When should I go indie?

When I got interested in making games for a living several years ago, I’ve read many opinions on when one should try going full-time indie. Most took form of warnings, like: “don’t leave your job to become indie”, “don’t start indie business before you finish your college” or “don’t try unless you have saved up money for at least two years”.


You know what? Looking back at my own experiences, I find these to be an utter piece of bovine excrement. Personally — if your ultimate goal is to become full-time indie developer — I think you should give it a try whenever you get the chance.


I can see the comments already. “Sure, Tom. Easy for you to say. We’ll see how you sing, when Cinders flops like it’s a sequel to Howard the Duck“.


Good point. Let’s say Cinders bombs. It’s quite possible after all. What then? Does my life end? Do I actually starve or become homeless? Will I never make a game again? Nope. I’ll just have to get a job. Damn, what a horrible fate…


But don’t forget that in the meantime, I:

  • Finally managed to launch a proper website for my work.
  • Made some valuable business and press contacts.
  • Gained some more recognition for our studio.
  • Have another game under my belt.


The game is what matters the most. It’s a source of passive income, and something I can put on a sale to raise funds. Just like we did with Magi. That’s why we haven’t collapsed yet, even though Cinders is late according to our original schedule. Having a sellable product is a huge help when attempting to go indie.


Each released game also increases the studio’s recognition and fan base. Traffic decays with time, but there are people who would be happy to hear about the studio’s resurrection in the future. It also makes contacting the press easier. Indie developers who have already released something are treated more seriously.


Not to mention that finishing a game is a valuable experience. In game design, in marketing, in business development, feedback handling… well — everything. You can read hundreds of books on game development, but it’s nothing compared to releasing even a small game. It is why your first game almost always sucks (or at least could be much better). The sooner you have it out, the sooner you become a good developer.


Even if I fail with Cinders, these factors are going to make my next attempt much easier. All in all, I don’t think becoming a full-time indie is that hard. But it takes lots of time, persistence and frequent releases. The sooner you start, the better.


The notion that it’s a necessary to finish college first seems ridiculous to me, too. College is actually a great time to start your indie career. You have lots of time, few responsibilities, and you’re likely still being supported by your parents. At worst, it will help you land a job later.


I dropped out of University to be able to focus on my games. And while I don’t advise anyone to do that, I have never regretted my decision. By the time my friends started getting their degrees and were looking for their first jobs, I had enough experience to land a Lead Designer’s position in a studio I always wanted to work for. When my friends got their first serious jobs, I had five games under my belt, and was ready to give full-time indie a shot with some reasonable success expectancy. Life is short, if you want to do something specific, better get to it.


I recently met a promising starting game developer. The guy’s name is Uriel Griffin (yes, that’s his actual name!). He’s around 18, and he already started a small company that released several titles for the Mac App Store and iOS. His games may not be something to write home about just yet, but I predict a bright future ahead of this fellow. He has accomplished more as an indie than many people nearing their 30s! If he ever wishes to go full-time — boy, does he have some foundation!



As for having savings for at least few years ahead — I don’t know about you — but I’ve found that no matter how much you work, making such huge savings is nigh impossible. Between bills, rent, insurance, and trying to maintain a reasonable quality of life, it’s hard to save up for even few months ahead. Damn, many people can’t even afford a proper vacation after years of working for the man.


This varies from country to country, of course. I come from a relatively poor place, from a poor family, so my personal situation may be different from yours. But I think it’s safe to assume that majority of people don’t have incredibly well-paying jobs, allowing them to make big savings in short time. And time is of essence here. Spending five years in a office cubicle, thinking: “just a year more and I’m free”, may end up in family, mortgage, and far too much responsibility to be able to bite the bullet.



Having enough money to support yourself is certainly important. But if your first game requires few years of development and tens of thousands of dollars, then — pardon me — but it’s not your savings that are being the problem.


For me, the criteria on when you should try going indie should be:

  • Do you have an idea for a game?
  • Can you make that game?
  • Do you have enough money to survive the development?


If the answer is “yes”,  just do it. Simple as that.


Even if the game fails or doesn’t earn enough to support you, you still made a big step towards realizing your dream. Your next attempt is going to be much, much easier. And if you wait for too long, you may end up having two lovely kids, and a mortgage that would make Rockefeller sleep badly at night. Good luck trying then.


Agreed? Or do you have different experiences, and I’m just a lucky smartass?

  1. Ixolite wrote a comment on: June 24, 2011 at 9:36 pm

    While not having indie games development experience, I have to agree that starting early is important – if only for the fact that you gain valuable experience. Even if you’re not doing it for profit at first, the things you learn do profit later since you can avoid some mistakes and pitfalls that everyone encounters when doing something for the first time. It is also much easier to build up on past experiences, especially if you don’t have an experienced team to back you up, rather than starting things from scratch, pressed on time and money.

    Having said that however, it isn’t always as easy as that. If you don’t have a clear goal in your life, which a lot of us don’t when we just start our adult lives, having a backup plan is equally important in my opinion. And that often means going to school or getting a job, that in turn can derail your well defined career goals.

    Its a reality vs. dreams come true sort of situation and personal experience will vary, depending on individual situation I think.

  2. TeeGee wrote a comment on: June 24, 2011 at 9:44 pm

    You are right. That’s why I don’t advise anyone to drop their education like I did.
    But I must also admit that most good game developers I’ve met are very driven people with clear goals, often making games since their early childhood. The article is mainly aimed at people who know what they want, but still wait with realization of their dreams.

  3. Brian wrote a comment on: June 24, 2011 at 9:48 pm

    Generally agree with regards to seizing the day. My background is perhaps much greater a hindrance than the traditional would-be Indie, what with not having any programming, art, or music/sound capabilities to stride with—yet it falls to me here at 26 to take a crack at it and see how it shakes out.

    I’d also add a caveat to it overall: That is is important to try also because of the chance for good unintended consequences. It is entirely possible to be shooting for one thing only to discover a knack for something a bit deviated. There are people that want to make a game, but stumble hard, only to discover that it is also the case that they have a talent for tool/library/engine writing—-giving them a renewed vector of attack they’d perhaps never have discovered otherwise.

    The journey can create more interesting results than the destination, sometimes.

  4. TeeGee wrote a comment on: June 24, 2011 at 9:58 pm

    True. Making a game (or any form of creative endeavour really) is often a journey of self-discovery.
    Also, no worries — I studied Literature ;).

  5. n wrote a comment on: June 25, 2011 at 4:34 am

    This might seem a little counter intuitive, but if you don’t have the willpower to create a game while holding down a job, does it really make sense to quit your job to do it?

    Certainly, if your ultimate goal is to make indie video games then you may as well get on that, but be sure that it’s what you really want, and that you’re capable of realizing that goal.

    I agree that it makes little sense to pay thousands upon thousands of dollars for university tuition just so you can take classes that don’t really interest you to get a job you don’t really like, but… as someone who is enthused about their degree and their field, no, school is not a waste of time.

    Out of curiosity, how are you saving for retirement? Normally employers help out with that sort of thing, so it isn’t quite as big a deal to have a smaller savings fund.

  6. SpookyBurger wrote a comment on: June 25, 2011 at 5:09 am

    I loved this article. Right now I’m taking a video game design course, so for me I’m going to school for one more year (18 mo course) and then I’m gonna work for the man for a bit. I figure it’ll be awesome to get paid to learn/produce industry standard material. After that I might stay working for companies, freelance, make my own projects, or some combination of said options.

    I agree with the trouble of saving up to start a company. One point I think you didn’t emphasis enough was the prisoner feel you have at the job you’re just working for a check for. When I was working as a clerk it was super hard to get motivated to make it through my week cause I simply didn’t feel anything for the job, thus making saving way harder cause I’d happily cut back shifts.

    Anyways enough of that 😛 Good luck on Cinders and finding time to write great read.

    P.S. I want ArkMagi!!!

  7. TeeGee wrote a comment on: June 25, 2011 at 9:44 am

    N, I don’t think that College is a waste of time per se, especially if you are passionate about your degree. I actually wished I had the time and money to finish mine — I loved it. But I think it’s a waste of time, if you wait with realizing your dreams until it ends. It’s a great period to try different activities and ideas without much risk. Helps a lot in the job market later, too.

    As for my retirement — in Poland it’s relatively hard for a young person, especially in game development, to get full employment. We usually work on contracts. You get more money that way, but no social insurance, retirement plan or health care. You have to arrange that yourself. It actually has some advantages, as Polish social insurance is not worth much.

    To save for retirement, I’ve been investing in various funds since few years. I have accumulated a nice amount, but that money is frozen for several more years. I also wouldn’t want to spend that, even if I could. I don’t want to risk my retirement for short-term savings.

  8. Jake wrote a comment on: June 25, 2011 at 7:12 pm

    I agree with this post, except for quitting your day job, yet. Jon Acuff wrote an amazingly inspiring book (called Quitter) that applies to indie game dev in that it talks about how to pursue your dream while falling in like with a job you don’t love. This way when you make the transition, it isn’t so drastic. Totally changed my attitude for the better.

  9. GDI wrote a comment on: June 26, 2011 at 10:02 am

    Gah, It wasn’t until I turned thirty that I knew I wanted to make games for sale (not necessarily as a living, I have other stuff for that). Most of my college career was training to work for Intel which later packed up and moved to China.

    One thing’s for sure, I’m really envious of those who knew early on what they loved doing. For everyone else, don’t quit your day job!

  10. ButtercupSaiyan wrote a comment on: June 29, 2011 at 5:07 pm

    I’m one of those people that didn’t know what the hell to major in at college, stopped one class short of a Associates in Science in Biology because the Professor retired and instead graduated with Liberal Arts. Hell, I’m going back as a non-degree seeking student this semester just to get back in the swing of things.

    And instead of paying for classes, I’m looking into self-improvement things: private lessons to learn to play an instrument, painting down at the church with my retired Art professor, learning to play the flute… what the hell does that have to do with game development?


    Because I woke up one day and I went: “Fuck this, I can’t live like this in a dead-end job and in an abusive household with an alcoholic single mother, I’m twenty-five years old and this shit has got to stop. It’s time to change things up.”

    So I got out of that mess and I’ve cast my lot to the wind, invested in a new laptop and other equipment and I’ve finally gone fully part-time with freelance art and game development. Our Kickstarter page met its first pledge (!) and my own project is going along swimmingly and I foresee no major problems, and I’m still employed part-time and work about 30 hours a week.

    Feels good, man. =)

    So my answer is: When should you go indie? Stop being negative, just do it right now! You don’t need savings, all you need is ambition. There were many months without a PC I did nothing but fill up a notebook with writing and a sketchbook with concept art. Hell, that’s how 30% of Sum of the Parts was done…

  11. TeeGee wrote a comment on: June 29, 2011 at 5:19 pm

    I wouldn’t go as far as to say that just ambition is enough (at least in most cases), but it’s great to hear about your success, man :D.