Tony Gowland ponders the future for independent developers – and asks indies what they're aiming for

What should an indie’s long-term goal be?

I’m not usually particularly prone to overthinking things or introspection, but recently that’s changed and I’m finding myself a little bit lost. Directionless.

Some background might help you understand where I’m coming from, I think. After a decade and a half in the games industry working for other people, I recently self-published my first indie game, Binaries. Don’t worry if you haven’t heard of it, not many people have. That’s sort of the problem (one for a different post). While it hasn’t been completely indiepocalypsed and I know of plenty of games that have sold worse, I’m also not currently browsing property listings to work out which mansion to buy.

Players enjoy it (hello 96% positive Steam reviews) but getting eyes on it has been hard, and something I couldn’t honestly say I’ve made a great job of. Had I made the wrong game? Am I kidding myself thinking this is the right move for me?

Having gone through what at times were some pretty low feelings (I’m reluctant to call it depression, but sitting glumly with my head in my hands for an hour with zero motivation isn’t my usual routine), and severely doubting my own judgement on what’s a good idea because the last one didn’t exactly work out as planned, I’m now trying to work out the whole “what next” bit. This is easy when you’re working for someone else – they tell you what game the studio’s working on next and you do. Is this kind of planning a skill I actually have?

Assuming that the good people of twitter would have something interesting to say on the matter (ha ha ha I know, but remember I’m feeling quite down and generally doubting myself and besides, this time they really did) I done a tweet…

I was thinking that other people must surely have at least a vague plan or direction for what they wanted to achieve, what they currently thought would be a success for them, and if I could get them to share, maybe one of their answers would strike a chord and I could copy their homework, so to speak.

Did people just want to make enough money to retire on? Build a studio and then sell it? Release a few games then go and get a “proper” job?

One of the first replies hit home to a source of a lot of my anxiety around the “indie lifestyle”.

Full disclosure: I have two kids (one 3, one 8 months), a car (though it’s full paid off), a mortgage, various insurances and other essential outgoings.

For me, I worry about my kids. I worry about what I’m able to provide for them, what I will leave them. Will I be able to afford good educations for them, help them with deposits for houses, weddings, holidays, that kind of thing? And if not, am I doing the wrong thing here? Indie game development isn’t a particularly reliable way to get cash monies, am I indulging myself by spending my working life this way, and is that indulgence unfair on the children?

So like I say, “anxiety”. Especially when a bunch of people who are doing what I’m doing are saying that money isn’t really on their radar in terms of goals, and they just want to create.

The majority of people replied along the lines that they are content as long as they can keep a roof over their heads right now…

The day-to-day survival thing I think works for me as a short term plan, but like I say – I feel I need to plan for more than that. In all honesty I don’t want to be having to release games well in to my 70s because I simply can’t afford to stop.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ll probably still be making games at that age, but I’d like it to become a choice, a hobby, rather than a matter of basic survival at that point.

I’m lucky/fortunate/forward thinking enough (delete as appropriate) to have worked in AAA for over a decade, and this has helped me build up some pension money, so there’s a little something there to keep me going in my old age, but I’m fairly convinced what I’ve got squirrelled away there isn’t going to be enough by itself, and as another reply put it – you never know what support the state will offer by the time you need it.

So by this point I was starting to feel a lot like the dirty capitalist jabbing my grubby moneythoughts in to the world of the artists. Am I wrong to be so worried about money and the future and where this is all going and to let this line of thought dictate what stuff I’m thinking about making next?

Should I just be “trusting the game”, making whatever I want and hoping it all comes out?

I want to build something that lasts, I want an outcome that does right by my kids, I want to grow a thing where I can eventually afford to leave and be able to do this whole games development lark as a hobby rather than as an incredibly stressful and low-paying job.

Of course this line of thinking isn’t really that uncommon, particularly in the investor-heavy world of mobile gaming. You don’t have to spend much time around a bunch of “c-level executives” (yeah, I always read that as c*** as well) before you’ll hear chat on growth and exit strategies.

In indie developer circles? Not so much. Not so much at all.

As I said before, I’m quite deep in a pit of self doubt right now, so it was a relief to find other indies thinking the same way as me…

But ultimately, it seems business analysts think games aren’t the right kind of industry for this.

Ah nuts.

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