Guest column: Collaboration – the indie advantage

Joel Johnson is a Bangalore-based indie game developer and the sole member of digiKhel. Johnson recently released his first game, Orion’s Gold, in collaboration with other indie developers. In this guest column, Johnson talks about the intricacies of collaborative game development, and its benefits to independent game developers.

I started digiKhel in late 2012 to make games that I personally cared about, and to experiment with ideas that bigger companies may not touch because of the unknown revenue potential. Having a team does that to you – there are people other than you present, and the decisions you make have to consider that. The more people you have around you, the less likely you are to take risks. If you have a team, you better have a plan. I didn’t when I started – and it’s why I still don’t have an internal team.

There’s a certain freedom with the potential for failure. So, here I am – a game developer with no team. Had I tried doing this a couple of years ago, I’d have failed, but today, there are others like me. These are people with complementary skills of high quality, whom you couldn’t afford to hire, and they’re open to taking the same risks. You just have to ask.

But why collaborate when you could outsource? It’s possible if you’re making something similar to an existing game, but for original IP, you don’t know the amount of work involved. To let a game idea grow into what it can best be, you cannot have a rigid plan. That means that you can’t be sure of the cost. Also, you need everyone to bring their best ideas instead of being told what to do. Work-for-hire with a budget tends to make people look at work on a per-hour basis, and not enough on the best that they can bring.

When you’re looking for collaborators, it’s important to have more than an idea. Everyone and his uncle has an idea for a game. Games are defined by the experience they bring about, and a prototype can build the right expectations. I meet with someone I’d like to work with, and ask them to play the prototype. As I’m watching, I know if they like what they’re seeing. If they do, I ask if they’d be interested in working on it. If they don’t like it, then I either don’t have a worthy enough game at the moment, or I’m asking to collaborate with the wrong people.

There are two options – freelancers and other young indies/studios like yourself. Freelancers are more cautious about revenue sharing. Most freelancers have a day job. They need the extra income, that’s why they work outside of their workplace as freelancers. If they’re really good, they have enough choices of projects for assured payment or potential revenue. It’s an easy choice to make unless your game is so cool that they just have to work on it.

I’ve had better luck with young start-ups. I was surprised at first when Niroop (Ironjaw Studios) and Santosh (3Quavers) agreed to work with me on the visuals and audio for a share of revenue. Why would companies want to work for a share of revenue? They’ve got teams and monthly salaries to worry about. What possible reason could there be to take such a risk?

Niroop was clear – Joey, I’m making some money from services. So while money’s important, it’s not that critical for us. We also like working on products – to work on concepts that we think have potential. It’s why we took the risk of starting up on our own.” Santosh, with his laidback smile, had a similar answer – I like working on offbeat stuff. We can take the risk, so let’s just do it. This game looks like a lot of fun; we’ll figure out the money eventually.”

Whenever I was faced with challenging obstacles, these guys would lift my spirits and get me back to work. That’s the beauty of collaboration – they’re as invested in the game as you are. They share in the success or failure of the game. That’s important to remember – it’s as much their baby as it is yours. It’s not just the creative freedom they have, it’s also the belief. All the debates you’ll have with them about the direction of the game are because they believe in it like you do, and have the expertise that you don’t.

There were so many suggestions made on the art and music fronts that I’d never have thought of. Niroop or Rohidas (RD, as he’s called) would come up with interesting ideas on the imagery, while Santosh would excitedly ping me with some cool new-fangled idea about the music. If I’d bring forward unnecessary alternatives, I’d be politely knocked down with a No Joel, that’s not how it works. This would be better because…” and they’d go on to patiently explain what should happen. And then sometimes I suggest sensible alternatives, but you get the idea – the game benefits from the use of collaboration.

It’s not just art or music; I also had a heated debate with Niroop about how to further monetise Orion’s Gold. You might think you know enough about the business of making games, but your collaborators can help you with their experiences. The day you dismiss their ideas just because it’s your” game is the day you start losing them. Respect them; they’re the cofounders you don’t have.

If you’re collaborating just to keep costs low, it’ll show. As Indians, we have a natural inclination towards distrust. You’re going to be working with people for what will usually be more than three months. It’s hard to act like you’re collaborating for that long. And it helps that we have a fairly small community here. If you take someone for a ride, the rest of us will know about it. It’s one thing to make mistakes unknowingly, but another one entirely to misuse the trust of collaboration just to get your work done.

At the end of the day, collaboration should be fun. It’s the equivalent of musicians getting together to jam. Some relationships go well, others… not so much. Enjoy the experience – you learn as much from one another as you will from the game. And if all goes well, even the next one.

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