How four creators broke away from the console production line to find success and acclaim with very different indie games.
“The entire experience has been nothing but surreal. Absolutely no part of it was expected” – Matthew Davis, Subset Games.
From the outside looking in, the path to indie success seems like a smooth one. Dozens of small, critically acclaimed games emerge every year from diminutive studios, and that trend has only gained stream since Sony and Microsoft doubled down on independent development.
However, molding an entrepreneurial start-up into a legitimate team of designers is not without its harrowing challenges. Funding the game, finding a solid cast of compatible developers, and transferring that crazy idea buzzing inside your head into a functioning property are all critical steps littered with their own hurdles – many of which are just too tall to jump.
Even so, the desire to create more personal works alongside a tightly bound team is too great for some creators to ignore. Steve Gaynor, Justin Ma, Matthew Davis, and David Pittman were all previously employed at 2K Games, and all four broke away from the company after spending years on massive teams producing big-budget games.
We recently spoke to this diverse cast of indie devs to better understand the machinations behind starting a small studio from scratch, but it became quickly apparent that no two start-ups are the same. In fact, their paths are about as divergent as they come – even if they had a similar starting point.
Each developer had his own reasons for walking away in the first place, but the most easily traceable thread among the group was a prevailing desire to have more creative control in the development process.
“Working at 2K Games was genuinely a pleasure. I learned a lot, my co-workers were great, and there were no expectations of intense overtime,” Davis explained. “That said, in the end I’ve always been someone who would prefer to work alone from home than in a giant, open office space. And getting away from a big studio gave us the option to work on games that we had full control over, instead of working on pre-existing franchises or sports titles.”
Davis and Ma, at times, felt like cogs in the 2K machine. Instead of having significant creative control over the property they were pushing, the developers were assigned to small tasks that were done to the best of their abilities. The work was completed and games were released, but their time at 2K only fuelled a desire to create something all their own. Ma’s experience of being surrounded by developers on the same wave length at the 2011 Game Developer’s Conference gave him the final push to quit his job and soon after, join Davis for a 12-month dive into indie development. If nothing sustainable was produced in that year’s time, both Davis and Ma would be forced to put their indie dreams on the backburner and move on to new careers.
“The perpetual uncertainty surrounding The Bureau: XCOM Declassified, coupled with my own distaste for the game, were frequent sources of stress and depression” – David Pittman, Minor Key Games.
Success wasn’t a guarantee. In fact, neither man had any long-reaching expectation beyond “let’s make some games for fun.” Yet, their company – Subset Games – launched a Kickstarter in close vicinity to Double Fine’s massively popular adventure game campaign. Davis and Ma’s project, FTL: Faster Than Light, gained a healthy boost from the explosion of crowdfunding – blasting by its $10,000 goal and amassing more than $200,000 in a short period of time.
“You have to understand our original perspective; we were just planning on making a few super tiny prototypes for fun,” Ma said. “We did not initially intend to complete a game for commercial release, let alone project sales figures. We got small indications that the game could be received well, but it’s safe to say the reception and community response was well beyond even our highest expectations.
“The entire experience has been nothing but surreal,” Davis added. “Absolutely no part of it was expected. Even after the Kickstarter, the post-release success was far beyond our expectations. But as Justin said, we never really did any formal projection. We were just focused on making a game we loved, and were lucky enough that the rest came later.”
That focus on crafting a game spurred by personal interest rather than the findings of a publisher’s market research was instrumental to FTL’s profound launch. Davis understands this specific approach won’t always lead to a financial hit, but he remains confident that it’s a superior approach to chasing after fleeting industry trends.
“The only thing someone can really do is make a game that they like,” he asserted. “Trying to predict what the industry and customers want is all guesswork. We sure wouldn’t have predicted FTL was what people wanted. And at least if the developer loves their own game, there’s a decent chance other people might like it as well.”
Risk was mitigated by Davis and Ma’s low expectations and reliance on crowdfunding, but other developers choose to dive head first into self-sufficiency without a true backup plan. David Pittman, the co-founder of Minor Key Games, was driven away from AAA games during the troubled development of The Bureau: XCOM Declassified. The dysfunctional work environment he waded through on a daily basis took a heavy personal toll, so he knew he had to separate himself from all the toxicity before too long.
“After shipping BioShock 2, I spent three years working on the XCOM game which would eventually ship as The Bureau: XCOM Declassified. It was the epitome of a troubled project, continually changing direction and missing deadlines,” Pittman admitted. “The perpetual uncertainty surrounding the project, coupled with my own distaste for the game we were creating, were frequent sources of stress and depression.
“I sacrificed the certainty of a paycheck twice a month for professional autonomy, and it was absolutely the right decision for me” – David Pittman, Minor Key Games.
“I had a vague sense that the studio might not survive the project; but even if it did, in a very real way, it wouldn’t be the same studio. Turnover since BioShock 2 had cut deep, and a large number of other developers – including a lot of senior staff and some good friends of mine – had already departed. So I started looking for a new job, but I also started giving more serious consideration to making my own game. I had the financial means to become independent – albeit for only about nine months – and I finally decided it was the right time to give that a try.
“Meanwhile, my twin brother Kyle was going through a similar situation in his job at Gearbox. Shortly after I began working on Eldritch, he also went indie and we formed Minor Key Games together.”
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