Your indie game dev team will fail

Eric Nevala
Jul 11, 2017 · 15 min read

Your indie game development team will fail.

I’ve seen it happen over and over again, all for the same set of reasons. Here’s how this tragic story is written:

A young male has grown up playing video games for his entire teenage life. Now, he has become an adult and wants to create his own video game! It’s an amazing, unique dream! However, he knows that creating a video game all by himself is a daunting, almost insurmountable task. He correctly realizes that he doesn’t have all (or any) of the necessary skills to produce a video game, so he sets out to build a team. Games are made by teams, after all. He’s just a young, broke adult like all people in their 20’s are. He has a stroke of inspiration and decides that he’s going to go recruit random people off of the internet to help him make his game. He can’t pay anyone, so everyone who joins is going to be a volunteer. This is the young mans first time attempting to produce a video game — he wants to recreate some of his very favorite games but with a twist! He decides he’s going to make the next Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty, or a fantasy massive multiplayer online role playing game. So, he begins on a hope and a dream!

The first thing he does is he finds communities of similar minded people in both the gaming community and game development communities. He summons his charisma and unstoppable optimism and writes several recruitment posts describing his vision. Twenty people respond positively, saying they want to be a part of this exciting new project! Whoa, we’re off to a strong start! Wait, now we have to organize the team. So, everyone joins some sort of online channel or private community and people are loosely organized. Grand titles are handed out.

“You sir, are our senior lead technical artist extraordinare!”, and “You sir, once wrote a hello world program in C++, so you are our LEAD programmer!”.

Everyone is happy about their titles and positions of prestige among each other. Everyone is a vice president. Since nobody can be paid, everyone agrees to take a share of the project revenues, split evenly. Twenty people divided by one hundred percent is five percent per person! A fair and equitable agreement! So, now it’s time to start working on this magnificent masterpiece!

The artist decides that he’s going to sketch a character concept. He might even spend a few hours creating a rough 3D model! He shares it with everyone, and everyone is amazed and excited. Progress is being made (however small)! People start chiming in left and right with additional ideas for the game. Everyone is giving feedback and input on the game direction. We sure hope someone is writing all of this down somewhere! A few other people create more art assets, and the programmer is stuck on a strange, mysterious compiling error, but doesn’t want to disappoint the team with problems. Everyone seems to be working hard! The organizer even wrote a five page word document about the game design! The team doesn’t have bosses, everyone is an equal because everyone is an important vice president. When interpersonal conflicts erupt, everyone gets involved in the drama and contributes their two cents and opinions, as if it matters.

This project continues on for two months. Some members of the team are putting in a large amount of honest effort! They get home from working an eight hour job, and then work on producing this video game for another six hours. Its tiring, grueling work. Other members have real life happen to them. A wife, or girlfriend, or family, or bills, or social activity becomes more pressing than doing the work. At first, they may stay committed to the project through sheer will and determination, but eventually the pressures of real life win over and game development time has to be sacrificed. Eventually, real life wins more frequently, and the total amount of weekly commitment by contributed hours dwindles off. The initial hype and motivation which inspired people to join the team is gradually replaced by grueling, thankless work. It gets increasingly difficult to maintain motivation. Many people just lose interest and silently fade away. Some people on the team aren’t even available online for days at a time, and they pop in and out rather quickly. Gradually, a few members just disappear entirely for one reason or another. The game development slogs on, no matter the setback. The charismatic leader somehow manages to keep a few members excited and motivated, but the constant interpersonal conflicts keep undermining the project and members morale, and the lack of tangible progress and direction creates additional conflict and blame. It’s a vicious cycle.

A few months later, the charismatic organizer decides that the project isn’t going anywhere and he wants to cancel it. Something needs to be blamed. The excuse is almost never on the shoulders of the charismatic organizer, it’s always someone else for some reason or another. Responsibility is shifted away to something external, as is often the case with 20 something year olds.

The project has silently failed, and thus ends our tragic story, becoming yet another statistic in the graveyard of failed indie game projects.

I see this same tragic story being played out, over and over again. Just change a couple variables here and there to fit the current context, and it’s the same thing, every time: Fail, fail, fail. I dare to claim that 99% of all indie game dev team projects will fail. I would put it at 100%, but there are rare successes (with different stories), so mathematical averaging requires the number to be lower than 100%. However, I can generally look at a project and figure out within five minutes whether it will fail or succeed.

Why do indie game dev teams fail 99% of the time?

And the big money question: Can anything be done to change the probability of failure into a probability of success?

Yes.

I can look at a team and project and tell you whether its going to fail, before any production is ever started.

It has nothing to do with the talent of the team members or their enthusiasm for the project. It has everything to do with the project itself and how it is managed. Here are the hallmarks of a nightmare project destined for failure:

  • The team is geographically dispersed. People are all over the world. Nobody has met in person. Communication is extremely challenging.
  • The project scope is extremely ambitious. The team organizer wants to create a triple A game. “This is going to be GTA5 AND an MMORPG put together! I can’t believe nobody thought of that yet! Oh hey, you better sign this NDA!”
  • The skill and experience levels of all team members is very low. Almost nobody has worked professionally, although the organizer will quickly point out that one guy who did and ride on their coat tails to lend the whole team credibility.
  • The project has zero funding. Nobody is getting paid. Ever. There is never going to be an investor or a publisher, no matter how much the organizer insists on it.
  • A kickstarter campaign doesn’t count for anything, even if its successful. It doesn’t mean shit.
  • The compensation will be revenue shares. Twenty percent of zero is still zero.
  • There is no formalized development process being followed. “A software development life cycle? Never heard of it. Is it important? It can’t be if I’ve never heard of it…”
  • There is little or no pre-production planning. Questions not being asked: “Is this project feasible? What would it take? Do we have these resources available?”
  • There is little or no production planning. “What’s a game design document? Why do we need that? Is this seven pages I scribbled together last night good enough?”
  • There is no sales and marketing plan. “We’ll just build it and the customers will magically come, because everything we do will be so great and amazing! Also, we shit glitter and it smells like perfume!”
  • Someone is the “idea guy”. Almost always, it’s the initiator for the project. Aside from their charismatic project initiation, that’s all they will ever contribute to the project.
  • Nobody on the team has worked together before. Nobody knows the strengths and weaknesses of their team mates.
  • The team is missing a core role / skill set. Don’t have a programmer? You’re gonna fail. Don’t have an artist? You’re gonna fail. Don’t have a business development guy? You’re gonna fail.
  • Nobody knows what a producer is or what they do. Or, the producer was just a designated title given to someone with zero experience.
  • The team will take on anyone interested in contributing. There is no quality control. No interview process. No assessing whether they’d be a good fit or not for the team and culture. “A bad hire? no such thing! we take anyone!”; warm body, meet seat.
  • Thinking about and planning for failure is met with: “We don’t want your negativity here! Our PASSION will guide us through everything!” Give me a break. Do these people have car and health insurance, or do they rely on sheer will and passionate optimism to magic away disaster?

One does not simply just recruit a random team and build a game.

The great tragedy here is that all of these well intended projects all fail and all of the energy and work poured into them is wasted. You can burn yourself out working on a project which will never see the light of day due to shameful project management mistakes and missteps. This gets people jaded and creates disillusionment.

What does it take to succeed as an indie game developer?

  • First and foremost, YOU have to be capable of building the game entirely by yourself. Whether you have other people on your team or not, should not matter. That means YOU have to be a programmer. YOU have to do the artwork. YOU have to do the business plan and pitch to investors or publishers. You are the entire show! IF you cannot do that, stop now and acquire those skills and talents. Fair warning: It may take you five to ten years of diligent, hard work. DO NOT just be the idea guy. Those guys are worthless and a waste of time. The alternative to doing everything yourself is to be filthy rich and just directly hiring highly talented and experienced people.
  • Recognize that you are an entrepreneur. What is a “business”? It is a collection of *processes* which are designed to generate more income than costs. These processes are contained within an institution. EVERYTHING is a process, even the absence of process is a form of process. The profitability and success of a profitable institution is a direct function of the processes being used. Note that this is much more broadly applicable than just game development. When it comes to being an entrepreneur, you are responsible for designing these processes and making sure that they are being followed, and then evaluating the efficacy of the designed processes and adjusting as necessary.
  • When it comes to process, master the software development life cycle. You should know it forwards, backwards, sideways and upside down. Live and breathe this process. Master each stage of software development. I cannot stress this enough. It’s the difference between success and failure.
  • Recognize that you are creating a COMMERCIAL PRODUCT. Don’t even START the game project until you have your customer satisfaction and happiness fully in the front of your mind. The undercurrent of every single decision you make should be, “Will this please and delight our customer?”. If your development process doesn’t involve measuring customer feedback along every step of the way: YOU. WILL. FAIL. Customer response should be an integral part of your QA process!
  • You absolutely positively MUST have a business plan. If its less than 30 pages in length, you’re probably wrong. You *do* want to succeed, right? That means you’re thinking about how you’re going to do distribution, localization, advertising, marketing, community building, customer service, end user training, market research, financial management, etc, … right?
  • Please, please, please, for the sake of god, have everything meticulously planned out before you begin! Planning is disaster prevention and risk mitigation! If you don’t have a business plan *and* a game design document before you begin production, you are planning to fail. Your plan should also include a thoroughly researched marketing plan! Here’s the secret sauce about plans: It’s like cheating. By planning, you can identify future problems long before they happen and then preemptively work to fix them before they become real problems. Amazing, right? Would you like to spend a week of full time work (40 hours) creating a (boring) bullet proof plan of attack, or spending six months (and lots of money) executing some nebulous effort only to discover that it’s not going to work? What costs more time and money? Remember that bit about processes? Planning should be a part of every process. That’s how important it is. If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.
  • When it comes to processes, a tried and true process is the “scientific method”. 95% of people are scientifically illiterate, and chances are statistically good that you’re included in that figure. Take some time to learn/review how to conduct science correctly, and then integrate the scientific process into the processes of business and development. It is well worth the invested time and effort. I’ve found that using the scientific method is useful for everything, from tracking down a weird bug to testing the effectiveness of marketing strategies to testing assumptions I have about how something works. There’s a reason the scientific method was the spark which ignited the renaissance era!
  • You need money. Lots of it. If you’re going to be serious about producing a game, be prepared to sink $50k to $500k of your own personal savings into producing a game. Don’t have any money? Then raise it through either wages, investors or a publisher. Most likely, it’s going to have to come from your personal savings because investors and publisher won’t fund you — why would they? You’re an unknown indie with no proven track record in an industry/environment with a 99% failure rate. Throwing up a kickstarter page or a patreon page is NOT a good funding plan. If you’re not going to put your own money into making this a successful project, you’re not serious enough.
  • Be prepared to lose all of the money you invested. If you can’t afford that investment… you’re not ready yet.
  • It’s extra, extra good to have professional experience. If you have a track record of shipping and delivering software, that means you have developed good habits and your chances of success are multiplied. You’re doing something right.
  • You HAVE to believe in your experience and abilities. People all around you will doubt you, even girlfriends, spouses, friends, and family. Sometimes, even you yourself. You will need unshakable confidence in your abilities, but the humbleness to listen to constructive criticism and have room for self improvement.
  • Your scope is too large. I don’t need to know what you’re working on, it’s probably too big and ambitious. You’re an indie game developer. The reality is that you may have to carry the project on your own back, no matter the team size and composition. Don’t bite off more than YOU can chew. Your game should be extremely small and simple — like, it took a week to produce it and the rest is just polish. A small, simple, polished, shippable game is worth infinitely more than a giant, unpolished, broken, unshippable game. If your team wants to create the next GTA5 or MMORPG, you will fail. I guarantee it.
  • Your scope is going to grow! This is called “scope creep”. Expect it. Scope creep can be good but it can also kill your project. Be very careful about managing scope creep. A good litmus test is to consider how it changes the customer experience and whether it can be used in sales and marketing to sell more units. If it doesn’t change any of that, maybe that cool feature is not needed? When in doubt, leave it out.
  • To get an idea on what it takes to make your favorite game, open it up. Then go view the credits screen. Look at all the roles. Count the number of people involved. Then, assume everyone makes $60k a year and it took three years of full time work to produce the game (four if you want to factor out crunch time). This is the amount of time, talent, effort and money required to build your favorite game. Is your scrappy rag tag indie team going to repeat this but do a better job? No. Your scope is too large.
  • Assume everyone else on the team is going to eventually quit or ghost the project. What’s your plan to handle that? What happens if a core member got hit by a bus? If you can’t do everything yourself, your scope is too large.
  • Shipping a game already puts you ahead of 95% of other indie teams. But, the harsh reality is that producing the game, as hard as it was, was actually the easy part and was only 50% of the required effort for success. The hardest part (and where everyone else fails) is in marketing and advertising. Even big game companies will mess this up really bad, and they’ve got millions of dollars in resources at their disposal. Millions of dollars doesn’t mean brilliance. Brilliance doesn’t mean millions of dollars. No matter how great your game is, if nobody knows about it, it might as well not exist. When should you start thinking about your customer and doing marketing and advertising? I hope your answer was “From the very beginning of the project!”. I hope you also reserved a sizable chunk of your budget to be spent on advertising and marketing.
  • Postmortems. Periodically, you should be evaluating and measuring your processes. What’s working for you? What’s not working? What needs to be changed? Are you seeing repeating systemic problems or one-off problems? How do you know the difference?
  • Learn from the failures of other businesses and indies. Get good at looking at a project and ask yourself, “What will be the greatest short term challenge for this project? Are they prepared and ready for it?”. Surprisingly (or not), most of them will fail for one reason or another. Having a team and being funded is not a guarantee of success, nor is the opposite a guarantee of failure.
  • Nobody knows what they’re talking about. That includes me. That includes you. That includes the rich guy who happened to get lucky that one time. That includes the confident fast talker. What works for some people and teams may or may not work for you and your team. Take everything with a grain of salt and rely most heavily on rigorous planning and processes.
  • Think like a producer, because that’s what you are, first and foremost. Buy or borrow a book on production and project management. Spend a week reading it carefully. Learn how to avoid common pitfalls and mistakes. The week you invest in learning pays for itself many times over in avoided mistakes and increased productivity.
  • Be prepared to work a lot. As in, 60–80 hours a week. For months and years. Without pay. This is the reality you should expect. The secret to success is lots of hard work.
  • Do not work 24/7. Seriously. Burn out is real. Take breaks. Working more is actually counter productive to long term progress. Game development is a marathon, not a sprint. Jog, don’t run. Consistent but slow, measured progress will always beat the people who run around in circles and get tired. Take care of yourself — remember, you’re a human, not a robot.
  • Learning should never stop. Pick up some books on business, sales, marketing, entrepreneurship. Work on growing and diversifying your skill set and knowledge. Personal development and growth should be a part of your own process. Don’t pigeon hole yourself into a fixed role. Just because you’re a programmer doesn’t mean you can’t also become good at sales and art (and vice versa).
  • Rome wasn’t built in a day. Neither were any of the major triple A game companies. Have patience, focus on building something small and achievable. Create something you can ship and sell. Keep doing this. Only then can you grow from a small fledgling indie team into an empire.
  • Before you can thrive, you have to survive. When you’re building your business, your focus should be to at least be self sustainable. That may mean that you’re the only person on the team if your game doesn’t make much money (a common reality for indie devs).
  • When it comes to finances, never outrun your runway. Investor/publisher money is a temporary lengthening of runway, consistent income is a permanent runway extension. Watch your balance sheet carefully and make process adjustments as needed.
  • Understand the economics of your product and income stream. You get a large initial spike, and then it dwindles off sharply into a long tail. Plan your finances accordingly.
  • Assume you will never get funded and plan accordingly. If your business plan depends on getting funded and it never happens, what happens to your business? You fail.
  • Define success for yourself and your project. Success doesn’t always mean wealth (especially in games).
  • Share your knowledge with others. When everyone shares, everyone wins. A rising tide lifts all ships. You are currently benefiting from my knowledge — add to it and spread it around.

If 100% of all indie game dev teams followed these fundamental principles, I guarantee that the 99% failure rate would shrink significantly. The good news is that you can stack the odds into your favor, and you should. Nobody wants to start a project with the intention of failing. We know what works and what doesn’t work through hard earned experience. Indies are a subset of entrepreneurs, and entrepreneurship is about creating profitable processes to mitigate risk and disaster. Execute the fundamentals of project and business management gracefully and your indie game dev project will have a solid foundation primed for success.

Good luck.

Eric Nevala

Written by

Indie VR Game Developer working on Spellbound. Founder of Wobbly Duck Studios.