Thursday, February 18, 2010

Three Tips For Getting Started In the Indie Gaming Biz

As of about now, I have been writing and selling my fantasy role-playing games for a living for fifteen years. By the standards of this business, this makes me older than the stones and the dirt. When I started out, there wasn't a world wide web and I made all my money on a powerhouse called AOL. Also, you kids get off my lawn!

I get a lot of e-mails asking for advice for getting started in the business of writing and selling software. (And also e-mails saying how much my games inspired people when they were 13, and how they then grew up and started their own software companies. Thanks for reminding me how very, very old I am.) At this point, I think I am too fossilized in my ways to give much meaningful advice. I mean, when I started, you went to the mall to buy shareware demos on floppy disks, for God's sake!

But I do know a lot of things that are valuable, and some of them aren't instantly obvious. Over the next few posts, I'd like to summarize a few of them. A lot of this advice is helpful to anyone trying to start their own business, software or otherwise. Though my focus will be, of course, on software. Especially games.

1. You Need a Good Idea

So you want to sell something. Well, I want you to imagine something first. Think about your wallet, and the money in it. Think about the times when you pull out that wallet and actually hand over your credit card or cash for something. I'm willing to bet it's for something you really need or really want. You don't just do it for anything. You like your money, and you want to keep it. Unless you're rich, you are probably at least a little careful about the money you spend.

Well, when you're running your business, your job is to pry the credit card out of peoples' wallets. Again and again. Systems like Microsoft Points make the process a bit more abstract, making it a little easier to get people to buy your stuff, but, in the end, you have to convince people to give you money. And people like their money.

This means (and yes, I know this seems obvious but it's amazing how often people forget it) that whatever you are selling has to be pretty darn special. It has to be a good idea, well executed, and not competing against a ton of free competitors. And let me tell you something. That's a hard thing to come up with these days.

Have an idea for a tower defense game? Well, is it better than the (free) Desktop Tower Defense? Really? I bet it isn't. Want to sell a shooter on XBox Indie Games? Well, is it better than (free) Aegis Wing or ($1) I MAED A GAM3 W1TH Z0MB1ES 1N IT!!!1? If not, you have a real problem, and you haven't even written a line of code.

How do I make a living doing what I do? I write huge, involved RPGs with funky enemies and intricate storylines. Is it a huge amount of finicky and irritating work to make games like that? Yes. Am I ever tempted to write less involved casual-type puzzle games? Hell yes. But I make something that is relatively rare and you can't easily obtain on Kongregate for free. Thus, not only are people interested in my work, but I can charge a good price for it. Selling something scarce has its points.

Look real hard at your idea. Hunt the web and figure out how cheap the games you'll be competing with are. When you are sure you want to write a game (or graphics editor or genealogy program or random number generator or whatever) that can get people to hand out their credit card numbers, only then may you proceed.

2. Professional Work Requires Professional Tools

Another question I get asked from time to time is, "How can I find a free program to do [make art/write programs/whatever]." And my answer is always, "You DON'T!"

I know. You don't have much money. You can't afford Photoshop or whatever. But starting a business isn't free, and you need the best tools for the job.

If you are doing image editing, you need Photoshop. It's the standard format. There are plenty of resources for it. It is made to do what you need and do it well. Some people will recommend using GIMP, the free software alternative. But every time I try it, it's so horrible that my skin starts peeling off in sheets. Somehow, you need to acquire the real deal.

(Bonus ProTip: When naming your product, don't give it a name like GIMP. Excel is a excellent name for a spreadsheet program. PervTech and SodomPro are not as good.)

Similarly, if you are writing programs for Windows, you want to get some form of Visual Studio. Microsoft makes the operating system. They want you to use Visual Studio. Don't fight them. Using an off-brand alternative might work, but it will cost you time, and time is your most limited resource. Happily, if you want to write Mac software, the best development environment, XCode, costs zero dollars.

These programs are expensive, which hurts. There are ways to shave off the cost. You can get an older version on eBay, or luck into one on craigslist or somewhere used software is sold. If you're a student, you can get established with a much cheaper student version. (Of course, as long as you can get your hands on a recent report card, you can buy an educational version whether you're a student or not, but this is ethically dicey and not to be recommended. Eventually, you want to own your tools for reals.)

There are places where you can cut corners. This is not one of them. Your job is hard enough. Get the best possible resources to help you do it.

3. Take Care Of Yourself.

This is something to which not enough attention is paid.

At PAX two years ago, I attended a panel on running a small Indie game company. A lot of unhelpful advice was given, but I think the part that irritated me the most though was when everyone bragged about how few hours of sleep they got establishing their business, and how this should be considered the norm.

Let me say something here, and I don't want to put too fine a point on it.

You need sleep to live.

When you are working on your project, using your spare hours, scraping up every scrap of time to try to put everything together and get it out the door, you must take care of yourself. Doing otherwise is bad for your work. Program for an hour when you're half-awake, and I guarantee you'll make a mistake which will cost you two hours of debugging. This is what the cool kids call a false economy.

You should force yourself to get an acceptable amount of sleep. And it doesn't stop there. You'll be ingesting tons of caffeine. That's a standard thing. But maybe try to occasionally eat food with nutrients. You'll think better. Also, as soon as you can, invest in a chair with proper back support. Sure, you're young and you don't have an old, hurting back. But how do you think young backs turn into old backs?

I know. I sound like your mother. But writing a profitable product is difficult enough without compounding all your problems by being all HARDCORE. All laws of physics and biology still apply.

There. That was a start, and I hope it's helpful. I'll have more soon.

Edit: About using professional tools, I should point out that the important thing here is quality, not cost. For example, Microsoft's XNA game system is not an expensive thing, but it's a professional quality tool (for certain sorts of games). The important thing is to find the tool that will enable you to best use your time, because time is the most valuable commodity.


  1. Jeff, Visual Studio is available as a free option as VS Studio express and it comes in C/C++ and C# versions. MS also provide XNA, and Direct X. And you can find pretty much anything else needed to make a game for free.

    Paint.NET is a good option for a graphics package too. It aims for Photoshop... doesn't quite make it, but it's easy to use and I find it quite useful (better than GIMP imo.)




  2. VS Express is pretty good, but you can still get benefits from using something like SlickEdit which does cost money.

    Not that I'd knock VS, I used it for years, but when I found something better I wasn't going back.

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  4. 1. Make something worth selling.
    2. You need to spend some money to start a business.
    3. Don't skip your sleep and food.

    All three common sense in like 95% of other industries, but sadly, against 'conventional wisdom' in the game industry.

  5. The price for tools should always be compared to the effect they provide. A free tool which does not increase your work's performance (faster work speed, less hassle, better qualitity, more optimized binaries, ...) is as useless as an expensive one without advantages.

    Many indies start as spare time game producers without much money. Therefore I think using zero $$$ for your start tool box is right. Switching to better and more expensive tools can always be done later.

    PS: GIMP is not the best but still useful. So I'm going on with it until I can't stand its crashes any longer and use my first 100 games' income to buy Photoshop - that will be sometime in 2018 ;)


  6. When I started out, there wasn't a world wide web and I made all my money on a powerhouse called AOL. Also, you kids get off my lawn!

    Huh? The web certainly existed in 1995, when Exile: Escape from the Pit came out. While you didn't have your own web store at the time, I remember you piggy-backing of Fantasoft at the time.

  7. I second the recommendation for Paint.Net. It certainly lacks features compared to PS, and possibly in some ways compared to Gimp, but it has a nice interface.

  8. @Walker: I suppose, if you squint, the framework of the web was in place, but nobody really knew boo about it until around 96 or so. Fantasoft had no web site to speak of until 97 or so. (Check out the Wayback Machine.)

    - Jeff Vogel

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  10. Toy Story which came out in 1995 had its own web site mentioned in the opening credits. I remember when we went to see it all the guys who I worked with said "Cool! It has a web site!" while everyone else said "Huh? A web what?"

  11. Read and enjoyed. Maybe I'll take your advice when I finally sit down and do the work required to make my imaginary games a reality. :P I'm not condescending. I've been lazy on following that path.

  12. I'm a web developer by trade and have tried several times to get a game off the ground (and gaming is really my passion not building web apps). Whilst I've messed with trying to get several games up and running, I never seem to get over the first major milestone (i.e. a prototype). I have had some great ideas, but the always end up getting far more complicated than I can deliver in a reasonable time frame.

    Add to that the fact that I'm trying to do these things part time, as inevitably other "real" work gets in the way. In the end the game ends up on the backburner. By the time I get back to it, I am discouraged at ever getting something released, begin to doubt my ability blah blah blah and end up dropping it. Then I start the whole thing over again with another idea.

    I agree with your opinion that if it is easy to build then someone will have done it, and done it for free already. But building a complex game solo seems to be a hard place to get that first product out. As a developer, I find it hard to be enthusiastic about developing a game which is going to be a "throw away" game.

    So the question is, did you go straight to "huge involved, RPGs" or did you get some smaller titles under your belt as warm ups first?

  13. This is some great advice Jeff. It's nice to hear that sleep isn't optional.

  14. I used to be one of those developers who was "proud" about not getting any sleep when I was working on my first indie game (Blackwell Legacy, plug plug). Looking back at the game now, it's hard to see why it was worth nearly killing myself over!

    Three years and five games later, I treat it like a normal 9-5 job and I'm just as productive as I was back then. Sure, there is the occasional "crunch time" where I work like crazy, but it's a very rare exception than the rule.

  15. Lots of wise advice there, thanks for sharing it! Point number 1 is particularly worth noting in my opinion, as it's easy to forget just how much competition is out there. It's easy to get trapped by your own lack of outside perspective - what seems in your head to be a great idea could already have been done and much better than you had conceived yourself!

  16. I agree with this, and it goes for any profession or "serious" hobby.

    With writing, having a dedicated, specialist program such as Scrivener is *aeons* easier than trying to use folders of and text files.

    The (often small) investment that you make upfront will pay its way back to you a multi thousand-fold in saved time, stress, and general efficiency. There is a reason people develop dedicated tools and programs. It's because they are needed, and because they work.

    After all, carpenters don't go around using big, free rocks to hammer nails in.

  17. "So the question is, did you go straight to "huge involved, RPGs" or did you get some smaller titles under your belt as warm ups first?"

    I'd say be ambitious but be realistic about your abilities. It's better to gain experience and confidence with smaller, easier projects than it is to start a project that's too big and complicated for you to finish. Not only do you get experience, but if you have a portfolio of games under your belt, even simple ones, it's a lot easier to get people that are willing to collaborate with you.

    And let's face it, making a big complex RPG is the kind of project that's very difficult to do well or in any reasonable amount of time without some help. I'm working on an RPG for XBLIG at the moment as part of a two-man team and just handling overall gameplay design & programming is enough work; I'm so glad I have some else who is covering graphics & level design so I don't have to.

  18. While Photoshop has some professional tweaks to it that come out of the box that GIMP may lack(although there's a plugin for everything) it feels like your broad generalizations about needing high priced tool sets are based more on what you are accustomed to as apposed to any real facts. Torchlight just sold how many copies, all based on the Ogre3D opensource engine? - This movie was made completely with open source software(blender, gimp, etc etc)

    Just because you've classified yourself as an old man, doesn't mean you have to close your mind off like one :)

  19. Kudos for the comment about sleep. The best point of the three. If I followed this advice I would have accomplished a lot more than I have.

    Programming for an hour when you are tired means producing bugs that will take you two hours to fix. Pure gold, that.

  20. @Ryan Wianacko: Any time spent hassling with your toolchain is time stolen from development. GIMP is not a production-quality tool. Photoshop is. GIMP will do in a pinch, but its crashes and interface problems will cost you time (money).

    As for Ogre3D, it's just a graphics engine. Runic Games would've had to put a lot of work into adding the other systems to the game (audio, physics, etc). I'm not arguing against it (it's a fine renderer), but that time is part of the not-free cost of using it that you have to consider.

    To sum up: no tool is free. There are learning curves and productivity to factor into your cost/benefit equation. Frequently the free tools will end up costing you more in productivity than professional tools cost you in dollars.

  21. It's rather dangerous to assume that a higher price tag means something is better. Specifically, there are quite a few free open-source applications that are either competitive or simply the best in their class.

    Linux, FreeBSD, and OpenBSD (as server OSes). MySQL, SQLite, CouchDB, etc. Python, Ruby. Git and Mercurial. Ogg Vorbis. All at least potentially useful to games developers.

    Eclipse. It's *the* IDE for Java, and it does a rather good job at Python and C++ as well.

    OGRE, OpenAL, and Bullet. Maybe they're not as good as spending thousands upon thousands of dollars for a "professional" game engine and Havok, but OGRE in particular is leagues ahead of using raw Direct3D, which remains a bafflingly popular approach.

    Then we have another class of "good enough for lots of people":

    Inkscape. I'm hopelessly unartistic, and I've created some perfectly decent icons and UI stuff with it.

    Audacity. You probably aren't going to record an album with it, but for recording/editing sound effects, mixing music, etc...if your needs are not complex, a commercial piece of software can do no better.

    And so on.

    What I'm trying to say is that plonking down a wad of cash is no substitute for due diligence researching and testing all appropriate options. It's certainly no substitute for learning the software; someone with no 3D graphics experience is going to find 3DSmax every bit as baffling as Blender.

    Sometimes, a commercial package like SpeedTree is all there is. Not much choice; if you want it, you have to buy it or write it yourself. But many times, there are a variety of free and commercial alternatives, and you'll often find that the free ones are just as "professional".

  22. I tried Photoshop a couple of years ago and i found it totally unproductive. On the other hand i find GIMP's interface brilliant.


    Because i'm using it for many years now and i know it good enough to be able to follow any Photoshop tutorial. I know what most tools/effect do (although i'm not keeping up as i used to and at a single occasion i wrote a Python script that did exactly the same thing as a built-in feature :-P) and how to achieve something with it.

    GIMP is more than enough for game development. The only drawback it has (when it comes to gamedev) is that it lacks the information other programs have.

  23. Some of us who used to play these awesome games are now looking for fledgling companies to invest in. Understanding the risk that even awesome companies can succumb to (moment of silence for Interplay) the interest is still there.

  24. Jeff, great write up. I agree with everything you've said. A lot of people are going wrag on number 2, and while some of them might have a point, they are missing the point. The point being that professional grade software is designed to be picked up fast, with a robust professional support structure.

    I use Blender myself. Why, becuase I like it, and I cut my teeth on it. But that doesn't mean that I could have done more faster using 3ds max. Also blender is great, but it can't do everything that 3ds max can. It's that simple. Blender looks at professional software and mimicks in it's newer builds.

    You can talk abotu this too death, but time is money. Using professional tools will save you time, and make your product nicer faster.


  25. Being a one man team is tough. Being a one man team with a regular day job is even worse... working on a game for years and years. By the time my DX9 game is done it will probably need to be run with an emulator. Well at least it currently works in Win7.

  26. You guys sort of forget that some people don't actually have the money to buy the professional tools, and someone else already pointed out you still have to learn said tools. If you're learning the tools even free ones, you'll figure out what you need to work around (if anything) what limitations you have, and be all the more productive for it. If you have the money and a commercial tool has what you need and you know how to use it or able to get up to speed quickly then go for it. If not then don't sweat using a free tool if it does what you want.

  27. "Am I ever tempted to write less involved casual-type puzzle games? Hell yes. But I make something that is relatively rare and you can't easily obtain on Kongregate for free."

    This is why buying the Geneforge games are a no-brainer, but I balked at buying the Popcap Complete pack until it went WAY down in price, even though I really wanted it for months. It turns out I was right: for each unique gem in the pack, there was a mediocre samey-game I've seen hundreds of variants elsewhere (To be fair, Popcap invented several of the genres now being ripped off, but that doesn't mean Bejeweled is a better game than Puzzle Quest. See point 1 of the main article.).

    Geneforge is the best "pet class" game I've ever played. A Torchlight Alchemist build focused on pets is pretty neat to play, but it lacks the granularity of control you get from Geneforge. Sometimes it's not that you have a completely unique idea (and if you think you do, you probably haven't done sufficient research), but that you have a unique spin on an already existing idea.

  28. Er, "Gimp" usually means a crippling injury to one's legs, But sometimes it also means a type of plastic thread used for children's crafts.

    Those are by far the two most common uses of the word in the English language.

    Perhaps the author is revealing the sort of crowd he rolls with? :-)

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  31. Thanks for the advice! I've been looking for inspirations to start our business, and for some tips, just so that we don't end up as one-day wonders. We've already got plans. All we need are the tools for the job. In my case, I'll be doing the business accounting. I'll be getting Peachtree Quantum for that specific task. Of course, the tools have to be up-to-date, right? Well, not really up-to-date, but the version that fits your requirements. In my case, it's the Peachtree Quantum 2011 version.

    Anyway, thanks again for the advice! For those who have read this post, I hope your business picks up smoothly!

  32. I'd agree with everything except the free software. For one I know Gimp and for me it's my main software. It never crashes on me and I can do everything I wanted and more on it. Switching to photoshop would entitle learning another tool when I already know gimp and it does everything I want. And by the way it's actual name is Gnu Image Manipulation Program.

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  37. Well I’m a non-games programmer ‘applications developer’ in real-life.
    I own a ‘proper’ version of Photoshop on an old mac at home, and have the latest version on my work PC.
    I work with Visual Studio daily in my proper-job, and I’ve got the free versions with XNA at home.
    I’ve made a few simple ‘test’ games with XNA; some finished, some still not completed; and would now be interested in doing something bigger.
    Unfortunately I just can’t get a handle on the ‘business’ side of making an ‘Indie’ game. Where is the metaphorical line between hobbyist games and the mythical – Indie?
    I’ve written ‘homebrew’ games in the past, and a game written using assembly language for the MB Vectrex ‘retro’ console seems to generate more, albeit very niche, interest than anything I’ve done using XNA.
    I have no idea what to do with the, admittedly simple, games I have made so people could at least see them. I’d love to sell games, but right now I don’t even know how or where to give them away! Far less whether or not this would help when publishing a paid game in any shape or form?

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