How to be a part of an indie game project

One of the advantages of being busy to the point of dropping off the radar for the last few months is that we haven’t had to worry about people pestering us about joining our project.  Don’t get me wrong, we loooooove the attention, but since starting to work on Tainted Sword we’ve become pretty jaded about the scores of would-be game developers that we’ve met along the way.

Our core team of game developers rarely changes.  Over the past year-or-so of development, and the year-or-so of concepting before then, we’ve had a couple of people join our team, and couple of people move on for legitimate reasons (note: when you can’t pay anybody, practically anything counts as a legitimate reason).  The best thing that ever happened to us was signing Flaming Pigeon to do our art, filling a gaping hole in our expertise.  But we’ve also had nearly a dozen talented people express interest in joining our team only to flounder on the threshold of actually accomplishing anything useful and ultimately buzz off.

So what does it take to join an indie game project, or any game project in general?  Extra Credits ran an excellent feature on this topic last year.  From our own experience, I’d like to add the following.

Know Your Skills

This is a critical element of contribution: having something to contribute.  I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met who want to make or play video games for a living.  They’re often avid gamers themselves, but have nothing marketable to offer beyond vague ideas.  But as Extra Credits aptly points out, there’s no room in the game industry for an idea guy.  Everyone from the highest executive role to the lowest QA guy is over-saturated with ideas.  The only thing in short supply is the practical capability to turn those ideas into finished products.

Game development teams hire based on need, but generally try to accomplish as much as possible with the fewest number of people; there are many practical reasons for this.  When the skills align perfectly, it’s possible (and even favourable) to get by with as few as one or two people.  Our own core team of three people has an abundance of technical, design, and writing expertise; we’re forced to rely on contractors for art and music, but we will always be interested in infusing our team with artistic talent directly.

I’ve heard lots of people complain that it’s difficult to get into the game industry.  That’s simply not true, but there’s a catch: there’s lots of room in the industry, but only for the right people.  Valve, the monolithic game creator/publisher/distributor best known for Half-Life and Steam, is relatively small for a triple-A studio, having only around 260 employees.  In a recent interview, their Managing Director Gabe Newell claimed that they would hire as many as 50 new people – so long as those people all meet their skill criteria.

The trick is that you need to be prepared to diversify.  Triple-A studios are known for assembling massive teams of specialists, which allows them to make technologically superb but creatively lacking games.  Valve is in the enviable position of assembling a dream team of people who are jack-of-all-trades, master-of-at-least-two.  Part of the dream of owning a development studio is to be able to encourage and fund the acquiring of new skills among our team.

Show up!

This should be a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised by how many people who wanted to help us eventually bailed out on account of a bi-weekly meeting.  We’re all busy, what with work, life, and relationships; we get that.  But there is a minimum standard of communication that’s required to be a part of any project.  If you can’t make it to any of the meetings, in person or on Skype (hey, we’re pretty easy that way), do you really think you’ll be able to get up to speed and contribute in a meaningful way?

Take Ownership

Believe it or not, this is actually the most important point on the list.  If you really want to help build a game, find something that you can do, then do it.  A lot of people are confused by hierarchical project and company structures, and think that the business world is nothing short of an endless network of managers who tell you what to do.  But as Jim Collins pointed out in Good to Great, if you ever feel the need to manage someone, to tell him/her what to do or how to do it, then you’ve hired the wrong person for the job.

To put it bluntly, there’s enough work to do building a great game and a great company that it doesn’t make any sense for a contributing member of the team to spend any effort trying to motivate other people or keep them productive.  This is particularly true on an independent game project, where there are no monetary constraints forcing a release at a particular date.

You can have all of the expertise in the world, but if you don’t have ownership, you’ll produce something inferior if you manage to produce anything at all.  But if your team is passionate and self-driven, it doesn’t matter what skills you lack, you can still produce something monumental that people will enjoy for years to come.  One look at Dwarf Fortress and you’ll know what I mean 😉

Posted in Rants

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