Top 10 things an Indie Game Developer wished they knew before they started
Welcome to Indie Game Development!
In the gaming world there are giants and small fries. Kind of like a middle class, there are also studios that have no ties to investors and may receive funding through third parties, funded from within or use commercial sites to receive donated funds for a promised product. This is all fine and dandy, but who are the Indie Developers? Most recently, the big 6 major companies (EA, Activision, Nintendo, etc...) have sited Indie developers as small studios. Publications from these giants have been that Indie's are companies that aren't within their circle, but this is not true. Indies are you and me, simply trying to make a game that will be released on some platform. The giants aren't yet sure if this is a big threat to their business model or not, so already you were born into separation. Here's what you need to know.
1. Making an Indie Game is hard
In companies, there is typically a devoted group to each task. One for graphic design (arguably the most difficult), Music and Sound Effects, Programming and Testing (QA, UAT, whatever you decide to call it). As in independent developer, you will be doing all of this whether you agree with it or not. Where you plan to spend most of your time in these areas will determine the quality of the game.
2. Legal Stuff (Really?)
This is a fuzzy area, but you certainly don't want to get in trouble with the law. Everything must be built from scratch. That includes graphics, music, code, etc. Understand the licensing terms of each platform you use and lean towards applications that are 'open source'. There are fantastic tools out there like Blender, Unity and applications that you choose to purchase. Although it may be boring at first, make sure you read and understand the licensing agreement before using someone's tool. Realize that digital signatures are on everything and it is easier these days to identify someone committing copyright infringement. Granted, if your game never gets to market and you don't make any money, you're in the clear. In the end, respect other's content and don't steal it.
3. Should I copyright/patent/trademarks?
This is a decision entirely up to you. In experience, its not too expensive or difficult to copyright music, but anything else is fuzzy. Patent and Trademarks is a tricky area, because there is a always a threat that someone can take credit for your work if it's successful. However, if it's not, then there was no reason to spend the money in the first place. When you trademark, you are agreeing to act as a business. If you don't expect to make above $600 in a given year, then it stays a hobby and won't be reportable for income taxes.
A trademark typically costs $350 without a lawyer signing off, but with so many trademarks in the world today, it's extremely likely that yours will appear similar to someone else's. This is a big problem, because if your trademark doesn't go through, you'll need to drop another 350 bombs to start the process all over again with a different one. Also, in experience, you will be bombarded with attorney solicitations once the process begins. They know instantly who you are and will be willing to fight for your patent, for a price of course. Don't expect to spend less than $700 in this process to successfully come out with a decent trademark.
4. Remain positive
Realize that your ability to produce a game with a couple people or by your lonesome is a huge accomplishment. Most companies will hire whole departments to complete an implementation, so this is proof of your capability. Don't get arrogant, because it goes downhill from here, but realize that anyone who became successful has remained positive about the project and is willing to commit time and energy to complete it. If it isn't fun and is perceived as work, then re-evaluate whether this is for you. This is not going to be easy and the testing period will cause you to sometimes rack your brain, but remaining positive about the project gives you the ability to be successful.
5. Backup backup backup
There is nothing more frustrating than losing everything. Make it a habit to backup all of your work everyday. If you are tech savvy, consider creating a command script that will automatically copy all of your files to a saved location on an external hard drive. There is no such thing as a stable environment in game development, so this step is especially critical.
6. Setup for success
Many will consider a completely ghosted computer designated for the single purpose of game development. The reasons for this is it will perform better on an untouched PC/MAC and as you work to install the necessary programs, they will work as intended if no other programs exist (run in the background). Use this computer on a limited basis, for the purpose of designing and testing your game. Computers are relatively cheap these days, so plan accordingly.
7. Target development that will succeed
Part of the planning phase that occurs at the beginning, targeting a console/phone for development is a tricky step. For example, while Google Play is on all major touch pad devises and has the biggest population of gamers, realize that their infrastructure will not advertise your game for free.
We learned that whenever releasing a game on apple, the game receives immediate attention and is displayed on 'new releases', giving it a boost at the beginning without the need for advertising. When releasing a game on Google Play, there was no such support, but rather a wave of expensive options to give your game better visibility.
For this reason, it's critically important that you identify how the infrastructure supports your ideas before committing any development time.
8. Marketing is a paradox
There are many sites that will tell you to market early and get yourself setup on all the major social media sites. Then, they'll conveniently display a success story about Bob, who developed a game by himself and now its on Steam and he's making a living because of the smart choices he made based on the marketing advice from this article. I'm going to save you lots of headaches by telling you this outright, IT'S ALL FAKE! While marketing yourself is important, the first thing you'll get caught up in is the serial followers that pretty much will follow you if you follow them. There are hundreds of thousands of us all trying to do the same thing. You've basically started a band and your best bet is to differentiate yourself among the others, in hopes to get signed. This is an unfortunate reality, understand this before you proceed any further.
9. Connect with capable programmers
Set aside some time to do this, or setup a group of programmers all doing the same thing. This could be at a university, church, or even a weekly event at a home. Surrounding yourself with capable programmers is the beginning of a powerful exchange of ideas that you don't have to pay for. Most of the programs I've used were based on tips from computer engineers and experienced individuals. It's the difference of hours searching the web and minutes having the conversation.
10. Set realistic goals
If your goal is to make a living doing this, consider pairing this with a real job. Realize that in doing this, you will be a better programmer and asset to a larger company. That may be the best benefit of being an Indie developer. The ability to understand an implementation, although rather small, from beginning to end and have a pretty user friendly application is a big accomplishment. It may serve as experience worth sharing at an interview. It suggests that ahead of education, you can apply that knowledge in real world circumstances, which translates into some very much needed work experience. I've personally noticed a stronger ability to automate tedious processing and provide better technical solutions for problems from people with this experience. If the application doesn't make any money, know that the experience, if shared with the right people, is worth more than you know.