SuperData’s Joost Van Dreunen on the indiepocalypse and planning your game’s development

Planning to dream: How to survive the indiepocalypse

Last month, the now-infamous Rami Ismail from Vlambeer preached fire and brimstone to an audience of aspiring games developers.

His talk – “How to survive your first indie game for dummies” – took aim at the myriad of aspects involved in making, marketing and publishing a game and the degree to which many developers underestimate the necessary commitment. Rami took a sobering look at the realities involved in games development and the insecurities and obstacles that developers face.

The industry needs indies, of course, because it needs a constant supply of innovation. Large publishers who seek to mitigate risk and optimise their financial returns often display a more conservative company culture than a budding indie shop.

Succinctly, this agility and freedom is what allows indies to explore aspects or come up with new ideas. Many of today’s most popular games started in someone’s bedroom or garage. Games like League of Legends and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive were off-shoots developed by modders.

The difficulty, it seems, lies in the fact that most creative processes are borne from an emotional place. You find yourself inspired, swept away by, or violently against a thing or thought in the world. You grab a pen, a brush or a keyboard and jump into the current.

At least to some degree this is what most of my students tell me when I ask them. What motivates them tends to be deeply personal and they seek to express how they feel through their designs and the worlds they create. And as long as you can tinker during off-hours, or spend the weekends toiling over the minutia of the main character or a particular element in the game, it can be an uplifting and fulfilling experience. It is really when they want to do this professionally that game developers run into problems.

Finding inspiration

There is a substantial difference between jogging around the park on the weekends and winning Olympic gold on the 100-metre dash. The difference lies in the routine, or rather the rationalisation, that precedes the success. A professional athlete doesn’t just go for a run in the morning and then compete on the weekends. These people rationalise every relevant aspect ranging from counting their calories to finding the ideal outfit, identifying their weaknesses, spotting the competition and its strengths, organising transportation to and from the contest, wooing sponsors and so on.

Of course, most of the indies that have considered quitting their day job are aware of the fact that their pursuit isn’t easy.

What’s odd, however, is that they turn on themselves in the process. Whenever we’d practice pitches in which students would lay out the underlying business plan that was going to incubate and sustain their creative vision, they’d all assign themselves to eating ramen for the years to come. Their strategy was to keep costs as low as possible to buy themselves as much time as possible.

In this case, that meant eating what they thought would be the cheapest type of food. The key here is the willingness and misconception to remove themselves from the equation. As if to say that they don’t matter.

By making games you are investing in yourself, in the same way that you must meet your own needs when pursuing an Olympic dream. You have to think bigger than just focusing on the specifics of a game mechanic or aesthetic. What type of organisation does this project require? How do we best meet the demands of the ultimate vision? By stepping out of the trenches for a moment and getting a sense of the larger landscape, you’ll find that drawing up a rationalised plan will answer many questions at the onset and carry you at those moments when you run low on inspiration. 

Certainly, in this crushing creative process you set yourself up to agree to pretty much anything once a publisher offers you a deal. Exhausted, frustrated and tired from the journey, you’ll take shelter anywhere just to catch your breath. But by then you may have surrendered your dream.

If nothing else, the indie development scene has become larger in recent years. Rationalising your efforts will help you as you progress in your career. Rami, as usual, is right in that you will have to try and try again. So make a plan. Write on a single piece of paper in as few words as possible how, exactly, you plan to get from A to B. Figure out how much time and money you need. Decide what your milestones will be. Draft a budget. Practice your pitch.

It won’t guarantee success, but it could save your dream.

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