Thursday, August 25, 2011

Company or Person? Identity Issues as an Indie Developer

In October of 2008, the management of Ensemble Studios gathered the entire company together in the conference room, and informed all of us that Microsoft had made the decision to close down our studio after Halo Wars was shipped.  It was, for many of us in that room, a watershed moment.  It certainly was for me, because it was at that time I decided the time was right to take the biggest risk I'd ever taken in my life - to forsake a steady job and a paycheck - and to attempt to form a new studio to make games.  A whole lot of us then were thinking that same thing.

But the thing you find when you talk to independent developers, or those thinking about becoming such, is that we all have our own vision of what the next great thing will be.  And because we've quite often spent years working on someone else's vision, we're pretty darn reluctant to let go of ours.  Occasionally you'll find two or three that have a shared vision, and honestly, those are the ones that succeed.  Or at least, have the most chance of success.  But there are a whole lot of us out there that have a dream (tm), and we are extraordinarily loathe to give that dream up.  So though I did try to convince a few of my peers to join me on my endeavor, I honestly didn't try very hard. Because I knew I had my dream, and I knew they had theirs (which included getting paid, curiously enough, something I couldn't offer), and I just didn't feel right asking them to punt on their dream to come help me work on mine.  While I'm extremely proud of what I've accomplished, in retrospect, I would have tried harder.  And would have been more willing to find compromise.  If there is one bit of advice I can offer, it is that going this route alone is very hard.  I do not recommend it.

But regardless of what I say, many of you will do exactly as I did, and you'll form a company that has one person.  Yourself.  And so we get to the crux of what this post is supposed to be about, which is then - how do you present yourself?  As a company, or a person?

Well, for myself, I went the company route.  I wasn't Dusty Monk.  We were Windstorm Studios, and that was how we presented ourselves.  The reason for this was that originally I wasn't trying to build a game.  I was trying to pitch an idea, to publishers.  And publishers really aren't interested about one person shops.  They want to hear about you team.  Well I had a team - I had a full group of about a half dozen artists that I was contracting with to produce assets for the prototype.  I had a music composer and a talented voice cast -- all that I was contracting with for their work and their time.  So I didn't have any employees, per se, but I certainly had a team.  So throughout the process I presented Windstorm Studios the company, and never really talked too much about Dusty Monk the dude.  Now, I do want to interject here I never lied about Windstorm Studio's size or its make up.  If ever asked by anyone I told them exactly how it was - one man company, with contractors for hire.  But I just didn't really promote the fact that I was in reality a single guy working in his house on a prototype.

Well, publishers didn't bite - at least the ones I talked to, and it had always been a part of the contingency plan to turn the prototype into a game if they didn't, and I set about doing that.  But I still really presented Windstorm Studios as a company.  Because I wanted it to be a company.  Hell I still do!

But somewhere along the way, in fact, really only recently, I came to the realization that perhaps, I was doing it wrong.  I looked around. I looked at other what other indie developers were doing, and I came to realize that, once you decide to go independent, then maybe it was time to stop presenting yourself as a company full of bustling people, and instead, just let people know who you are - a guy working out of the upstairs bedroom of his house to make a game.  Maybe I should stop trying to obscure that fact as a weakness, and instead point to it as a sign of strength!  Maybe it was time that I embraced my indie-ness, as it were.  So I did.

Which is why on the website, and in tweets, and in just about anywhere I'm promoting Windstorm Studios and Atomic City Adventures, you see a lot more I's and less We's.  And this is to not by any means to take away from the incredible contributions that everyone that worked on Atomic City Adventures put into it.  The people that I contracted did amazing work, and they put forth way more time and effort than their contracts called for, because they too absolutely began to believe in the project and wanted it to succeed.  But I'm the one that took the risk.  And if you're someone that's recently decided to not take a steady job but instead build the next Words With Friends or Minecraft while living on a waiter's salary or no salary at all, then you're taking a hell of a risk too.  And the cold hard truth of the matter is, for most of us, that risk isn't going to pay off in riches, and we know that going in.  But the fact that you're doing it is pretty damn significant.

So I guess I would just advise to be true to yourself.  Be proud of what you're doing, and of the risks you're willing to take to do them.  Until you are a company, be a person, not a company.  I know, pretty cliche message.  But for a guy that actually think's he's pretty smart, it took me a helluva long time to figure it out, and I still struggle to do it.