Eldrich, Minor Key’s debut project, was a first-person action game taking inspirations from popular roguelikes and American writer H. P. Lovecraft. That blend of classic game mechanics and early 20th-century literature was enough to spark interest in a small crowd of paying customers, and that’s really all that Pittman ever expected. His ambitions were diffident, and luckily for his bank account, all of them were met.
“I set very modest goals for Eldritch. My first goal was simply to recoup the money I had spent making the game – about seven months of living in the expensive SF Bay Area. Anything less would be an absolute failure,” he explained. “My next goal was to make enough beyond that that I could afford to make another game without necessarily having to resort to crowdfunding or early access. I was very fortunate to hit both of these goals within a couple of months of the game’s release. Of course, I hope it will continue to sell, and I hope many more people enjoy it and spread the word; but if it never sells another copy, I will still consider it a success.
“The critical and community responses to Eldritch were about on target with my expectations, too. With my limited time and resources, I had to focus on gameplay above all else, and the rough edges in the visuals and sound design were noted, of course. But the average response has been very positive, and I believe my decision to go deep on the core gameplay has paid off.”
Pittman didn’t push hundreds of thousands of copies of his Lovecraftian adventure, but he found an appreciation and love for development absent at 2K Games. What he did miss, however, was the support of a well-staffed team. All the jobs he had taken for granted at a big studio – such as public relations and marketing – were left for his small team to handle.
With very little experience in promoting a brand, Pittman struggled to get noticed. There are hundreds of indie games attempting to make an impact on the industry each and every year, and while Eldritch got a few nods from major publications, the title has yet to break out beyond its niche.
Still, Pittman has no desire to slink back into another AAA studio.
“Focus on something you’re passionate about so you’ll be able to maintain the energy required to complete it” – Steve Gaynor, Fullbright Company.
“It’s an ongoing risk, but it’s worth it,” he explained. “I sacrificed the certainty of a paycheck twice a month for professional autonomy, and it was absolutely the right decision for me.”
Not every 2K developer was surrounded by dozens of co-workers on a daily basis. One of the longest-tenured BioShock 2 devs was afforded the opportunity to work within a small team early on, but the transition to a 100-person operation showed him just how badly he wanted to go independent. Steve Gaynor, a designer of some of the earliest BioShock 2 levels and lead writer of the critically heralded Minerva’s Den DLC, thrived when surrounded by a handful of concurring creators. Things changed, though, when he went to Irrational Games.
“After doing Minerva’s Den, I went to Irrational for a year and was a senior level designer on Infinite. So I went from that 12-person team back to being one person in a 100-person team,” he said. “I wanted to get back to that small, focused team feeling we had, so I moved with my wife back to Portland and then started trying to figure out how to start up my own production with a couple of my former 2K Marin co-workers.”
What Gaynor founded was The Fullbright Company, a malleable group that focuses on small, narrative-driven experiences. Their first project was Gone Home, which grabbed dozens of game-of-the-year nods as well as the ire of a vocal segment of the gaming community for not really being a “game.”
Still, the interactive experience sold more than 250,000 copies on PC, and Sony has even extended a helping hand to bring the project to the PlayStation 4. Fullbright has been a success, but Gaynor still sees the viability of both large and small-scale development.
“The real advantages of a small team are agility and ownership. Agility as in you can make decisions quickly and without a long approval process, ownership as in you can feel connected to the entirety of the project as opposed to being one small part of a very big machine,” he explained.
“The upside of a big studio is you get to work with so many different, incredibly talented people, and see them do big, amazing things every day. But I’ll take the satisfaction of fully contributing to a small project with a small team any day.”
So all you need to do is leave your AAA job, recruit a few smart friends, and start developing a critical hit, right? Unfortunately, the process of actually shipping a functioning game isn’t an easy one, which is something that Gaynor learned throughout the development of Gone Home.
“I’d say the most important thing I learned in AAA was how to actually ship a game,” Gaynor said. “I think there are two things that are incredibly important… well, three I guess. You need to find a game to build that fits into the center of a Venn diagram between: ‘Things I Want to Make,’ ‘Things People Will Want to Play,’ and ‘Things I’m Capable of Shipping.’
“It’s a long, hard, uncertain road, but if you’re lucky you can end up doing things you’re really, deeply proud of” – Steve Gaynor, Fullbright Company.
“The judgment to do that takes experience – but focus on something you’re passionate about so you’ll be able to maintain the energy required to complete it; something you’d be excited to play as a player who encountered it for the first time; and something you are very sure you can actually build and complete and polish with the resources you have.”
Davis, Ma, Pittman, and Gaynor prove that there’s no single, easy-to-read blueprint for reaching indie success – at least, not one that any of them cared to use. How a development team decides to create and release a product – whether it’s through crowdfunding or personal finances – depends on the personality of the people fuelling the work, as well as the particular monetary goals of the game being made.
However, even after shipping something that’s universally loved, the pressures of this line of work never fade. Resting on your laurels within a small operation isn’t an option, as you’re only as good – and sustainable – as the newest game you ship.
“It’s worked out so far,” Gaynor stated. “It’s a long, hard, uncertain road, but if you’re lucky you can end up doing things you’re really, deeply proud of and that people make a real connection with, and that is worth more than anything, I think.”