do a ton of learning to get here.
  • Open development from the start. I did this before but had the wrong kinds of games for it.
  • Game design drawing ideas from a large number of successful sources: Master of Magic, HOMM, Hinterland, Dwarf Fortress...
  • Game design based on a theory I've been developing about the so-called "main gameplay loop." I think I showed this one to Celluose at the library meetup: that I've discovered that it can be clarified by building multiple intersecting loops describing what the player should be thinking about (vs. what is literally simulated.) applying that to a design seems to explain the high level ideas of a game very well and quickly teases out whether a mechanic will or won't work.
  • Early effort towards marketing the product, even in an early state - having a dedicated web site for the game, the business cards I handed out at GDC... hopefully more of this as I think of it. This has been a boon for feedback and connections already; it seems like "products" are more interesting than "people" for lasting impressions.
  • A broad set of distribution and monetization possibilities - most of them trying to avoid the "sell blobs of largely-similar content" strategy that remains popular in AAA but clearly fails for most indies(including myself). I haven't catered too much towards any demographic, but as the game takes off and gets an active population, I can learn what would fit their needs. At the moment I am leaning towards a social-game type F2P/accelerator/trading model, but nothing is finalized.
  • A definite "endgame" - monetizing modding features. This has powered the success of an enormous number of games of the years, but it requires the game to be "worth modding," out of all of the games in existence. So it's something I should probably try once I've tried everything else.
  • Hang out with other indies regularly. Being in a good crowd matters. Smiley

Basically, my path has taken me from "JUST MAKE COOL GAMES MAN" towards the idea of game development as a whole process of learning that can be improved at every step - where the product is one part of it, but things like the community you're in, the zeitgiest of the market, etc., all matter a lot too. And even if this current game succeeds in making a good profit, it won't necessarily indicate mastery - that's only success as an entrepreneur. There are so many other things to explore.

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« Reply #5 on: March 12, 2011, 02:10:24 PM »

yes but just get a job
srlsy, andre stern: american spy took me like 3 days to make just use your sick days.
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« Reply #6 on: March 19, 2011, 12:08:42 AM »

This has all been a really interesting read.

My friend and I have started a small gig and are working on our first game that we plan to go commercial with. It's a pretty simple endeavor and we're hoping for modest sales on Steam, but honestly I have no idea what to expect. I've always been curious to see sales figures of other indie games, but am not sure who to ask or where to look.

Our current gameplan is pretty simple, we both work part time jobs, and taking whatever freelance contract work I can get my hands on. During this time we make a game that we both would enjoy playing and give it all the polish we can with our skill set.

Our ideal outcome is to sell enough copies to fund a year of development on a second title, and by that I mean making a humble 30k a piece between us by splitting profits 50/50. Realistically though, I'll be happy with a kick ass portfolio piece and a fun game that I can say I was involved in creating.
« Last Edit: March 19, 2011, 01:58:59 PM by andrewjb » Logged
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