Indie Studio Quality of Life and Development
When AAA studios are subject to criticism for exploitative working conditions, toxic corporate cultures, and problematic representations in game content, the indie scene is often held up as a positive comparative touchstone. There are various benefits to work in indie as compared to AAA; smaller teams can make for more humane, collaborative, and innovative environments. It is often out of the indie scene that we see the most experimental game content. However, indie game development is not without its challenges. Those working here shoulder intensified risk, as they struggle with precarious employment, limited or no benefits for employees/contractors, tight budgets, and fierce competition for visibility.
This page gathers commentary on the benefits and challenges specific to work in independent game development.
In a piece for Ars Technica, Ben Kuchera outlines why independent game development has become an appealing alternative for developers who face the creative rigidity and hierarchy of production at large games companies: Feral developers: why game industry talent is going indie (2011).
The groundswell of developers taking on entrepreneurial ventures has flooded the games market, making it more difficult for small and mid-sized independents to succeed. The problem is sometimes referred to as 'Indiepocalypse' or the 'indie bubble'. Jeff Vogel wrote a useful overview of this issue in 2014: The indie bubble is popping. GDC 2016 hosted a panel on this issue titled, What do we mean when we say Indipocalypse?. Speakers included Jeff Vogel, Rebekah Saltsman, Armin Ibrisagic, Jordan Thomas, and Randy Smith.
This piece by Guillame Boucher-Vidal breaks down the cost of starting your own studio: What does it really cost to open an indie studio?: All of your money, most of your life (July 31, 2014). In a similar vein, Sarah Woodrow, co-founder of Utopian World of Sandwiches, writes candidly about setting realistic expectations for those considering an independent career path in her piece, 7 truths about indie game development (2014).
- Boucher-Vidal has also written about recruiting talent for his start-up with no money to pay wages. It is particularly interesting in that it showcases the compromises developers are asked to make if they want to find fulfilling work and raises important questions about what constitutes 'good work' and fair compensation: How game devs can hire the best talent, even without salaries (Sept. 11, 2014)
Rebekah Saltsman, CEO of Finji, draws attention to the unique challenges for mothers in indie development: The IGS Soapbox: Bekah's 5 minutes (Mar 20, 2015). She highlights the difficulty of travel and attending events/conferences, the constant interruptions that punctuate work time, guilt and stress from having to divide your attention between work and family, the long hours and late nights, and the invisibility and isolation that accompanies working from home and in an industry that is young and male, and, at times, dismissive of parenthood.
A subreddit dedicated to discussions on indie development is available at /r/IndieDev
The documentary film, GameLoading: Rise of the Indies, released in 2015, follows several prominent game developers through the highs and lows of independent development and release.
Some additional commentary on the state of indie development
- Patrick Stafford on Rolling Stone: June 3, 2016: Solo indie game development - not for the faint of heart
- Zachary Strebeck on Gamasutra: Sept 21, 2015: Indie developer tax issues: Is game development your hobby or your business?
- Jeff Vogel on Gamasutra: Aug. 10, 2015: The Indie Bubble revisited (or, are we totally-doomed, or just regular-doomed?)
- Matthew Handraham on GamesIndustry.biz: Mar. 31, 2015: The harsh reality of living the dream
- James Brightman on GamesIndustry.biz: Feb. 26, 2015: "It's getting harder to be an indie"
- Ryan Henson Creighton on TechVibes: Jan. 29, 2014: Failing to look before they leap: Just how do all these Indie devs plan to retire?
- Chris Remo on Gamasutra: Apr. 21, 2010: Game developer research: Indie earnings doubled when working on team
Company and game specific
- James Tan on Gamasutra: Jan 4, 2016: A personal post mortem on Depth
- Ben Kuchera on Polygon: Feb. 2, 2015: Octodad shares the reality of an indie hit: $4.9M in revenue for 2.7 years of work
- Dan Crawley on Venture Beat: Jan. 30, 2015: Innovative Bot Colony game pulled - cost $2M-$3M to make but only brought in $10,000
- Rachel Weber on GamesIndustry.biz: Jan. 29, 2015: Valve encourages indie game developers through Greenlight project: Steam's community content creators have earned over $50M
- Ben Kuchera on arstechnica: Feb 14, 2011: Keep talent, ditch milestones: How 5th Cell ships million-sellers
- In 2016, as a result of Warner Bros. cancelling Scribblenauts: Fighting Words, 5th Cell laid off 45 employees and is currently working with a small team. Articles pertaining to this can be found on our Hiring and Firing page.
In 2012, gaming platform Steam introduced an approval and distribution system for games featured on its storefront that was powered by user votes. Steam Greenlight was meant to allow the community to decide which games they wanted, without Valve (parent company) having to curate the selection for them. The platform became controversial as games were approved en masse making it difficult to stand out, and leading to issues of quality control as a result of shady business practices from developers looking to turn a quick profit. In June 2017, Steam announced that it was closing Steam Greenlight and launching Steam Direct in its place. Steam Direct forgoes the voting and selecting system, and instead, implements more rigorous submission process for developers and subjects games to a brief assessment before release. This is meant to ensure quality, without the responsibility of curating.
- Alex Hern on The Guardian: Feb 13, 2017: Valve kills Steam Greenlight - here's why it matters
- Zach Landau on The Duquesne Duke: July 11, 2017: Steam shutters controversial Greenlight: What's next and what it means for smaller developers
- Sheena Perez on Gamasutra: July 10, 2017: Steam Greenlight and Steam Direct: What indies need to know
Accelerator, Seed Funds, and Incubators
Accelerators are companies that have money to take on small teams of entrepreneurs and help them get started with their business. Those interested in receiving funding must apply and be approved by the accelerator offering their services. They are early-stage investors that assist in business development and longevity.
- Dean Takahashi on GamesBeat: Mar. 19, 2015: GameFounders accelerator helps game startups take wing in both the East and the West
- Jeff Grubb on Venture Beat: Feb. 2, 2015: Cloud-gaming statup Shinra launches accelerator for game developers
- Dean Takahashi on Venture Beat: Jan. 27, 2015: Interview with creator of accelerator company Playhubs founded: Why London's game industry is so strong, and it still needs a startup accelerator
- Dennis Scimea on Polygon: Sept. 24, 2014: Helping indie developers work faster, better (Fire Hose Games incubator)