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

Work out what you are good at

I’m not very good at game balancing and low level design decisions (like whether gun A fires faster than gun B, or what the cost of power C is). I’m just not. I also suck at art. I have no idea what colors go with what colors. This is why my better half chooses my clothes. I’m safe with black, but beyond that, I’d end up dressed like a circus clown if left to my own decisions.

I’m good at some other stuff. I’m very good at Game Names, big-picture ideas for game themes and ‘style’. I’m very good at optimization, and good at the business/strategic/marketing side of things. The thing is, it’s taken me a while to absolutely come to terms with what I am and am not good at. I started selling games in 1997, so it took me 17 years to work this out. That means that for most indie devs out there, the chances of you having really worked this out yet are pretty fucking low.

I know one game developer who is good at big picture stuff, but very bad at mechanics and actual coding. They are awesome at marketing. I know another who is a genius at both high and low level design, but not so good at strategic biz stuff. Both are great talented people who are doing ok. Both will remain nameless :D

The big decisions and difficulties come when you think about what to do regarding the stuff you aren’t good at.

There are basically two choices: Get good at them, or outsource them. Obviously it isn’t that easy. You *can* outsource almost anything. Even big-picture stuff like game name and style/design can be outsourced. You won’t see an advert for people who do this, but there are plenty of very talented designers who would work for you as a consultant on such stuff. There is no shortage of guys in suits who will act as consultants for you on the topics of business and marketing/PR as well. When it comes to coding/art etc, the options to outsource that stuff are well known and varied.


In the long run, you need to work out what bits of your business you do want to control and run personally, and what stuff can be left to someone else. For me, with my temperament and skills/interests, I want to control all of the business, PR and big picture design. In an ideal world I’d do all the coding too (I still do…), but I could cope with letting that go a bit one day. That means I need good artists, QA, and design people, and I’m gradually over the years building up a list of the right people for all this.

The tendency, and I’m sure many indie devs encounter this, is to pretend you can be good at everything, just given enough enthusiasm/late-nights. This is bullshit. Steve Jobs didn’t solder together Apple II components, nor did he design the iMac. He knew what he was good at, and stuck with it. At the start, when you have no money, you’ll probably need to offer revenue share to artists or PR/biz people who help you out. That’s fine. At the very start, if you are feeling adventurous, you probably (for at least one game) try and do it all yourself, for no other reason than to work out what you really do enjoy, and what you don’t. Try not to be like me, and take over a decade to work this out.


10 thoughts on Work out what you are good at

  1. Actually I think people know their strengths and weaknesses reasonably well. I just don’t think (most) indie devs can afford to outsource to cover those gaps so they do it themselves to save ££££

    1. Actually in hit driven business like games you can’t afford to do a poor job in any of the major tasks that contribute to the game.

      If the only field you are good at is game design and you refuse to find right people for the art, for example, then you are wasting good game design.

      compare it to any other industry with collaboration – for example films. Even very poor screenwriters/directors doesn’t do all production by themselves just because they don’t have money. Although technically one person can play all roles in their film (with help of editing and makeup).

      1. I didn’t say it was a good idea to do it all yourself, just that small indie teams don’t really have the cash resources to cover those weaknesses.

        As a programmer I know I’m rubbish at art, but if I were to ever become a one man indie I would definitely consider doing my own game art instead of paying someone! Unless I had a rich investor! :)

  2. I completely agree with this post. Everyone knows what they can do and what they can’t do. But most of the people don’t agree this and they try to act in such a way that they can do anything.It’s not at all a correct thing.

  3. I know a lot of this doesn’t apply to UK but here’s some perspective from a country with more history of socialism. (This kind of goes into why I’d like to see an AAA-game where modders can make a living from modding that’s fully built into the game engine along with the player-to-player $ transfer without taking a job or setting up a business – eg. I’m a perfectionist who likes doing small tweaks that are so small that non-perfectionists may not even notice – value of such is then largely about how large part of the market consists of perfectionists – moddability can allow (eventual) catering to this market fully should good mods come out but unless those mods can be installed from in-game instead of browsing through forums, all the play time will probably go to selecting mods (Skyrim) and then you find the game is too buggy(Skyrim – perhaps after couple years it’s now fixed by modders)).

    “Business” translated literally back to english from my language means “Attempt”. And anyone native (here) attempting anything with the prospect of making serious coin tends to get special treatment because of how the system is set up. If you’re foreigner – expectations may actually be reversed and being in a minority has the psychological effect of the majority (esp. those in some sort of govt. job) feeling more powerful and thus wanting to help. If you’re native then expect your “Attempts” to face inventive obstacles either because of incumbents/lobbied legistlation or if really unlucky, some bureaucrat that has problems with people attempting to have more success than they do.

    Maybe the above is completely incorrect but that is the picture that primetime local tv-docs have painted. Another thing they’ve done is established that unless you’re some sort of crook, you should be liable if the “attempt” fails. And it’s really easy to agree with this viewpoint given all the crooked business cases they feature every week. Profit bad, spending tax money good. (Then when you dig a bit, turns out the people on the left like risk free money and rent-seeking methods are fine to obtain it)

    If that wasn’t enough, they also ram in the point that if you’re doing business in honest and fair manner then there’s going to be competition that uses free workers and every hole in the book to make sure you can’t afford to be in the business, so only fools will even bother with “attempts” (starting a business).

    And there’s more. If other peoples money get involved, using things kickstarter is illegal for starters (they’re now looking at changing this) and only through shady manners one can avoid some form of personal liability should the attempt fail. Reasonable from investor pov but this may create a desire to have such a solid plan for your “attempts” that you probably won’t even want any investors with their own exit strategy then.

    Atleast the above reflects my view of things. And of course since all local business people have been painted as crooked tax avoiding slave lords, who would want to get a job? I came of the above opinion before finishing school and looks like slowly others are coming to same conclusions here because rapidly rising unemployment and public forum threads with similar lines of thought.

    So my solution is that everyone should be able to make a living a) without govt handouts b) without being employed c) without setting up a business.

    Sure there’s contracting, consulting, freelancing and so forth but for me personally that is “working within the system” just like voting is accepting all the crap that authorities do. That’s why my personal goal is to own and commandeer an aircraft carrier. A flying air craft carrier. In space. Even better!

  4. Minor edit to above:
    “Another thing they’ve done is established that unless you’re some sort of crook, you should be liable if the “attempt” fails.”

    I meant that you’re bound to be liable, the crooks set up complex chains of companies that allow the masterminds to evade any form of liability.

  5. Minor correction: By aircraft carrier I meant Luxury aircraft carrier with a collection of good looking jets (F16, Su-27, perhaps a restored YF-23). I recently googled this and turns out someone converted aircraft carrier to a hotel, so this isn’t entirely impossible idea – it could service as meeting & entertainment platform for the 0.001% that loves such toys and is rich. The rooms looked quite low in height and the decor was not that impressive though.

  6. Balancing: I haven’t really though of it from programmer pov but it seems like multi-parameter optimization problem, usually in 3-4 dimensions and often with multiple good solutions. I started thinking about the problem of having a sound and hearing that some frequencies are under- or over-emphasized.

    There are studio audio monitor systems and software packages that capture signal from linear/known characteristic reference mic and then do some maths to apply EQ to balance/correct the under/over-emphasized frequencies automatically.

    These systems only achieve what is called “room correction”. However if you were experienced producer and wanted to try put yourself out of work (I know there’s some companies trying this – eg. algorithmically create a pop record), you could probably try to train the algorithms to not only produce corrections of room imbalances but to take a variety of sounds and glue them together in balanced manner.

    However just like modern pop music productions, I think the ultimate problem here is of selection – the algorithmic trade/market making approach is to remove the risk by offering the market all the various prices or products at discrete points/variete where arbitrage is possible or up to point of saturation/marketing allowance.

    Though I could be subject to the “when all you have a hammer” issue; it certainly seems that closest we can get to AI with computers is a combination of these approaches. The essence being that through law of large numbers, the market will find a price or product that happens to be right/great and the market/people will then think the AI was a genius/visionary/whatever. Years pass and all the crap/unfair price levels the algo pushed out will be forgotten …

    There’s just one problem with this approach. Maybe the AI/incompetent producers and algo market makers keep out pushing so much crap and inflated stock prices that people will grow tired and lose interest in the games and the stock market. Just a thought.

  7. (correction: “infinite monkey theorem” is more applicable in above present day**-AI example that “law of large numbers”)

    *”a monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter keyboard for an infinite amount of time will almost surely type a given text, such as the complete works of William Shakespeare”

    ** perhaps there’s smarter AI algos around but I haven’t heard of it. So far I haven’t been impressed with any mathematical “art” – it just always tends to fall into the bland and predictable rather than something that evokes strong feelings. In the EQ and color balance problems this may be something that the computer could be trained however. Youtube suggestions is pretty much closest of what feels like something that has a bit of “intelligence” (through big data/click tracking no doubt) and I use it to find good songs I haven’t heard.

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