If you’re working for a big game studio, there’s no shortage of hierarchies and rules to guide you. But what if you’re an indie developer? What are the steps to success? Is it as simple as making a game in your bedroom before proceeding to rolling around under a blanket of Bison-dollar bills? Five indie devs who once worked for major game studios share their journeys to independence with us.
“Our standard employment agreement at THQ was very brutal when it came to creative work, even done outside of working hours. You couldn’t release anything that might be considered a competing product (and yes, even a small iPhone game was considered a competing product against their AAA titles). Even more limiting, anything you did in your free time that had anything to do with computer games automatically became property of THQ.”
I’m talking to Maciej Sawitus, the founder of indie games studio Pixel Elephant, which recently released the mobile, PC and XBLIG puzzler, Puzzled Rabbit. For four years Sawitus was an engine programmer at the now defunct Blue Tongue Studios. He’d worked on PC and console games, dealing with everything from the graphics to the tools and multiplayer. The projects he assisted with were big with multi-million dollar budgets. For Sawitus, size didn’t matter, and the size of these projects alone was not enough to satisfy him.
“I think over time the desire to make my own games grew larger and larger,” he says. This desire to create something not dictated by the higher-ups at THQ led Sawitus to downgrading himself from being a permanent THQ employee to being a contractor. He did so a month and a half before the studio’s closure, not knowing that he would miss out on a redundancy package as a result. His actions meant he’d given up the financial security those working at big studios tend to have, but he was now free to work on his own projects and have them remain his own.
“If I was still a permanent at THQ, unless I kept my ideas in my head and told no one, the idea would have belonged to THQ,” he says.
“On one hand I understand some of the legal concerns from larger game development companies, but on the other hand this is causing a situation where there’s lots of talented game developers with great ideas that only remain in their minds forever… until they go indie.
“This is a very limiting factor when it comes to creativity, especially in the creative industry such as game development.”
When the studio closed, Sawitus saw his opportunity to finally work on his own projects full-time, and he wasn’t the only one to seize the opportunity. Raf Gouel and Lynda Mills were both employees at Blue Tongue until the studio closure -- Gouel was a systems engineer, Mills a concept artist who also worked on game design. The two have since teamed up to form their own studio, Cupco Games, and will soon be releasing their first game for mobile devices, but it wasn’t always possible for them to do their own thing when they were employed at a big studio.
“We’ve always wanted to do it, but we weren’t allowed,” Gouel says.
“All the contracts out there for every publisher -- whether it’s THQ or EA, or even Firemint before they got bought out -- even if you’re contracting for them, you’re not allowed to do anything that is a conflict of interest.
“We had so many people at Blue Tongue just dying to get some of their ideas out. There had been people in the industry for 10+ years and they had so many game pitches they wanted to get out. We did have get-togethers at Blue Tongue where we could pitch our games to each other, but it was an internal thing. We weren’t allowed to go out and broadcast any of it.”
When the studio closed, Gouel and Mills arrived at a crossroad -- both were skilled enough to find work elsewhere, move overseas, and begin work on other AAA console and PC titles. But they found themselves in a position that few people do -- brains full of ideas, mobile devices making indie development more accessible than ever, and redundancy payments providing them with funds to start an indie studio. They decided to take the plunge and create Cupco Games.
Going independent isn’t a dream for everyone in game development, though. Michael Petrou was the director of technology at another THQ studio, Studio OZ. Responsible for all things related to programming, he’d been at the studio for five years, made games for eight, and had 20 years of programming experience under his belt. His move into the indie space was not entirely expected -- it was a response to the a changing industry.
“Initially, going indie was not my preferred choice; I was very happy working for a large studio on console games,” Petrou says.
“I did not consider it at all until a few weeks after the studio closed. Given the state of the games industry in Australia, there are next to no jobs out there, especially for senior or management-level staff. I contacted all of the major games studios in Australia where my family were able to relocate to and none of them had openings.”
Petrou received job offers in the business software and simulation sector, but he wasn’t prepared to leave the creative industry. With no large studios left in Australia that were able to accommodate the sudden influx of unemployed game developers, Petrou decided to go indie and start his own business, Moonlight Studios.
“Now that I’ve started my business, I feel quite different about it… I’m really enjoying the creativity and control that I have over my development and the lifestyle is much better than when I was working for a big studio.”
There’s More To It Than Making Games In Your Bedroom
When people think of indie game development, they often think of a lone developer programming away at their home computer wearing the uniform of champions: track pants. But as these developers discovered early on, if you’re going to take indie development seriously, you have to think of yourself as a business -- an independent company does not equate to independent slobbery.
“There’s a lot more to it than sitting at home making a game in your bedroom,” Petrou says.
“I have been working 12-14 hours a day, spending three to four of those hours doing things that are not making the game. The general rule is that it will take you twice as long as you think it will take, and it might even cost twice as much.”
Petrou has a long list of things he’s had to do before he has been able to start making a game. Among them include setting up a business, registering for GST, writing up employee agreements, setting up work cover, superannuation plans, indemnity insurance, sourcing licensing and support contracts with vendors like Apple and Unity, setting up an internet hosting plan, starting up a website and looking after the social media side of the game, firewall and data security, surge protection, establishing relationships with others who might work with you, source control and automated nightly backup solutions, and offsite backup archives. At some point, Making A Video Game also appears on the agenda.
“I have pretty much set up everything above over the past few weeks and I am now solidly into my first game,” Petrou says.
Before starting Cupco Games, Raf Gouel says that he also had to consider the logistics of starting a business before launching into their first game. They decided to learn from their time at Blue Tongue, adopting things that they knew worked and discarding what they didn’t like about working at big studios.
“We did a lot of research,” Gouel says.
“We got a lot of mentoring and tips from people in the industry -- I’m handling the business side of things, Chris Wright from Surprise Attack is helping us with marketing, Lynda is obviously a fantastic artist and level designer, we have an ex-lead programmer from Krome helping us… we don’t just want to sit down and make an unpolished game. We want to do it right.”
The Tin Man Story
While the developers mentioned above have only just begun their indie adventures, Tin Man Games have now been in the business for almost three years. The studio has found much of its success from its flagship Gamebook series, and has recently acquired the rights to create a Judge Dredd Gamebook. Tin Man’s founder, Neil Rennison, believes that by next year the studio will be in a very comfortable and sustainable position, although things weren’t always smooth sailing.
Rennison ran a game art outsourcing and contracting business in the UK where he worked on assets for the Need For Speed, Nascar, The Sims, and Tiger Woods series. Working with EA gave him a lot of security and he enjoyed what he was doing, but like so many developers who eventually go indie, Rennison wanted to do his own thing. He walked away from his art job, teamed up with another developer, and started Tin Man Games.
“The iPhone had just appeared so we wanted to join the gold rush,” Rennison says.
“We created a little game called Footrees, which cost us $10,000 to make. We put it out there thinking it was going to sell. Well, I think it’s going to take another five years before it breaks even, so immediately it was like, ‘Oh, it doesn’t quite work like that.’”
His then-colleague left Tin Man and not long afterwards Ben Britten Smith joined the team. Britten Smith has previously worked in the film industry but also had some experience in game development. He has also made the rookie error of pouring time and money into a game thinking that alone would sell the game.
“I found myself in a similar situation,” he says.
“We thought, OK, we’re going to make this game. It’s going to be great. It took us seven months to make, it was an awesome rolling platform game and… no one bought it. I think all indies make this similar mistake where they think if they make it fun, people will buy it. They don’t give any thought to who they’re making the game for or why they would want to buy your game instead of someone else’s game.”
For Rennison and Britten Smith, things began to shape up for the studio when they were able to identify the kind of game they wanted to make, the audience that would want to buy and play it, and how they would market the game to that audience. That game was Gamebook Adventures, a series inspired by the classic Choose Your Own Adventure Books where stories meet interactivity meet the iPhone. Both Britten Smith and Rennison are passionate about the games they’re making, but one of the most important lessons they’ve learned is the need to service a market, otherwise your game won’t sell.
“Most indies already have an idea in their heads about the kind of game they want to make,” says Britten Smith.
“It might be a game that combines Halo with Fallout and Bastion, or it might be Diablo meets Halo, and they think ‘Oh that will be great!’. Well… no, it’s not, because those games already exist, plus the companies making those games have million-dollar budgets, whereas you’ve got tends of thousands if you’re lucky.
“It’s all an iterative process -- building a fun, compelling game that you enjoy and is creative to make, but also has a market that you can sell to. There are lots of reasons to make games besides making money, but if you want to make a business you need to be mindful of that.”
One of the other pitfalls that Tin Man games have identified is the lack of marketing that indie developers do for their games. I ask Rennision, if an indie dev has thought about their audience, and they’ve gone and made an amazing game that services a niche… what next? How do you get people to buy your game?
“That’s a whole new ball game,” he says.
“As game developers, we’re not naturally inclined to promote ourselves. When I was working for EA for example, they had whole departments in America to deal with that. I’d be making decisions about a game but there would be someone writing a press release about it somewhere on the other side of the world. So when you’re doing your own stuff you need to constantly think about how you can promote your game.”
Britten Smith says that creating a game is only step one.
“After you’ve made and released your game, you have to be constantly engaging with the community -- you have to be on forums, you have to be out there talking to people and getting people excited about it every single day. It’s a lot of work. It’s possibly more work than making the game!”
He says that these final steps that indie developers tend to forget about are the most crucial as they can determine whether or not a game sells, and thus whether an indie developer can afford to continue what they’re doing.
“I came into it thinking that if you make a great game and it’s fun, it’ll be successful,” says Britten Smith.
“The reality is that you can spend one year or five years or ten years making a really awesome game and no one will buy it because no one knows about it. Games are meant to be played. If you make a game and no one plays it, is it still a game? It’s one of those tree falls in a wood kind of things, and I think that was the hardest thing for me to learn.”
To Indiefinity And Beyond!
There is little doubt that every now and again, overnight successes do happen. But there is even less doubt that to establish yourself as an indie developer, it takes a lot more work and consistency than the success stories make it out to be.
Tin Man games have now released seven Gamebooks and are beginning work on Judge Dredd. Maciej Sawitus’ Puzzled Rabbit was recently released to great reviews. Cupco Games and Moonlight Studios are well into development for their first game, and they are not alone in their attempts to create businesses that will still be standing in the years to come.
There is no indie handbook, nor are there any hard and fast rules about how indie development should work, as that would defeat the purpose of going independent to begin with. But as developers share their experiences with each other, hopefully the emerging indie scene in Australia will be able to find some guidance in those who have done it before.