Going Indie: Planning the Next Steps

3D and UX Design for Games, VR and Animation

Going Indie: Planning the Next Steps

November 17, 2011 Uncategorized 13
Key Questions

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”.


Thinking About Life (via istockphoto)

 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:

Key Questions

Planning (via iStockphoto)

Development Requirements

  1. What am I making? Explain the core game experience in one to two sentences.
  2. What phase of production am I in? Prototype? Tool Development? Distribution?
  3. 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.
  4. What resources do I need to complete this stage of development? – List everything from hardware, software, licenses, etc.


Development Costs

  1. 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.
  2. What are my living costs? List everything from rent, food, utilities, medical expenses, phone bills, travel, entertainment, etc.
  3. 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.
  4. 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

  1. 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.
  2. 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!).
  3. 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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?

13 Responses

  1. Simon says:

    Wow, that was a really good read – plenty of stuff you’ve left me to think about while I weigh up the benefits of going the Indie way, which is what I really want to do!

    Cheers for a great read, looking forward to the next one!

    • Epona says:

      Glad you enjoyed it Simon!

      I’ve got a few more posts on this subject going out over the next few days. If going indie is currently stewing in your brain meats then hopefully these will help 8)

  2. saykharng says:

    Awesome article, thank you so much.

    I think, having balls to present your Prototype (no matter how bad it is) to the community will be the first inspiring step. Which will make you do something for the next meetup.

    • Epona says:

      Getting your prototype in front of eyeballs and in player hands as soon as possible is SO critical to game design!

      We THINK we know what people will enjoy about a game, but you never know until people actually get to play it and start giving you feedback.

      We’ve been seeing developers getting such good data from Bits and Pieces, even crazy early in development. They’ll come out with features they never realised players would love, mechanics they thought were intuitive but turned out were confusing as hell and even really good solutions from other developers.

      So good. I have yet to work with a developer who regretted playtesting early in the prototype phase.

    • You’re absolutely right – and that’s the whole point behind Bits & Pieces!

      Once the community sees your game, and you start getting positive feedback, it’s amazing the encouraging affect it has – and the games get so much better for it!

  3. Boon says:

    What a wonderful indiebit, Epona! Very practical and easily digestible advice.

    What do you think about the motivational challenges? I’d love to see you write a complimentary piece with tips for maintaining momentum and passion, since I happen to know for a fact that you’re all kinds of awesomesauce at that 🙂

    • Epona says:

      I have a “How do you find time to go indie and make great games?” post half written! Deals with motivations, cutting lifestyle “feature creep” and how the hell to find time for a full time job, development, relationships, health and fitness without exploding 8P

      I have two here specifically on motivation. Will get them up on Sunday.

      A future post will be an exercise on nailing down EXACTLY what drives you, what you NEED to do in life(which can be surprisingly tough o_O)

      …what flavor is awesomesauce?

      • Boon says:

        Looking forward to all of them! Particularly the nailing-what-drives-you one! I’m very keen to read your insights, especially as I recently broached this topic myself.

        I recently wrote a post on my blog about what drives me, then redacted it because it seemed too important to post without an audience 🙁

        I figure it can sit in my draft bin waiting for that day in a bazillion years when I’ve released my game and hopefully have an audience larger than my mum. Which is indicative of my failure to complete anything, and in a cyclically ironic kind of way, is what my redacted post is entirely about.

        P.S. Awesomesauce is kind of a cross between Pina Colada and naked skydiving.

        • Epona says:

          At least you wrote it. You’re aware that you’re not doing what you want to be doing and you’re trying to think through it. That’s better than either total ignorance or blithe acceptance!

          Why do you want to go indie, Boon? What do you want to be able to do?

          • Boon says:

            What a big question!

            Lifestyle, mostly.

            I love working in a studio. I love working with people whose creativity challenges me to be better. And I love being around people who share the same passion. The social life is pretty rad, too!

            But the corporate overwatch drained me. The GFC hit and then people with boxes to tick and numbers to run threw us to the wayside, and that burned me unexpectedly hard.

            I’d forgotten what it was like to slow down and take a look around. I sleep better, and I smile more, and I’m absolutely loving making games more than I did through most of the time I was paid to do it.

            So definitely lifestyle. If I can make money from it, that’d be nice, too. But right now it’s not a necessity.

            What do YOU love about it? You spend more time in this world than me – I’m kind of on the periphery, doing a lot of reading and YouTubing and Vimeoing, but not much participating. I’m disadvantaged geographically, I’m afraid 🙁 But something tells me that when I get a chance to engage, I’m going to find that I no longer miss the studio environment AT ALL.

  4. Great article Epona thanks for posting.

    I’ve always wanted to make games (since the c64…yeah I’m oldish :P) but I never had that fanboy dream of working for big studio x/y/z It seems that for a lot of younger game devs they see going going indie as just a notch in the folio?

    Crazy since this is the best time ever to be able to both create cool things & pay the rent. Indie to the end! 😀

    • Epona says:

      Glad you enjoyed it Mike!

      I suspect a lot of the reluctance to commit to indie comes from insecurity and fear.

      Going it alone can be terrifying. I’ve known some insanely talented developers who I believe would make incredible games for years and years, but don’t take the leap because they feel like they aren’t good enough.

      I wish I could project my faith in them into their brains!

  5. Epona says:

    @Boon: “…definitely lifestyle. If I can make money from it, that’d be nice, too.”

    Finding your flavor of indie (what you will love doing that you can make a living from) can be so tricky!

    There are some great books that can help. Both The 4 Hour Work Week by Timothy Ferris and What Color is Your Parachute by Richard Bolles have great material on turning interests and passions into a career.

    I’m going to add a “What Kind of Indie Are You” article to my writing schedule this week and include the exercises I went through to find my flavor of indie – should give you somewhere to start!

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