Independent Game Developer as Career

Oct 28, 2012

Matt D., as part of an assignment, had to send questions to someone in a career he finds interesting. He chose independent game developer as the career, and I’m the someone, so here goes!

1. What is the primary mission of this organization/profession?

One of our key advantages as indie developers is our agility – we can change our reasons or approaches on a moment’s notice without needing to retrain a hundred person workforce or get buy in from outside third parties, so the primary mission not only changes from one indie to another, but also within the same indie from one project to another.

I don’t see myself as having one primary mission, so much as having an evolving skill set that I’m continually looking for new challenges I can adapt it against: research projects, art projects, commercial projects, hobby projects, etc. each of which comes with its own mission particulars.

Sometimes an independent game developer’s mission is to make money, sometimes to change how people see or think about videogames, sometimes to express ourselves artistically, and sometimes to simply entertain folks by making something fun. I could give a very specific answer to my primary mission on any given project that I’ve worked on, but on the whole across all projects I don’t believe there’s a truly common thread.

2. What are the responsibilities of your department?

When I have done technical game design for larger companies (Electronic Arts, ZipZapPlay, Will Wright’s Stupid Fun Club) within a department, my responsibilities were much more narrowly defined than they are in my role as an independent game developer. In those cases I was responsible for digital prototyping, proposing/documenting/explaining gameplay systems, laying out level content, and authoring/tuning gameplay elements.

Likewise, to a lesser degree, when I worked with publishers (ngMoco for Topple, Sonic Boom for Alice in Bomberland and iZombie: Death March), certain responsibilities were taken on by or at least shared with the publisher, such as creating marketing materials, managing QA testing, completing localization for other languages, etc. However unlike when I worked within a department at a large company, when my role was that of an outside business partner/contractor, I had the added responsibilities of scheduling work, vetting and signing subcontractors to collaborate with, handling my share of the budget, and managing relations with the publisher as an outside party.

However as an independent developer, I don’t have a department to work within, I’m just a person making things. In this context, my response to question 3 is really the answer that fits here, too, so let’s move on to that one:

3. What are your responsibilities?

I’m responsible for:

  • Director work: deciding platform, business model, genre, etc.
  • Production work: scheduling how long I have, what has to happen by when
  • Designing: figuring out the details of what I’m trying to do
  • Engineering: making the implementation work
  • Content authoring: creating images, sounds, and levels
  • Managing: when I have a team, for example I find someone better at animation or music composition to help create those assets, it’s up to me to ensure they’re productive, on schedule, and satisfied with their involvement
  • Promotion: recording and editing promotional videos, making icons, writing descriptions, and otherwise trying to call awareness to the game
  • Budgeting (when applicable; I make many projects for $0)
  • Hiring contractors (when applicable; no budget = no hiring)

4. How does your job relate to the overall organization?

Since, in a way, in the case of being an independent videogame developer my job is the overall organization, to provide a more interesting response to this question I’ll instead address how my job relates to the overall ecosystem/industry of games.

Publishers look to people like me to execute on an idea, within a certain budget (I have lower overhead than a full game studio) and within a certain timeframe (I work extremely quickly), or as someone to place a bet on (they help fund a project, giving me more budget and feedback to work with than I’d have on my own, in exchange for a share of revenue and credit).

Players (by no means all, but certainly some!) value people like me as a source of game types that they’re not likely to see come out of a big studio. I’m able to experiment constantly and severely, without needing to explain much to anyone until it’s done, at which point the end result is available for all to see, play, and sometimes borrow ideas from to build upon in other projects.

Indies also look to one another for advice, feedback, and success stories, with countless varied definitions of what success means (making money, getting noticed, creating something new that gets cloned, reaching a different audience, getting a game out on a particular device or distribution channel, even just finishing and releasing a complete game project).

I’ve accepted as one of my personal objectives getting more people into videogame making, which I do through this HobbyGameDev blog, student game development clubs I established (at Carnegie Mellon and Georgia Tech), and fielding developer questions by e-mail as much as time allows.

5. What other people do you work most closely with and what do they do?

Although some of my projects are created alone, when I do work with others, I tend to work with completely different collaborators on nearly every project. The most common roles I’ve hired others for have been artwork (animated sprites, character illustrations, background paintings), audio (professional-quality sound effects, and in a few cases original soundtracks), and on non-commercial projects I tend to open up design roles to peers to help them get experience.

When I’ve worked with publishers I’ve typically had one to three main contacts at the company that I’ve spoken with regularly about progress, questions, feedback, and so on. See response 2 for a more complete explanation of what they do.

Lastly, in a very real but more indirect way, I work the players that try my games. That happens by keeping metrics of how many people each project reaches, googling to find out what players are saying about it, reading all feedback I receive after it has been completed, and so on. All they have to do is try the game, and if it leads them to say something about it to either me or the communities in which they play, then they’ve done their part. This in turn helps give me a more complete picture of what sort of an effect the game is having (maybe it’s played by many people, maybe it’s only reaching a smaller crowd but they seem to really enjoy it, or maybe it flat out missed the mark and no one seems to like it but me!), and also helps inform me of how different player communities on the web respond to different types of videogames.

6. Are computers used on the job? If yes, in what capacity?

Yes, computers are absolutely used on the job. They’re used for programming, level design, image creation, audio editing, music composition, video editing, communication between team members, documentation, financial/scheduling work, and pretty much every aspect of the process. In the end, the videogames are of course also played on computers.

7. What type of education/training does this job need?

Because there’s no hiring manager to impress when working independently, in theory all that matters is that someone has or can partner up to account for all the technical and creative abilities needed to pull a complete videogame together. However in practice, a good computer science degree is often helpful for videogame programmers to learn many useful ways to think about programming and solve novel problems, whereas proper training in creating digital art, editing audio, or other content production areas can be beneficial to preparing a videogame artist or audio person to create top-tier work.

Those traditional paths also offer the benefits of a potentially stronger network of peers to collaborate with while learning, additional opportunities to learn or first gain outside work experience through the institution’s reputation and visibility, and of course a solid backup plan in case being an independent videogame developer doesn’t work out full-time.

Although a very small circle of independent videogame developers have made a tremendous amount of money, for many it doesn’t pan out financially, or works decently enough for a while but doesn’t turn out to be sustainable as a primary source of income for a family.

8. What type of education/training have you had?

I completed an undergraduate Computer Science degree from Carnegie Mellon in 2007, with a minor in Business Administration.

I completed a Masters in Digital Media at Georgia Tech earlier this year (Spring 2012).

My various work experience at/for other companies in many ways factors in as additional education and training for the type of work that I do.

Otherwise I’ve been making videogames in my spare time since ~1997, completing an average of a little more than 4 every year since.

9. How did you decide on this type of work?

I was comfortable with programming when I started college, so I assumed I would do that for a living, and went into Computer Science. On the side I helped launch a student videogame development club, and some of the industry guest speakers that we brought in accepted resumes. I got a call from one, which led to an internship, and I’ve been doing videogame work commercially in varying capacities since.

My transition from corporate to independent game developer happened in a number of steps, beginning with corporate studio work out of university, followed by getting involved with a videogame startup, over to doing videogame development on contract on the side, then to videogame development for a publisher, and lastly doing videogame development completely independently. Each transition occurred due to feeling like I was ready to entrust myself with taking on a larger chunk of the responsibility than I was able to do in my current (soon previous) position.

10. What do you see as the demand for jobs like yours in the future?

It’s really anyone’s guess. The economics driving videogame development have changed dramatically every 5-10 years since the industry started, and it seems very likely to continue changing, possibly even faster. This is doubly true for independent videogame developers, which existed semi-briefly for PC games in the early 1980’s before studios largely crowded that space, then mostly disappeared for awhile as console manufacturers and PC retail also favored studios over individuals, but has re-emerged in the past 5-10 years or so for web games, smartphone games, digital distribution like Steam, social games, and comparatively “indie” console channels like XBLA/PSN/WiiWare.

There is also a growing crowd of capable, passionate videogame developers on the rise, eagerly looking for opportunities to create videogames for a living. Granted, pretty much any creative and skilled job in the world is and has long been highly competitive, whether we’re talking about novel writing, acting, being a professional athlete, composing music, etc. However as in those fields, there will probably always be a place for people dedicated to being really amazing at it that find a way to set themselves apart from the crowd – someone’s going to be doing it, and that someone is almost without exception someone that has committed substantial time and energy into preparing for it.

11. What do you like most about your job?

It’s constantly changing. This keeps it exciting!

Likewise, the outcome of every project is pretty much solely up to what I create and how I present it. With any given commercial project that I do independently, it might be hugely successful. (…but generally this is not what happens!)

12. What do you like least about your job?

It’s constantly changing. This keeps it stressful!

And again, the outcome of every project is pretty much solely up to what I create and how I present it. With any given commercial project that I do independently, it might be a total flop. (…this happens very frequently to independent developers, and is also the outcome of many projects by developers that have had success with other titles!)

13. What are the salary ranges, e.g. typical starting salary and typical top salary?

The amount earned by independent videogame developers varies wildly, as has my own income from it over the years. There really is no such thing in this case as typical, starting, or top, since it depends on the success of an individual’s projects in the marketplace.

14. Do you have any advice for me as I consider my career options?

While I certainly encourage training yourself to develop videogames independently, I would advise thinking of that in the near term as a hobby and/or as practice for some other type of primary/fallback traditional career option (software engineer, project manager, user experience designer, animator, etc.). Properly prepared for, those jobs often pay better on average, and certainly pay more reliably, than going independent. Those positions also create the possibility of getting additional experience and connections at an established company, hopefully saving up some money in the bank or helping to pay off student loans, all while building your credibility as a professional.

(Consider that when people find out I did technical game design work on console games at EA, even though only for 11 months and only on 2 different projects, potential collaborators or business partners can instantly “get” what that means with much less effort than it takes to contextualize the many years I spent before then independently making dozens of videogames they’ve never heard of.)

15. Anything else you would like to tell me about this profession?

Whether or not it works out as a primary career path, I’m a big believer in there being many other valid reasons to make videogames personally, at the very least on the side as a hobby. That’s much of what my HobbyGameDev blog is about. Besides being a fun and different way to express ourselves, it’s a context to work with skilled people that think very differently, reach strangers around the globe with our creative output, and of course to learn and practice technical skills of all sorts that have a myriad of other applications in modern life.

Should any given person try to become a professional painter, guitar player, movie producer, poet, or swimmer? It depends very much on the person, and it’s very likely to be a bumpy and very challenging path, involving a decent amount of luck on top of ability and qualifications, with significant risks along the way but potentially significant rewards. Many people can paint, but that doesn’t mean someone can automatically make a living from it; being able to simply make a videogame (or multiple videogames) independently does not automatically mean that said game(s) will earn enough money to be someone’s main source of income. However, apart from these beings done professionally, I think that the world is better off with more people painting, playing guitar, making movies, writing poetry, and swimming.

Likewise, it’d be irresponsible for me to tell anyone I don’t know extremely well that they should put all their eggs in one basket and aim straight for something as unpredictable as independent videogame development as their main career plan – maybe it’ll work out, and it’ll be terrific if it does, but the odds are rough and it takes a particular type of person to thrive in the uncertainty and types of challenges that come with it. However I don’t think that the difficulties of doing it as a sole source of income should get in anyone’s way of making videogames. And in the meantime, that experience making videogames as a hobby can increase someone’s core skills, community reputation, peer network, and self-knowledge in relation to becoming a professional independent videogame developer, helping the chances that the path into it will become a somewhat more realistic and viable option.

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