What does it mean to be an independent studio or “Indie”? Can a volunteer or indie studio make a MMORPG? How do you get a studio funded? Do you really need a publisher?
I get the feeling that many people think that “Indie game development” means a group of people volunteering their time to work for free to work on a game…I think that they are wrong and we need to redefine or at least clarify what it means to be an indie studio…
Indie is short for independent, which means, or should mean, a game developer that hasn’t been “signed” by a publisher (to borrow a phrase). In the past, the number one way to fund game development was through an “advance against royalties” from a publisher. They give you money to *complete* a game, which they market and publish. As the game generates revenues, the developer’s royalty split was applied to the advance until it was paid back. Unfortunately, this has been a rather raw deal for developers, as publishers sort of stack the deck in their favor. This is why developers have to live from project to project, always reliant on publishers and royalty advances.
I would say that the definition of an indie studio as one that is not funded or simply a group of volunteers is wrong. Rather, an indie studio should be one that simply has not sold its soul to a publisher. In this day and age, it is possible to successfully self-publish, and in some cases that is the preferred thing to do. I think that small teams working for free on a project (or for stock that will one day surely be worth gazillions) be called a volunteer development studio.
There are multiple cycles that repeat every few years in our industry. One is based on consoles with new ones continually being developed and released into the market, which are good for X years before it is time for another model. The other one starts in someone’s garage with a few people that make a great game. They get acquired by a big publisher, where they work for a few years until they are burned out or just hate the bureaucracy and leave. They tend to start new studios and do it all over again, aiming for another acquisition (and stability).
The hard part of course is starting a studio. There is much more to it than just having a great idea and a couple of artists and programmers. Sure, if you want to make casual games on nights and weekends, it isn’t that hard with some dedication and persistence. But trying to launch a commercially viable studio and build a company requires blood, sweat, tears, talent, vision, expertise, and a lot of money.
So where does the money come from? Friends, family, angel investors, corporate investors, venture capitalists, advertising revenues, regular revenues (profits from the sales of smaller games?), and so on are all viable options. None of them are easy, but they *are* options.
I am continually meeting people that want to get into the game industry, and they either have a perception and expectations that are way off base (“I can make a fortune playing video games all day!”) or they ask that grand question “how do I get a job in the game industry?” The thing that really perplexes me is that there are literally dozens and dozens of developers and publishers that are always hiring and they whine about the lack of qualified candidates. The one thing that will do the most for you as far as trying to get a job in the industry is to have EXPERIENCE FINISHING A GAME.
That’s right. If you want to leapfrog other people trying to get a job, get some FINISHED games under your belt. Doesn’t matter how big or small they are, as long as they are finished. But wait, if you can’t get a job, how are you going to get experience?
- Find a volunteer studio. Yes, there are dozens of them out there, and most of them will never get anywhere. Find one that has some good leadership, project management, and a solid vision of what it is they are making. Sure, you probably won’t get paid a dime, and maybe the game will never make it to market, but experience is the key that opens doors. The best experience is a finished title.
Find an indie studio. These will have some funding, most likely from angel investors and in the rare case a venture capitalist. The pay will suck, the hours will be long, but these are the studios that you should be hunting for. The ability of management to secure funding is something you should pay attention to. Most smart investors won’t throw money at just anyone, and many people have heard me rant about some really really stupid investments that some venture funds have made, but the fact is that if someone can score some funding, they must be doing *something* right, and you have a decent chance of getting a game finished. If you are lucky, they may also have the ability to get it published (on their own or through a regular publishing deal).
- Make your own games. Keep them small and manageable. Build a small team of dedicated people and just make it. Think small, efficient, and simple. Get it done.
Can an indie studio make a MMORPG? Yes, absolutely, but it isn’t going to be easy.
Can a volunteer studio make a MMORPG? Yes, absolutely, but the chances of finishing one and getting it out the door are extraordinarily small.
Will either be successful? It depends. Just having a publishing deal (or being a publisher for that matter) or even having loads of money is no guarantee of success. I think that anyone can *make* a MMORPG, but there are very, very few people out there that have the ability to *craft* one. How many MMORPG titles and studios can you think of that either never made it to release and disappeared into the ether, or did make it to launch and failed miserably? Why do you think this happened?