Misconception Monday #6 – Selling Out

There’s something about indie game development (or any form or independent artistic endeavour) that can breed an attitude that anything you do from a business standpoint is considered ‘anti-indie’.

That you can’t combine artistic endeavour with business management is a massive myth and one that I think really does handicap a lot of developers.
Let’s talk about a few of the areas where accusations and fears of ‘selling out’ are the most common.

Planning isn’t selling out

The ‘selling out’ problem can occur in the very early stages of a studio, even before you’ve even decided on exactly what type of game your making.

Some developers will simply start with the idea of ‘making the game they want to play’, this is their ideal game: the one core idea that personally just excites them the most.

And that’s great… except when it isn’t. Because ultimately you’ll still want that game to sell at some point. 

If your ideal dream game happens to be a 2D pixel art puzzle platformer, the reality is your going to really struggle to get exposure and sales in the current market. Likewise, if it’s something incredibly niche, the market may simply not exist to support you at all.

Now, I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t make want you want to make, or all you should look at is Steam Spy figures and what’s popular right now.

Not least because gaming trends move so quickly and developments take so long that chasing the latest fad is nearly impossible (Look at how many Triple-A companies tried to jump on the MOBA bandwagon several years too late).

However, it’s not selling out to consider the wider environment and market when you make those early plans. Your game can’t exist in a vacuum, and you need to understand your competition, what your audience is playing and where.

The irony behind the Dead Island MOBA was that it was actually a promising start, just one that should have started five years earlier.

Those things don’t have to be the only factor in what type of game you end up making. If they were, the only games we would ever see would be open-world zombie multiplayer crafting games.

Even in a crowded genre, a game can still do well. Platformers may be a busy place, but that hasn’t stopped Hollow Knight, Shovel Knight or hundreds more in the past few years doing really well.

What it can do though is help you inform your ideas and work out as early as possible what’s going to make you stand out.

If you do want to make a platformer, you can, and you have every chance to succeed, but you perhaps need to work harder than other formats on setting or theme, or put more importance on art style than you may have needed to if you were making a simulation game.

So in short, it’s not about letting the market decide what you make, and more about doing your research to help you work out your strengths and weaknesses from the very start.

Asking for Favours isn’t selling out

There are enough indie games being developed and enough developers making those games that DO ask for those RTs, do push for those expo slots or that store coverage, that you put yourself at a major disadvantage if you aren’t willing to “see what you can get.”

The frustrating thing about this attitude is the people who are the most likely to be concerned about asking for a favour are the people who are most likely to try and help other people with their own requests.

This one pops up all the time during development. A lot of people simply aren’t comfortable asking for favours, and their game suffers for it.

Sometimes these are small favours. Something as simple as adding ‘RTs appreciated’ to the end of a Tweet about your game, for example.
Sometimes these are bigger favours, such as asking a platform holder if you can be included in the games they demo at a show.

It’s something that doesn’t come naturally to a lot of people. For many, it feels too much like self-promotion. 

The problem is that the old adage does ring pretty true in many scenarios: “Don’t ask, don’t get.”

Without asking randoms for favours with boss battles, I’d never have finished pretty much any Soulsborne game, and that would be a true crime.

If you’re scared about asking for favours then the best advice I can give is simply just to push yourself to try and ask for one small thing every month during development. 

At the same time though, try to find other studios and developers that are asking for favours you can help with, even as simple as providing a quick piece of feedback or RTing an important piece of news.

That way, you can start thinking of asking for favours as a form of karma rather than simply you being a leech.

Even selling out isn’t selling out!

Even the actual act of full-on selling out really isn’t anything to be frowned upon.

Some of the most successful studios in the world with some of the biggest games only managed to find the time and money to develop those games because they did work-for-hire.

Doing what you need to do to keep yourself independent isn’t shameful, it’s just common sense.

You don’t have to look too far to find examples of this. One of my favourites is Digital Extremes, the developers of the now hugely successful Warframe. After years of working on their own projects, things went south pretty fast when their new IP, Dark Sector, released to generally poor reviews

Digital Extremes’ Wiki page notes that Star Trek (2013) is one of the worst games of all time, though it does follow that up with a [better source needed], so maybe it’s ok.

For years, Digital Extremes worked on other peoples games. They spent four years working on ports and multiplayer code for other studio’s IP. Even during and after Warframes initial release, they were working on licenced IPs and released a Star Trek movie tie-in. 

It’s unlikely that those titles were the real dream games of the people working there, but those contracts gave the team enough money and time to not only release, but also refine Warframe, and nobody now refers to them as the ‘Star Trek’ developer.

Hopefully this helps a little. If you take anything away from this, it should be that there’s no shame in wanting to sell your game, and taking steps throughout development to make sure that becomes a reality, and occasionally wearing your business hat doesn’t make your art any less worthy.

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