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Being an indie game developer is like being a professional bocce player—you’re doing it for the love of the game, not to make riches. If making a ton of money is your top priority then know ahead of time that it will most likely be a challenging goal to achieve given all the blood, sweat and tears you will pour into your work. Unlike AAA studios that can invest tens of millions of dollars and an army of artists, designers and programmers into a single title, most indies are not in that same situation.
However, there are indie firms that are making amazing games and earning enough money to support their business model. These developers are typically not trying to compete with AAA studios, and are instead focusing on making unique titles that gamers will love.
I recently spoke to the good folks at E-Line Media, one of the most innovative indie developers we’ve talked to. Matt Swanson, Producer, and Casey McDonnell, Art Director, worked on a team that recently released the wildly successful Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna), a game developed in collaboration with the Inupiat, an Alaska native people. It was created by a small team over two and half years and has since been downloaded 2.6 million times, making it an important indie success story.
They were kind enough to share some of their secrets:
The games that resonate with people are ones where the developer shows curiosity or a specific point of view about the subject matter. Gamers can recognize passion and will respond well. Never Alone was developed in collaboration with nearly 40 Alaska native elders, storytellers and community members—people who all had a vested interest in sharing their culture. And that history comes out in the storytelling and the details found in the game.
A project like Never Alone would not be something a major studio would have taken on. It would have been too much of a risk to put tens of millions of dollars in a game that didn’t have a natural, built-in audience. But a smaller company like E-Line Media could take the risk because they found personal value in developing the game (and had a much smaller investment). Innovations in the gaming world typically come from indies—those developers who don’t have the burden of corporate boards, shareholders and millions of marketing dollars riding on a game’s success. Daring to be different often has high reward.
You can’t be married to your ideas. Really embrace the prototype process so you can determine right away if an idea is not going to work. The production phase is the most expensive part of making a game so anything you can do, decide, cut or change in pre-production is only going to help in the long run.
Everyone at E-Line Media has input, and everyone is welcome in design discussions. Sure, people have their own roles and responsibilities but with their small team approach, they were able to get that personal investment from everyone in the group—which usually shows through in the final product. Having a versatile staff certainly helps. It’s also important to connect with likeminded indie developers who can serve as a critical sounding board and speak from an outsider’s viewpoint. This type of peer networking and collaboration is often frowned upon by major studios and is one of the best aspects of being an indie developer.
It’s important to have a clear vision and a goal to stay true to what originally drew the team to take on a particular project, but sometimes it can be obvious that the game needs to change direction. At some point, someone has identified some driving force that needs to be portrayed through the game, and progress toward that goal needs to be tracked to make sure that original idea is still valid. Are milestones being met? What are the roadblocks? What needs to be cut? There can be many distractions along the way, but if the original idea is solid, having a focused plan can help gamers stay true to the original vision or successfully pivot if appropriate. The game should always be the boss.