Big Developers Look Back at Their Indie Days

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Posted March 23, 2012 - By Scott Nichols

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Prince of Persia

Developers Jordan Mechner, Tim Sweeny, John Romero, Adam Saltsman, and Markus Persson came together recently to talk about their indie days. We all start from somewhere, either as just a dreamer in your bedroom or a tinker in the garage. These superstars of today started out much like you with a little skill and a lot of passion for video games.

Prince of Developing

Jordan Mechner, creator of the original Prince of Persia and the upcoming Karateka remake, began developing on the Apple II in 1978. Though his first game didn’t catch on, his second attempt was Karateka, which Broderbund agreed to publish. He didn’t think of himself as indie at the time, originally envisioning Karateka as a AAA title. However, he noted that now working on the remake as an independent developer, he is taking the opportunity to stay true to the spirit of the original rather than the lavish 3D reboot Sands of Time was for his Prince of Persia.

Jordan offered perhaps the most succinct description of what it means to be an indie developer. “The real objective of indie is to start making a game with no idea whether it’s ever going to get published or how that’s going to happen. It’s sort of just taking that leap of faith.”

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An Epic Journey

Epic Games founder Tim Sweeny also started programming on the Apple II, which he worked on for ten years before releasing his first game ZZT as shareware. He described the twenty-year history of Epic Games as a scary process, watching the studio build from himself as the sole employee to over a hundred developers working on the Gears of War franchise. But when Apple came out with the iPhone 3GS he saw an opportunity to make smaller games that maintained Epic’s signature graphics power. This lead to a partnership with indie studio Chair to create Infinity Blade, a nine-month project with a team of only twelve people. The game was a success, becoming more profitable for Epic than Gears of War in terms of man-years invested. “We’ve been looking at smaller games for the future not just as a way of avoiding the huge budgets of AAA, but as a real great opportunity to develop and draw business,” Sweeny said.

Tim also emphasized that starting out as an indie developer requires you to do much more than just develop. An indie developer needs to also be his or her own PR team, marketing team, and customer support team with each role approached as seriously as the core game development.

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A Legend Returns

John Romero may be best known for games like Doom and considerably less favorably for Diakatana, but he too began developing independently on the Apple II. After working for a number of studios he has returned to independent development with his own social game studio Loot Drop. As a social game developer, Romero commented that his work now is less focused on technology than the game ideas themselves. With Facebook, every developer has access to the same tools making game concepts easy to clone if there isn’t a certain level of secrecy. Romero compared that experience to AAA development, where so much money is at stake that publishers won’t risk cloning an unreleased game concept.

When talking about aspiring indie developers, Romero seemed disappointed in what he sees as potential developers waiting for permission to make a game. People will get caught up in their school or jobs and feel like they don’t have an opportunity to make games. “When you get home, work on your game,” Romero bluntly offered as advice. “That’s the way a lot of us started here, we just made games because we wanted to and we had to. And I was going to school and had other jobs, but when I was at home it was all about making games. That’s how you get it done. You know, you don’t wait for permission.”

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Building an Indie Empire

Markus Persson, better known as Notch to the gaming community, has become synonymous with his creation Minecraft. Much of Minecraft’s success Notch attributes to being in the right place at the right time. Specifically, digital distribution was catching on with gamers, gaining mainstream appeal and trust thanks to platforms like the iPhone. He confessed only working on the game for a couple of weeks before putting up a payment page, calling it “an experiment in earning revenue for a game.” The experiment paid off, and Minecraft was profitable in only the first few months. “It’s scary to think I’ve already created my magnum opus,” he said.

Notch also spoke of how he values relationships, both with other developers and with fans. He decided early in development that he wanted to be honest about every part of Minecraft’s development, interacting with fans both through his blog and twitter. And as he became more of a public figure, he found it began cutting into his development time.


Finding Success in Indie

Adam Saltsman had actually moved to Austin, Texas in hopes of landing a job at Retro Studios. He was rejected for the job, and upon reflection says, “It actually turned out amazing for me.” Working independently gave him the opportunity to create the open source Flash development tool Flixel, which he has used to create many games including his most popular: Canabalt. Though he’s sure he could now get a job at a larger studio, he chooses to stay indie. “I choose between either pursuing my own vision or specifically choosing to collaborate to make their vision come to be. It’s just better for me personally.”

Adam elaborated on John Romero’s point on cloning games, saying that it’s more about understanding the risk. Canabalt, for example, took five days to create, but much of that time was refining and balancing the design. With the design in place the actual game can be cloned rather quickly, a matter of hours rather than days. Despite this danger, he advocates transparency in development. He recalled what comedian Luis C. K. had said of how George Carlin influenced his act. George Carlin had said he throws out all of his old jokes, forcing him to make up new ones or else he couldn’t tell jokes anymore. Similarly, Adam said that releasing the source code for his games forces him to start from scratch since that game’s design becomes public knowledge.

When it comes to earning money on games, Adam said not to count on it. “If anybody has the idea that the game they are going to make is definitely going to earn more than $0, you actually have no control that unless your parents buy a lot of copies.” Instead, he looks at new projects for what he has control over earning, whether it be experience, learning new skills, or meeting and working with new people.

Big Developers Look Back at Their Indie Days


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