Solo Indie Game Development – Not for Faint of Heart

With crushing hours and no guarantee of success, a hit game can bring immense rewards but also huge costs

Thanks to a glut of games made by solo developers and small teams – what the industry dubs the "indiepocalypse" – actual financial success is becoming rarer.

Matt Trobbiani wasn't allowed to get his own coffee.

The project was too important, his employers said, and the deadline was looming. After Trobbiani's digital agency was bought out by a defense contractor, he and the two remaining developers – the others were let go – were put in an office and told to just get the damn thing done. From nine to nine Trobbiani was stuck in a room without windows, and someone else brought him coffee.

Then he would go home, sit in front of a computer, and do it all again.

It worked out. Trobbiani's game, Hacknet, a "terminal-based hacking simulator," has grossed over $1 million (Australian) with 135,000 sales, and it's completely changed Trobbiani's life. After being frugal with his cash and enduring a relentless working schedule, Trobbiani is more than comfortable. He even has a window.

Yet, while it's easy to portray Trobbiani as another indie success story, he hardly enjoys billionaire status. Trobbiani has effectively earned a healthy six-figure salary for the years he put into development. Years where he would spend the vast majority of a day in front of a computer screen.

As much as the industry focuses on the end result, however, more important is the story of development that often goes untold. Like many other indie developers, Trobbiani spent his own money to get Hacknet over the line. He took on significant debt to make it happen.

"I wasn't making the game because I thought it would make money. I had reasonable reason to believe it wouldn't," he says. "I borrowed a good $10,000 to finish it… I essentially took an advance to pay for marketing costs."

This is the reality of independent video game development in 2016. It's never been easier to push a finished project to the world, but it's harder than ever to put money in your pocket. And while tech is cheaper than ever, the cost of actually getting a game to market is growing.

As they always have, rags-to-riches stories provide some hope. The latest is Eric Barone, the twentysomething sole creator of this year's breakout hit, the farming RPG Stardew Valley, which has sold a million copies.

Others includeAndy Sum and Matt Hall, Trobbiani's Australian counterparts at Hipster Whale, who have earned over $10 million for their Frogger-like app Crossy Road. Minecraft creator Notch, who became a billionaire when he sold his IP to Microsoft, looms over them all.

These stories paint a picture of developers who can easily hit the big time. Yet the reality is far different. Thanks to a glut of games made by solo developers and small teams – what the industry dubs the "indiepocalypse" – actual financial success is becoming rarer. According to analysis published this year by tracking site, Steam Spy, the average game on Steam currently sells only 7,100 copies.

The quality bar is higher, the animations sharper, the buyer expectations relentless. The development takes longer. For those indies hoping to hit the big time while working day jobs, that cost is relentless. Paying professional artists and coders is becoming more of a necessity as a demanding audience expects more. Debt is common, and sleep is rare.

Trobbiani may have cash, but he's still close enough to the realities of everyday life that he hasn't dropped his hustle, and still lives in the same house – with his siblings – where he developed the game. His one luxury purchase? "I collect nice keyboards," he says. Hardly a Ferrari.

The sharper reality of indie development is better embodied by Becca Bair, an artist from Texas whose Kickstarter campaign was fully funded in May. Together with her brother, Bair is working on the tactical RPG Arcadian Atlas.

While the campaign's $95,000 provides her with the ability to work full-time on the game, (with some help from contractors), that money is meant to last until February of 2018. Bair is facing a significant pay cut.

"I still have one of my freelance projects I'm finishing up now," she says. "I planned that if my Kickstarter failed I would have work to keep going for a little bit."

As she explains, they initially tried to price the Kickstarter so that everyone could get a realistic salary for a year. "Unfortunately, we don't have the ability to pay a realistic amount, so there will be some profit share," she says. "Everyone takes a hit. Our lifestyles are more modest now, for sure."

It goes without saying development of any project or business requires effort above-and-beyond. Sleep is the first to go. Health may follow. "I've already neglected proper food habits because I've been so busy," says Bair. "Just grabbing some cheese crackers and eating them has become pretty routine. It's going to be a frugal time."

Independent development has always been a burden, but the creeping, subtle costs of modern gaming production make this period notably more expensive than ever before.

Not only is managing a Kickstarter campaign a job in itself – "I wish I had mentally prepared for the amount of scrutiny", Bair admits – putting research and effort into strategies for simply getting heard above the fray eat into development time.

"The first year I started working on the game during the day, I would be freelancing for other games as well, and I'd take a 15-minute break," says Bair. "I'd have six tabs open that were all different guides on how to market your game, who to market it to, how to get press. I would drink coffee in one hand and post on message boards with the other."

The financial reality of independent development lies not so much in active costs, but reveals itself in the more subtle drain of missed opportunity. For every minute Bair spends on her game, that's less time she could have spent on lucrative contracting work. It's not enough to be a developer, you need to be a marketing expert as well. This is the consequence of the indiepocalypse, according to Trobbiani.

"It has made execution irrelevant," he says. "How are you going to convert people that see your game into sales? How are you going to turn the smallest possible description of your game, regardless of how well you execute, into a press article? The expected business and market acumen is getting crazy."

Bair's assessment of the market is somewhat more brutal: "I'm not going to be taking down my portfolio."

Despite their concerns, Trobbiani and Bair are hardly trumpeting the woes of game development. In Trobbiani's case, continual refinement of Hacknet and broadening the game's scope provides vision and purpose – he's even developing an educational version of the game for kids.

And in Bair's case, she and her team have clearly demonstrated demand for their game – an audience already exists and is eagerly waiting for it. They aren't navigating blindly.

A more achievable form of victory isn't found in the rags-to-riches stories, she says, but rather the ongoing learning, refinement and heartfelt work of the development community. Her success is more attuned to a defined process – make enough money this time, to make the next thing. That's all the motivation she needs.

There's comfort in that strategy, free of expectations of joining the ranks of gaming's one-percent. Success is better framed not as money, according to Bair, but opportunity. "We're hoping we can keep producing games," she says. "Maybe not something that's going to blow up the charts – just smaller games. Made with love."

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