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Confessions of a failed indie developer

By on August 19, 2013
FlickrCC by Eflon
FlickrCC by Eflon

This is a guest post by Keith Judge, cross posted from AltDevBlogaDay.com


At the Develop Conference in 2011, Sean Murray of Hello Games was the keynote speaker for the Indie Dev Day. One key point he made was that we hear a lot about the successful indie developers, but barely ever hear from those who failed in the pursuit of their dream. This is my story.

In April 2011, I left Lionhead Studios after 3½ years working on the Fable franchise. I’d been a programmer in the games industry for nearly 11 years at this point and felt a burning desire to build a game on my own, rather than being part of a large team. A few of my friends had made the switch from AAA to indie with some success so I felt with my experience I had a decent chance. With not much money in reserve, I formed Razorblade Games and began work on a (still untitled) game.

My fellow indie friends advised me I should start small, perhaps making a puzzle game for iOS/Android using Unity and building the company from there. Arrogant as I was, I completely ignored this advice and set about building a game of my own on PC, on the basis that I already owned a PC and a copy of Visual Studio, so there would be no initial outlay of money to get started. I believed at the time that I would have a shippable game by around September that year.

When I say I started building a game, this isn’t strictly true – what I actually built was a graphics engine. The game design gradually formed as I was working over the first couple of months. I knew that my art skills were greatly lacking, so I had a vision of a stark first person sci-fi setting, with simple geometry, small rooms and no human characters – the game mechanic based on switching between alternate universes and changing the direction of gravity in order to solve puzzles. If this sounds a little like Portal, you’re right – that game was a huge inspiration for the project.

Things went well. I was writing a lot of code, new engine features were being added daily and I was learning to use Blender to build the game levels. I was highly motivated, happy to be free from employment and getting a lot of satisfaction from the work I was doing. I was writing AltDevBlogADay articles about how awesome it all was. In July I went to the Develop conference in Brighton,  taking a build of my fledgling game to show to people – a small, single level showing the core alternative universe switching and gravity manipulation mechanics. I talked with people about my vision of what the game would (eventually) become, I talked about how I’d built the game engine from scratch – the physically based lighting, HDR, motion blur, FXAA, etc. People seemed impressed. I was on a high.

However, there was huge elephant in the room – money. I was living off savings and my wife’s income, but with a mortgage and two children, this was running out fast. I needed external funding to keep going. Looking back I’m not completely sure why I didn’t try talking to a publisher or venture capitalist – I guess I was paralysed by a fear of rejection. Instead I thought crowdfunding was the answer. Kickstarter was becoming popular, though unfortunately was not available for UK based projects at the time, so I used the now closed 8bitfunding.com. This site had the “advantage” that you got your pledge money straight away, rather than having to hit a funding target first. I was initially amazed by the interest people showed and money was starting to come in. I wrote emails to every gaming website I could think of, with a link to a short (silent) YouTube video of the game, trying to get some press to promote the campaign. Only one gaming blog wrote an article about my game, and one other wrote back saying they’d be interested if there was more content. They were right – it was a pretty amateur attempt at announcing a game.

The income quickly stopped, most of which had come from friends, Facebook and Twitter associates. I had created the crowdfunding campaign asking for $10,000. In total I made enough to pay the mortgage on our house for just two weeks – clearly not nearly enough to sustain development. I did a some paid work for Digital Foundry, as a writer and consultant on a few technical gamedev articles, but again this was small change in the grand scheme of things.

Eventually, something had to give, so I started looking for a paid job. At the end of October, the lovely people at Relentless Software offered me a four month contract working on Kinect Nat Geo TV. I fully expected to save a bunch of money and start again with Razorblade Games after this time, but I ended up staying at Relentless for a full (and fun) year and ended with very little cash in reserve (commuting to Brighton on a daily basis was more expensive than I had estimated!). I continued to work on my own game on a laptop on the train journeys to and from work, redesigning the game to focus on the gravity manipulation as the prototype showed that the alternative universe switching just wasn’t that good as a game mechanic.

However, I didn’t do anywhere near as much work as I had done in six months working alone at home. I found it hard to mentally switch from working on one codebase during the working day and my own outside of this time, so ended up focussing my efforts on the paid work at Relentless.

Today, I’m working for Pitbull Studio in Guildford, working with Epic Games on Unreal Engine 4. This is satisfying and fun work, but there’s still the niggling desire in the back of my head to get back to writing my own game(s). I just don’t know when (if ever) this will happen – I haven’t done any significant work on it for a long time.

To the people who sent me money in my crowdfunding campaign, I’m eternally grateful for your (perhaps misguided) belief in me and the game I was building – I still owe you all a game!

To summarise, these are the major lessons I learned…

  1. I vastly underestimated the money needed to pay for the project. You need a good source of funding, or a lot of savings to make the indie adventure work. Relying on a crowdfunding campaign is a huge gamble that’s unlikely to pay off unless you can get a lot of press and/or are already well known.
  2. I was way too ambitious with the game I was trying to build. I was trying to build something the size and complexity of Portal all on my own, when I really should have listened to people and built something small and simple.
  3. Building my own engine, whilst fun and a great learning experience, was an expensive mistake. For six months’ work all I had to show for it was a short proof of concept demo. I should have used UDK, Unity or one of the other available game engines and got on with building a game, but my pride as an experienced game engine programmer didn’t let me!
  4. I was sorely missing an artist or level designer – I struggled with Blender and it took me an awfully long time to build the demo level I had. Also, having someone work with me would have been a great way to get feedback on what I was doing.
  5. vastly underestimated the time it would take to build the game. My prediction of shipping my first game in September 2011 was, in hindsight, laughable. I actively avoided any detailed scheduling and management of the project, preferring to just get my head down and write code – this was a mistake, particularly given the slim funds I had at my disposal. In fact, I had no real business plan at all – Make game, ???, PROFIT was about as detailed as it got.

Whilst an expensive “failure”, I still count the six months I spent on Razorblade Games as one of the happiest and satisfying times of my life. I learned a huge amount in this time and would (will?) definitely do it again!

About Keith Judge

Keith Judge is a Senior Programmer on Unreal Engine 4 at Pitbull Studio, founder of Razorblade Games, and occasional contributor to AltDevBlogADay.
  • Virendra Kumre

    remind me of myself ..lol

  • Edwin Zeng

    If he had built for iOS/Android, he would quickly realise that a lot of the fanciful graphical details that MSAA, FSAA, motion blur, level of detail, HDR are useless, because the low powered devices cannot handle such effects. Also, all the smartphones now do not have sufficient graphics functionality. Even if he did use Unity or UDK or other engines, he would be still spending time to build all the fancy art assets, so it would not make a difference.

    He stated that he has a family, so that puts him in a more difficult position from others whom do not have such burdens. He has to prioritise his family over his passion and career. So my take is that he should have done a 2D game for iOS/Android, and still possible to build his own custom 2D engine.

  • Sik

    “You need a good source of funding, or a lot of savings to make the indie adventure work.”

    Or living with somebody else who’s already making a salary, so your own income doesn’t become such a liability (e.g. your partner or a relative – most families live off the salary of a single person, so this really isn’t any different than that situation). This is probably also the most likely alternative to work.

    I suppose that could be seen as “good source of funding”, but I bet a lot of people will read that and think it means funding meant for the games.

  • Lucas

    #3 is what always gets me..

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  • Lara

    Considering he has 2 kids and a mortgage, I imagine one salary was not enough. But yes, if you’re lighter on the obligatory expenses, a partner’s income can be the funding you need. It’s what we do in my home, I work and my husband is working on an indie game, and we’re quite happy with it.

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  • ImCaesar

    This goes to show you developer aren’t so good entrepreneurs while entrepreneur aren’t good programmers. I have met so many indies who like to “go at it” themselves without validating the idea and end up having egg in their face. My advice is simple validate your idea soonest with your “clients/fans”, 1-3 months development cycle, if you exceed that you are treading of failure unless you have a bottomless budget but even still…stay lean and agile. And most important of all…stop trying to do everything yourself! You have 24hrs in a day you can’t possible be everything! In fact this is probably the mark of failure..pending!

  • poophead

    You are not a failure, but greedy, inconsiderate, ungratefull, dumbass ahole… with all these young ones being churned out by the thousands on institutes ALL OVER THE WORLD yall hissi fit and cry Oh I dont have my own game company by now… What yall should be doing is PRAISE the allmighty yall not homeless or even worse doing web pages or databases for a living not managing to ever in their life touch gamecode,,, SHAME ON YOU!

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  • OverWind

    Nice article. Thanks for sharing. I’m a programmer myself, although not in the game business. I have tried creating a game engine several times (and also tried building some games with other engines such as Unity), so I know how much work it takes. Luckily for me I did not quit my dayjob ;-)
    – But yeah, I know that nagging feeling. I’d like to create a game myself some day. Maybe it will happen when I retire. ;-)

  • Pray For Death

    Go away

  • postinternetsyndrome

    Haha, what? He’s not throwing a fit. He’s admitting his arrogance and counting the lessons he learned. Don’t be an ass.

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  • keke

    you go through all this hard ship, and lets say you actually make a game! and people like it! you you then get a heap of tossers from sites like reddit who will pirate your game, because you know, its not stealing, it helps market it for you!

  • CdrJameson

    Yes, could be worse.

    Could pour your heart, soul, cash and family into it only to have it completely ignored and forgotten.

    Even if it’s a great game, this can still happen.

  • Andrew Goulding

    Thanks for sharing! As someone with 2 kids (3 & 5) and a large mortgage I empathise with this story. I came from about 6 years in the industry before starting on the indie path, and have been at it 5 years now. I started no so much to be independent, but because I couldn’t find a local company (I’m in Australia) that was making the kinds of games I wanted to make, and certainly nothing original.

    I’ve very rarely had the luxury of working full time any of my projects, except between contracts. I normally work contracts for 80%-100% of the year and make games in the small amount of time I can make for myself outside that. I know guys who can spend close to 100% of their time working on their own thing, which is impossible to compete with, but I try to make up for it by being super-focused and disciplined with my time. Planning and goals definitely help to keep on track.

    My current schedule is working 8 hours for someone else, then 3-4 hours for myself per day, and take weekends off. I have to spend some time with my family, or I’ll have missed the most important time with my kids as they grow up.

    I’ve released two games – Jolly Rover, and MacGuffin’s Curse, which have won awards and gotten fairly decent reviews, but only make up about 10% of my income on a good year, due to the fact that I went down the investor route and the bulk of that revenue goes to paying them back. The next title I hope to self-fund and set my sites to a more manageable project. Maybe it’ll take another 5 years before I can consider doing this full time, maybe not. I’ll keep it up as long as I can.

    Again, thanks for sharing, these stories can be just as motivating as the success stories.

  • Tim Monteiro

    Oh, so many feels. I always stumble on #5: Planning is NOT my strong suit. I’d rather just shut up and code. I do have people to bounce my ideas off of, and I know several artists/musicians I can enslave, but time management? Keith pls.

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  • Leif

    This always be the case for programmers. We will never be good in business unless, we throw out our programmer-hat and put on the entrepreneur-hat and stick with building a business. Seriously, thanks for sharing the story.

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