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June 4, 2013 | by  | in Arts Games |
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Press Start: Becoming a Game Developer

I remember turning on my computer one early afternoon in December and starting my daily internet routine. Open several tabs in Firefox, log into Facebook and my email account, bring up the gaming news for the day. Of little surprise that day was a slew of articles about how Activision’s latest title, Call of Duty: Black Ops II, had broken yet another record in a blitzkrieg of financial dominance. The game had shattered the $1-billion barrier in a little over a fortnight. Most developers can only dream that their game will achieve these lofty heights in a lifetime of sales, let alone in the time some of us have to wait between paychecks.

I struggled to dredge up sympathy for the creators of this game, and thought they probably wouldn’t hear my angry tirade while submerged in their swimming pools of money. That was until I read that Bobby Kotick, the CEO of Activision, had treated himself to an 800-per-cent pay rise and bumped his salary up to $65 million. Maybe that one guy who coded the floor tiles isn’t buying his third Lamborghini after all. This got me thinking – maybe the indie market is where developers themselves, rather than the suits who boss them around, can rule as economic giants.

After an evening of browsing the internet, the results were inconclusive. The cost of a ‘cheap-to-develop’ indie game can fall in the ballpark of anywhere from a couple of thousand dollars to a couple of hundred thousand. Take for example David Galindo’s Cook, Serve, Delicious!, a game for multiple platforms developed for around $8000 (one-sixth of my current Student Loan—oh the better life choices I could have made). To date, this has made slightly over $28,000, not bad for a one-man development team. While not a sum which guarantees an early retirement, it is one of many stories of adequate success. Your game costs less than a used Ford Fiesta to make, you sell a few thousand copies and you get about a new Ford Fiesta’s worth of money at the end.

However, maybe you’re lucky. Just maybe you sell a few more than 5000 copies of your game. Maybe your game is Angry Birds or Minecraft. Angry Birds has hit a rare winning combination of success, as much as it pains me to say, by blending a simple physics-based catapult simulator with cute, lovable mascots that appeal to all ages. Reported to have a development and running cost of €140,000, the game, in all its various incarnations, has made over €50 million and is played for an equivalent of 200 million hours a day. I know Angry Birds probably falls in a category closer to triple-A rather than indie titles now, but the same basic idea is still there, and that’s what matters.

So gather up your remaining course-related costs and get cracking! Better still, get a Kickstarter up and running—the current indie game scene is brimming like a ball pit with Kickstartered projects. All you need is a wicked title and some sweet screenshots or concept art. Also, already being a known developer apparently doesn’t hurt. Tim Schafer of Double Fine recently surpassed his Kickstarter goal on the first day—in eight hours, the $400,000 threshold had been obliterated by a total that stood at over $1 million. Not bad for a man who just wants to make point-and-click adventures.

At the end of the day, being an indie games developer, or a triple-A developer for that matter, is all about having a passion for games. I’m sure many will tell you stories that don’t quite meet the rock-and-roll lifestyle you expected or hoped. You will probably hear stories of those who lead a comfortable life, happy if only because they live frugally. You will probably hear even more of those barely making a living, holding on by the skin of their teeth. However, the passion shines through, and the most common story you will hear is how regardless of how hard a developer’s life is, it is still a life they enjoy pursuing.

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