There is a common story that we hear all to often in the indie development community. The indie developer who risked big and won. The harrowing tale of a year or two flirting heavily with doubt and ruin, eating nothing but ramen, but ultimately triumphing over adversity and releasing their game to critical acclaim, success and financial security. Now, let me get this straight, these stories are awesome. I love listening to this journey, and some of my favourite devs to hear speak have gone through some variant of this – Rami Ismail and JW from Vlambeer, as well as Tommy Refenes and Edmund McMillen of Team Meat are two that spring immediately to mind. These stories provide inspiration, and show us aspiring devs that it can be done.
But the problem being, these stories can be seductive. They can convince us that the only proper way to go indie is to risk it all. And most dangerously of all, convince us that these risks are bound to pay off.
Survivorship bias can be a difficult thing to overcome. In essence, it means that as humans, we tend to concentrate on what made it past an obstacle, and ignore those which did not. When someone risks it all and succeeds, our brains tend to see that and put it in the possible column. If they did it, why can’t I?
However, we tend to ignore those who ran out of money before their game released, who got dragged back with health or family concerns, or who invested everything, crossed the finish line and released…a flop. These are realities that happen in our industry, and they cannot be ignored. Even Team Meat, who I mentioned above, were on the razors edge of not making it to the finish line. If any one of a thousand things have gone differently, the end of the story would not be so rosy.
Now, and let me be clear about this, I’m not saying that this is doomed to failure. Taking your shot is admirable, and I would be thrilled to see more and more people succeed in their dreams. But we just need to realise that this method is not for everyone – it certainly is not for me – and that there are other ways.
As a counterpoint to this ‘do or die’ model, it is possible to provide a sustainable living while slowly growing your back catalogue of games, while simultaneously gaining experience. The options are not “A hit and millions of dollars” and “nothing”. There is a path far more stable, with far less risk. I could sum up my thought on that matter, but Jake Birkett of Grey Alien games has done a much better job on how this is possible, in what has become one of my favourite GDC talks of all time.
I highly, wholeheartedly recommend you watch that if you are at all interested in this topic. It is quickly becoming the foundation of my mentality, and what I am aiming for. I will talk about more specifics on what I am aiming for in a future post.