Advice for new Indie?

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Ninja2dan 101 Jul 09, 2012 at 08:46

Greetings everyone. I have looked around across these forums, as well as others, trying to figure out some things that I feel are important for a new independent game developer but it seems (at least to me) that the questions I would really like answers to are hardly asked or at least more difficult to find posted.

I have several years of experience in the gaming industry, but the bulk of my experience is as a technical advisor, creative consultant, or in small cases as voice actor or motion-capture actor. I have made plenty of contacts over the years with people directly involved in the physical production of games such as 2D/3D artists, modelers, animators, programmers, etc. But I have never been directly involved with the initial creation of a product or the marketing of a commercial product. Games that I worked with that went retail were done above me, meaning I was “out of the loop” in regards to that aspect. I rarely concerned myself with the maketing, business, licensing, etc aspects of the trade.

Now I am working on my own PC game, which is only in its design/concept phase. As of now, it’s being considered just a “hobby” project but I hope that if enough effort is put into it and it turns out as good or better than expected, I might be able to eventually push it out onto the commercial market.

I’m not going to ask the same questions that have flooded the internet time and time again, so you won’t see me asking “What engine do I use?” or “How do I learn C++?”. The questions I have are much different, leaning more towards the business aspect or deal with specifics of organization.

These questions are primarily directed towards existing Indie developers/studios, or at least those in the trade who have enough knowledge/experience in the topic to have some (or all) of the answers. But I don’t mind replies or comments from others in the industry, either from a new artist fresh out of high school or an experienced IP lawyer.

1) Considering that I may eventually wish to turn my “hobby game” into a retail product, at which stage should I file for my LLC? Is it just easier to get it done in the beginning, instead of waiting until the last minute? I’ve already had my own business before, so the specifics are not new to me. I’m just wondering if there are any pros/cons to either doing it now vs. waiting?

2) How far into a new project do most indie developers get before they start releasing information to the public? I’m planning to have a web site/forums created later on, once we get more of the concept done and have some basic teaser stuff to show off and earn interest. But I’m curious just how soon others are into their projects before they feel comfortable putting out “hard data” such as concept art? I’ve seen in the past that some readers will take posts/updates as “set in stone”, and when an early concept feature is later removed or heavily modified they react negatively. I’m also wondering if releasing media content too soon might cause the public’s interest to “burn out” or fade if the time from public information to retail release is too long. For example, is there some kind of general opinion that teasers are sent out (approx) 18 months prior to estimated retail release?

3) How many indie developers have been successful in releasing a retail product, whose team was either fully or mostly comprised of people working separately? For example, of 15 team members, only 2 live in the same town while the rest are working individually from home/work/school and spread across the country, with some members maybe even residing outside the country. I am aware of the many negative aspects of working separately, but I would like to know what the general opinion is on if working in such a manner is possible when the retail release of a product is expected.

4) For experienced indie developers, how much of your work was outsourced (on average)? I can understand that most indie teams would outsource things like motion capture (when needed), sound effects, voice casting, maybe music, and other aspects. How much of the work was done by “permanent” team members, and how much was done by one-off people? Such as, how often did you buy a single ready-made 3D model, instead of paying a team member to do it? (Products/services such as DAZ3D content for example)

And I’m curious if there are any posts out there that I might have missed, either on these forums or another, that are aimed towards independent developers and the design/production of video games that also follow similar question styles. I don’t need help finding topics about where to find artist resumes or how much does a Torque3D license cost. Those are answers I can easily find with just a few minutes of Yahoo/Google search. I’m more interested in comments, advice, etc about the topics that indie developers should know, but are either too afraid to ask or just forget about until it’s too late.

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TheNut 179 Jul 09, 2012 at 12:08
  1. There’s a couple reasons why you would want to register right away. Perhaps the most obvious reason is to secure your company name, although I use the term loosely as trademarks trump company names/logos in ownership. You will also want to start receiving tax benefits such as business expenses. You would not be able to make such claims if you registered your company at a later date. You also need to setup a bank account and register an EIN with the IRS (foreign companies) and provide that for taxation / billing purposes. Better to do that ASAP then wait to the last minute and delay the release of your game unnecessarily.

  2. This depends largely on your popularity. No sense in wasting time advertising to a few what’s going on. If you already have a successful game on the market and/or have a large group of followers, then it might be worthwhile to show off some teasers within a reasonable time before your game is scheduled for release. Some indie devs have announced their game far far sooner then they should have, causing some anxiety in the gaming community. IMO you want to avoid those type of situations, especially if you have to delay the release. It’s not the kind of image you want to project.

Keep in mind this is indie advice. AAA games follow a different pattern. It’s not unusual for a company to show-off an alpha release, which is a feature-incomplete game with 2+ years left of development. You often see these demos at E3 every year. This is a different type of marketing game, but one that you can often get away with because you’re pushing something revolutionary and want to start building up a fan base.

  1. For commercial games, this generally shouldn’t be a factor. If you contract out work, then you expect them to deliver what you pay for. If you’re trying to organize a company with people from all over the globe, then it can be a management nightmare. I would personally stick to contract work. It’s reliable and works. For hobby games, or game dev on the free, this is a bit of a challenge. You need to push a lot of the base work before you even attempt this adventure. Don’t go looking for support empty handed because that’s exactly what you’ll come out with. Best way to build a team IMO is to enlist students, preferably at your local University. Usually not the sharpest tools in the shed, but they learn quick and you can develop a relationship with them versus taking on random encounters via Internet enlisting.

  2. There are some small indie companies (sometimes partnerships) where the employees supply sufficient skill to perform all the necessary tasks. Others outsource what skills they lack. Often the company starts off with a software developer who performs all the coding and outsources the game assets, sometimes using free resources available on the web (though not often for most games). I personally get involved in all aspects of game development because it’s nice to break away from programming and it’s good experience to see how others do things; to understand their trade a bit better. From time to time I do outsource work, including myself.

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Stainless 151 Jul 10, 2012 at 08:22

I am in the UK, so don’t know specifics about how it works in the states, but once you create a company, you have certain legal requirements to fulfil.

If you are not careful, the expenses this creates can cripple you in the early days. If you have deep pockets, or this is not the case in the states, please ignore me, but it is certainly something you need to look at before you make a decision.

When it comes to advertising, don’t do any at first. Nothing can be more dispiriting when you come out of a 48 hour hackathon trying to figure out why the hell <insert random bug> happens only when <insert three totally random end user actions> and find someone flaming you for taking too long releasing the game and questioning your parentage. (These are usually the ones that are over the top in support of the game when you first announce it, I think they are all bipolar)

Once you are well along the way, start your blog with a bang.

Don’t try and get clever when it comes to sourcing graphics. I despise these people who do “competitions” with the prize being a credit on the game. Makes me angry. I don’t like outsourcing, if I can’t give my GA a slap around the back of the head if they FU, then I am always worried that something will go wrong.

Too many times I have ended up doing stupidly long shifts because a GA has screwed up, once I had to do an 86 hour shift, then get in a car and present to a client because a remote GA was a week late delivering. It’s not nice.

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Ninja2dan 101 Jul 10, 2012 at 08:31

Thanks for the reply Nut, I appreciate the advice and comments. At the moment I have been pondering over which new company name to use and register, which had been delaying the creation of my NDA’s. I knew I’d need to get on the ball and register my LLC in time for those forms, so it looks like I might as well do it sooner than later. At least then I’ll have the legal stuff ready for when I start picking up new team members.

As for the web site, I guess for now I’ll wait on that until I’m further along in the project. I’m guessing that at first I should post up just the general information on the project, such as an overview/summary of the game concept. I can then use those forums to seek out new help or content volunteers (contributors) as needed. I know that if I do eventually opt for the “Kickstarter” route, I’ll need an active site/forums to broadcast the project’s progress and everything, but I don’t see too much use of the site before that point.

I’ve put some lengthy thought into the pros/cons of hiring out work via contract compared to hiring someone as a dedicated content contributor. I spent hours browsing over content sites of available products for licensed use in games, and at first it looks like a great idea. I can buy up tons of pre-made models and stuff for just a few dollars each, and have it ready almost immediately. I know that would save a lot of development time, meaning reduced costs, but are there many downsides to such a tactic? I know it will sometimes be challenging to ensure all of your assets fit into the final product smoothly, you don’t want your audience to be fully aware that every little item or character was made by a different artist. But with careful asset selection and the proper team, I think we can make the best of it.

I know that outsourcing or buying ready-made assets does mean you have far less control over the final product’s appearance, and that in most cases you’ll never get exactly what you had in mind. But when you’re running on a limited budget and/or time/manpower, it just seems like the pros outweight the cons so much that you can’t ignore the overall benefits of doing so.

You know I’ve been getting a lot of odd looks and sneers from my peers when they hear that I’m leading such a project, or taking on such a task. Most of them are aware of my past experience, but I think they assume I am aiming for a much larger target than I am actually going for. I’m not expecting to produce something that is meant to compete with the other AAA titles, nor am I looking to get rich. In fact, I don’t expect to make any profits from this, I am just hoping that I can wrangle up enough investors when the time comes to make the project happen. As long as the gaming public can get their hands on our game and enjoy it, then I’ll be happy.

And even if the final product doesn’t meet our expectations, if it doesn’t do well in retail, then I still know it wasn’t all a failure. The members of the team should be able to walk away with new experiences under their belts, and have plenty of new material to bolster their resumes and portfolios with. As long as something good comes out of this experience, then I’ll be happy. Of course, I’d be much happier if the game is a hit and I do end up fattening my wallet a little. But that is pretty much at the bottom of my wish-list.

One benefit that I do see with having this project start out as a “hobby game” is that I really don’t have many set deadlines or outside expectations and demands. I can take my time to ensure the game is done properly, and that the primary focus of the game is left to gameplay and enjoyment, not so much on profits or buying a new BMW. I can hire staff that are honestly devoted to the project and dedicated to making the vision of the game happen, instead of working with other people whose only main interests are making another paycheck with minimal effort or care.

Most of the projects I’ve worked on before were very major products, used by millions of people around the globe and for very important purposes. The quality of our work was important, but the teams always had the interests of the end users in mind at all times and our primary focus was always to see that the final outcome served its purpose. Sometimes we worked for free, because the project or users were close to our hearts and minds. Of course getting paid was good, it meant we didn’t have to survive off of Ramen noodles all the time. But we put much more blood, sweat, tears, and lack of sleep into that work than was ever expected or required. I’m just hoping that in the end, I can build a team and produce a game that has a similar feel to it. Something that is just as enjoyable to build as it is to play.

Stainless posted while I was still typing my last reply, so I’m editing this post with a reply to his comments:

From my experiences in the past, the only real concerns with running the business is that you need to keep track of every cent you bring in. And if you intend to use any costs as tax credits, you need accurate/detailed receipts of all expenses. I have a few professional bookkeepers/accountants in the family, so I’m all good on keeping those aspects in line. Things won’t get complex until I start finding investors though, or fire up a Kickstarter (or similar) fund. Expenses with my last company were minimal, mostly just the up-front licensing fees, deposits for opening a business banking account, etc. As long as I keep the books accurate and pay attention to details, I think we’ll be okay.

Your comments on advertising are exactly what I had in mind, and I have seen exactly what you described myself on past/current projects that I’ve worked on. It’s something that I am hoping to avoid as much as possible, so I’ll have to agree and hold off on the public web site/forums creation until we’re much further into the game’s progress. And even then, I’ll want to make sure we have enough stockpiled “goodies” that we can gradually release as development progresses, and hope we don’t have many of those issues.

As for the outsourcing, and use of “competitions”, I’ve never been a fan of those either. I don’t mind offering up simple tasks to volunteers, in trade for listing in the game credits or something, but I’m talking about simple content such as a 55-gallon drum model or a graffiti logo image. When it comes to the more important assets such as character models, world levels/maps, UI graphics, etc I would prefer those be done by a dedicated team member that I can be assured will do the work as required. If they don’t get it right, then I ask them to keep going back and redoing it until it is right, or find someone else who can. If someone is offering up their time as a volunteer contributor, you basically get what they offer or nothing at all. I much prefer having some sort of limited “leash” on the assets team so I can make sure we get what we really need, and not trying to rely on what we can scrap together.

On the other hand, I did spend several hours browsing through the store on DAZ 3D’s site of products. They have all kinds of stuff that at first glance seems perfect (or quite close) to what I want. I’m not sure how much leverage I have in making modifications to those assets before I place them in my game, but when I see something that is 90-95% of what I’m already looking for, it’s readily available, and only costs a few bucks for a licensed copy, it just sounds like a great deal. But then again, maybe I’m lacking enough knowledge into the subject.

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TheNut 179 Jul 10, 2012 at 11:34

@Ninja2dan

I spent hours browsing over content sites of available products for licensed use in games, and at first it looks like a great idea…

Keep in mind it’s not just pre-made content, although that may be the more economical choice. You can also contract temporary employment and provide them with your requirements, in which they deliver exactly what you ask for. In a real company, full-time employees create a lot of unnecessary paper work. Contracting that work out treats the whole ordeal as a business expense, which is far easier to handle. Just check if their rates fit your budget or negotiate a deal where you get a reduced price if they maintain copyrights and license the content out to you (often a better deal for both parties). I know students in particular work for cheep. There was an article written about it long ago in regards to Flash game developers outsourcing on the cheep (somewhat controversial), but I can’t seem to find it right now.
@Ninja2dan

One benefit that I do see with having this project start out as a “hobby game” is that I really don’t have many set deadlines or outside expectations and demand

Hobby project or not, you should always set deadlines. It’s a textbook case for project failure. And you do have outside expectations. They’re called gamers and if you want them to be happy and play your game by the millions, you need to deliver.
@Ninja2dan

I have a few professional bookkeepers/accountants in the family, so I’m all good on keeping those aspects in line.

Nice to have, but if you need/want to manage your own books take a look at GNU Cash. The UI could be much better IMO, but it does the job very well.
@Ninja2dan

On the other hand, I did spend several hours browsing through the store on DAZ 3D’s site of products. They have all kinds of stuff that at first glance seems perfect (or quite close) to what I want.

Daz3D offers high resolution, unoptimized models primarily designed for high quality 3d raytracing. If you’re building a 2D game with prerendered graphics, then their stuff can work out well. If you’re building a 3D game, then their models will require a ton of work to get them to look right and perform well in real-time gaming. IMO you’re better off working with low-resolution models or game-friendly assets since it eliminates a lot of burden. Some companies advert their stuff here on Devmaster frequently. Dexsoft and Arteria3d come to mind. These kind of companies offer game-ready assets, which are much easier to work with. Try looking around the net for companies like that.

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alphadog 101 Jul 10, 2012 at 14:49

A lot of good discussion, but I’ll a few thoughts:

When you are a startup, always operate lean. Defer whatever you can, which means defer the LLC, defer the marketing, defer anything that doesn’t matter just now. It’s not procrastination, it’s about focusing your meager resources on what advances you to 1) a minimum viable deliverable, and then 2) a positive cashflow. The former is maximized by planning well, self-editing well and keeping focus. The latter is maximized, obviously, by deferring expenses and building revenue.

One statement concerns me. You want to “start out as a hobby game is that I really don’t have many set deadlines”. In my experience, this attitude will more likely lead to failure than success. I know you don’t mean it negatively or in a cavalier way, but nevertheless, whenever I take that mentality, projects tend to fizzle.There’s a lot to having a vision, and a plan, that is part of being an effective leader that make others want to follow.

PS: I would lock up your domain name early, though, since it’s a small expense.

PPS: Outsourcing does have it’s applications. Cost savings is rarely what you’d think. But, the real primary ones are for mitigating limited local talent, esp. for niche skills, or for combating time-to-market pressures. You can also start with non-critical projects to test outsourcees, then move the good ones off the bench and onto the playing field as they prove themselves.

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Ninja2dan 101 Jul 10, 2012 at 17:03

Yeah, I guess the “no deadlines” comment came out differently than I intended. What I meant was that I won’t have some AAA publisher or management studio telling me that I have specific deadlines along the project, deadlines that are determined by people outside of the project and care more about getting paid than they are concerned with getting out the better product for the customer.

With some of the projects that I’ve worked on before for other teams, I’ve seen quite a few problems when you have people not directly tied to your project telling you that you need to skip certain features or use lower-quality work. I obviously can’t include every planned or desired feature from the GDD, but when I have the ability to set my own deadlines based on current progress, I think I’ll get more productive results. If I think part of the story needs more polish, then I can put in a few more days of work on it.

Don’t get me wrong, I like having deadlines and specific goals. Most consider me a very disciplined and structured person, people know I dislike putting things off or not finishing something once I’ve started. But I prefer to set my own goals, my own deadlines, based on how I feel the project is progressing. People that don’t have their own hands in the mud aren’t going to have the best answers on what needs done next. You tell me what needs done, and I’ll determine how I should actually do it.

About the DAZ3D content being high-poly, were you aware of their program called Decimator? It allows you to convert anything you have into a low-poly version, and from what I’ve seen so far it does a great job at it. That way I can have the higher-res versions for artwork, scenes, etc and still have an identical low-poly clone for real-time use.

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TheNut 179 Jul 10, 2012 at 18:45

I haven’t used their Decimator tool, but I have worked with similar algorithms in 3DSMax and Blender, both of which produce suboptimal results when really pushing down the polygon count. They work well when decimating I would say between 50 - 60% of the model’s original polygon count, but more than that and you may run into anomalies due to lack of polygon uniformity or UV coordinate swimming. It gets worse if you have a model with a lot of steep angles, such as with swords and most vehicles. Human fingers and toes will also be heavily affected by vertex decimation since they often have fewer polygons than the face. It often requires a bit of manual labour to reduce the polygon count. Depending on your target platform, which by the way you should also plan for, your characters could range anywhere between 500 to 10,000 polygons. Try decimating a high poly model down to 1000 polys and see what monster comes out :)

The other problem is that you don’t just want to decimate, you also want to eliminate. There’s no point in rendering a torso if that person is wearing armour on top of it, and It may not be trivial to remove it, or optimally weld it to the parent mesh. Most games also don’t render body parts in detail. Feet for example is usually represented as a tessellated boxy type mesh with a texture on it. These are the sort of things you would need to address if you wanted to maximize efficiency. Something to think about.

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Ninja2dan 101 Jul 10, 2012 at 20:09

That’s something I’ll have to look into further then. From the tutorials and demo vids I’ve seen regarding Decimator and other DAZ3D tools, you could choose different portions of the object to decimate at different ratios. So if certain portions of a body for example needed further decimation, while other portions needed less, you could select the individual components or groups and vary their decimation levels as needed and still ensure the overall end product resulted in the desired appearance and poly count.

I’ll need to wait until I hire a dedicated artist with knowledge and experience in this topic to really decide what the best options are. But from what I’ve seen, the DAZ suite has so many things going for it that will benefit smaller studios working on a lower budget. I won’t be making any major purchases though until I’m certain I can use it.

As for my own project’s appearance, I’m planning on a RTS style of game with limited “close up” camera positions. I would like the player to get the chance to move the camera around and zoom in close enough that they can see their character(s), recognize facial features, identify weapons and equipment, but still refrain from having “too much detail”. For example, it won’t be necessary to retain the manufacturer logo engraved on the side of a firearm or embroidered onto a pair of boots, but you should be able to tell if that pistol is a Beretta or Glock, or that the character has black hair instead of brown.

Luckily, I do have plenty of contacts that I work with currently on another project who are very skilled and experienced at turning high-def models into multi-LOD game assets designed to both look good and still perform as needed in a multiplayer online game. If (or when) I bump into any performance issues or need direction on how to reduce poly counts, I’m hoping they can shed light onto the subject and keep things rolling.

In my mind, I assume it’s always better to start off with a high-poly model and reduce the count as needed, than starting with a low-poly model and trying to clean it up later. But then again, my experience in that subject is quite lacking so maybe I’ve been misinformed.

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fireside 141 Jul 10, 2012 at 21:27

“In my mind, I assume it’s always better to start off with a high-poly model and reduce the count as needed, than starting with a low-poly model and trying to clean it up later. “

From my experience, I find the opposite to be true. It’s much easier to add detail, but I do modeling. Also, you can use normal mapping on a high poly model and put it on a low poly model to give it the appearance of much more detail yet it runs a lot faster in engine.
I’m just a hobbyist, so I’ve refrained from this topic, but I think it’s better to used lower poly stylized characters. People remember them more. It feels more individual, and you can repeat more textures, models, etc, without affecting the game play as much. When you use high poly models, you will always be compared to the latest AAA title. If the lip synch is a little off, if the animation isn’t perfect, it will stand out. It’s that uncanny valley thing. The more you use lower poly stylized models, the more you can get away with text boxes, etc. If it was me, I would design the game with as many free models and textures as possible and then get a qualified artist when the game was near completion. Check out sites like opengameart.org. The whole thing with an indy game is that it needs an unusual premise or something. It can’t really be a knock off. You’ll still be up against a huge amount of competition, so good luck.

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Ninja2dan 101 Jul 11, 2012 at 05:29

Thanks for the reply, honest advice from experience is what I’m after, regardless if you’re a hobbyist or AAA veteran. It’s good to hear comments from the full range of people working in this trade.

I guess I’m just used to using high-poly originals due to the projects that I’ve worked with in the past. The modelers and artists that produce the assets we’ve used have always started with the most detailed assets possible, and once everything looks “perfect”, we test things out and will reduce poly counts until the level of performance is desired while still keeping as much detail as possible. One example would be with a weapon asset. We start off with a model so detailed that as a former soldier myself, I feel as though I can mentally reach through the screen and actually pick up that weapon and operate it no differently than the one like it I used in the real world. So by the time it makes it into the final phase of the project, it has had some details reduced or even removed, but the overall feel is still solid.

By having those original high-poly models around, we can use them in scene renders, or recycle them onto new projects in the future than can take advantage of more detail. We don’t have to go back and remake a whole new model just because we need a higher quality version. The same goes with characters, vehicles, buildings, static objects (filler), etc.

The current project is going to focus strongly on modern realism, so we want things to be as realistic as possible within the graphics scale and system performance necessary. I know what you mean by the “Uncanny Valley”, and we’re definitely not trying or wanting to compete with the AAA studios. But the use of stylized characters or “cartoony” landscapes would totally ruin the base concept of the game. We’ll just have to play around with different aspects of the game and determine a good balance.

You did mention lip synching, which was actually a question I was going to bring up on these forums: What do most developers do when they plan to offer the game in multiple language translations? I’m wondering how the balance will be between the extra profits brought in from international sales and the additional costs for new voice-overs, complete textual makeover, coding, etc. Now I can understand the need to offer up a translation into English if the original game was not in that language, in order to bring in more sales. But what if the original game was in English, how does one decide which languages are best to include and which would be less viable? Is it more common to just offer up subtitles, than having to hire additional voice actors? And for a lower-budget indie game, is this something that is even done that often? If so, is it usually better off doing translations as patch/updates once you’ve had a successful launch? I imagine there are complete books and seminars on just this topic.