One interesting comment that I’ve been seeing a lot lately around various message boards and such where people talk about AI War is the comment that the game is a labor a love, and that I’m clearly not looking to get rich off of it. It’s actually refreshing to see that sort of opinion, since I was all but accused of being pretty mercenary (and in one case “one step above a viagra ad”) in the early days of trying to promote the game (a super, super, hard thing for a new indie developer with no track record and no connections).
Which opinion is right? Am I a merciless scammer, or am I a idealistic philanthropist that is making games for pocket change and the good of mankind? While I am in some senses flattered by the latter view, I think I clearly fall somewhere in the middle, like pretty much anyone who starts a small business.
Why Start Coding A Game?
Yes, originally I did start coding this game because it “scratched an itch” that I personally had (for a large, complicated co-op RTS game with great AI), but I had already been coding games for a long time before that. I always saw it as a hobby until I started working on the Alden Ridge game, which I originally saw as a promotional item that I would give away for free to generate publicity for the novel by the same name that I was writing at the same time.
Alden Ridge (the game) eventually took on a life of its own, and truthfully I had started coding that to scratch a different itch, anyway: I love the game Lode Runner: The Legend Returns, but none of its sequels, and I wanted something that in some senses was similar, but really different. So a cooperative top-down game with zombies chasing you was born. As Alden Ridge took on more and more of a life of its own, I realized how many hundreds of hours I was sinking into it, and started to think it would be nice if I could actually get some money for that.
I mean, I love making games and in some senses view it almost as a hobby, but then again they take a lot of time to code and I don’t want to spend all my off-hours time doing it. I want my “hobby” to be my job (doesn’t everyone?), and so to do that I need to charge some money and actually have people find and play my games. There’s a difference between charging a fair price and gouging people, though, and I try to stay well on the side of the former, of course. I also don’t go for the glitzy features that I think will grab people superficially, instead focusing on fun factor and the sorts of features I’m interested in. I try to make the best sort of product I can, for my main audience (me), and then I try to make sure that it turns out to be as accessible as possible for other people once that original vision is somewhat codified. I mostly only start thinking about other players fairly late in the process, because that’s the point where the core game has become something interesting and fun in its own right (and hopefully somewhat original, since I wasn’t trying to follow trends or mimic other games too heavily).
I guess that is one thing that makes me not a hobbyist, though — I do think about what other people want, intensely, and I spent months refining the product to be as easy to pick up as possible. I just wait until really late in the process before I start doing that, otherwise all the inital designs start trending toward unoriginal directions.
Anyway, so I primarily made AI War for my own RTS group when I realized that there were no other products on the market that did specifically what we wanted, and that there didn’t seem to be any on the horizon (we’d been playing on RTS after another for 10 years by the point I started coding AI War, and none of them had been exactly the right match for more than a year at a time, so I guess that goes without saying). Given that through Alden Ridge I had already come to a realization that it would make sense to do game development as a fulltime job instead of working a separate business software job and then coming home and doing game development, I knew from the start that I was planning on selling AI War. I still went about designing it in a really personal fashion, though, and I think a lot of what is original about the game came from that sort of design attitude.
What Are The Real Motivations?
So why am I doing this? For love or for money? Because clearly I love doing it and for a long time I did this sort of thing for free, but now I’m charging money and trying to make a functioning business out of this, with staff and everything. I guess the answer is both. Am I trying to get wildly rich off of this? Well, not in the sense of someone who thinks they are cashing in or following a get-rich-quick scheme. Game design is hard, it takes a ton of work, and then once the game is “done” it is still not done. I do a lot of work for free even after the product is “done,” when most developers big and small pretty much walk away or issue a few minor patches. There are definitely some notable exceptions, such as the Evochron Legends developer, who so far as I can tell has a pretty similar outlook to mine.
If I was a big publisher I’d probably be charging for my weekly free DLC releases, but instead I give them away for free. Why exactly am I creating those releases, anyway? Well, they make the game better, in some cases a lot better, but I was already getting really positive reviews before most of the free DLC that has already come out, so I probably could have gotten away with just a couple of bugfix patches. Doing the free DLC certainly generates a lot of goodwill, and a certain amount of word of mouth, but I’m not certain that it’s entirely enough to really warrant the amount of time that goes into that free DLC if I was just looking at dollars and cents.
Oh, so that’s why people think I’m doing it for love instead of money. Well, I guess they’re right. I improve the game because I want to, because coding the game is almost like a game to me in some senses, and because I play the game myself and want it to get ever bigger and better. And because I’m just a polisher and a completionist by nature, I suppose.
Generating My Own Funding
But I’m also in it for the money. I want AI War to sell well enough that I can afford to hire a few people (composer, artist, another game designer or two, and maybe one other programmer in addition to myself), and so that we can be financially secure for a few years as we work on other games. The more security we have, the more likely we are to not try to trend-follow or rush products to market so that we can pay our mortgages, etc. So from that sense, I’m very serious about the money and do as much promotion as I can. Because I love it, and I want to be able to do this as my fulltime job, forever. I don’t want to have to consult a publisher about every little decision, and I don’t want to go into debt to finance projects, so that means that my earlier projects like AI War need to sell well enough to finance the later ones.
Really, I think that’s pretty typical for your average startup company. They want to make enough money to keep doing what they love to do for as long as they can. I guess some startups form with an eye towards burning through venture capital and then selling the company for a profit, but personally I don’t ever plan on selling Arcen Games unless something really drastic happens. It’s not part of the current plan, anyway — that’s completely counter to my goal of being able to do what I love for as long as I can. Suppose I did sell the company, what would that get me? If it gave me a bunch of money, I’d just use that to start another game development company, so what would the point be? Vacations are nice, but I’d get bored as hell sitting on the beach drinking fruity beverages.
If AI War continues on its present track, I actually stand to make a good deal of money — potentially millions, if it goes really well. Am I counting on that? No. If it happens, am I going to run out and buy a porshe? Also no. I’m going to invest that money as conservatively as I can, and then hire myself and a small team, and we’re going to get cracking on lots more games. We’ll then make the best damn 2D games we can make, for as long as we have money to make them. At best, I see myself living an upper-middle-class lifestyle, with a reasonable but not extravagant house and the financial independence to make the sort of games that I want, while still having time to spend with my family.
Don’t Piss It All Away!
When I look at other indie developers that made it big, and then spent the money on huge crazy salaries and bonuses, expensive office space, and other serious nice-to-have window dressings, it makes me really sad. That’s why people start assuming they were all about the money, I think. If they really have a passion for making games, they’ll do everything in their power to make sure they can keep doing just that. Of course, I have the advantage of having ridden the small business roller coaster in the past, and I’ve seen from front row seats what extravagant, wasteful spending can do to a company.
That’s the key thing that I think a lot of people misunderstand about money. They assume that it’s a constant inflow, that if they hit it big with their first game that all their later games will be similarly well recieved. I have no such illusions. I very much hope that all my games will be well recieved, but I want to be able to create ones that are more niche than commercial in nature (whatever that means — by many measures, AI War is pretty niche, but at the same time there still seems to be quite a commercial market for it). I want AI War to make a lot of money so that the second and third games can flop and it won’t kill the company. Not that I want those games to flop, but I want to have the buffer there. I also want to have the buffer of time, so that if I need an extra 6 months of development, that’s no problem instead of something that the company has to go into debt for.
Financial Independence = Creative Freedom?
Part of why the biggest game development companies (Blizzard and Valve and Nintendo, I’m mostly thinking of here) are so successful is that they have financial independence. Valve could afford to go six years between products, and then Half Life 2 was amazing. Nintendo can afford to put a lot of time and money into some really tangential things (the Wii in general, Wii Fit, etc), and then is able to polish them to the point that they turn out to be really good and thus also successful. Same with Blizzard and their products.
I’m not Blizzard, Valve, or Nintendo. But financial independence should be the goal of any game developer, or indeed any software developer in general. That’s the only cure I know of for rushed deadlines, buggy releases, or too-conservative designs that wind up being very derivative.
I make games because I love to. Period. But I also need money so that I can hire a staff to help with things like music and art, and so that I can actually do this as my day job myself. So, like anyone else who is serious about game development, I’m doing it for love and money. Only hobbyists do it purely for love, and I don’t think anyone can make real games if they are doing it purely for money. That’s what those movie tie-in games are often about, and many of them hardly deserve the moniker “game.” So while I’m flattered that people see how much I love what I do, and assume such altruistic motives, the reality is a little more gray than either black or white. Isn’t it always?