HOW TO FAIL AT MAKING AN INDIE GAME

Reading time: ~20 minutes

Whether you're a solo developer or a small team of passionate friends, creating a video game is a noble goal and a dream come true for many. You get to combine the creative with the technical. You get to build entire rule systems and mechanics. You get to write virtual characters that interact with players. You get to craft levels and immerse players in a fictional world.

This article isn't about doing that.

This article is about how to never actually make an indie game.

Steam's storefront has become so competitive that "the Indiepocalypse" — a tongue-in-cheek term that describes the oversaturation of games on the platform — was (is?) an actual talking point. In the wider world, 9 out of 10 startup companies fail. How can you ensure your game can be a part of those lucky 10% that do manage to break even?

It's been said that it's better to die on your feet than to live on your knees. We're going one step further. You're about to learn how to break your feet so you die on your knees. And you're going to enjoy it.

Conceptualize your Dream Game

One of the first pieces of advice given to indie game developers is to "manage their scope". One should limit the amount of content and mechanics in their game to their essentials while focusing and deepening the ones they have. This ostensibly leads to "a more focused product" and "a smoother gameplay experience" and "a more managable development cycle".

This advice is a hoax given by successful game developers to stop others from making more money than them. You must ignore it at all costs.

Big games make big money. It is a simple formula, proven by every AAA games ever released.
When outlining your project, make sure to plot out the most epic, most ambitious project you can think of. Have an open world with dozens of NPCs AND have a thousand unique items AND have a gripping, 12-hour long storyline AND gloat about an insane artstyle that'll require thousands of assets.

That said, your dream game might be a narrative-focused FPS, or a schmup, or a roguelike, i.e. something smaller. Still, you should still work diligently on every facet of your game before even thinking of creating a prototype.

Create concept art for everything from characters to level layouts. Write detailed bios and backstories for every character. Ensure everything is of the highest quality and avoid "temp" content: nothing ever changes during development and everything you write down is most certainly final.

Presentation is key, so make sure to create a pitch deck for investors and publishers as early as possible. Fill it with all the cool shit you want your game to have. Claim it will all be done in about a year to further entice your imaginary investors.
Don't worry about creating a prototype or even showcasing striking screenshots: they will be so heads-over-heels by your brilliant vision that they'll throw millions of dollars without a second thought.

It is at this point that you should have one of two things: either a 200-page design doc filled with scribbly drawings and notes, or a random haze of game mechnics and systems stored somewhere deep in your mind, ready to spring out at a moment's notice when speaking with anyone who shows the slightest interest in what you're doing. Preferably both.

Choose an Engine

As game development became increasingly democratized, a wide variety of game engines emerged.
Of course, you could program your own engine, but this means you won't fail at making an indie game so much as you'll fail to keep your sanity and reintegrate into society as you furiously debug your sprite drawer and wonder why you need to write 300 lines to render 3 fucking PNGs.

If you're serious about your project, you must first immediately disregard any and all "tiny" or "freeware" engines like Twine or Bitsy.
They are amateur creations created for plebs too pretentious to actually code. Next, you must also disregard any emerging or genre-specific engines like RPG MAKER, Godot or LÖVE.

Nothing you do in those engines can or will teach you valuable skills you can use in your game development journey. No game created using those engines have ever gained critical recognition, nor did any of them become financially successful, which is the most important metric with which to judge any game.

After this initial elimination method, you'll find yourself left with roughly 3 choices: Unity, Unreal, and maybe Game Maker Studio—all highly reputable, popular, and high-quality engines maintained by the finest, most ethical multi-national corporations.

As we all know, once you've chosen your "favorite" game engine, you can't go back and try another one. Do not be tempted to conduct extensive research about each engine. Don't even download a bunch and see which one you like best. That's a waste of time and effort.
Instead, make a choice based on arbitrary, surface-level observations like "the graphics look cool" or "the UI is neat" or even "[that game] was made in [this engine], so it's automatically good/bad". Additionally, look up furious discussions on every social media platform about why each engine sucks ass and pick the engine that's more popular with the crowd.

Learn The Engine

Once you're all set up, it's time to begin learning how to use the engine. Look for a paid course that promises to teach you the ins and outs of the engine in the shortest amount of time. Unlike free YouTube tutorials, these courses are taught by trusted professionals who put in genuine effort, and actually care about their customers. We know that because they charge actual money for their courses, which always means it's inherently better than free content and actually give a shit.

Go through the course without questioning the teacher's methods or doing your own personal experiments. Neurotically pause and unpause to make sure every single value is correct. If you run into a problem and your online learning platform of choice doesn't have a forum, find one online and post about your issue. Do nothing until you get a satisfying answer.
Assure yourself that you do so because you are the only user who ever experienced that issue, and that its solution cannot be found via a simple Google search.

Once you finish your course, don't develop any other projects like game jam games or smaller projects to hone your skills. You should have no further questions, inquiries, or curiousities about your engine of choice. You now have a thorough understanding of how to create your dream game from start to finish.

Pat yourself on the back and begin to spread the good word of your engine far and wide, mingling with your fellow users while sneering insults at non-believers who dare to use a different engine or criticise your own.

Gather Your Crew

If by this point you have not gotten burned out by meticulously crafting your game and learning your engine of choice, it's time to put all the pieces together and gather your team members for this project.

At the most basic level, you'll need satisfying sound design, quality music, appealing graphics and art design, and intuitive controls. As you may be aware, there are publicly available resources and websites that allow you to download everything from useful scripts to art assets virtually for free. Refuse to use them at all costs. You wouldn't want your dream game to be accused of being an "asset flip", would you?
Everything that you put in your dream game can and should be wholly, entirely original. You need team members.

There are, fortunately, credible places to look for team members, whether it be in your local gamedev community, your engine's developer community, or Reddit's /r/gameDevClassifieds.

Burst in without any prior history in the community, introduce yourself, and exhaustively explain how you're doing an innovative passion project.
Don't tell anyone basic info about the project, like genre, mechanics, or even the overarching concept--they might steal these ideas from you! Instead, try to hook readers with all those fantastic details and ideas you finalized in the first stage of development.
End by saying you're looking for team members to "join you on this incredible journey", list every single game development role in existence as vacancies, and add some sexy concept art so that it's bigger on everyone's timelines.

By now you should be immediately ignored by prospective game industry pros, which technically means you will have failed to make an indie game and can conclude this tutorial. However, if you're patient and lucky enough, some might comment back with questions or ask for clarification.
Treat everybody with suspicion. Answer in vague statements and assure them that all will be explained once they join in and maybe sign an NDA or two.

You may also be pressed for your own personal experience in game development or evidence of the game's active development. Answer maturely by writing a maddening, 5+ paragraph response.

List all your life's achievements and struggles while accusing the commenter of being an unhelpful troll who's actively hurting the indie game community. State that you don't owe them anything. Remind them that you're a self-taught dev and that's enough gamedev experience to create your game.
This is a famous tactic of placating any naysayers and has the great habit of getting you kicked or banned out of these forums while eliminating all hope of people joining your project.

You may already have some knowledge in other creative fields, like sound design, graphic design, drawing, writing, etc. This knowledge will prove extremely useful in culling the few people who did take the plunge and join up.
Use your expertise to extensively criticize an applicant's work as you reply back to their well-intentioned application, and make sure to drop subtle hints that you are better than them and that they are no match for your artistic prowess.

If you lack that knowledge, fear not. Use your business sense and make sure they have all the right credentials, including but not limited to: a CV (resume), a portfolio, a cover letter, a personalized e-mail and at least 3 years' worth of industry experience. You, of course, are beyond such requirements.

Speaking of business sense, you may also be asked for compensation by applicants. Ensure them that while you can't pay anyone right now, every team member is indispensable and will be entitled to a certain percentage of profits (not revenue!) once the game is released.

If applicants still insist on moving on with the process after all of the above, examine their work carefully. If you like it, welcome them aboard while forcing them to sign draconian NDAs and confirm that you're the one in charge as a prerequisite.
Once they do, they have officially earned your trust and may now view the convuluted Eldrich location that is your Google Drive ideas folder while you ask them to just "do what they do best" while vaguely pointing at certain paragraphs or art pieces you want to "polish for release".

Development Cycle

This is it. This is the major point of failure for most folks making indie games, as this is the point the realities of the situation dawn on them.

Traditional industry wisdom implies that if you don't have organized funding through a publisher, a grant, or rich soon-to-be-deceased parents, you should treat your development cycle as a part-time job as you keep working your full-time job and maintain your relationships.

Fuck that. If you won't die for your art now, when will you?

With your newfound crew in hand, quit your job with unquestionable pride and isolate yourself for a period of 6 to 24 months. No outside distraction can invade the creative factory that is your room as you work tirelessly on your masterpiece. Inside distractions, however, are more than welcome.

Gloat about your game in forums like itch, TIG, your engine's, Reddit, and anyone who will listen until they ban you. Create a Steam page as early as possible and fill it with concept art rather than screenshots.

In any case, as game designer and team leader, you are the figure everyone is looking to hear from. You are their commander.
Explore Artstation, DeviantArt, and just plain ol' Google for "inspiration" to send to your artists, and play every single AAA game on release day for additional "mechanical inspiration" to force upon your programmers.

They may ask you for specific details that you like. Respond that you like "all of it" or say pointless things like "atmosphere" or "cool factor". 

They may also say that it's too complicated or costly for them, or that their time should be better used on more imperative things. If you disagree with their assessment-which you should-say you thank them for their input but that it's unfortunately irrelevant. Make sure to put them in their place in the most fake-smile, fuck-off-but-politely way possible, and imply that they are sabotaging your vision. There's no such thing as too much gaslighting!

The weak ones will lay down their heads and say sorry. The strong ones should just up and quit. This is an excellent way to fail.

If you do find yourself having extra free time amidst your frantic search for inspiration, use the advanced knowledge you've accrued from the "Engine 101" course you bought to create things like character controllers, basic AI, physics, interaction systems, or even basic levels.
When you realize you can't do so because you don't have the know-how, don't Google an answer or look for a YouTube tutorial: we already discussed why that's toxic.

Explain your issue to your buddying developers in great details, implement their answer, and continue the cycle until they're tired of you.
This is the best case scenario because they might ask you to just "let you do it themselves". That's less work for you - and more ways to slam your crew!

At some point, a person might rise up and decide to take the reigns away from you to "speed up development" or to "get it on track".
You have two choices. You can fire them on the spot for having the gall to usurp you, or take the wiser choice: let them do their bidding, as long as they don't undermine your absolute authority. This has the double benefit of granting your disgruntled team member a sense of purpose while allowing you to keep berating and criticizing their work, despite the fact you do nothing. Brilliant!

Continue this cycle every day until one of the following things happen:

Post-mortem

Congratulations! If you've reached this point, it means you have successfully failed at making an indie game.

The last step you have left is to monetize that failure. Thankfully, the game industry has you covered. 

"Post-mortems" are in-depth analyses, usually in the form of blog posts or presentations given by the project lead. They outline the history of a certain project, highlighting "what went right" and "what went wrong" in its development through the power of hindsight.

The most popular post-mortems belong to either extreme successes or extreme failures. This shouldn't be surprising; we love a good fairytale as much as we love a good trainwreck. This is the perfect medium to speak about your game, give it posthumous publicity, and make you an unlikely star.

In your talk/blog post, make sure to present yourself and your game in the best light possible. Explain the core pillars of your game without elaborating much and lament how earth-shattering your game would be had it come out. Spin the narrative of your cutthroat behavior as a failed "rags to riches" story: you are but a sorry solo dev who taught themselves how to program, tried to make their dream game, but everyone laughed at you. 

It was all their fault. What went wrong, you ask? Well, my teammates were scumbags. There was constant in-fighting. They got up and left when things got a little tough. My righteous vision was undermined again and again. I needed to have a better screening process. I needed to have a better PR campaign to draw better people in. I needed to get funding. Maybe a Kickstarter, y'know?

Hey, your "failures" aren't admissions of guilt - they are accusations. Against everyone who isn't you.

Wrap your pristine post-mortem up and put it online on every platform you published your game on. And your Steam page, the public needs to know. Then, inevitably, the comments roll in. Then, inevitably, the trolls will join in too. 

You have the mean ones who tell you to go fuck yourself. You can easily ignore them. The nicer ones are harder to ignore, though. Some will ask you to self-reflect, citing specific incidents where you acted out, or refused to take responsibility, or pushed someone to the corner. Many will advise you to start again, make a game of your own completely alone, and come into the field once you're truly ready. 

The vast majority of them will ask you to apologize to everyone you've hurt. And if you did hurt people.

And you will sit there, and maybe then it'll hit you. And maybe then you will send a final message to all your team members who didn't block you. And you will reflect. And you will admit fault. And you will take time off. And you will sleep right, and eat right, and start again anew.

You can fail at making an indie game. Don't fail to be a human being.