On Indie Game Development

It seems that with every day which passes, we read more and more “horror” stories – Kickstarter projects which fail, abandoned Early Access games – and it’s becoming increasingly common to read user comment reactions along the lines of, “this is why I no longer support Alpha-Funded / Early Access / Kickstarters / etc. games”. It’s a real shame because, as should be remembered, these funding models enable games to be created which simply could not have existed otherwise. Of course, as a consumer, it is absolutely sensible to approach with caution before putting your money down for a promise – but at the same time, closing yourself off entirely… well, if everybody did that then we’d be back to the only viable funding model being a traditional publisher-developer relationship. And let’s not forget that it was dissatisfaction with the kinds of games which that relationship typically yields which led us to this in the first place.

It’s a sad truth that with any model – be it E.A., alpha-funding, Kickstarter, free-to-play – there will be some games which use the model perfectly, some which balls the whole thing up horribly, and everything in-between. Some people, just with luck of the dice rolls, will find themselves only backing turkeys. But a few bad experiences does not mean that the system, as a whole, is broken or fundamentally flawed.

This kind of funding model is fantastic, utterly fantastic. If you want a games industry which maximises creativity, maximises variety, makes niche titles viable, this is how you get it – there is simply no better model. We need to protect it, and that places a duty of protection on every single developer using it – no matter whether you’re a larger independent company, or a single hobbiest – whether you want it or not.

Know your limitations

When I got my first job in the industry, back when I was twenty, I was full of arrogance – the sort of arrogance which you only really recognise with hindsight. I went through school top of my class in art and computer studies, I got a first-class B.Sc. (hons) in Computer Visualisation and Animation. Frankly, I thought I was the bees-knees. But, of course, you’re only being judged in terms of people in your class or year not the World as a whole. When people treat you like you’re amazing, you begin to think you’re objectively amazing. Then you get a job in the Games Industry.

Blimey, that was an eye-opener. Suddenly, I was comparatively shit. In the grand scheme of things I knew nothing. The arrogance still takes time to evaporate (evaporation, to this day, still not entirely complete) but you do at least start to recognise it as arrogance. Despite not having made many games I was particularly proud of during those ten or so years in the commercial industry, it was still the best thing I could possibly have done. I dread to think what I would’ve been like, had I skipped it and simply started making indie games when I was twenty. Actually, I pretty much know – I would have wanted to change the world (of games). I’d have wanted to show the games industry where they were going wrong. All my “amazing” ideas – why has no-one made these games? Pfft. Noobs.

Those ten years taught me that all those ideas which I thought were so amazing? Not only have they occurred to literally everyone, but also that ninety-nine times out of a hundred, that they are not applied is either because they’re “good in theory, not so much in practice”, because they’re utterly nonviable, or because actually they’re shit.

“Indie” has become a PR term, but there is a reason why I’ll insist on making a distinction between “indies” and “independents”. Indies should not be trying to compete with the AAA (or even AA) games. Yeah, we have Unreal Engine 4 at our disposal now, but that we’ve got AAA tools and tech does not mean we can start making AAA games. Just prettier indie games. If, in general, indie games were synonymous with “looking a bit shit” well, that’s fine isn’t it? No, not fine, better. Because if “great game, but graphically a bit shite” was what people thought of when they thought about indie games, then the word wouldn’t be quite so great for PR and maybe the larger independent studios wouldn’t insist on calling themselves indie and muddying up the whole thing.

It’s okay to use Unreal Engine 4 but fill the entire game with cheap crappy stock assets. It’s okay to have both awesome Unreal lighting and assets made out of cubes. It’s okay not to use Unreal at all and make the whole thing in Game Maker or RPG Studio. Style is cheap, HD models aren’t. If you’re wondering why it is that the commercial industry has never produced [insert awesome-sounding ambitious project here] it’s not because you’ve got better ideas than them. It’s because, unlike you, they know how much it costs to make a videogame of that scope.

Ultimately, pretty graphics mean bollocks all if the game is shit or canned. Yeah, you’re probably not going to out-sell Call of Duty. But if you’ve planned for your limitations, kept your team small, kept the design realistic in scope… you won’t need to. You can be ambitious – heck, definitely be ambitious. But be ambitious in moderation. If you shoot for the moon, there is a minuscule chance you’ll land. If you’re lucky, you may end up in a stable orbit around Earth. Most likely, you’ll plummet back down to Earth and explode.

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