(Warning! This article contains subjectivity and personal experiences. If you aren’t into that, then close the tab before you get too invested. Quick! Do it now!)
When I was younger, every time my family went to the beach, I’d go to a novelty store and pick up a pad of paper and a 32-pack of crayons. I’d come home, play a few video games to get inspired, then I’d take a crayon and scrawl a level design onto one sheet. Each stage I drew was all one color to symbolize what area it was in: for example, the green stages would be the forest level, the red stages would be the lava levels, the cyan stages would be ice levels, etc.
I’d try to draw in tiny detail all the traps and the monsters the main character would face along the way. I’d draw bosses in wide stages, and on the back of the sheet I’d draw out their attack patterns. I’d put little asides to myself saying, “This boss breathes lava, but you can duck under it.”
I got so invested in those drawings that I forgot to keep playing the games that inspired them. I’d leave handheld games for my brother to conquer while I drew bigger and cooler levels. Back then, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I was inspired, and that was all I had to understand. I just went and made it, because it was fun and because going to the beach meant getting sunburns no matter how much sunblock you lathered on.
Working for the industry is nothing like this, you’re told. You’re told that you must work unforgiving hours with no extra pay just to make one of the assets for the next big AAA game. Creatively, you might have some liberties and agency, but for the most part, if your boss doesn’t like what you’ve made, you’ve got to scrap that idea and start over. In a word, many might call it “soul-crushing victory” when all is said-and-done. So, many people opt out of that experience in lieu of doing work on their own.
“If I make this on my own, I have no one to blame but myself (and maybe my team a little).”
Independent developers, however, get very little of that feedback as they’re making their games. In fact, most devs get no feedback on what they make either because they have to keep it under wraps for fear that someone else might take their idea, or because they just don’t know anyone in the industry and they’re starting out.
For a lot of independent developers just starting out, making a game is like scrawling those drawings. They’re throwing themselves at the medium over and over again, living and breathing the workload. And that work is often very exhausting. You aren’t paid to be an start-up indie, so you have to find other ways to make ends meet while you craft your first game.
For those that make something simpler, it might take a few months. For those working towards a more complex game, you’ll be working for a year or more without pay. And your working conditions are probably less than stellar.
People always point to the success stories to define the indie label in games. The Team Meat’s and the Jonathan Blow’s of video games are lauded as having innovative and universal ideas that rake in cash. Those guys became millionaires overnight, and a lot of people seek that same fame and cashflow.
And almost everyone who starts out with that as the goal either falls flat on their face, or fails to get started.
I’ve had so many people come up to me and say, “Hey, we should really make a game.” We might draw up characters and start setting plot details, or maybe we’ll start with a basic engine and try to work from there. But in the end, these projects tend to lose their steam.
For several years, I told myself that this profession was a risk. It’s risky to spend a year of your life gambling on a project that has no guarantee of paying you back. You could seriously injure yourself, or worse. “Unless you work in the industry where the pay is solid and the conditions are *slightly* better, you’re better off pursuing other outlets,” I told myself.
But, there was a nagging feeling in the back of my head that told me to keep drawing those levels, to brainstorm more ideas that would never see the light of the internet, to keep at it. I thought it was a fruitless quest.
Turns out I was wrong. Very, very wrong.
It’s hard to describe the events that lead up to finally concentrating my efforts into making a fully-fledged game. Maybe it started when I was at the beach making those drawings, or maybe it started when I found out that tons of independent developers were also transgender.
When developers say that it clicks at some point, they’re kind of right. It’s campy, it’s cliche; call it what you wanna call it, but it’s the truth. There was a moment when I was sitting on the couch of my college apartment contemplating the direction of my life. It occurred to me that my major had absolutely nothing to do with what I wanted to be. I had been working for three years toward a nebulous goal that wasn’t going to promise me anything more than a salary, and even that was pushing it.
And there it was. The thought that every indie dev has at some point in their lives. “I won’t be satisfied unless I do this,” I said out loud. It no longer mattered to me what others thought of the games I could make, or how I marketed them, or what skills I didn’t have. None of that mattered in that moment. Suddenly, I had a dream, a purpose, a place to call home. And it was exactly where I always thought it would be.
I digested every piece of information I could find about indie development. I watched Indie Game: The Movie, I followed tons of devs on Twitter, and I read article after article about successful and unsuccessful devs who wanted to relay their “strategies” for making a game.
I had found that same obsession that I had lost all those years ago. Games became a totally different entity. Suddenly, I wanted to drown myself in the simpler games, the games with less fluff and more meat. But something was still missing from the equation. I still couldn’t sit down and force myself to make the game I had always wanted to make. Some force was still holding me back. I tried to sit down at the local Starbucks and map out mechanics. I drew character art, I immersed myself in pixel art techniques, and returned to that beast that is coding.
And yet, I had no drive. I knew exactly what I wanted. I was willing to hone the skills necessary to get there. Theoretically, there was nothing holding me back from doing what I wanted.
I started to lose hope. Imagine: the one thing you desperately want to do and you just can’t. You can’t pinpoint why, but your finger keeps tracing toward “failure”. Maybe…is that it? That can’t be it. I haven’t even started yet. How could I be worried about failure when I have nothing to show?
And this is what gets a lot of people. It’s not the technical stuff. It’s not, “What coding language should I learn first?” It’s not, “I need more people to help me get started.” It’s definitely not, “My computer is still broken and fixing the screen costs way too much.” All of those things are parts of the major problem, but they are not the giant eye-of-Sauron-sized problem glaring at you from across the world.
The problem for me, ironically, was in the threat of not succeeding. Everything else is vestigial. Not having the skills means nothing if you’re willing to make mistakes. Not having a team means nothing if you’re not gunning for “the next big thing”. Not having the mechanics or the art laid out ahead of time means absolutely fuck-all if your game doesn’t need those things to begin with.
Failure is always an option when you make something creatively for other people. It doesn’t exist when you are only trying to better yourself, unless you convince yourself that you are the problem. And trust me, it is a rare occurrence when you are the entirety of the problem.
If you make a game for you, then what does it matter? Creatively, you can make what you want. There’s no crowd to impress, no team to criticize in the immediate. There’s nothing holding you back but you, and you can probably convince you to stop being so gloomy and to just make the damn thing already.
There are, of course, lots of other reasons why devs start making games. If that was the formulaic answer to the problem of “I want to make a game,” then a lot more people would be jumping in headfirst.
I can only say what helped me reach that conclusion. For those that are still struggling, perhaps this will help.
For one, the community around the indie dev scene is absolutely fantastic. There are very few bad apples in that community, and even when there are, most of them can be tuned out with a single push of the “Block” button on Twitter. Indies are communicative, they are open to every ethnic background, every sexuality, every gender identity, everything. They love each other in a way that I have not seen in any other community. And they all want to criticize and support each other’s work.
A big part of my decision was in seeing that firsthand. Seeing everybody in the industry just shooting the shit over Twitter made me realize how much I wanted to be a part of that too. And they all care about each other, and defend each other. There was that incident a while back where a guy had some medical problems, but couldn’t pay to cover the insurance because surprise! You don’t get insurance working for yourself. (Unless you’re wildly successful)
He asked for a little bit of cash to keep on going. He wasn’t asking for people to pay the bills, he just wanted some financial support so he could continue to eat and sleep in a bed. And people in the community rallied almost immediately, sending all kinds of “Get well soon” messages with money attached.
Of course, that doesn’t mean you should expect the same to happen to you, but it’s an example of just how unbelievable this community is. If that’s the view from the outside looking in, I wonder what it looks like when you’re in the middle of it all. Believing that I could be a part of that one day got me to throw myself at the work.
The biggest thing beyond the whole “heart-warming community” sentiment is that these are real life people. People that struggle with the same catches that we often run into just starting out. These people have all said at one point, “This is pointless.” These people struggle with depression, with social anxiety, with ignorance, with themselves. They aren’t an amalgamation of the industry, popping out games like they’re fucking candy; these people have lives and interests outside of this work, and they’ve struggled to get where they are.
No matter what you’re struggling with, there is a developer out there who has done the same thing, and has carved out a niche for themselves. Once you know who and how, you start to realize that this goal isn’t so unattainable.
A smaller thing that convinced me was seeing lots of different kinds of games actively being made. If a popular dev team wants to show you what they’re making as they make it, watch. Go on twitch, find dev streams and watch them. Sometimes it’s intimidating, but if you’re anything like me, you’ll see that and say, “That is so cool. I have no idea what any of that code means, but I want to write that.”
To wrap this up, I just want to say that if you’re considering making the plunge into this profession, here’s some stuff you should be aware of. After all, it would be way too optimistic to think that once you make a game and enter the scene, your troubles are finished.
First, your problems always continue. If you struggle with depression or insecurities—as many developers do—that will not fade as you make a game. It might be mitigated by the workload, but you will not stop feeling bad about something by drowning yourself in work. Much like playing video games, making them is similarly engrossing (even moreso, I’d wager). Don’t assume that just because you are actively making something that those problems aren’t important.
Second—and this is big—you have to have some time to make it. This one is difficult, because a lot of people have to work jobs just to support themselves. Coming home from an 8-hour day just to sit in front of your computer and write or code is going to get exhausting in short time. If you are truly passionate about doing this, I recommend carving time out. It sucks, and it means that your social life and general well-being will suffer from longer days; but if you must, then you’ll find time. (I don’t recommend quitting, but many people do. Just a thought.)
And the biggest thing is to realize that your work isn’t just a hobby. Logistically, it might be a hobby, but thinking about it that way won’t get you anywhere. You will find excuses to stop working. You will find other things to do instead. You will focus on more important things if it’s just “something I do in my spare time”. Even if that’s true, treat it like another profession. Treat it like it matters, and understand that if it doesn’t matter, that you need to reassess what you’re creating and why.
And to finish, just wanna say that if you want to make a simple game, make something that applies to you or your team. Just go out and make it. Wanna make a game about a lazy summer? Make a simple RPGMaker questline. Wanna make a game about something that’s currently frustrating you? Make a Twine game, put it on Philome.la! Wanna give GameMaker a go? Make a simple game from one of the tutorials on tigsource. Doesn’t matter how terrible or janky it is. Honestly, laughing at it will make you feel better. As long as it’s personal, you’ll start to understand that this profession isn’t quite as scary as you first plotted it out to be.
And most of all, good luck! I hope to see you at GDC in the future!
As for me, I’m gonna keep working on Fail State. It’s a game about failing. Imagine that!
P.S.- If you need some resources, here’s some basic stuff.
- Check out Vlambeer’s toolkit (http://vlambeer.com/toolkit/). Lots of important tools for devs of all experience levels.
- If you’re looking for engines to work with…each of these has a forum that you can ask questions about development or experiment with tutorials, so don’t hesitate to jump in!
- Depression Quest was one of the quintessential games that pushed me out of my own misery. Highly recommended: http://www.depressionquest.com/
- http://itch.io/ is a distribution site that lets you set the rules. No payment required! Just be aware that people can play games on there for free, and that exposure is relatively limited.
- Twitter is awesome, get on Twitter.
- Look out for conventions geared more towards Indies. Those are often the tipping points for most people just starting out.