Cliff Harris had what many consider a dream job. He was a programmer at Lionhead Studios, home of star designer Peter Molyneux and the eventual developer of such titles as Fable and Black & White. But one man’s dream job is another’s soul-crushing grind.
“I was fed up with the way games companies are run. The long-hours culture, the complete chaos and the fact that obviously I was a frustrated designer working purely as a coder,” explains Harris, now head of his own studio, Positech Games. “I had been self-employed before, and I think I just have the DNA that makes me a better lone gunman than someone else’s employee.”
Harris is one of an increasing number of mainstream video game veterans who have abandoned big-budget, big-business game development and “gone rogue” as small, self-funded, often self-published independent game developers, or “indies.” Some see indie development as an entry point into a career in the majors. But for some jaded professionals who love gaming but are dissatisfied with the mainstream industry, indie development offers an escape – and a unique opportunity.
How could anybody abandon the steady paychecks, access to the best tools and engines, large teams of skilled colleagues and the glory of working on one of next holiday season’s blockbusters for a chance to labor in relative obscurity on tiny, niche titles?
Steven Peeler was a senior programmer at Ritual Entertainment. For him, leaving and forming the one-man studio Soldak Entertainment came down to a desire for creative freedom. “I really wanted to work on an RPG, and Ritual only made shooters,” he says. “There were some annoying politics going on that was really frustrating, I disagreed with the direction the company was taking, I was really tired of pushy publishers and I just wanted to do my own thing.”
Others found themselves forced into the indie life. Nick Tipping and Mark Featherstone were previously at Gremlin Interactive, Infogrames and Rage Games. “When almost every major studio in Sheffield closed at the same time, we decided it was time to give [indie development] a go,” Tipping says. “Severance pay and racking up huge debt on multiple credit cards saw us to the end of out first project at Moonpod.”
Chris Evans, of Outside the Box Software, felt frustrated with his lack of growth potential in a modern, compartmentalized development environment. According to Chris, “today’s game industry pigeonholes you into a particular category and puts you in a cubicle for four to six years. You are basically a cog, and they encourage you to remain a cog.”
Learning the Business
The lure of creative freedom and being one’s own boss is compelling. But new indies find that it takes more than mainstream experience to build a small business capable of paying the bills. Game development – their first love – doesn’t always take first priority. Says Peeler, “There are a lot of non-game things you must do as an indie like setting up your business, taxes, creating a website, marketing, taxes, interacting with your customers and more taxes. Did I mention taxes?”
Harris admits that marketing was a more difficult task than he’d anticipated. “One thing I had to learn was decent PR and publicity. When you work for some big-name company, journalists get on planes and get brought to your desk to see cool stuff. That doesn’t happen anymore.”
“Getting the world to notice is possibly even harder than making the game in the first place,” agrees Peeler.
Tipping suggests that habits formed in the mainstream business can work against the indie developer. “We made a lot of design mistakes because we’d been developing console-centric titles for so long. Starscape didn’t even have mouse support for the menus when we first released it.” He adds, “Things we thought would be invaluable turned out to be useless. Mr. Robot and Starscape got incredible reviews in magazines, but even the smallest website review has a much bigger impact than a magazine.”
Digital distribution has lowered the barrier to entry for game sales to the point where anybody with a website can self-publish their work. This might prevent the big companies from locking up distribution channels, but it hasn’t stopped them from dominating the field through other means. Schatz explains, “We’ve seen pretty clearly in both the casual game market and digital distribution on consoles that the publishing/distribution racket wasn’t going to let us get away with that. The future does not look as bright for developers as it did three years ago, and the blame lies squarely with Big Fish, Microsoft and other major digital distributors. These giants have found ways to corral the audience, squeeze developers and rip off our most creative pioneers.”
Steve Taylor‘s company, Wahoo Studios, alternates between contracting for publishers and producing self-published titles through their indie label, NinjaBee. He notes that working through online distribution portals is not much different from working with traditional publishers. “Portals and other distributions services impose their own rules and limitations. Supposedly indie-friendly distribution options like Steam and Instant Action still have subjective gatekeepers.”
He maintains that the stark reality of remaining solvent often overshadows the dream of creative freedom. “If you want your game to make money, you have to consider what will sell, and this means adapting your pure creative vision to match the real world. Besides, do you really have the resources to achieve your ultimate creative vision? “
These fledgling entrepreneurs have also discovered their rebel status doesn’t make them immune to piracy. With most indies struggling to make ends meet, they feel its impact directly in their own wallets. “Since we are a small developer that has a hard time getting attention, you would think we would have very little piracy,” says Peeler. “Unfortunately, that’s not the case at all. It’s depressing how many sites are pirating Depths of Peril.”
Harris vehemently agrees. “Some of them cloak it all with this thin veneer of ‘sticking it to the man’ and being ‘anti-DRM’ and ‘anti-big corporations.’ Despite me giving a free demo, no DRM, innovative games, at reasonable prices with great tech support from a one-man company, the bastards still rip me off and take my stuff anyway.”
In some cases, success as a tiny game studio demands walking the fence between mainstream and indie. “I’ve been getting contract job offers from mainstream game companies that are worth three to four times the amount I was making when I left the industry,” says Evans.
“Having successfully funded and released some games on our own, we’ve gotten some attention that we wouldn’t have gotten otherwise,” Taylor adds. “Having people come to us because of what we’ve done on our own is a pretty big win.”
What happens when the dream of making your own games as your own boss buckles under the weight of reality?
For Tipping, the indie or mainstream question doesn’t matter as much. It’s all about the games. He says, “It was more about artistic expression than money. But sadly, there’s always a base level of income you need to maintain to support that ideal. We love making games, so if we had to return to mainstream development, we’d be fine with that.”
Harris found he enjoys the business side of running a games company as much as he enjoys making games. “I’m definitely happier as an indie because I like succeeding or failing on my terms. I can’t imagine working for three years on one game again, or being detached from the business side of things. If I needed a fulltime job again, I’d try and get into marketing or some other area of programming, rather than go back to AAA gaming.”
For Peeler, it’s still about the freedom. “I never would have been able to create Depths of Peril in the mainstream. I don’t have a boss. My commute is now about 10 seconds to get across the room. I no longer have to go to meetings. I no longer have to deal with publishers trying to withhold payments to get their way.”
“Creating indie games allowed me to gain experience and improve my skill set in a way that is almost impossible in today’s game industry,” Evans maintains. “By going indie, I amassed a ton of experience in three to four years time that probably would have taken me a decade to gain in the industry.”
Going indie is a struggle. The challenges mount, and the dream can get frayed around the edges. But for many professionals, what brought them out of the big studios and back into the garage or bedroom to make their own games hasn’t changed.
Schatz sums it up with his usual enthusiasm: “I support myself and I’m perpetually only one game away from being a millionaire gaming rock star. Why would I quit now?”