Game Design, Programming and running a one-man games business…

Will the indie games market crash and burn?

This is something I give a lot of thought to. Partly because I see other people talking, sometimes worrying about it quite a lot. I should put my own position and experience into perspective here, for anyone who is new to the blog. I started making indie games in 1997. Since then I worked for about 5 years in total in AAA dev, the rest of the time I’ve been part or full time indie, and I’ve been full time for a good nine years. I made Kudos Democracy and Gratuitous Space Battles.

The market for indie games has changed beyond all recognition since I started. When I started, the site you aimed to get on was not steam, but The other big site was Tucows, and later came Yahoo Games and Real Games (remember the real player?). Buying online was treated with suspicion. Online sales services paid you by a mailed check. Everyone bought direct from the developer, and normally got a code to unlock the game, which came packaged as a zip file.

a simpler time...
a simpler time…

How times have changed!

The market for games in general, but indie games in particular, has snowballed since then. The general short-term lazy answer to this is ‘because of steam’. Sure, steam helped, but selling indie games online paid off my mortgage before I even got a game on steam. Sites like Yahoo Games and Big Fish Games did very well indeed for the developer. I remember getting a $20k check for ONE MONTH from yahoo games. happy times… The reason I’m, saying this is not to boast, but to point out that the existence of online portals that market and sell indie games and make good money for developers isn’t that new. The thing that is new is the scale. Those $20k checks are no longer a big deal. You know whats cooler than $20k? $200k! or maybe even more!!!!1111.

The problem is, we have a LOT of indie developers who have joined the story in the third act, when the $200k is the norm, and $20k is nothing to write home about. Not for them the idea of coding from your spare bedroom with expectations only of meeting the bills. Now the indies expect to get that $200k a month. They cut their clothes accordingly, with rented offices, new PC’s, appearances at all the trade shows at around $10k a time after travel & marketing stuff is taken into account. The minimum team size now seems to be about 4 full time devs, plus contractors, voiceover talent etc. Budgets start at $50k and go up and up and up. But it’s fine, I hear indie games make $200k a month…

A small indie team circa 2014
A small indie team circa 2014

And the thing is…. some do, or they have done for quite a while. There are plenty of stories about the money indie devs are making. I’m not doing bad myself, and the only reason I keep quiet about the money my games make is I think it’s VERY misleading data for people starting out. I read a great article recently about devs who worry when they ‘inspire’ people to quit their job. This is indeed worrying. People suffer from enormous confirmation bias. They want to hear that they can get rich making games they love, who wouldn’t want that? I did my bit by giving two really downbeat and depressing ‘de-motivational’ talks at world of love and its follow-up where I point out the harsh business realities of selling an indie game and making a living. Generally, people don’t want to hear that.

indie attitude
indie attitude

The stories about steam and humble-generated millions, plus notches sales stats have persuaded a huge number of people to go full-time making indie games. Good luck to them, I wish them all well. I love indie games, I’d rather the next Call of Duty game was cancelled and the money spent making 200 small indie games instead. That would be great from my POV as a gamer. But…. I worry that the current setup is not sustainable, because so many people have entered the business during boom time.

Bluntly put, Boom time is where the middlemen get rich selling services to the suckers who just joined in before the crash. Do I think there is a crash coming? Yes. Why? Well it’s got nothing to do with steam ‘opening the floodgates’, which is firstly just exposing the reality of the market (and hopefully calming the boom) but secondly going to be fixed by them soon anyway…

The guys selling shovels got rich...
The guys selling shovels got rich…

The simple problem is a lot of indies are running at a huge loss and they don’t even realise it. Their expectations are sky high and their experience of the business is zero. Your first game will probably LOSE money. Mine did, and my second, third, fourth and fifth. The good news is, I made them all part time and had no kids to support anyway,m and the budgets were tiny. I used coder art for them all. Once I finally worked out how to do things I did my first full-time games, then my first with non-coder art, and so on. At each stage, I spent another 25% or more than the last game, and expected maybe 25% or more sales. I NEVER assumed the next game would make the same as the last, let alone more, and I certainly never required it to in order to pay my bills. I was slow-and-steady, and cautious.

And I’m still here.

But I strongly suspect a lot of indie devs won’t be in 2017. The ratio of developers who will earn $100,000 next year to the percentage who think they will is…probably quite scary. If you are new to the business, and are making your first game, and expect it to make money, don’t forget that many of those devs you read about are like me, with 17 years experience selling indie games (and in my case 34 years of programming). Keep your confirmation bias in check and look out for developers with the same experience and background as you to draw real conclusions about expected sales.

the average indie biz plan
the average indie biz plan

I encourage people to reach for the stars and follow your dreams. I do, but I also make damn sure I’m prepared. I always like to be assured of victory and guard against any possible failure.  You *can* be ambitious AND cautious. I think there *is* a crash coming, when all those ‘first indie projects’ finally ship….to not *that* much in sales, and a whole swathe of developers realise that they need to go work for a bank programming stuff they hate for a while as they build up the experience.

I don’t like to be the prophet of Doom, but I do see a lot of business plans and projections from indies that are frankly terrifying. Do your homework.

The Dirty Dozen sale on

Behold, it is announcement time! You know I’ve been blogging a bit about my indie game site at, maybe mentioning all the new articles on there written by the talented Dan? Well that was just part of the SMTG world domination plan. Behold phase II!

It’s time for the SMTG Dirty Dozen Discount week:


So what’s all this about then? It’s a dozen high quality indie games you should know about, that all have the option to buy direct from the developer, and all of which are on sale for the next week. Some of them have huge stonking great discounts, like a political strategy game I’ve read *great* things about. You should go check out the page right now. And of course, you all know this, but it is extremely helpful if you can share the news on social media, twitter, reddit, facebook and so on. I feel a bit stupid asking people to do that, but then most people complain about paid advertising, and most people complain about self-promotion on social media, and it just ends up as an arms race to see whose readers are the most likely to retweet things, which I guess is inevitable but seems a bit weird. Anyway…. all such promotional help is hugely appreciated. Now… why should you care?

  • This isn’t a bundle. you can buy 1 game or all dozen, which makes a change
  • This is another place offering game discounts and offers, and variety is always good for the consumer in a free market.
  • 100% of the money goes to the developers. I run SMTG out of my own pocket. the site doesn’t take a single penny.
  • Did I mention 100% of the money goes to the developers?

So there you go…hopefully it gets noticed, generates some sales for the developers involved (including me, I’m one of the 12), and it justifies doing it again some time.


Show me the long term

It was a long time ago that I set up www.showmethegames. It was done out of exasperation with a conversation I’d seen 100 times in private lists and forums and email conversations that goes like this:

indie #1: we should set up a site that encourages people to visit each others indie websites
indie#2: thats a cool idea. It should have forums and a blog
indie3: ...yeah! and it should have regularly updated content...
indie4:..not only that, there should be embedded video, and also devlogs, and listings for all our games
indie1: Excellent, who is going to set up the site?
....sound of tumbleweed....

So I thought ‘fuck it’ and set one up myself. I got a lot of indie games listed on there, paid a web designer to do a logo and initial site design, and spent some time talking to other indies, even recording video from conferences to post content…

And it did ok. We ran a sale once, and that got very good traffic. But then I got busy. VERY busy, and getting anyone to write content for it was like pulling teeth. I should know better, because I was fighting against…


Which is basically why nobody had ever done this before. So about three months ago I changed my strategy. I’d left the site neglected for a while, but now I had a new outlook, and it was this…

“I am going to invest in building up SMTG as a decent traffic generator for indie game developers. It doesn’t matter that I do it alone, or that others are benefiting from my work and financial investment. In the long term I’m building up an asset. It’s not worth much yet, but it will be, and in two years time I’ll be glad I did it.”

So I hired a proper game journalist to write cool articles each week for the site which are now online. I also re-engineered the back-end a little bit to support me updating it more often without a lot of legwork by me. I also have other plans, to be revealed soon. I’m spending a few thousand dollars here and there. Not a lot, but not totally insignificant. Many indie games sites die through lack of traffic and interest. I’m prepared to do what it takes to keep this site running.

To that end…it needs more games. It needs recent games. HIGH QUALITY indie games that sell direct (through humble widget is fine), and that are finished (not early access). Do you know any? If so email em at cliff AT positech…. etc.

Speeding up loading times

So I released a video yesterday of GSB2 running on multiple monitors, and in that video, a large space battle loads. It takes about 5 seconds. I find those 5 seconds agonizing. I recently spent half a day speeding up the games startup time because launching the game to test 100+ times a day was starting to buy me. Granted, 100×10 seconds is not very long, but I am incredibly impatient. I sometimes launch 2 apps on 2 different monitors and start typing on app 1 whilst windows finishes creating the window for app 2. I often encounter problems where clicking the google homepage and entering a search term means I miss the first few characters as the intel i7 catches up. I’m VERY impatient.

So how did I speed it up? and what tips are there for coding faster loads?

In this case, it was dumbness on my part. Some code that pre-loads ship designs was checking for whether or not lightmaps existed for each ship texture. Some have them, some don’t. It checked by creating the file and loading it in, failing if not found. HAHAHAHA. Very slow, and not needed. Those ships may well not be accessed this game…

So obviously it was tons quicker to not load the file in then, but just to check for the existence of the file on disk (or arguably to do this even later). Cue big speedup. Another speedup was possible because every instance of that item checked for the files existence, so I cached the result in the ship type and only checked for each file once. Much Much Faster.

That’s fine with a game that has few files on disk, but if you need to do this for 2,000 files, it can be real slow just to do those 2,000 file checks. Accessing actual hard drive data as opposed to RAM is painfully slow. With non SSD drives actual physical platters might need to spin. File access is the killer of load times. File access, and decompression.

Ideally you have data on disk that is pretty much in the format it will take in memory, then there is no decompression, just a straight ‘blap’ into RAM. There is a tradeoff here against debuggability, editability and modability. Some games have 2 file formats, a binary version, used when shipped, and a text version that overrides the binary and is only used during development. That can be kinda buggy, and prevents modders accessing the raw assets which might be a bad thing.

Another trick is to use ‘pak’ or resource files. In principle, and often in practice, these are just big zip files. The file access for the entire games resources becomes a single file read, and you effectively load the whole file-access-table for the game in on startup, vastly minimizing file-access slowdowns in cases where there are thousands of tiny files.

In general the golden rule of load times is to only do what you have to. If you can pre-process assets (into binary formats, for example) then do it. If you can defer some actions until that content is really needed, then do it. There is a natural tendency for programmers to have a ‘initapp()’ function and stick everything in there, but you really don’t need to. The player may well not launch the stats screen in this run-through, so don’t load any assets for it, or indeed, any data for it, and don’t waste CPU time initializing systems that might not even be used.

The best advice I could give anyone for speeding up load times would be to just get a profiler. Some are free, most IDEs come with a built-in one (they often suck), and LEARN how to use it. If you never put any time into fixing it, the chances are your load times are laughably inefficient. Most games are.

Gratuitous Space Battles 2 in multi-monitor mode!

At last a shaky-cam (well not shaky, but you know what I mean) video of GSB 2! I wanted to do this to show off multiple monitor mode with a lemon for scale. The video shows my dev PC with the game running. My PC is a i7 3770 quad-core 8gig RAM, windows 7 and a GeForce GTX670 video card, powering two 27″ monitors for a total GSB2 fun ratio of 5120×1440, or other 7 million pixels of lasers and explosions. Here is the video:

I’ll be doing more videos over the next few months to keep you all updated, plus other things are in the pipeline :D. In future I’ll capture normal in-game footage I just wanted to do a multi-monitor one :D Help me spread the word about 7 million pixels of explosions with ‘likes’ and ‘shares’. I reckon I’ll be more popular than these youtube kids by tomorrow!

BTW the games current website is at (it will get a makeover eventually), I blog about the game here, occasionally tweet about it (@cliffski) and there are forum discussions here.