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.”
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.”