What are some of the biggest - and better yet: insidious and unexpected - mistakes that indie game developers make? Especially when making the transition from hobbyist to full-time indie?

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    I don't have any solid advice to give, so I'll just post this comment with a comical link: rockpapershotgun.com/2010/07/02/rules-for-games-do-dont-1 – DrDeth Jul 19 '10 at 15:31
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    @DrDeth, that link is worth promoting to an Answer. :) Really. – Cyclops Jul 19 '10 at 15:50
  • Yeah, it really is. Truth, delivered with humor. – Casey Wagner Jul 19 '10 at 16:43
  • I would suggest to build a minimal game - if possible - and then improve upon it. If you spent $100 m (e.g. time/resources etc) on this awesome game and nobody plays it, what a tragedy - such wasted effort! Better spend $10 (time/resources) for a minimal game and to then improve upon it, if/when it gets traction - then you'll have more resources to make the game more awesome. my two cents. – BKSpurgeon Jul 10 '17 at 8:33

18 Answers 18

up vote 279 down vote accepted

One of the major pitfalls is focusing too much on developing the framework / tools / engine, and too little about making the actual game.

You risk to get all entangled up into that and lose focus. Never forget you are first and foremost making a game not making a middle-ware component.

i.e. You should not start by coding the math library but instead by figuring out how to make the game entertaining.

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    Man, if I could vote this up 100 times... Case in point -> Stay away from re-inventing the wheel. – David McGraw Jul 19 '10 at 19:49
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    +1 But it's really hard to find a balance. Most people won't go for a game that only has to offer nice graphics, but even the best and most innovative game idea needs an appropriate representation or it will fail. – Dave O. Jul 19 '10 at 19:57
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    And I think this could be generalised to: avoid any work that doesn't directly contribute to (a) making a great game, and (b) getting it into the hands of as many people as possible. (This covers a lot of business stuff, fancy-website stuff, etc.) – Andrew Russell Jul 20 '10 at 5:23
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    Then again, I made the "mistake" of making an engine first, but now I have a nice, well-designed engine and am working on actual games. Your mileage may vary. – Jon Purdy Nov 1 '10 at 20:50
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    Remove the "tools". Investing time in tools is actually storing time for later. It brings you no "gain" today, but will save your ass soon. – Andreas Feb 7 '11 at 13:43

Don't start off with an MMORPG.

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    This. Specially if it's exactly like World of Warcraft but adds a couple of really awesome classes. – zaratustra Jul 23 '10 at 19:50
  • There's nothing wrong with starting with an MMORPG, if you aren't totally unrealistic about it. Obviously 3D is totally out of the question, and any quest system would be greatly simplified. – Stephen Belanger Dec 1 '10 at 23:13
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    I think there's one fundamental flaw in your argument. "Massively" multiplayer... – Nick Bedford Dec 2 '10 at 1:05
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    Besides, most people that want to do a MMORPG are usually fall in the category of I-have-this-totally-awesome-MMORPG-idea-that-will-be-the-next-WoW...two months later you found their project abandoned, lingering on SF with just the game concept commited – Gastón Dec 9 '10 at 18:30
  • Precisely what Gastón said. – Nick Bedford May 4 '11 at 23:04

Don't burnout early.

You don't want to get started an awesome game idea and then burnout after a couple of weeks because of poor planning. Games take a long time to make, so make small, realistic goals.

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    That's exactly the kind of advice I need drilled into my head. My PC holds the ashes of many a started-but-not-finished games. – Bob Jul 19 '10 at 22:31
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    As a related note, small goals are also good because it lets you create a feedback cycle with yourself. Code a little, debug a little, feel good to see your game doing a little bit more cool stuff. The worst parts of any development are the big things that take a long time to finish, because you risk losing that joy of accomplishment while you work on it. – CodexArcanum Oct 27 '10 at 20:59
  • @Bob I think that's par for the course in any discipline. I write music and abandon about half of my projects. – Kevin Jul 18 '14 at 14:35

Biggest indie mistakes:

  • Choose a too big project.
  • Have a too small team. (Lone wolf can work, but adds unneeded problems.)
  • Don't set a fixed target date. (Yes, set the release date before starting and stick to it!)
  • Keep it secret. (Get it out there, nobody will steal your idea. Ideas are 1%, execution is 99%.)
  • Ignore the community. (Get some early alpha testers. Get early versions out to the review sites. They want your previews and will help you!)
  • Ignore copyright. (It's not OK to steal code, graphics, sounds, etc...)
  • Expect too much money. (Make your first title a gift. Expect nothing in return.)
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    I really liked the last one. Expect nothing in return. +1! – はると Nov 2 '10 at 18:50
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    @Eibx YEAH ME TOO!! GO POVERTY LINE! – bobobobo Apr 28 '13 at 1:54

Two things... The first one being the most critical

Don't Ignore Marketing
You're indie. Nobody knows you. You absolutely need to get yourself out and start building your brand as early as you possibly can. You can't expect to have the next big hit so you need to start dipping your toes into the water early. Marketing is hard. Building a brand can be a full-time position. Spend an hour or two everyday talking to your community or other people to help them discover you.

Nothing sucks worse than spending a year making something and you don't meet a fraction of your expectations or even reach anything close to your potential.

Don't Sacrifice Quality
Don't fall into the trap of thinking that just because you're independent that you can't produce something of extremely good quality. Yes, it will take you more time to develop than someone with a powerhouse of developers, but you're just going to have to be more creative. If you don't like your artistic style, fix it. If your procedural algorithm routine sucks, fix it.

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    Totally agree on the second part. First impressions are key, so your first game has to be good, or no one will take you seriously again. – Stephen Belanger Dec 1 '10 at 23:15

Take note of the reply above about not spending too much time on a framework / tools/ engine.

Then remove the word 'tools' from it!

While it may be easy to spend way too much time on a well-engineered engine or over-ambitious tech-for-techs-sake, you really don't want to underestimate the importance of decent tools.

They don't have to be high-tech or optimized - but they need to be stable and very usable. Especially if you're making a game that needs a decent amount of content, or where level design is key.

And especially if you're working on a team of more than one. If your level-building tool sucks, even the best artists/designers out there will struggle to build good levels.

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    +1 Because good tools are important! Take levels for example: you need to be able to iterate on them at least as quickly as you can iterate on your code. – Andrew Russell Jul 22 '10 at 7:14
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    I agree that tools are important, they are vital, but my sentence was: "not focus too much on ... and too little on" you need the tool to be good enough for what you need to accomplish. If you are adding features that you need (easy level building, fast iteration, etc), you are not focusing too much on it, you are focusing just right. – NocturnDragon Jul 24 '10 at 20:14
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    I once used MS Paint as a level building tool, after writing the code necessary for conversion from bitmap to level it was extremely easy to make new levels (And as a result I made quite a bunch). It won't work for all games, but I'd definitely recommend this shortcut where applicable. – aaaaaaaaaaaa Dec 2 '10 at 18:20

Give up. Don't ever.

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    For a second I had forgotten that the question was about what NOT to do and got really bummed out by this lol – Hankrecords May 3 '17 at 10:58

Over-attention on polish early on. If a game concept isn't fun with blue and red boxes for characters, chances are it won't be fun with 6 weeks of art time.

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    Whenever I make something I like having a few high-quality assets available from the start that I can use as placeholders for everything else. One character, one vehicle, whatever... Just something that shows just how awesome stuff is going to be when its done. – Nailer Aug 5 '10 at 13:31

Never steal code from another indie developer.

Sure, it applies to non-indie developers as well, but the indie development community is already a very collaborative and sharing environment for a creative individual. It's easier to ask nicely, and more often than not, folks will be quite happy to tell you how it's done. You might even find a teammate in the process.

Even if you're using code that other developers have made available on their websites, be sure to credit them, and send them an email to let them know you appreciate the resource.

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    I would probably phrase that "Never steal code, period!" – Henk Jul 21 '10 at 19:33
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    I personally can't use other people's code without rewriting it myself. Having said that, I often post formulations on my blog or in Github. I wouldn't be surprised if -- in fact I couldn't give a flying rats whisker if -- someone reused my code in a project of theirs, without crediting me or without noting me. That's why I put it up on the Internet in the first place. I didn't put it up there to be worshipped and hallowed -- I put it up there to be used. – bobobobo Apr 28 '13 at 1:59
  • Generalized answer: Don't break the law; Corollary: It isn't stealing if it is not against the law. – Thomas Eding Apr 25 '14 at 21:41

Most important thing you can do if you're going from hobbyist to full-time indie: have a business plan. Seriously. What are your revenue streams? Do you have any right now, and if so, realistically how long will they be viable? What's your burn rate, and what are your cash reserves? In other words, how long can you be in development before you have to ship something to pay the bills... and how much do you have to make when that happens? Realistically, how long will it take you to develop your first game, and does that fit within your parameters? If you know these answers, and you're honest about it, then "do I go full-time or not?" should be a no-brainer decision.

Don't settle for programmer art. If you aren't artistically endowed, but there's no way around doing it yourself, work within your limitations for the art direction. Doodle Jump and Desktop Tower Defense are great examples of this.

  • or hire someone? Graphics aren't everything but they're pretty much what people will notice the earliest. If it's a small project then maybe ask a friend – BlueWizard Sep 25 '17 at 15:07

Do Build Your Community, Don't Be a Jerk

Indie games, being small, have small but often fanatically loyal fan bases. No matter how your fans act, there's value in catering to your hardcore community and keeping them happy. Keep a dev blog and twitter account, personally visit the forums and respond to issues. The community loves a developer who gives them personal attention. Sometimes keeping a public list of bugs to fix or features to develop can be good too. ToadyOne (Dwarf Fortress) and Notch (Minecraft) both do this to some degree and the community really loves knowing when they can expect X feature or bug fix.

As an Indie, your community is your boss and you should keep them informed and invested in your project as such.

On a similar note, though, don't be a jerk, don't bad mouth other game devs. That's just unprofessional, and it makes you look petty. Sometimes big game developers talk too much and the gaming press usually annihilates them if the fans don't do it first. As an indie, you want friends, lots of them. You want other indie devs to go "Wow, that guy is a class act, I want to work with him, maybe do a bundle release of our games so we'll both sell more."

EDIT: Caveat, Hardcore

I forgot to mention one little clarification on "no matter how your fans act." Obviously you don't want to be a jerk, but you don't want your fans to be a jerk by proxy for you either. This is a serious problem in the fighting game scene, where the fans of some games are seen as so generally unpleasant that those games are banned just so their fans won't show up at tournaments. See also: No Mutants Allowed and Fallout.

If your game can sustain itself on a hardcore group, that's fine. But if you want broad appeal, take care not to encourage a community of elitism that scares away newbies. One big appeal of games like Minecraft or Dwarf Fortress is that both have active community wikis and forums that make the game more inviting to new players.

Finish stuff. Even if you end up hating the thing, finish what you intended to. Nothing is ever going to be perfect so be realistic and take incremental steps in your game career.

To know that you've finished something is positive feedback for yourself, so you won't end with self-nagging thoughts about never finishing anything.

There's a lot of work in actually finishing the programming of a game, much of which isn't as exciting as the initial work on a game.

By finishing something, you increase your portfolio and you end up with valuable lessons learned along the way.

There were lots of people about when I did games (back in the 80's) that never finished anything - most of the time this happened when the least exciting bits of the game needed doing - at which point they moved onto a new idea. Essentially, they were just demo writers instead of game producers (not that there's anything wrong with that, just sayin').

Do what you know best

Don't make a strategy game if you have been into action games all your life. Pick a genre you know well and stick to it.

Follow your instinct

There are too many different opinions and good advices out there. You will be ripped in parts if follow every complain you will encounter by feedback. That does not mean feedback is worthless. Write everything down and sort it by importance (e.g. occurance in your feedback stream). Then go through it and fix real issues. Forget the rest.

Don't get browbeaten

Every day brings a new load of game releases. Some of them are similar to your project and just look so good that you can't compete. Should you give up? NO! Brainstorm and make a list of uncommon USPs (unique selling points - features other titles don't have) and add some of them to your game. Differentiation will save your game from drowning in obscurity.

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    "There are too many different opinions and good advices out there. You will be ripped in parts if follow every complain you will encounter by feedback. That does not mean feedback is worthless." I totally agree, I can't stress enough how idiotic is to "just do whatever the users ask" (like Blizzard does). – o0'. Nov 1 '10 at 14:23

There have been some great answers, specifically: concentrate on making a fun game instead of working forever on your own developer tools (like an engine) and focusing on marketing.

However in regards to, "when making the transition from hobbyist to full-time indie?", here's what I think is the biggest mistake:

-- Do not go fulltime indie unless you have enough money to keep you afloat for years. --

You should hope for the best (selling tons of games) and prepare for the worst (losing money every single month for a long time). You don't need the additional stress of not knowing if you'll be able to afford rent when trying to make it on your own. Just find the money somehow; be responsible with your dreams.

Never Underestimate the time and effort it takes to get a game from a prototype to a full-fledged production-quality game. The last "5%" can easily take half of the production time.

Don't forget where you came from: from doing things yourself and keeping it simple. Don't try to imitate the broken "AAA" model of being the idea guy and hire others to do and manage your work; that will slow you down, and first you have to get something out there that is successful enough so that it can make you some money.

There's nothing wrong with bootstrapping; be proud of it!

Well the first thing I would say from transiting from hobbyist to indie game developer also means to are a different kind of developer now.

Before you were making games for demonstration or because you just want to play it, or try a new idea.

If you are a professional, which indies are (indie doesn't mean you are just only free from any editor telling you what to do), you are not doing the game for you anymore, you want it to please to people so they could buy it, and that means your game has to have quality content.

Being independent is quite risky, you try to have the advantages of a having an editor to support you, but staying free of doing what you wish, and you can't totally have both.

I think the most important is believing in your project, its ideas etc, meaning being ambitious, but knowing how it scales to your workload.

Do milestones ! Most project use alpha-beta-gold, but it's better to slice it more, for example with 5 different milestone, so you can implement features homogeneously, starting with core features which you feel are important and will make your game look like a game, and adding features one by one, so you won't work on several features at the same time.

Chrome is at its 8th version already, while firefox has not released 4 and IE is there since what, 15 years ? but only at its 8 version.

Don't forget that independent games are very important right now, so think well about the features, since they are the only games that can be really different than blockbusters games which will always sell but be much less innovative.

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