The Cost of Being an Indie Game Developer

Two indie game devs talk financial realities.

Gravity Ghost

Independently-developed video games are getting a lot more attention in gaming media thanks to mediums like Steam Greenlight, which allows users to vote new games into the Steam store, and easy-to-use game development programs like GameMaker that have led to smash-hits like Derek Yu’s Spelunky.

However, while the hype behind some of these games is huge, budgets remain shoestring and developers have to cobble together their games out-of-pocket. I reached out to two women working in independent game development to learn how they navigate its financial aspects.

Renee Nejo, Game Artist and Designer

Renee Nejo has worked on Ever, Jane, an online roleplaying game set in the world of Jane Austen, and Gravity Ghost. She’s also developing the forthcoming Blood Quantum, a passion project about Native American identity and history. For Nejo, the road to indie game development was paved with student debt and a few career changes.

Can you give me some background info on your career? Were you always in games? If not, what made you make the switch?

I started the work force in advertising back in the early 2000s. I did this while I attended school working on my undergrad for Forensic Psychology — I had hoped to go to law school and practice Tribal Law. I learned pretty quickly that Tribal Law was basically criminal law on tribal land. It became far more depressing the more I learned about the system.

In one of my later debate classes, an instructor whom I had a lot of respect for asked us “What do you do?” It may not seem profound, but at the time, I was struggling with finding my way. He was talking about success and what’s required to achieve it. He wrote on the board: “If you want to know the secret to success, here it is: Do what you do… well.” Then he asked us, “What do you do?”

I felt like an ass when I answered “Play video games and draw.” He followed up with “The last student who told me that was in this class five years ago and now works for Sony.” So there, at 25 years old, dragging my feet through an undergrad program I didn’t want to finish, I started over.

How did making the switch affect you financially?

I didn’t know at the time, but I took on more student debt than I bargained for. So much in fact, that I wouldn’t consider an education in games a wise choice. As it turns out, the best content comes from developers who studied far more interesting parts of the universe.

However, I wouldn’t call my education a waste, by any means. I made important connections, learned software and put my life on hold for about four years just learning how to create. I also don’t want to devalue education. It is extremely important. I, however, fell prey to for-profit schools with insane tuition and false promises. I was told that 75 percent of my graduating class would have a job after graduation. It was closer to about 20 percent.

My program was pretty demanding, and I progressed slower than most trying to work jobs with more flexible schedules, so I took to serving and bartending.

Why did you decide to go to grad school? How did that affect you financially?

I decided to go to grad school for probably the worst reasons, if I’m being completely honest. I truly believed that I couldn’t get work with my skill set where it was, and grad school seemed to be a life stall. This affected my student debt more than anything.

I wound up withdrawing from the program when I realized that it was basically a repeat of the bachelor’s program curriculum I already took. It was more important to me that I develop my skills than I get a document. When I confronted my instructors about the assignments being for “beginners,” it was basically explained to me that the curriculum had been designed for students that had no previous experience with development since their undergraduate degrees could be basically anything.

Were there any times when you were working multiple jobs simultaneously?

That’s an understatement. At one point in school I actually had three jobs, plus my school work load. After I was finished with school, I took almost any job I could get. I did a few months at an architecture firm on the graphics team, picked up many paying and nonpaying indie projects that never shipped, and bartended to maintain an income.

Fresh out of school, I was swimming with sharks. I had crippling impostor syndrome and a tendency to minimize my accomplishments. I would say yes to almost anyone willing to give me work. It took me years to practice discretion with what jobs were worth my time and when someone was trying to capitalize on my inexperience.

Can you give some background info on when you started working on Ever, Jane? How did you become involved with that project?

I started working on Ever, Jane late 2012. Judy Tyrer, the founder of 3 Turn Productions, was looking for an artist to help her get her Kickstarter off the ground and someone I volunteered with a few years back put her in touch with me. It started out with some assets she needed, and at the time they were wildly outside of my wheelhouse. In school, they tried to train you for the job you have the best shot at statistically. In games, that’s an asset or environment artist. Judy needed characters. I told her that I would get them done one way or another. This included rigging, animation, anatomy: all disciplines I barely dabbled in.

When I delivered the work she asked for, she said she liked my attitude, and I’ve been making art for her ever since. At first it was per asset, but as we got closer to the Kickstarter in 2013, I started taking on more work. We successfully raised $110,000 in 30 days.

Can you give some insight into Blood Quantum? Why is it a particular passion project for you?

Blood Quantum is a game about Native American identity, colonization from the position of natives here in the U.S., and the systemic extinction of the people still here.

When I decided to gamify Blood Quantum, I wanted to try to teach with empathy, and appeal to player’s curiosity. This is a very personal story for me, being “half” native, and only qualifying for less than 25 percent because of blood quantum law. It’s a kind of “love letter” to my heritage in the only way I know how to write it.

What advice would you give people looking to get into the world of indie game development?

Freelancers and contractors: Don’t undersell yourself. When talking about money, remember that companies don’t have the same context we do. $5,000 isn’t the same to a studio or company as it is to an individual, whether it’s negotiating your first salary or your freelance contract.

Redefine the meaning of “hours” when thinking about billing; it’s not just two hours to build that asset, it’s two hours plus all the hours you put into learning how to use that software and developing your eye/skillset. You are worth more than $10/$20 an hour. I like to break down how long something will take me and use that as a starting point. I don’t ever break down the hours for clients unless they ask, and they usually won’t.

Never do work for free. Ever. If someone is trying to get free work out of you, they don’t know how to handle their budget anyway, and you probably don’t want a relationship with them in the long run. A lot of indie startups will do a kind of equity option, giving you a percentage of ownership on the game. This can work, but I suggest you look at the studio’s or developer’s track record. The best predictions of the future are in the patterns of the past.

Independent games are extremely difficult to be successful in. Statistically, you have about 1/100 chance that your game will make back the money you put in to it. Read up about your industry, regularly. There will be people who tell you “do something else” — don’t listen to them. No one knows what you go through except you. People forget that their options are not the same for everyone. Passion can’t be taught, but if you have it, and you want this, don’t let anyone just tell you can’t have it, that you aren’t good enough or this isn’t worth it.

Finally, don’t make games. Do something else.

Renee Gittins, Founder of Stumbling Cat

Renee Gittins founded the game studio Stumbling Cat in 2014. Its first major project is Potions: A Curious Tale, and its Kickstarter launched on April 8, 2016.

Can you tell me a little bit about the Kickstarter?

Potions: A Curious Tale

The core of Potions: A Curious Tale is complete, but we still want to build up more content for our players to enjoy.

I’ve self-funded the project so far, investing my own savings into my team. Now that Potions is in a solid state, I wanted to share it with the world and see if others share the same interest and passion as I do for the game. While there have been some other funding opportunities offered to us, I believe that crowdfunding will help establish a strong connection with our community and allow us to create a platform in which we can work with them to help bring this game and the fairytales and lore of their own cultures to life.

How many employees does Stumbling Cat currently employ? Are they full-time, or part-time?

We have a core team of four members with a total number of 10 overall contributors. Aside from myself, everyone is a part-time contractor—though I hope that Potions: A Curious Tale is successful enough that we are able to support full-time employees.

How did your partnership with Matthew Endsley come about?

I had previously assisted his company, Carbon Games, with press relations and testing, among other tasks. Matt and I found that our skills are very complementary to each other.

Matt is an absolutely amazing programmer and I requested his mentorship as I started breaking my way into the world of games. He knows a lot about the industry and game creation process, so working with him has been a great benefit to me. On the other hand, I have much more experience in regards to design and leadership, areas which Matt had been looking to improve his skills within. We created Stumbling Cat as a company in which we could rely on each other’s strength and guidance for our own projects.

You started out working on health management systems. What made you jump to game development? Did you have any hesitations about making the switch?

Games have been a passion of mine for my entire life. Unfortunately, I just wasn’t made aware that game development was a potential path for me until I was in my senior year of college. At the time, I had been studying as an engineer with a focus in project management and mechanical engineering. While I looked into game development jobs at the time, I decided to pursue my interest in biotech.

Eventually, though, the draw of the game development world was too strong to resist and I began studying and working to become a game developer.

I read that you first started out by helping an indie studio on the side. Was it difficult balancing a day job with working on these side projects?

The side projects were also my hobbies, so I didn’t really consider them work in the same way as my day job. While I ended up “working” many long days, I greatly enjoyed working on these games, so I found the time I spent with them fun and relaxing. Plus, they introduced me to a whole new set of friends and associates that have become part of a large support network that has helped me get to where I am today.

You mentioned that a lot of Stumbling Cat’s work was self-funded. Can you give some background information on that? How much were you saving when you worked as a software developer?

I am a very frugal person for the most part, so working as a software developer in biotech provided me with much more money than I was spending. In fact, I was putting over half of my salary each month into saving and retirement accounts. Over the three years within the field before I began working full time at Stumbling Cat, I saved up quite a handsome sum of money with which to fund the company.

What costs were you cutting? What were your biggest expenses?

I don’t hire anyone to do something that I can do myself. In fact, I was the only person on the team for the first six months of development of Potions: A Curious Tale. I wanted to prove that I could make the game and only hire a team to support me when I had proved to myself that I could complete the game and that it would be fun to play.

I manage all of our business development, marketing, public relations, programming, web development, game design and management. It’s a lot of hats to wear and responsibilities to juggle, but having diverse skill sets and being willing to put in the hours and hard work myself saves me a lot of money.

I am not a great artist or audio engineer, however. So my main expenses are definitely paying my team for art, animation, sound design and music.

I believe that the quality of the team you can hire and the quality of work you receive is much higher when you pay them up front for their work. However, as the financial risks are so high for me, I compensate my team members on a per-asset basis. This provides protections for me, because I know the cost of an item beforehand, so there’s never unexpected costs, and, if a teammate were to leave the team without completing an item, I don’t lose money invested towards the incomplete asset.

I also work closely with members of the local game development community when I can. We provide support for each other that helps us all save costs by trading time and skills. Knowing about these various studios and people also greatly cuts down on time and costs spent searching for assistance.

For example, a local film studio, Imagos Films, helped us make our amazing game trailer at a quality much higher than I could have done myself, and our partnership with them would not have been possible without the amazing game development network that exists both within Seattle and across the country.

I also read you had a scholarship from Intel. In what ways did that help you out? Did they reach out to you?

Intel reached out to me when looking for candidates for their scholarships because they had seen both my game at a local convention, Power of Play, and because they were aware of my enthusiasm and activity within the industry.

The scholarship I received from Intel was for a trip to D.I.C.E., an elite game summit that costs a hefty sum to attend. I was able to network with some of the most influential people in the game industry while I was there and established new business connections, including with a publisher and a new funding platform that may be beneficial to me in the future.

Intel has worked hard to support game developers and improve diversity within the industry. At GDC [Game Developers Conference] they even provided me with a free one-on-one session to improve the performance of graphics within our game.

Lastly, what tips would you give to someone developing their own game? Especially in terms of finances?

Video game development is hard. In order to successfully create a game, you need to have a plan, both in terms of what you specifically want the game to be and you must plan out the development process as well. Team costs are the highest for game development, so every single person you hire needs to add greatly to the team.

Many indie game developers compensate their team with profit sharing, which can be a great approach if you want to reduce your own financial risks and commitment, but many artists and other contributors have become wary of profit sharing after so many game projects providing that kind of compensation have failed. Look for opportunities to reduce costs by trading services, take advantages of programs of supporting small companies and game developers, and contact companies like Intel who actively work to support game developers.

And, most of all, be kind to yourself and your team, physically, mentally and emotionally. Overworked, stressed, upset and unhealthy people do not produce the same quality of work.

Ashley Burnett is a writer whose work has appeared on Paste, The Toast and several other websites and publications. You can catch her on Twitter @AshleyDBurnett or contact her through her website.

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