Independent Game Design: A Pep Talk

Indie Game Development Dreams

(This is a space for would-be game designers. All the “insights” herein are based on an insatiable passion for games, and a deep desire to learn how to make them. That aside, I have no idea what I’m talking about. And yet I do. Because passion is everything. Probably. Oh, fuck-it; just listen to what I have to say. You’re on the site anyway. Sheesh.)

Any creative endeavor is fraught with self-doubt, especially if you’re developing something that requires you to do the prep-work, or first iteration alone. Is your idea good? Will people like it? Should I even tell anyone for fear they’ll reject it? The less people involved in a project, the more lonely these initial stages can be. Typically, you’ll sit by yourself working on that adventure draft for hours before you play test it. Sometimes people collaborate. But even then; self-doubt is not your friend, and even teams suffer from a lack of confidence. If you’re the leader or manager, you can’t afford to express your fear. You need to be the example, and this itself can be a lonely place.

Unfortunately, there’s a lot of stuff out there that frankly, and often needlessly, fuels self-doubt. People will tell you that you’ll never make any money, that the game design life is hard, that it’ll take up all your time. The list goes on. I’ve never really seen the point of such advice. I suppose they’re important ‘reality checks.’ But when does any creative type really care about reality? It’s not going to stop anyone worth their salt from creating something they want to create, because frankly those who want to make art do so out of need, or at least a very intense form of desire. Sure, there are those whose priority is money and success, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But if that’s their driving force, they rarely make anything I care about. Consumers can smell disingenuous products a mile away.

Still, I find myself having a visceral reaction to negative perspectives, mostly because I struggle from fear and self-doubt. In the past these problems have stopped me doing things that I love to do, and have derailed my life in several ways. So, it irritates me when I bump into a naysayer. But that’s a product of my personal demons. And for anyone like me, I want to provide an alternative perspective on the perils and pleasures of being an indie developer. I’m not much of a “pep-talk” kind of guy, but I suppose that’s what this is. I’m arguing that despite it all, regardless of the obstacles, if you truly love something, you should go anyway–caution signs be damned. Almost every million dollar idea began with a host of people saying it couldn’t be done. Is that a cliche? Yes. Did I steal it from someone else? Probably. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

Anyone Can Make a Game

 

SMXLL

In recent years, with the advent of new technologies and their falling prices–both hardware and software–it’s now possible for anyone to create and distribute a product without a huge team of employees and marketers. This hold true for writers of source books or adventures who can now self-publish their work in pdf format with little to no production overhead. Video game designers, providing they haul ass, have access to easy to use programs that minimize the need to code–check out Game Maker, for an example. And everyone can showcase their work online (see Drive Thru RPG for paper examples). This fact is what we need to focus on. We can make games! Relatively easily. We can do what no generation before us has been able to do. This is amazing.

But just because people can make stuff, does that mean they have any hope of reaching an audience? The idea of market saturation says no. It can and it can’t be done.

Market Saturation

The market is saturated. Just because there are now more developers, and more people able to make games, doesn’t mean the market has grown too. There isn’t necessarily a correlation between what’s available and what people can afford, both in terms of time and finances.This is a problem if you’re focused on money and success. No doubt. Steam games don’t sell that much. It’s harder to get noticed.

But let’s look at this reality from a more positive perspective. More products means more competition. Consumers have more options. Your shit needs to be good. Even though the market hasn’t necessarily grown, the number of quality products on it has. When I can buy an indie classic like Hyper Light Drifter for $20 or so bucks–less during a sale–and people are telling me it’s as good as anything out there, then I’m going to tempted away from paying $60 on a AAA title like God Of War. This means the AAA game has to be damn good. And it also means indie games have to be damn good. And all that damn goodness is going to translate to quality and innovation.  Both games I mentioned are awesome by the way). The need to stand out from the crowd puts impetus on everyone to do better.

So yes, the market is clearly saturated, but that saturation has a positive upswing. And the fact is, this article, and my blog in general, is aimed at people more interested in quality than quantity. That being said…

We All Want to be Famous

Okay, not all of us. But we do want to sell. Why? Because few people create without hoping that their creations will be experienced by others. This isn’t a hard and fast rule. Emily Dickinson was ambivalent about being published, and Franz Kafka ordered his friend Max Brod to burn all his work after his death. Thankfully, both writers ended up getting out there and literature was changed forever.

Most of us, aside from not being Dickinsons or Kafkas, are interested in being seen. This is especially true for game designers. Why make a game nobody will play, or a film nobody will watch, no matter how good it is. That’s why commercialism is so attractive. Sure I’m making crap, but I’m making crap people will watch.

We also want to make money–not for money’s sake, but because it enables us to what we love full time. If you offered me ten million dollars on the proviso I’d never work again, or one million to spend on what I want to do, I’d take the second option in a heartbeat.

It’s naive, and probably dishonest, to pretend a certain degree of success doesn’t matter. And thus the realities of the saturated industry can be daunting.

So, what if we want money and success, and hear we’re not going to get it. Why bother?

Necessary Existentialism

SLXLM

Why? Why are we here? Why is there something and not nothing? Why does God seem to enjoy fucking with us. Why do anything at all?

You can fall into the wormhole pretty quickly if you ask why too much. And yet any serious artist should ask that question a lot during the creative process–most importantly at the start. That’s my opinion. But it’s true. No arguing please.

Why am I making this? If it’s money and success, the negs have a good point. There’s no guarantee that’s going to happen, and in the world of paper game making there’s next to no chance.  It’s less important to focus on this negative reality than on your motives to begin with. It’s a matter of definitions. What do you mean by money and success. Do you want to make millions off your indie project, and reach the same number of people? Or are you content making enough to pay the bills, or fund your next project, or even just put some extra cash in your pocket as a nice side product of doing what you love? And when you consider your audience, is it enough that a few good people play and see your game, or do you need mass recognition? Sometimes a single positive review, or an award is enough to satisfy the needs of the designer. These are reasonable goals, and they are attainable.

With paper gaming this is even easier. You can easily find play-testers for your project. Most gaming groups need DMs more than they need players–someone who puts in the time and does the heavy lifting. And usually they’ll be more than happy to test out your homebrew creations. A lot of people even prefer them to more conventional published material. The very act of having a group enjoy your stuff, even if it’s only five or six people, can be extremely rewarding. You’ll rarely lack an audience as a paper game designer. It might not be huge, but it’ll be there.

Bringing it All Back Home

SLXLM

 

This post has been somewhat unfocused. That’s okay. I needed to write it, just as I have a need to make games. And make no mistake, this is need, not desire. When I don’t do it, I’m unhappy. Regardless of my reasons, I hope I’ve inspired people to take a positive rather than negative perspective. Instead of focusing on somebody else’s expectations and definitions, forge your own. Instead of seeing the market as a daunting, over-crowded obstacle, view it as the impetus to get damn good. And that’s what this is about–making something your proud of. Unless you care about your product, nobody else is going to.

I also hope I’ve been realistic. At the start of this article I joked that creative types don’t usually care for reality. This is true to an extent. But fear thrives on unrealistic expectations. Positive thinking is pragmatic thinking. When your creating, stick your head in the sky. When you’re thinking about living life, dream big, but be practical.

And this is all, really, just a letter to myself–a personal pep-talk. Maybe it helped you. I hope so. This is my goal. It begins with the personal benefits of creating, and ends with the communal benefits–the hope that some way I can be useful.

So go anyway.

(Here’s a Rolling Stone article that’s a combination of positive or negative. There’s a lot of nay-saying here, but the final message is on point).