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Into the Indies book – how indie developers thrive and survive

There has been a lot of talk about the term “indie game” these past few months. Discussions have revolved around many games, such as Dave the Diver, and what it actually means to work as an indie dev. Like, are you really independent if you’re working for a small company that’s being funded by the big money of a much larger one? Probably not. The term has been around even before the famous “indie craze”, which started with Fez and Braid, both of them made by very small teams.

To clarify what it actually means to be an indie in the true sense of the word, it is recommended to take a look at Nikolis Asimakis’ Into The Indies book. The work collects several interviews that the author made over the course of several years with many actual indie studios and one-man indie devs. Even in the intro, the author makes clear that he intended to spread love for these games and help other indie devs from crashing and burning.

Indeed, one thing that will become much clearer as one browses the pages of Into the Indies is how difficult it is to make a game and survive. Or, well, even to have enough money to think about making a game in the first place. But while the book is a good starting point for any aspiring indie devs, it is also a great introduction for a reader who is just passionate about small titles and wants to know all the blood, sweat and tears that went into them. Probably, in a very literal sense.

Nikolis set out to ask all studios the same questions, with people free to answer any of them, which were all about the biggest mistakes, financial insights and biggest misconceptions about being an independent developer. One thing that all developers very much seem to agree on is to never set your sights too high when starting on your first game. Always start small, learn the tools of the trade, try to cultivate a niche and then build your studio from there.

But, from there, answers and opinions differ wildly. For example, on crowdfunding Wormwood Studios (developers of Primordia and Strangeland) mention conflicting feelings, along with many others saying that crowdfunding is a great way to make sure you have enough funds to survive and develop your game, but also you’re putting yourself out there. Once you have successfully kickstarted your game, you are in a sort of contract with your fans, and you have to deliver or suffer consequences (sometimes even if you deliver).

Many developers, like Jake Birkett of Grey Alien Games (Regency Solitaire), mention how difficult it was to get games noticed by the press, streamers and players. Many also mention difficulties in finding the right people to work on their projects, but many do agree (such as Carlos from Flying Beast Labs) that cutting down on your “indieness” can help to increase the chances of survival. While there’s definitely value in doing it all on your own, it is also difficult to imagine doing everything alone for a protracted amount of time.

On building a community around you, several developers mention how it is important to put yourself out there, but also “if you’re a jerk, then people are going to be driven away”. So, if you’re a jerk, then definitely do not get indie development! Jokes aside, Michal Bernat from Shockwork Games mentions the importance of being honest with your audience, that people like to see the person behind the studio and not a bunch of slogans.

Finally, as an appendix, there are some articles about marketing your game by David Krushak-Green and one very interesting dive on releasing five games on Steam and not being able even to earn minimum wage, by Martin Firbacher, founder of Daisy Games. Martin looks at the development history of his games such as Hack Grid and Dark Sheep and how the first month of sale of the latter brought him $140, which wasn’t even enough to sustain life in an undeveloped country.

So, one of the main lessons from the book is that keeping a day job before you’re sure about going on about being an indie developer full-time, is a very important thing to remember. While no one likes their day jobs, or well most of us don’t, they are still the best way to avoid feeling stressed and anxious about everything. And well, anxiety and stress don’t really translate very well in games (unless you’re making a horror game…).

Into the Indies is a fascinating look into the world of indie development, while it might be more useful to someone who is seeking (or thinking about) a career in gaming alone, the experiences shared by developers from all over the world are a great way to find out what goes on behind the curtains.

If you’re interested in Into the Indies, you can download a free PDF copy on the website, but do consider perhaps a small donation.

Damiano Gerli

Damiano Gerli was born with a faithful Commodore 64 by his side. It taught him how to program basic adventure games and introduced him to new genres. Then, he fell in love with Sega -- while the Master System wasn't as powerful as the Genesis, it was where he played Sonic and Outrun. Years later, he got the idea that he was the most Sega-knowledgeable person in the world, so he opened a website in 1997, The Genesis Temple. Damiano is a gaming industry professional and historian, loves adventure and indie titles, but he never shies away from action and triple-A RPGs. Basically, Damiano is been writing about videogames for 20 years, with no plans to stop. Say hi to him on X at @damgentemp.