You Are Nothing Special (But You Can Be)

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told by some extremely enthusiastic indie developer “the difference between indie games and mainstream games is indie games are made with passion.”  No.  It’s just not true.  Although I do not deny that indie developers are overflowing with so much passion that they cause all surrounding dust mites to hump like bunnies, it’s not a trait unique to them.  Simply put, if you work in the game industry, you probably have a passion for video games.

Yes, even crap like Duke Nukem Forever was made by a crew who have a love of video games. Who would take this job if they didn't have it?

Here’s a story for you.  There was this guy named Larry who did an internship at our office.  Larry was an accounting major at Stanford.  Larry was a really cool guy.  Funny, worked hard, and he was really smart.  Also, Larry thought accounting was fucking boring as hell and dreaded the tedium his job would no doubt bring him in the future.  I’m not the most talkative person, but I had to ask him why he would want to go to a prestigious school like Stanford on his own dime to study for a job he knows he would hate.  Larry was intelligent enough that his options were, in my opinion at least, limitless.  But Larry chose accounting because it’s a career that pays well and typically has a high degree of security.

Nobody who works in the game industry is like Larry.  There’s nobody going to school who has aspirations for a job in game production who dreads the concept of their chosen career path.  And that’s before we talk about the wages.  Although some people can make exceptionally good salaries in gaming, most jobs in the industry typically pay less than what comparative jobs in different industries make.

Indie game developers are a proud group of people, and they should be.  But when it comes time to describe what makes them unique, passion should be left off the table.  No matter what anyone believes, I promise you that almost every schmo working at Electronic Arts, Activision, or any other major gaming company has a true passion and love of video games.  They have to, because who would choose a career in an industry with below-average salaries, long hours, and job security that is often shaky at best?

So no, you are not special because of your passion.  Quit bringing it up every interview.  Mainstream writers need to quit using it as their all-encompassing adjective to describe the scene.  It’s simply not true.  Stop it.  Please.

But, indie developers have something amazing that does make them unique.  It’s precious enough that it should be the centerpiece of the entire indie development scene.  The thing people point to that sells newcomers on why indie gaming is so important.  Yet, for whatever reason, I rarely see developers talk about it.

Freedom.

You, the indie game developer, have it.  Those people at EA or Activision that are every bit as passionate as you do not.  You’re free to experiment.  You’re free to get weird.  You’re free to make mistakes.  You’re free to try something that has never been attempted before.  Why is this not the biggest crowing point on the scene?

Stuff like DLC Quest would never get made by a major studio.

When you make an indie game, you’re limited only by your imagination.  Well, that and any technical limitations, but my point still stands.  You can do anything you want with your game.  They can’t.  This is why you are special.  So take advantage of that, and brag about that, and be proud of that.  Go ahead, rub it in.  But above all else, use it.  One of my biggest disappoints since starting my site is how devoid of originality the indie scene at large seems to be.  I’m sure the lure of making an easy couple grand on yet another zombie TwickS or Minecraft clone is tempting, but it won’t get you any attention.  You could be the next big thing in gaming.  I mean, whose to say you don’t have it in you?  But the only way you can get there is by taking advantage of the one thing you have that they don’t.  Yea, you’re also free to play Follow the Leader if you so desire.  Just remember, there’s only one winner in that game and it already isn’t you.  They’ll still get all the attention.  All you’ll get is familiarity with the scent of the leader’s ass.

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35 Responses to You Are Nothing Special (But You Can Be)

  1. “You’re also free to play Follow the Leader if you so desire. Just remember, there’s only one winner in that game and it already isn’t you.” – Insightful! I like it.

    I argued recently (though I’m still waiting for it to be published by Albatross Revue) that indie development is where the next crop of Tim Schafers, Sid Meiers and Peter Molyneuxs will come from. XBLIG already has people like Ben Kane and Ian Stocker experimenting with ideas and genres. Plus, look at the simple yet potent hybrids, like Lexiv.

    • Kairi Vice says:

      Lexiv is a prime example of what you can do with that level of freedom. Oddly enough, the stuff Lexiv does is so obviously the next step in Scrabble that I’m shocked nobody had done it before.

  2. Starglider says:

    Being experimental comes at a real financial cost; most of the bestselling games on XBLIG are clones or parodies, because experiments often fail and are very hard to sell even when they succeed.

    • Kairi Vice says:

      Hate to say this, but anyone who publishes games to XBLIG as a career is a fool. Treat it as a hobby, and budget your game accordingly.

      • Agreed. If you’re thinking about making money, you’re going to be disappointed. XBLIG simply is not lucrative, with very very few exceptions. And if you’re in it for the money, then you can’t really make a claim to more ‘passion’ than the professionals.

        I hate to keep referring to this interview, but wise words are contained therein. When Ed McMillen was interviewed by Design3, his advice was to give no thought whatsoever to financial gain while developing indie games. And he was talking about PC, where there’sa much better change of profit than on XBLIG. Basically, he said if you’re thinking about how you could make money from your games, then you’ve completely missed the point. And I agree.

        • Robert Boyd says:

          I strongly disagree that financial gain shouldn’t be a consideration when developing indie games. Rather, financial gain shouldn’t be the ONLY consideration when developing indie games. The more financially successful your games are, the easier it is to make the next game.

          • Kairi Vice says:

            Well I was specifically talking XBLIGs. I think people need a realistic view of their chances. I was told by one developer that they had mortgaged their house to fund their game on XBLIG. That’s borderline tragic. Above all else, you should not make choices that put yourself in financial peril.

          • Eversor says:

            Yeah totally agree with Mr.Boyd, but money itself is not the big point anyway. We don’t make games to play them ourself, we make them to have them played by people, and reviewd , and shown to friends.
            Making money means selling our game, selling our game means more people play it and likes it enough to take the hassle to buy some MSP for it.
            It’s a win/win game for me.
            Only thing is, on the long run, a game made to sell from beginning to the end, will lok a lot like the other games made to sell.

      • Exactly, I wouldn’t like to make XBLIGs as a career. I treat it as a hobby which will earn me experience in the gaming industry, something to put on my CV when I leave college and a bit of money on the side. This means my games won’t be too amazing, I won’t hire a artist or a musician because then that means I’m relying on making cash from my games.

        Cash is only a bonus to me, I’m in it for the experience.

        • Kairi Vice says:

          If you want a career in gaming, XBLIG is a perfectly fine place to build a résumé, and to get experience.

          It’s also a great place to experiment. No promoted platform (even if its barely promoted) has a smaller barrier of entry as Xbox Live Indie Games does. You can try new things and still get published on a major CONSOLE, with minimal resistance. It’s such an amazing chance. So few take advantage of what you can really do with it.

          • Indeed. I’m not sure yet whether I want to be mainstream or indie by the time I Ieave college but XBLIG is definitely a good play ground for now.

            • Kairi Vice says:

              If this is what your career is going to be, wherever you land, you should make enough to support yourself. There’s no shame in working for an established studio doing licensed games or shovelware if that’s what you need to do to pay the bills. As long as you never lose your love of what you do, it will reflect in your work. Build your résumé and continue to gather experience. If you can make enough money to fully support yourself or your family if you have one, doing indies, then do it. But whatever choice you make, make sure you can live as comfortably as possible. Don’t end up working hand to mouth. Independent game design will be around. Build a reputation first.

              • I think there is still a lot of fun to be had at a mainstream company. Especially for a designer or a director, which is the fields I would want to get in if I became mainstream. The bottom line which will really affect my decision is which would be the most fun for me. I don’t have to worry about paying for anyone other than myself for quite a while now anyway(and I don’t even have to pay for myself yet!) so money isn’t the problem here. Most people would assume being indie is always the most fun, but you miss out on that cool team building experience you get with a group of game developers working on a big hit. It’s really two completely different yet very similar experiences being indie or mainstream. It’s not a set in stone decision either, I could be mainstream for a while then go indie if I wanted to.

                Then again, who says I can’t be both?

                • dannobot says:

                  A lot of game companies make their employees sign non-compete agreements which specify “no outside projects”, which includes indie games, apps, open source projects, etc. So usually, your employer will say you can’t be both :(

  3. mautat says:

    I think there is another thing that makes indie gaming awesome: we are like insects in respect to mammals. Ok, I’m not (entirely) crazy. What I mean is that, with short production time games, we can have very quick “generations” of our production that can lead to a rapid evolution of our style and skills. Something that even a medium sized studio, focusing on many years spanning projects, can’t have.

    Then, about the money thing, as I said in other places, between starving and being Notch there are a thousand middle ways we can aim to (though not through XBLIG, I admint :P).

    • Kairi Vice says:

      I actually like that way of putting it. It’s true, that you do grow and change faster. That’s what working with nearly-unlimited freedom does do.

    • Good point, insightfully made.

    • Eversor says:

      Unfortunately between starving and notch the place is like this:

      ………………………………………………………………………………Notch Inc.
      ………………………………………………………………………………__________
      ………………………………………………………………………………|
      ………………………………………………………………………………|
      ………………………………………………………………………………|
      Planes of starving…………………………………………………….|
      —————————————————————————-

      • mautat says:

        I have to disagree :) I’ve been in the industry for quite a while before going indie and I have observed a lot. It is true that many and more are doomed to disappear quickly, but the ones with the will to learn and refine themselves can remain and earn a decent living from indie games, though becoming rich is very unlikely. And if one doesn’t think he can belong to the second group, better not to start at all, I think. The point is being realistic in our projects, keeping low budget (as Kairi said before) and be prepared to both success and failure. And, most of all, having the will to learn from our mistakes and from more experienced people. Also, I want to stress again that certainly XBLIG alone is not the right way to earn a fair amount of money.

        P. S.: I saw your site, I’ll check your game as soon as I can ;)

        • Eversor says:

          I fear the industry you have been into for quite some time is changing at the speed of light, the problem is, nobody knows where it is going.

          • mautat says:

            Surely it is, but I’m still observing, making guesses and willing to take the challenge… as I said, I am also prepared to failure. Most of all, as you said in another comment, money is not the big point here: we just want to make what is necessary to fund our passion and continue having our games played as much as we can :)
            .
            .
            .
            .
            .
            (ok, now I just sound like Optimistic Indie… :P)

      • mautat says:

        oh, and obviously it’s also about defining what is “a decent living” :P

  4. I think there is another thing that makes indie gaming awesome: we are like insects in respect to mammals. Ok, I’m not (entirely) crazy. What I mean is that, with short production time games, we can have very quick “generations” of our production that can lead to a rapid evolution of our style and skills. Something that even a medium sized studio, focusing on many years spanning projects, can’t have.

    Also, about the money thing, as I said in other places, between starving and being Notch there are a thousand middle ways we can aim for (though not through XBLIG, I admit :P)

  5. CJ says:

    Our freedom and the ability to grow and show off our unique skills is one of the great things about indie gaming. And I’m really excited and looking forward to seeing everyone in their prime making some great games, which will take a while. :D

  6. BigDaddio says:

    It always bothered me how indie devs were “passionate” and others were just from the collective. The sad part is how large companies like EA use this passion to their advantage, knowing that most people looking for a programming job there are passionate and will work for less than they may get paid working for an insurance company or some such. Lots of young programmers will happily go to work for EA etc thinking they are doing great when other types companies will pay more. Depending on what you are doing you can even get a similar challenge.

    • Kairi Vice says:

      Yea, statistically speaking, the generic title of “programmer” earns slightly under what others in comparative jobs make in different industries. It’s not a significant dip, but it’s there.

      And by the way, there is nothing wrong with EA running their business like that. Because BigDaddio, you have to remember that EA has a pretty employee turnover rate. I don’t blame them for not paying average wages, because a LOT of people treat the job as a temporary résumé builder.

  7. Love it.
    Nothing makes me cringe more than seeing a developer’s ‘About’ page say how passionate they are about making games. Often times people who say that create the buggiest/most unwieldy games.

  8. magicaltimebean says:

    There’s nothing I can really contribute to this discussion, so I just wanted to say, good article.

    They can take our lives, but they can never take our independence day!

    • Kairi Vice says:

      I think for bad movie quotes, your front door gets kicked in and someone shoots your cat. If you don’t have a cat, one can be provided for you. You’ll name it Patches and let it wrestle with a ball of yarn. It will be adorable. You’ll make a video and put it on Youtube and it will get 250,000 hits in it’s first month. And as soon as the bonding is finished, BAM goes door, BANG goes gun, BLAPH goes pieces of Patches.

      • Yeah, but that was a quality hybrid butchered quote. It’s like the hot pink prius of quotes. I think for that Patches should just get a moderate head wound.

        I agree that I hate it when people go on about how passionate they are about making games. I want to meet the guy in the industry who says he’s indifferent about making games and is just working a game job to spite that nerd he hated in high school, taking a job he otherwise might have been able to get.

        As for the money, saying to treat game development as a hobby is fine if that’s all you ever want it to be in your life: a hobby. Those who make enough off of games, treating it as a hobby, to cross over from hobbyist to professional are far and few between. If you’re serious about developing games for a living you do have to treat it as your profession, which means while you’re getting that first professional quality game developed you’re likely essentially working two jobs. I think there’s where the passion shows: if you’re willing to work one job to support yourself while you’re developing that first game essentially unpaid then you pass the passion prerequisite.

        • ‘Treat it as a hobby’ means ‘be realistic about your chances of making money from it’. It’s not impossible, but you have to be realistic. Be prepared to make the best game you can three or four times a year for ten years before you start making a living from it.

  9. Pingback: The 4th Wall « Indie Gamer Chick

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