Over the past week or so I’ve been at a few functions and presentation events, completely unrelated to game development, as part of my real life activities. (Yes, I have a real life!) As great as those events were, one of the more awkward things about it was talking to new people and getting asked some variant of the question, “So what do you do in your spare time?”
To which I reply, “Well, I’m, uh…”
I don’t know about other indie devs, but I’ve always felt that there’s something a bit awkward about telling people “I’m an independent game developer”. It’s especially true when you’re talking to people outside of gaming circles, and even more so when you’re talking to someone you’ve just met.
The strange thing is, I don’t really know why. There’s no real stigma associated with independent game development, after all, as far as I can tell.
What I have noticed, however, is a sort of lack of awareness of independent game development. Which means that when you meet someone new and you mention you’re an indie dev, the responses you get tend to fall into a select few categories.
“So, When’s HL3 Getting Released?”
Perhaps it’s the fact that people sometimes seem to hear the “game developer” part, but not the “independent” part. When people hear you’re a game developer, often they’ll automatically associate that with what they’re familiar with – which are, of course, the super popular, AAA-quality games.
“Oh, you’re a game developer? You mean you’re working on the next Call of Duty or something?”
Then when they hear what you’re really doing – “No, I’m actually making a roguelike with Game Maker about a character that can control the weather”… no matter how many times you’ve practiced that pitch, it always comes across as a bit of a letdown.
“What’s a Roguelike?”
Then there’s the confusion about game genres and terminology, especially outside gaming circles where people have no idea what a roguelike is. To be fair, it can be quite daunting for someone to have to learn about an unfamiliar game genre and gameplay style which they’re probably not used to, just to learn about what you do in your spare time. So instead of calling it a “roguelike”, you’ve either got to explain what that word means, or resort to some other term.
Perhaps they’ll know what a “dungeon crawler” is? But even then there’s still the potential for confusion. What if you tell them you’re making an RPG (even when you’re clearly not)? Then they still get confused and assume you’re making something like the next Legend of Zelda. And again we’re back in the land of false associations and high expectations.
In a nutshell, sometimes it can be hard to communicate exactly what you’re doing in a way that’s both not too detailed and not too vague.
“What’s a Computer Game?”
Then of course, there’s the person who listens half-interested to your spiel and simply responds with that conversation-stopper, “Oh, cool. I’m not really a gamer, actually.” Cue awkward silence and crickets chirping.
In those situations, it’s often pretty useless to keep rabbiting on about “that game you’re making”, so often it’s just plain easier to move the conversation elsewhere. But that’s also one of those situations where you walk away from the conversation feeling intensely frustrated. “Why doesn’t anyone know anything about the humble indie developer?” you mutter under your breath.
The Silver Lining
The truth about it all is, well, both good and bad.
The bad part is that people really don’t seem to know terribly much about independently-made games, or even the fact that indie devs exist. (Of course, sometimes they do – but usually that’s when they already come from a programming or gamedev background.)
But with that comes a huge opportunity. With every conversation we indie devs have with “outsiders”, we’re spreading interest and raising awareness – not just about our own projects, but the secretive culture of independent game development. We’re challenging the AAA-standard that characterises the public perception of video games, and instead juxtaposing that with a quiet but growing subculture of independent games. We’re helping people to rethink the meaning of “video games”, and broaden their horizons to encompass and enjoy games from developers both big and small.
As I see it, we indie devs are at the forefront of a gaming revolution which has really been gaining momentum over the past few years. It’s quite an exciting thing to be part of, really, when you think about it.
That being said, it still feels a little unusual sometimes to tell people I’m an indie game developer (though again, other indie devs might beg to differ!) But slowly the words are becoming easier and more natural to say. So here’s to hoping that one day, I might finally have the courage to smile when people ask me what I do in my spare time, and reply: “I’m an independent game developer.”