The boss of Sword & Sworcery developer Capy has told budding indie developers to build a team and aim for multiple modest successes rather than go it alone in an effort to get "f*** you rich" off of one hit.
In a keynote presentation at the Develop conference in Brighton, Nathan Vella cautioned against trying to emulate solo indie superstars such as Braid creator Jon Blow and Minecraft creator Markus "Notch" Persson, who made millions off of their breakout hits.
Independent studio Capy has worked on multiple projects at the same time throughout its nine year history, including Critter Crunch, Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes, Sound Shapes, Sword & Sworcery and Super Time Force. Capy even had two people spend two months think up level design ideas for Phil Fish's Fez. Its 22 staff are currently working on Super Time Force Ultra for Steam as well as PC and Xbox One game Below. Capy calls this strategy "little streams feeding the mighty river".
It's in contrast to the idea of one person spending years making one game, then hoping for it to be a hit. Vella said if this works for you, great. But the reality is it's incredibly challenging - and incredibly unlikely - to keep making games for years in this way.
"The indie dream used to be, make your own project, maybe some people will buy it, long shot-style and maybe it'll hit. But that's become the expectation and a huge motivation for people getting into independent development. Developers see these huge successes because those are highlighted so significantly and believe really strongly that their project is going to be the next one.
"I call this the mix of Indie Game the Moive syndrome with Notch syndrome mixed with We Only See Success syndrome.
"Through all of these shining lights, Minecraft, Braid, World of Goo, Meat Boy, DayZ, all of these old what if? scenarios where you would sit down with your friends and co-workers and ask, what if this happened?, now we're saying, when this happened. That's a very scary thing."
Vella pointed to an old joke by ID@Xbox boss Chris Charla about driving off in Ferraris after making a weird game that hits.
"I think that joke is funnier three years ago than it is now. Now it's actually kind of not funny because I genuinely believe there are a lot of people making games right now who think this is a realistic thing that could happen.
"I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but it's highly unlikely. This is why it's extremely important for studios to focus on sustainability."
But how do you create sustainability? Vella said putting together a team of people is the best way of going about it. Those teams don't have to be big, Vella said. The key is there is a team. The more people who are involved, the more diverse opinions will be offered, and the better the feedback, the better the end result. And having multiple teams working on multiple small projects gives you more time to develop games and more of a chance of focusing on them. While this is "the much less sexy way" of doing it ("you're definitely not going to be driving a Ferrari"), it gives you a better chance of long-term success.
"In the end, the main reason everybody wants to make video games is because they care passionately about them. And the hallmark of success should be being able to follow your passion."
The more projects you have on the go, the more chances you have to generate money, Vella said, and the more chances to generate money the more likely you are to make your next game. Having a studio also allows games to release on multiple platforms, which Vella believes is key to independent development in 2014. He pointed to Supergiant Games, which released action RPG Bastion on multiple platforms one after the other. This also helps studios to self-fund their games, which in Vella's view is equally important (he admitted this is tough, but said there are sources of funding available to indies out there).
"You are more likely to make a high quality game if you are not working by yourself," he said. "We've been taught you can make amazing projects all alone. People look at Jon Blow's work on Braid and they see these lone or super tiny teams and think that's possible. It's very challenging to be that one in a million who can have high quality art, high quality audio, high quality design and high quality programming with very few bugs as a single person.
"Anybody who wants to take that challenge absolutely should - but I do think it's important to consider the fact it is extremely challenging to be that person. Wearing multiple hats that way, if you're not careful, can cause a ripple effect through all of your work. The art is going to be a little bit less great because you're spending time on programming. Programming is going to be a little bit less great because you're spending time on audio. And so on.
"If you believe strongly that that is how you should make your game, then absolutely do that The problem is very few people are actually good enough and willing to sacrifice as much to do it that way. And so the result is a lot of people's first solo project ends up being a failure in some way or another."
"Working as a solo developer and putting out a game and having that be a hit, that's the best way to get f*** you rich. But that's not the goal."
Vella said there was evidence to suggest that developers grow in size after making tiny projects. Braid was technically two people. The Witness is around 10 people. Hello Games was four people for much of Joe Danger. There are 10 people working on eye-catching follow-up No Man's Sky.
"Those are all relatively big jumps from teeny tiny to starting to be an actual studio size," Vella said. "In every case, from my personal perspective, everyone is also taking a step up in the quality of every aspect of their game."
The upshot, Vella warned, is that building up a team means you have a far less chance of getting "f*** you rich".
"That's style of rich is you don't have to care about what comes next. You can do whatever you want professionally or personally and it has no real direct impact on your finances. Working as a solo developer, and putting out a game and having that be a hit, that's the best way to get f*** you rich. But that's not the goal. The goal is to make the next project, to keep doing what you're doing, and to give yourself more opportunities to have that one game that will get you f*** you rich."