The Hidden Costs Of Independent Game Development
Independent game development often has much the same reputation as a career in freelancing. You're your own boss, accountable only to yourself. You set your own hours and deadlines, and you don't have to deal with any of the frustrations of office life, like bad co-workers, long commutes, or unreasonable bosses. The world is your oyster, and you are well and truly free to flex your creative muscles however you see fit.
Actually...not so much.
A rather excellent expose on the real costs associated with independent development recently went live on Gamasutra, authored by developer Stephen Morris. It's an eye-opener, and I'm going to be making a number of references to it throughout this piece. For the time being, though? I speak from personal experience.
Being a freelancer is, in a lot of ways, much like being an indie developer. Being your own boss isn't all it's cracked up to be, you see. The fact that you set your own hours means that, in many cases, you almost always feel obligated to work. During your down-time, it's almost as though you've a hideous, deformed gremlin digging its claws into your back, gibbering into your ear about all the work you aren't getting done.
Sadly, this is also a lifestyle given to long, abnormal hours - particularly if you're working on the Internet, which is fraught with distraction after distraction. The fact that you work whenever you want makes it all too easy to say "I can finish that later." I'm sorry to say, I don't have anything even remotely resembling a proper sleep cycle, and I haven't for at least a year now. Worse, though, is the isolation.
When you're working, you may start to feel as though you're missing out on something. You're not sure what, of course, but that same gremlin insists that you could be doing something else right now, that you could be accomplishing something else. Sometimes, it snorts and carries on so much that it's impossible to get anything done.
Of course, the advantage of freelancing is that you're pretty much guaranteed to make money, so long as you complete your projects (and so long as you know how to sniff out deadbeat clients). Indie developers, well...they aren't really so lucky in that regard.
The Expense of Living
"People on the outside, of course, view the indie lifestyle with much envy, believing it liberating - a way to break free of the AAA treadmill; to innovate the industry from within," writes Morris. "It certainly can be. The key, however, is realizing that even as an indie, you're running a business - and a business that's losing money from day one, to boot."
Typically, the advice given to any aspiring indie is that they should try to save up somewhere around 6-12 months' worth of living expenses before they even think about diving full-time into a development lifestyle. That, Morris says, is only the tip of the iceberg. Calculating how much you're going to have to spend on rent, bills, food, gas, or developer licenses is all well and good, but you also need to account for the vast array of hidden, unexpected fees that are sure to crop up.
One of the most common is actually Adobe Photoshop. According to the developers Morris interviewed, it's still the industry standard for graphic design.
For example, Morris continues, "if working on mobile, generally you only need a development computer, the required developer's license ($99 for iOS and Windows Phone and a one-time $25 fee for Google Play) and a number of mobile devices for testing purposes." This, he continues, is where one hidden cost is likely to strike you full in the face - you're likely going to need to purchase at least a few new devices for testing over the course of development.
Naturally, things are different if you're working on PC or with consoles, but even then, there are certain costs and roadblocks you're going to encounter along the way. How, for example, are you going to pay for medical expenses? What if one of your devices fails on you and needs to be replaced? What if something gets stolen?
What if, what if, what if. There are millions of what if's, and it's nearly impossible to adequately account for every single one of them. It gets worse, too - these costs and difficulties pale in comparison to what I understand to be one of the most common, most insurmountable obstacles encountered by every single independent developer who ever designed a game: marketing.
The "M" Word
Large developers and publishers have always had a marked advantage when it comes to distribution. They've got PR experts to design advertising campaigns for them. They've supply chains and manufacturers to spread their product around. They've the money for massive, expensive TV spots and Internet ads. What do indies have?
Kickstarter. Greenlight. Word of mouth. Social media While these are all extremely powerful marketing tools - and have levelled the playing field between independent and publisher considerably - they're downright useless if you don't understand how they should be used to build both a brand and community. Truth be told, this actually isn't much of a surprise - in my interview with John Getty, he actually identified this as Exato's biggest challenge relative to its status as an independent developer. Making an impact on the community and establishing a fan-base is still extremely difficult, fraught with as many hidden costs and pitfalls as the entire development process.
A number of these costs are related to the need for high-quality, high-definition video in order to catch the attention of both potential buyers and potential backers.
"Be prepared to invest in a high definition capture card" warns Morris. "FRAPS and Reflector are also great for those on a shoestring budget. Don't forget to factor in the cost of your video editing software, as well."
PR doesn't end there, either. You're also going to have to consider business card (which can go a long way towards making you memorable), account for exchange rates, and, depending on what sort of services you're using, payment thresholds.
These, Morris explains, are "the minimum amount accrued before fund release. Effectively, your money is held with the vendor until it has reached a certain level. If the current total doesn't quite reach it, the money is then rolled over until the next month. This can be rather annoying, so make every effort to push it over the threshold as it can quickly accumulate if there are multiple portals involved."
You'll also want to try submitting your title to BAFTA;s
Of course, there's also the matter of travel expenses...
Meet and Greet
I've mentioned that both freelancing and indie development lend themselves all-too-easily to soul-crushing, abject loneliness. They don't have to, however. As a matter of fact, they most definitely shouldn't.
"It's far too easy to fall into the trap of becoming too insular and just carrying on with what you're doing without any real feedback from others," writes Bryon Atkinson-Jones of Pocket Gamer. "I've seen far too many developers doing this and, when they turn up with their games, they aren't as good as they think they are and they end up just canning them - which is a pity and something that could be avoided by just sharing and showing a lot earlier on...the next time you find your social abtteries getting a bit low, reach out to some of your fellow developers, and, you never know, they may be just in exactly the same situation as you and up for a day developing in a public place."
If you're hanging with local developers or going to meet-and-greets, the expenses are relatively minimal. Of course, you're not just going to be hanging out with locals. You're going to be going to festivals. You're going to be attending trade shows and events. You're going to be travelling with your game.
And it's going to cost you. Aside from travel expenses and lodging, you're going to need to shell out a rather hefty ransom for festival and event submissions and booths. Sometimes, you'll even need to pay for your own electricity. A lot of independent developers don't really factor any of these costs into their budget...then are left high and dry when the time comes to pay. Check out the events calendar on Promoter - you'll definitely want to plan around that.
A lot of people likely don't realize just how difficult being an independent developer really is. It's oft-thankless, lonely, back-breaking work, with no solid guarantee of a financial payoff. Realistically, it'll probably take you more than six months to make your game, if indeed that's what you want to do - it could take years, and that's not even factoring in the time you're going to need to spend planning, saving, and estimating.
Proper planning can alleviate a great deal of the pressure and stress associated with being indie, but at the same time, it's not going to be an easy road, nor will it be one that's guaranteed to end in success. Don't let yourself get discouraged, though - that's the story with any innovator or inventor. You aren't always going to find success. All you can do is keep striving until the day you do.