Indie, Part-Time

As I was cruising around GDC Austin from one session to the next, I began to gain a greater appreciation of how much of the conference was geared toward the business side of game development. This isn’t surprising, of course, given that game development is an entertainment business, and GDC is all about how developers can do all parts of their jobs better. But whether it’s because of the tough economic times, or the rapid saturation of the iPhone game market, or the wide proliferation of MMOs and social games, or the plummeting price point for online and mobile games, it just seemed like there was a greater emphasis on economics than I experienced last year, unless I’m just forgetting.

There were many sessions at the conference on how to maximize things like productivity, exposure, earning potential, sales, and so on. How to pitch your game to publishers. How to get your game on more portals. How to make a profit while selling games for $1.99 a pop, or less. How to attract players and create communities around your games.

Most of it, at least the parts that I was able to attend, was very good. And much of it targeted the indie developer, who has it pretty tough in today’s world without big marketing budgets and publisher deals. It’s the kind of information that can really benefit the smaller groups trying to earn a living making their games, their way. There’s not a lot of room for error, and smaller indie developers need to have a strong business plan and marketing savvy if they want to survive and earn enough income to support themselves and their families. Miss on one or two titles, or take too long in between releases, and there is a real risk of folding up shop and finding another line of work.

That doesn’t describe me, though. I’ve always considered myself an indie developer, but it isn’t my day job. I’m not dependent on game development for a steady flow of income. I don’t have all of the concerns about leasing office space, making payroll, or employee health insurance coverage. There are many indie developers who do, but there are also many in the same position as me. Usually smaller groups or individuals working on their spare time, out of their homes, with similar (although perhaps slightly less ambitious) goals. Indie developers, yes, but perhaps in a different category than those trying to earn their living from it.

Does that make me a hobbyist developer? I wouldn’t necessarily say that, either, but it depends on your definitions of hobbyist and indie (and we hates definitions). I think of hobbyists as people who make the games they want to make, often without regard for market saturation or earning potential. Hobbyist games are often targeted to niche (even ultra-niche) audiences, the kind that larger companies overlook. To the hobbyist, game development is a leisurely pursuit; no deadlines (mostly), no strings of all-nighters, no rush to get the game finished and on the market. Budgets are usually nonexistent, or tiny at best, and high-quality art assets such as models, animation, and sound are hard to come by. But in general, that’s okay. Lower production qualities are offset by the love, caring, and creativity that emerge in the final product. Hobbyists are not dependent on their games for income and, at the extreme, are not seeking any income at all.

Adam Cadre perhaps said it best in an interview back in 1999, in reference to interactive fiction — which, it could be argued, is a medium almost exclusively populated by hobbyist developers, although his statement could be extended to hobbyist games of all types:

“It seems to me that the primary motivation for projects such as these is self-expression.”

It’s tough to sell the idea of the hobbyist developer, though, because of the perception of the term hobbyist. Many people don’t like it, since it seems to imply a lower standard or less sophistication to some, perhaps in a similar way that crafts are viewed in relation to art. I don’t feel this way personally; I think a lot of excellent, unique, and creative games have been made by people who I would fit squarely into this group. But sure, indie does come across as more fashionable and hip than hobbyist.

I probably fall somewhere in between the two ends of the spectrum–the struggling, self-sufficient indie developer on one end, the unburdened, leisurely hobbyist developer on the other. That spectrum is hard to define more precisely, though. Where does the transition from hobbyist to indie occur? What factors are important to the transition?

I don’t have enough time, or the absolute necessity, to put tremendous effort into all of those things outside of direct game development that make up the “business” side of things — strategic planning, marketing, community engagement, exhaustively working the publishers and portals. But I do intend to put some effort into those things. I want Vespers to be seen and played by as wide of an audience as possible, and I want it to generate a good deal of discussion about how text and 3D can be synergistic. And if we do decide to sell it, I want to be sure that we’re putting effort into maximizing sales, within the limits of my ability to dedicate time to this effort.

At AGDC, I found myself a bit overwhelmed at all of the information a person needed to synthesize in order to maximize their potential for success in the gaming industry. A good example was the talk given by the Wolfire folks on PR strategies for small developers. Wolfire is the example of how a small company can generate some serious interest in their work by putting a strong emphasis on public relations and community building. But they do it by hiring a PR guy, and then putting tremendous effort into both onsite and offsite implementations: a group blog, forums, IRC channel, live chat, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, ModDB, Steam group, and Game Trailers, to name some. That’s a lot of work, but it’s paying off for them so far. I can’t really hope to generate the large community that Wolfire has cultivated, as I have neither the time nor the ability to create and maintain even a fraction of those resources, while still working on the game, all in my spare time. Same is true for many others.

Perhaps it makes sense to think of a category in between the extremes of leisurely hobbyist and self-sufficient indie. You might call us part-time indies. More interested in the business and marketing side of indie game development than pure hobbyists, but without the time, ability, or need for the full-court press of the hard-core indies. Does that even make sense? I’m not even sure how much good it will do to slap a label on this group. But, in some ways, I suppose it’s helpful to have a better idea where I fit in the grand scheme of things.

More of a mental exercise than anything else, of course, but it’s something that I began thinking about at GDC Austin and wanted to explore further here.

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  1. Posted October 9, 2009 at 5:06 PM | Permalink

    Hey I saw your post in the trackbacks of our PR article, thanks for the link. 🙂

    Our PR strategy is really not as much work as it sounds. The philosophy of open development is very scalable and my brother was doing this when he started Wolfire as a full-time high school student. The difference is that now that are four people, we can write a blog post every day, while originally my brother updated the blog maybe once every couple of weeks. Opening up a Facebook page, etc. is super fast and easy though.

  2. Posted October 10, 2009 at 5:02 PM | Permalink

    Happy to do it. I’ve always been impressed at the way you’ve cultivated a strong following.

    I do think that’s a good point, that the approach is very scalable; that is, there are multiple avenues to take and various levels of participation. I suppose that’s another way of saying what I was trying to say; you can do a lot or a little, depending on your needs and resources. I’m glad to hear it’s not as much work as it seems, although it’s still requires dedication to setup and maintain all of those different approaches.

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