Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Indies: Why Make Contract Games?

On the road from a traditional job in the game industry to full-time independent game development, we have found ourselves in the position of doing contract game development for a period of time. My initial response to the idea of contract development was less than excited. I feared that it was ultimately no more than a change of bosses rather than the life-changing adventure I was looking for. To my surprise contract game development has proven to be closer to independent development than I had expected. Working with the right companies, contract work can offer many of the benefits of independent game development and act as a stepping stone toward full-time work on your own games, while providing some of the benefits of a traditional game development job.

When you order cheese puffs in bulk, you get a developer as a prize.
Why do contract games at all, you might ask. Well, it's simple. Dependable money. The independent game scene is filled with heroic stories of cash-strapped developers mortgaging their houses, maxing out credit cards, subsisting off of cheese puffs and will-power to create their dream game. While these stories make for a great read and sometimes result in an incredible windfall for the developer, they also sound like a terrible way to live and are one-shot solutions to lack of funding. Miss the mark on your first game and all you've got is debt and regret. Our aversion to taking on debt and desire for a 'normal' lifestyle have led us to take a slow and steady approach to making games. Contract games, though they lack the potential windfall of an independent game, offer a source of dependable income like a regular job. Using this we pay ourselves and by keeping our costs down we have been socking away money until we have enough to make a game of our own. With the revenue from each independent game we release we hope to slowly work ourselves off of our dependence on contract work. In this way, contract game development provides us a (relatively) steady income, similar to a traditional game development job, while providing a path toward greater independence.

Sorry Johnny, it wasn't my call.
At the same time that contract development provides revenue it also provides much of the sense of control that I found lacking in a regular game development job. As a mid-level employee at two different game development studios, I often felt like a horse wearing blinders. The extent of my knowledge of the company's direction and my role in it was limited to the task in front of me. With such limited perspective, I've frequently been confused and surprised by company decisions. I've had projects that dragged on far longer than they should have, while others were cancelled before they were given chance. I worked on a game that had its genre changed on a near monthly basis. Reasonable ideas I suggested were rejected for unknown reasons while company heads made bizarre decisions without my input, such as shoving a poorly drawn Jack Sparrow and mini-games into an otherwise coherent mini-golf game. Working in a small studio has greatly clarified the decision process that goes into making a game. With a better understanding of the decision process has come a sense of control and in-turn fulfillment that I never had when working for a large studio. While contract work still has the limitation that parts of the project are dictated by an outside force, having an active voice in the discussion makes it easier to accept even the bizarrest decision. Additionally we've found that different companies and projects offer varying amounts of freedom, and ultimately we always have a choice of whether or not to take a project. 

iPhone Screenshot 1
Entanglement iOS, does no one love you?
Since contract work provides much of the freedom and control that comes with independent development and also provides a secure supply of revenue, it offers an excellent sandbox in which to learn how to build a company. Derek and I started Gopherwood Studios without any previous business experience. This means we've made a LOT of mistakes over the last two years. Mistakes such as promising an expansion to the iOS version of Entanglement that we ultimately couldn't provide, or giving it an art style without reflecting on the target audience for the game (we still get complaints about that). And while we still make mistakes with regularity, we're much better businessmen than we were. At the same time we've had two years to build up a base of technology and knowledge that make each new project easier. While there is something to be said for diving directly into a passion project from the get-go, there is value in taking some time to work the kinks out of a business before taking a significant risk. 

That doesn't mean that you can't take any risks if you take our route, instead contract games provide us with regular chances to take risks within the confines of a project.  Each project provides new challenges and opportunities. We take advantage of each project to try out new ideas and techniques. With each project these experiments helps us to grow as developers and prepare us for future projects.

While my initial concept of being an independent developer didn't include contract game development, I've been pleased to find that it offers many of the benefits and pleasures of independent development while still offering a path toward full independence. If you've got the ability to a more direct route to independent game development, you may find yourself there sooner than us, but for more risk adverse developers contract game development offers a viable route.

I like whitespace.