Indie Challenges

Several weeks ago I wrote up a post called “I’m Indie, and I’m Proud” about the things I love about being an indie game developer. The post was full of all the positive things I love about indie life. A few people pointed out that I wasn’t representing the whole picture, so I thought I’d write up a companion post about some of the biggest challenges I have encountered being indie. This is not meant to dissuade anyone from becoming indie, but merely to show both sides of the issue. Going indie is still one of the best decisions I’ve made.

Note: This article refers to being “indie” in the sense of running your own business. If you’re working a salaried position at a small indie studio, much of this won’t apply.

1. Lack of Stable Income

Let’s get this out of the way right off the bat, because it’s the biggie. As an indie developer, you will most likely not have a steady income. Your income will fluctuate greatly from day to day. Until you launch that first game, your income will be $0. Even after you launch that first game, your income may very well still be close to $0. You need to be ready for that.

Game Developer Magazine does an annual survey of game developer salaries around the world (but mostly centred in the US). This past year they did the first indie salary survey [1]. The survey found that the average annual income for a solo indie developer (i.e. a dev working by his or herself) is about $11,000 USD. The average increases to about $20,000 if the developer works as part of a team of two or more people. This is why so many indie developers do contract work on the side. Making your own game is a risk, but being paid to develop someone else’s game is less risky.

But there’s an upside: if you’re one of the few lucky ones to release a really killer game that takes off and becomes a hit, the potential to make a lot of money is there. Just don’t rely on it as your plan for sustaining the business.

What does this mean? It’s going to be an adjustment. If you’re used to working a job with a regular salary, working for yourself will take some time to get used to. You’ll start thinking about your time differently, and also start thinking about money differently. Instead of thinking “This DVD is only $20, I’ll take it!” You’ll start thinking “Wow, $20…that’s like selling 29 copies of my game at $0.99…that’s like…three days of sales.”

2. Work/Life Balance

In my other post I talked about the freedom we have as indie developers to work the hours we want to work. However, the flip side of that is that the line between home life and work life can easily become blurred. If you’re working for a larger indie studio you may have office space and this isn’t as much of a problem. But if you’re working from home, it’s easy to “just work one more hour” after dinner, or “just write a few more emails before bed”. Next thing you know it’s 2:00 AM and you’re introducing three bugs every 15 minutes into your rendering system. When your work computer is in your home, it can be difficult to force yourself to stop working, or sometimes to start working.

I’m a guy who likes his routine (boy is that changing now that I have a one-month-old baby). My routine helps me to work during “working hours” and not work when I want to spend time with my family. Even though I work from home, (before the baby) I got up every day at 7:30, showered, ate breakfast, got dressed, and “went to work”. It helps me to delineate the difference between being at home, and being at work. A friend of mine told me about his friend who used to walk around the block and return home to force himself to think about being “at work” differently. Where I still struggle the most is at the end of the day. 5:30 or 6:00 rolls around and I need to start cooking dinner, but it’s easy to “just write a couple more lines of code” and get lost in it.

However, it can be done. You can find a really nice balance between work and life outside of work. It’s just going to take more discipline than if you worked for someone else.

3. Oh So Much Paperwork

All you want to do is make great games, but if you’re reading this, you’re probably pretty serious about it. You’re running a business. Running a business comes with a lot of work that isn’t much fun: filling out international tax treaty forms, doing your monthly bookkeeping (did I say monthly? er…yearly?), filing your taxes, dealing with copyright or trademark infringement, figuring out how to make money, etc, etc. But it all needs to be done. Your brain will want to say to you “hey man, you could be logging your business receipts in your accounting software right now…but wouldn’t you much rather be implementing that new animation system you’ve been dying to try??” Sometimes you need to tell that little voice to shut up and take care of the business.

4. Feeling Like a Failure

Ok, this is starting to get kind of personal…and I really hope I’m not the only one who feels this sometimes. 😉 As much as you’ll have days where you absolutely LOVE being indie and making your own games, you will probably have days where it just sucks. You’ll get your daily sales report (if you’re selling on the App Store) and have a day where you made $1.43 the previous day and you’ll start to wonder what you’re doing with your life. You’ll hit a roadblock with your game and wonder if you’ll ever be able to solve it. You’ll get to an alpha build with your game and realize all the fun work is done and now you just have to hunker down and finish the boring parts of making a game. You’ll have a day where all your ideas feel like they’re the worst idea you’ve ever had.

I’m here to tell you: that’s ok. But this is why it’s so important that you LOVE making games. Because not all parts of the process are fun. Some parts suck. Some parts will make you want to quit. But if you really love it, if you can’t think of anything else you’d rather be doing with your life, then you’ll push through the bad days and you’ll get back to loving it again.

But…It’s Worth It

So yes, there are parts of being an indie developer that aren’t all sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows (you really should click that link). But you know what? I still love it! Because for all the annoyances and hard days, they all pale in comparison to the fact that I get to make the games I want to make every day!


[1] Brandon Sheffield and Jeffrey Fleming. “9th Annual Game Developer Salary Survey“. Game Developer Magazine. April 2010: 12.