When a Hobby becomes a job: From Indie to Business

What is the difference between an indie approach to game development and a business one, - Alexander Myasishchev, director of Nau Engine, told in his column for App2Top.

Alexander Myasishchev

Games have long ceased to be just entertainment. This is a serious business that is in no way inferior to the film or music industry. Business calculation rules the ball here, but game development still remains a creative field, unthinkable without talented creators who create something not for the sake of money, but simply because they cannot do otherwise. Where is the boundary separating indie from business, and how to move from one to the other?

What is Indie

"Indie" is a very multifaceted concept that unites most developers. This category includes a single enthusiast who sculpts a masterpiece in the evenings after work, and a couple of top specialists who decided to leave a large company for free bread, and a small independent studio of 10-15 people. In this article, we will primarily talk about indie as beginner gamers who do not have much experience, but have a desire to create something new and cool. A dream project.

Despite all the differences, indie developers are united by one important feature. For them, games are primarily about creativity, and secondly, a way to earn money. They don't create their games for anyone — they work for themselves.

Since the indie audience is himself, the developer is not bound by any conventions, expectations and commercial calculation. He does not need to meet the expectations of investors or the public. After all, he just makes the game the way he sees it. Creativity is above money here, and the creator is above the audience. Often, he does not have any plan at all, or even a complete vision of the project. There is only a desire to release a product that he likes himself.

For the authors themselves, such projects have not so much economic as moral value. To do this, you need to be a deeply motivated person who is ready to make sacrifices for the sake of a dream. Therefore, many projects never reach release, forever remaining fantasies.

At the same time, in most cases, dream projects do not offer something breakthrough. These are usually analogues of titles that are already on the market. The author just wants to correct some detail in his favorite game and creates its improved (to his taste) analogue: in a different setting, with a corrected error, with new mechanics. Unfortunately, as a rule, a developer without experience concentrates so deeply on one aspect of his brainchild that he manages to screw up everything else. As a result, the project either does not survive to release at all, or it becomes uninteresting to the public and therefore unprofitable. Fortunately, this is not always the case.

The task of indie as a phenomenon is the birth of new entrepreneurs in the field of game development. The gaming industry is very short of visionaries — people who are ready to come up with new things, defend their ideas, inspire teams to create. The problem with large companies is that their employees are used to doing only their own small piece of work, seeing only a zone of personal responsibility instead of the big picture. And an indie developer is trying to solve (and solves!) all the problems at once. This is how the key figures for game development arise.

It was such combine harvesters who created the gaming industry at one time. The image of an American nerd who sits in a garage and writes code himself, composes a plot, develops a narrative, draws a cover, sends copies of the game to customers by mail and does everything else, did not arise from scratch. The first Soviet game designers like Tetris creator Alexei Pajitnov worked in much the same way. This model is still relevant for Russia and the whole world — with some nuances.

For example, today it is much more difficult than before to raise your project above the noise level. There are a lot of games released, corporations spend a lot of money on marketing, their advertising campaigns clog the information field so much that they often do not show really interesting smaller projects. Therefore, indie has to be creative not only at the development stage to create something interesting, but also at the distribution stage to bring their product to the audience. Nowadays, there are many more ways to do this than at the dawn of the industry, but this does not reduce the complexity of the process.

A modern indie developer needs more skills than his colleague from the 80s. Just being a programmer is not enough. You need to be a developer, a marketer, a blogger, a community manager, a PR man, and so on. The same PR requires a completely different level of skills: this is a separate job, not some kind of side activity. That's why many game creators choose a different path.

Indie vs. Business

The ideological opposite of indie can be called a business approach. Business considers the game not as a potential masterpiece, but as a commercial product. Work on it begins with audience research, because only knowing what people want, they can sell something. The idea is also important here, but it is based on an understanding of demand, competitors, payback prospects, and so on. Thus, the developer is based not on his own desires, but on market realities.

Yes, indie always has a chance to become the author of a new Minecraft or Loop Hero and get rich. It's just a small chance. Business does not rely on luck, but on logic and economic analysis. Moreover, all calculations are made before the start of development, and then adjusted along the way — this is the key difference from indie.

In fact, the difference is that a business studies the environment and makes a decision based on the information it has received. And the indie approach to the product can be formulated as follows: "I do what I want, but I think everyone should like the result."

The trouble is that an indie developer often does not see the details behind the brilliance of his idea. He makes all decisions on the go, situationally, and considers each independently made decision more important and correct than any suggested from the outside. The latter is generally peculiar to humans. Business works differently: here all decisions are made systematically and in a timely manner, based on rational economic considerations.

To stop being an amateur and start making money from games, you need to look at your job as a business. That is, to make the most of your strengths and take into partnership people or companies that will level out the weak ones. Of course, you can be an artist, designer and programmer at the same time. But if you are good at programming, it is better to find a separate artist and game designer. If you sell well, then perhaps you don't need to program yourself, but rather find those who will make the product for you according to your TOR. The main thing in business is the division of labor and hiring professionals who will solve the tasks you need. You need to focus on what you can do and not try to do everything yourself at once. And this requires finances.

The indie approach involves two ways of financing. Either we infect friends with the idea and spend our money to bring the project to the final — or we go with the idea to those who have money.

The first attempt to contact an investor or publisher always ends the same way: he points out to the indie developer those gaps in information about the project that the business would fill immediately. It's about the target audience, potential sales, cost and timing of development, the necessary team and ways to recruit it.

Answering these questions consistently, the indie developer gets on the business rails, on the path to becoming a professional game developer. Moreover, the more answers he has to such questions, the more likely it is that, in general, he does not need investors. Often an idea can be implemented independently. The later you come to the publisher, the closer you will be to the final quality of the build project, the smaller the share in the project you will have to give.

An indie developer needs to go after money if his idea is so big that he is not able to implement it on his own. And if he hasn't done anything before, then he probably won't be given money for any large-scale idea. Just because they won't believe that he will finish the job. That's the catch 22.

The goal of indie is to make your idea come true. The goal of the business is to build a sustainable product that can pay for itself and earn money. At the same time, these are not contradictory concepts. When you get on the business rails, no one prevents you from doing a dream project. It just changes the approach to its implementation... and greatly increases the chances of success. It is enough just to transform the project so that it becomes more in demand on the market.

But what should we do so that the indie game does not turn into a business substance alien to the creator? It is best to clearly identify the principles that will be followed in this project, outline the range of decisions that only you can make — and no one else. As long as these basic provisions are followed, the project will remain yours.

What happens if you confuse indie and business

Even the most evil publisher can release a completely soulful game. Moreover, any evil publisher wants to release soul games. He just wants to release soulful games that will be commercially successful. And for this, they need clear development deadlines and budgets. That is exactly what indie usually lacks.

The publisher invades the work of creators for a reason. It is often external interference that allows the project to come out at least in some form, because internal perfectionism can force you to polish your game and add new features endlessly. Not all visionaries are able to work effectively independently, without control from above.

Recall at least the story of Daikatana from the once great John Romero. The rock star of the gaming industry, one of the authors of Wolfenstein 3D, Doom and Quake, the inventor of the FPS genre and just one of the most famous game designers in history, at some point left id Software and went to work on his own dream project. Daikatana was supposed to be the next breakthrough and the main game of the generation. The credit of trust in the master was so huge that the publisher gave his new studio Ion Storm full carte blanche and almost unlimited funding.

All this resulted in an extremely expensive office with a studio logo made of Italian marble on the floor, aggressive advertising with the slogan “John Romero's about to make you his bitch” and repeated disruption of all conceivable development deadlines. No, Daikatana was released after all — after three years instead of the originally promised seven months, on a different engine and not at all in the quality that the players expected. The project failed, and Romero has not created anything culturally significant since then.

The story of the long-awaited sequel to Duke Nukem 3D has become similar (and even sadder). The head of the 3D Realms studio, George Broussard, wanted to make Duke Nukem Forever the best in everything: the coolest, most technologically advanced, most beautiful…

As a result, an endless number of improvements and new ideas led to the fact that the game, which was supposed to be released at the end of 1998, was born only in 2011! 14 years of development went into making a fairly average shooter and drowning one of the main FPS franchises for a long time, if not forever. That's what happens when there are too many ideas, money and perfectionism, and there is practically no control.

A more relevant and much happier example of a similar situation is Star Citizen. For several years now, the landmark work of Chris Roberts, one of the pioneers of the 3D space games genre, has held the title of the most expensive game in history. Millions are being earned on the project — and it hasn't even been released yet! And, most likely, it will never come out. Simply because, in his own way, the brilliant Roberts will fill it with new content and mechanics as long as the public's interest is high enough. And he doesn't even think about falling off.

This is a vivid example of a dream game that will probably never be born. Simply because, in the form of an ideal design, Star Citizen is much more liked by both the author and his fans.

And how not to remember Hideo "Genius" Kojima? The game designer has worked at Konami for almost 30 years and has been making real hits all this time. Kojima-san even got a named studio Kojima Productions, where he could create almost anything. The publisher financed any whim of the developer, his games took years and millions of dollars, while even Kojima's salary did not depend on the financial success of Kojima Productions games!

Therefore, the most surprising thing is not even that at one point Konami's management got tired of putting up with it, as a result of which the creator and the corporation split up. It is much more interesting that Kojima stayed in Konami in absolute freedom mode from 2005 to 2015! And after his personal studio was finally closed, he revived it the very next day, in a completely autonomous form. Now the maestro feels great and is working on two high—profile projects at once: the horror OD will be published by Xbox Game Studios, and Death Stranding 2 is its main competitor Sony Interactive Entertainment. Anyone would envy such an ability to balance indie freedom and corporate standards for decades.

Finally, we note that the corporate desire for control does not guarantee the game's commercial success. A talented designer can create an ingenious product within the walls of an experienced publisher — and this product will turn out to be a financial failure. For its time, the legendary Yu Suzuki's Shenmue was an incredible game: with a lively open world, hundreds of voiced characters, realistic facial animation, a combination of a wide variety of genres and many innovations, from QTE to immersive gameplay.

Gamers accepted it with delight, but even a million copies sold were not enough to pay for the development of the most expensive game at that time, even included in the Guinness Book of Records. It turned out that for financial success, every owner of the Sega Dreamcast, for which Shenmue was exclusive, must buy the game at least twice. After that, Sega did not return to the console market anymore. An important lesson that any developer and publisher needs to learn.


The main thing in game development is creativity, and do not forget about it. So go ahead: invent, create, create new things — and one day commercial success will definitely find you.

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