Independent’s Day: The Reality of Indie Game Development

Interactive entertainment’s answer to art-house films is indie game development. Titles like Minecraft, Recettear and World of Goo have captured a legion of forward-thinking fans’ and bedroom coders’ imaginations alike. But despite consistently raising the bar for innovation and creativity, life left of the keyboard isn’t all fun and games. Dave Gilbert, founder of indie adventure-game studio Wadjet Eye Games (The Blackwell Legacy , Puzzle Bots ), explains the indie life to Scott Steinberg.

Scott Steinberg.

Scott Steinberg.

By Scott Steinberg

Interactive entertainment’s answer to art-house films is indie game development. Titles like Minecraft , Recettear  and World of Goo  have captured a legion of forward-thinking fans’ and bedroom coders’ imaginations alike. But despite consistently raising the bar for innovation and creativity, life left of the keyboard isn’t all fun and games. Dave Gilbert, founder of indie adventure-game studio Wadjet Eye Games  (The Blackwell Legacy , Puzzle Bots ), explains the indie life to Scott Steinberg.

Scott Steinberg: What defines an “indie” game today?

Dave Gilbert:

A game that adheres to a single vision, whether that of one person or a tiny group. It doesn’t rely on venture capital or outside interests to get made. You get a lot of very cool, scrappy, innovative ideas that you just wouldn’t find in a blockbuster studio. Someone just comes up with an idea and then sits down and makes it.

S.S.: Why are indie titles suddenly so popular?

D.G.:

Indie games have actually been around since the beginning, only they used to be called shareware. But now the industry’s been rebranded as “indie.” It’s got a hip and edgy vibe, but it took a long time to get to this point. Gamers are finally noticing what they have to offer. Blockbuster games have gotten so prohibitively expensive that studios are taking less risks. Indie studios have less to lose, so they can really let loose.

S.S.: What’s day-to-day reality like for independent developers?

D.G.: Some days I work at home, but half the time I take my laptop to a cafe and work from there to keep from driving myself crazy. Daily, I’m either coding, coordinating with artists or working with voice actors … sometimes all three. Honestly, there’s no rhyme or reason to the way I work. How I’ve managed to get seven games done in five years baffles even me.

S.S.: Is it about creative freedom? Getting rich? Or … ?

D.G.:

Neither! It’s all about the hot groupie chicks. 

S.S.: How tough is it to make it as an independent?

D.G.:

It can be hard. Even after five years, I sometimes think: “What have I gotten myself into?” The excitement of launching a game quickly meets the reality of actually selling the thing. For every breakout hit like World of Goo  or Braid, a thousand games slip under the radar unnoticed.

S.S.: We’re always hearing about hit indie games in the media. Should aspiring developers rush out and quit their day jobs?

D.G.:

This is a difficult question and I’ll need to think about it for a min … NO! Definitely not. I always joke that I started writing games to avoid getting a real job, but I wouldn’t have been able to do it if I didn’t have 10 months’ worth of savings to live on. And even still, it’s touch-and-go. Be prepared to live like Ghandi for a year or two to get by. Don’t plan to fail, but don’t ignore the possibility. That said, if you are prepared to take the risks, don’t delay! Take the plunge.

S.S.: Why does the PC remain a favorite platform for indie games?

D.G.:

It’s the easiest platform to develop on. You just code the game, put it up on a website and -- bam! I also like the PC because it’s very stable. It’s perfect for genres like adventure games or RPGs that require long, relaxed playing sessions. You wouldn’t sit down to play a long RPG on an iPhone … or, at least, not many.

S.S.: What’s next for the indie game movement?

D.G.:

I’ve often heard it compared to indie music and film movements of the ’90s, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see games go the same way. Sooner or later, we’ll see AAA studios create indie divisions to attract new talent and new ideas.

Technology expert Scott Steinberg is the CEO of video game consulting firm TechSavvy Global, and a celebrated gaming guru who’s a frequent on-air analyst for ABC, CBS and CNN.