Indie game dev: art or business?

Quick note: the Steam page for Lost Potato is now live! It’d be really helpful if you could give it a wishlist.

I’ve recently re-watched the GDC talk called “How to Survive in Gamedev for Eleven Years Without a Hit” by Jake Birkett.

It’s probably one of the best talks you could watch before starting your game dev journey.

Jake has a very business-oriented approach to making games, which is probably why he managed to last more than 15 years in the industry already.

Jake makes mostly small-scoped games. His first projects were all match-3 premium browser games.

Every new project he completes becomes an additional stream of revenue for his studio. 

He also tracks every hour spent working on his games. 

It means he knows which ones have been profitable or not – so he knows where to focus his efforts next.

Compare that to what most people do when they start out: (me included) 

  • They think of a cool game idea
  • They work on it 24/7 for a few weeks while they’re in the honeymoon period. 
  • Then they either lose motivation, burnout and move on to another project… 
  • …or they keep going for a few years, usually falling prey to feature creep which makes completing the game take way longer than it should.
  • They post GIFs on Twitter and Reddit on and off, praying that one of them becomes viral.
  • For the few that manage to get to the end of the process, they press the launch button and hope they got enough wishlists for the Steam algorithms to push their game to the front page for a few days.
  • If it does, congrats! You might earn anything between minimum wage and tens of thousands of dollars for every month of work you put in. 
  • If it doesn’t, you’re out.

I’m not saying this approach never works.

Darq was the first game ever made by his creator over a period of 3.5 years and it was a great success.

If you get the right combination of talent, hard work, luck and timing… you can definitely make it work.

But it’s pretty rare. 

For every Darq, how many Rising Hell, I, Dracula Genesis, Night of the Blood Moon or Skelettack are there? 

All of those games took years of development, thousands of hours of work and were basically big financial holes for their creators.

In any other industry, a business doing those sales numbers would have closed a long time ago. 

But indie games are also labors of love – and I think it’s the only reason they ever get finished.

I’ve basically been following the artistic approach for the last 18 months. 

My daily routine has been:

  • Wake up.
  • Work on my games until my brain is fried.
  • Go to sleep.
  • Do it all over the next day, hoping it’ll someday bring in enough revenue to become sustainable.

This has allowed me to make great progress in my skills and games. 

But if I’m being honest... I think this is a risky, unwise, short-term strategy that has more chance of failing than succeeding. 

(not to mention that it’s also taking a toll on every other aspect of my life)

I want to try using a more business-oriented and structured approach.

That means my first and foremost goal is now to reach profitability.

I’m still a bit unsure how that’ll translate practically, but I’ll let you know if anything helpful comes out of it.

Until next week,

Thomas Gervraud,
Developer of Space Gladiators: Escaping Tartarus