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.