“Surviving Indie” at SxSW!

While EBongo and I were downtown for SxSW Gaming, we took some time to take in the “Surviving Indie: A Real Look Behind Indie Game Dev” panel hosted by Richard James Cook. It was an interesting look at the less glamorous side of indie development, both in the early days of the medium and today. I’ve collected my notes and thoughts from the panel – it was truly an interesting experience! If you missed it, read on to catch up!

(Note: I know the panel was recorded, but I’m having trouble finding the recording. Thus, this is based off of my notes and memory from the con, and therefore any poor word choices are my own and not the panelists’.)

The panel at SxSW consisted of:

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  • Richard James Cook, filmmaker and game developer. Richard moderated the panel, and is working on (and a participant in) the documentary Surviving Indie: A Real Look Behind Indie Game Dev.
  • Jay Tholen, independent developer of Dropsy, which he discussed as part of the panel.
  • Kellee Santiago, who co-founded thatgamecompany, among many other things.
  • Rami Ismali, one of the founders of Vlambeer, who we met at PAX South this year

The majority of the panel discussion focused on each panelist’s unique experiences with indie game development. Towards the end, Richard took a couple of questions from the audience and then debuted the trailer for Surviving Indie, which you can watch here:

EBongo and I discussed SxSW live on the WOTSCast the Sunday after the expo was over, you can catch up with the recording:

Jay’s portion of the talk was centered around the challenges he had to overcome to make Dropsy a reality. He ended up losing his day job (which he attributed to the fact that he was working on Dropsy instead of focusing on his work) and having to move in with his father. However, his father was also in dire financial straits, which compounded the stress and pressure on producing Dropsy. Jay’s first Kickstarter failed, although a second attempt yielded success. Devolver also stepped in to publish Dropsy, which was released in 2015.

Jay’s desire to see Dropsy succeed was obvious from the way he spoke about the project, as was his frustration and fear about all the setbacks he encountered along the way. He repeatedly admonished us not to follow in his footsteps, although he was eventually successful.

One recurring theme during the panel was the misconception that because we mostly hear about successful indie projects, that most projects are successful, or that emulating the same behaviors will also result in success. Jay indicated that he wished he hadn’t bet the farm quite so hard on Dropsy, and that having a fallback or moving more slowly would have been more prudent.

Kellee talked a bit about her time at thatgamecompany, and the early days of indie development. We think of indie game development as a route that brings more freedom and entrepreneurship, but that wasn’t always the case. When Kellee first started work at thatgamecompany, indie development was viewed as almost career suicide. Sony took some huge risks in the early days to foster indie development, and luckily those investments paid off.

This touches on another central theme of the panel – risk. Studios (especially larger ones) are often chastised because of a perceived lack of risk in the projects they take on. However, even things that seem like a slam dunk in retrospect (ie, Flower and Journey) were extremely risky at the outset. Kellee described the pitch for Flower as a photo of a field of flowers, and for Journey as a game to restore faith in humanity. Both of those are ambitious, challenging ideas that somehow got the attention of a very, very large company.

Rami chimed in on several other subjects, but the first question from the audience was really aimed at him. The first question asked about game clones – something that Vlambeer had to fight when they released Ridiculous Fishing. Rami said that clones of a game rarely manages to capture the passion the original team has for the concept. It’s important to be the best you that you can be, because your uniqueness comes out in the games you create.

The second question was one I asked – what mistakes to indie devs make that you wish you could help them with? Rami had an entire list of things, so I’ll attempt to summarize:

  • Learn to communicate. Rami said that often times teams think they’re on the same page, when they aren’t actually working towards the same goals. Aligning on the same mission statement or pitch can make a big difference.
  • Be better at budgets. All developers are terrible at budgeting their time and money, indies doubly so.
  • Don’t expect to be good. Focus on being the best you and doing what makes you unique.
  • Playtest. Don’t assume things are fun, test and play and use that to refine the game.
  • Have a backup plan. Echoing Jay’s sentiments, don’t bet everything on a long shot. Be ready to accept setbacks.
  • Know that you don’t know everything. – Watch out for “unknown unknowns” – things you don’t know that you’re not aware of yet. Know that your attempts may not always succeed, so be prepared to learn.

At the end of the panel, Richard attempted to show the trailer for Surviving Indie, but the massive equipment failures prevented us from getting a really good look at it. The whole panel chimed in and provided sound effects and commentary, which was awesome. The full trailer was posted on YouTube afterwards – it’s the embedded clip at the top of this article.

If you want to know more about Surviving Indie, check out survivingindie.com

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