Going Indie: Planning the Next Steps
It’s easy to think that Markus “Notch” Persson, Jonathan Blow, Ron Carmel and Edmund McMillen are different from the rest of us. Unconcerned with who society thinks they should be or what they should be able to do. They are making games they want to see made and having a blast doing it – not pulling long hours slaving away at a big studio, shelving dreams labeled “Someday” and “Maybe Later”. They’re making a living doing what they love, on their own terms, right now.
And at some point we’re going to describe you this way.
I know what you’re thinking, what we’ve all thought: ‘Surely there is some spark. Some “thing” that makes them special. What could they possibly have in common with me?’
Unsatisfied with just “Good Enough”
Imagine that spark, that THING, is the wish to do more with life. You’re an artist crunching towards another shifting milestone. Or a programmer running one last sprint on a bit of code you needed done last week. Wherever you are in the industry, you dream of one day being able to just focus on making your own games.
You could make a decent living working for someone else. Pay the bills, live comfortably and maybe even take a day off. But if you’re seeing game mechanics in everyday life, daydreaming experiences of play, you may have already realised it’s not enough being “comfortable”.
Determined to Try, Even when Afraid
You’re scared. You don’t know where to begin or how you’re going to make ends meet. But if you can’t stop thinking about the games you want to make, you’ve always dreamed of making games, then it’s worth trying at least once, right?
There’s a temptation to throw yourself straight into development. Spending every free hour plugging away at your game until it’s finished. But we see other developers burn out, frustrated that nothing is happening as fast as it should. They spend every available minute on their game and still the money isn’t coming in.
There is another away. Think things through carefully, tie business development to game development and build in opportunities for community to help.
Work Smart, Lean and Flexible
You want to create a game that people will fall in love with, tell their friends about and hopefully make enough money to support the next one. But for that to happen you need a roof over your head, a machine to develop on and food to fuel your game designer brain meats!
Planning is like writing a brief game design document. Sketching out the core concept of what you’re making, keystone variables of that experience and problems to solve.
Like a GDD, that plan is there to start you off, not strictly follow to the letter. It’s a tool to start thinking about what you need to prepare for, defining the goal and identifying obstacles.
“In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable” – Dwight D Eisenhower
A good first stage business plan, like a good GDD, aims to answer a few key questions:
- What am I making? Explain the core game experience in one to two sentences.
- What phase of production am I in? Prototype? Tool Development? Distribution?
- When must this stage be complete? Pick a date that matters to you. It could be PAX, the next IGDA meet up or the end of your paid time off.
- What resources do I need to complete this stage of development? – List everything from hardware, software, licenses, etc.
- How much does each development resource cost? List the costs of each resource in the previous step. List ongoing costs for the period between now and the deadline you picked.
- What are my living costs? List everything from rent, food, utilities, medical expenses, phone bills, travel, entertainment, etc.
- How much does it cost for me to start a business? Each state has different rules and costs associated with registering a business name, business licenses, etc. A Google search on Starting a Business in [YOUR STATE HERE] will give you everything you need to know.
- What are the total costs for this stage of development? Add it all up. Don’t be scared if the number is bigger than you expected, we’re going to do something about that in the next step.
Reducing Expenses and Covering Costs
- How can I cut the cost of development? Look for well reviewed open source or free versions of the resources you listed earlier. Ask around your network, someone may have the hardware or licenses you need.
- How can I cut my cost of living? Can you move somewhere cheaper or rent out a room? Cancel any subscriptions you don’t actively depend on. Look for a cheaper phone or internet plan. Eat out less and learn to cook (I can eat well for five days on less than 15 dollars when I cook in bulk!).
- How can I make ends meet during this stage of development? Do you have savings you can rely on? Can you work part-time? Do short-term contract work? Mow lawns? Sell collectible figurines and comics on Ebay?
Supporting the Next Stage of Development
- How can I get the community involved? How soon can you release builds online to get community feedback and start recruiting future fans? The work you do developing art for a vertical slice could be used in a Kickstarter campaign. Keeping a blog about lessons learned and techniques picked up will help other developers and get the word out.
- What grants are available for this stage of development? There are local and federal grants for digital media projects at a variety of levels. Do a search for grants in your state and country in digital media, entertainment, transmedia, applications development, even games and you’ll be surprised what is available.
- Do I want to involve investors in my project? Dealing with investors is tricky. They may want a say in what they’re investing in (funny that). However, there are some angel investors and venture capitalists out there that are down right awesome people and will let you develop your own way. Meet as many as you can. Be clear about how heavily you are willing to have them involved.
Starting is always the hardest part of doing anything new. And you’ve done it. The questions above will help generate an idea of what you need to do and where to start. You’ll make mistakes, you’ll learn from them and each time you sit down to plan the next stage of development you’ll do a little bit more, a little bit better.
What creative ways have you stayed lean and flexible during development? What questions should we ask ourselves when planning to go indie?