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

Unstable income: indie development woes

There is a disparity between the information people outside a creative industry have, and the truth about working in that industry. This is because the views of people who are very successful in an industry get more coverage, both through conventional media (because reporting on what multi millionaires like Adele or Tom Cruise or Gabe Newell does gets more clicks) and organically through media like twitter, where we naturally follow ‘celebrities’ who are inevitable wealth and famous.

(I am as guilty as anyone. I follow Elon Musk and Brad Wardell and Mike Bithel on twitter. If you are a struggling indie who hasn’t had a hit game ever, I’m unlikely to follow you unless I know you personally…partly because I just *do not know who you are*.)

To compound the problem, there is the whole issue of ‘fake it till you make it’, where indies and other creative types project a false narrative of success in the hope that success will breed success. This is just playing to human nature, and is understandable as a marketing strategy, but its damaging in terms of giving the false impression to people who want the real facts.

And to add to all these factors (as if they were not enough), we have a natural human tendency to want to place emphasis on our successes and minimize our failures. I am much more likely to tell you about all those times I did a share deal and made money than admit just how many times it went badly, badly wrong… This is just how humans operate.

The reality is that there are a number of big downsides to the freelance/self-employed/start-your-own company life that probabl;y need re-emphasizing from time to time. Here are the big ones

Low income

You probably, on average, will not make much money as a game developer, writer, artists, actor or any other creative pursuit. Its just harsh economics. Lots of people want the jobs and few are available. by jobs I also mean sales, so lots of people want a hit indie game and there are only so many buyers. Simple market forces mean most people do badly. In this article in 2018, Mike Rose found that 82% of indie games didn’t make their creators the minimum wage. What makes you so sure you are in the top 18%?

Unstable Income

People often equate unstable income with ‘you earn $5k one month and $3k the next month. sheesh!’ but the reality can be way worse. Think more like this: You earn $32k one month, and then absolutely zero for a year. Or maybe two years. Can you be *that* disciplined with money to live like that? I’ve seen my own income double in one year, then halve the next year, and I’m a stable indie with 20 years experience and many shipped games.

A typical indie games far-from-stable earnings


You may well work from home. Whole days may pass without you talking to anyone. You have no work ‘colleagues’ and no workplace chat or gossip. There are no social groups in the evening of people grabbing a quick drink or food after work. There are no workplace parties or works events or trips. You may do 95% of your socializing through a web browser. Not normal or healthy

Financial Planning

You will not have an employers pension, so should set one up. How do you do that? Can you get a mortgage? how do you prove earnings? Who gives you a loan when your income is so unreliable. How can you set up things like subscriptions, or direct debits for bills, or book holidays when you have no idea what you will earn. Even if you get a mortgage, how can you know if you can afford it?

Nobody understands your job

Meeting with friends in normal jobs will start to feel weird. Most of their work-chat is about how they hate their job, or colleagues, or boss. You cannot relate to this at all. They claim to be envious of your lifestyle, but have no idea what it is like. They do not understand why on earth you would work at the weekend, you do not understand why they have to rush back because they have a pre-set lunch *hour*. They don’t know what its like to pitch for work, or a publishing deal, you cant remember what performance reviews are like, or why flexi-time is so valued. They think you have made the wrong decision. You think they have no ambition.

The business facade

You are conscious of always having to represent your business side. You cant get drunk and tell people your job is pointless and the work boring. You are always thinking about your public image, and not wanting to upset potential customers, or investors. Every dumb or sensitive comment you make on twitter could lose you business, even wreck your career. Your views on social media are inseparable from the public face of your employer, which is you.

Nobody to blame

When everything goes wrong and nobody hires you or the game flops, or nobody buys your art, it is your fault. You cannot tell yourself, even subconsciously, that this is the fault of X in marketing or Y in sales, and how you did a good job. Ultimately there is nobody to pass the blame onto. You can come up with excuses and rationalizations but ultimately the whole company is you and there is nobody else to blame. Failure feels much more personal, and harder to shake off. Even when you are successful you worry about failing in the future.

Ultimately, its a choice that depends very much on your personality. Working for yourself in a creative field can be very rewarding, financially as well as personally, and i would DREAD to go be an employee again, but it really depends so much on your personality. I am very self-motivated, I don’t mind (within reason) the isolation, and I’m very risk tolerant, so it works for me.

Also do not forget that the reverse applies. I have personality characteristics that mean I don’t like working as a normal employee at all. I can be argumentative, arrogant, short-tempered, I hate being told what to do, I hate working in noisy places and hate commuting. I can be very moody, and not good at working with extroverted people… there are so many reasons for me to choose the lifestyle I have, despite its many shortcomings.

It is very easy for people who are successful in a field to forget the many downsides for those who are more typical. I probably vastly understate the effect that low income and unstable income has on people. If money worries can lead to stress and health problems, which leaks into relationship problems (which can lead to more stress)… then this can be all consuming. Sometimes these things compound. Trying to be extroverted and upbeat and SELL SELL SELL when inside you are worried about paying for food and that your partner is disappointed in your career choice…. cannot be easy.

My top tip: TALK to other people in similar fields, whether you are in the industry already and struggling, or considering leaving your job for this business. It can be very enlightening. No reading of blogs or twitter is as good as real world ‘pub-chat’ with people in the same position. Even just hearing other people agree with you about the negatives of the industry can be strangely re-assuring. Somehow us humans like to know that we are not suffering alone, even if we are still suffering.

12 thoughts on Unstable income: indie development woes

  1. So when is it the right time to give it a go? (Or in my case, give it another go?)

    Over the last 4 – 5 years, whenever I think about going back to working for myself, one of your posts reminds me of the harsh realities of being an Indie! There’s like this little nagging ‘cliffski’ devil sitting over my shoulder pointing out all the things that could go wrong :)

    Like you, I don’t like working as a ‘normal’ employee, I hate commuting, I hate offices and I don’t like working on things that don’t align with my interests, in fact I’ll actively push back against them. After 23 years in the games industry (this coming Monday), I’m not even sure I want to work as a professional programmer anymore! At least not in the traditional sense. Don’t get me wrong, I still love coding, and spend most of my spare time working on my own projects and can’t see myself doing anything else, but sitting at a desk all day in an uninspiring office with all the pointless processes that are supposed to make us more productive. No thanks! I’d sooner try to do my own thing again and if that fails find something else entirely.

    But then, “you know you’re likely going to fail….”

    I keep telling myself that I’ll just save up a little bit more and then I’ll jump, but when is it the right time to take a chance?

    1. I think the bets metric to know if its the right time for you to go indie is whether or not you can make something in your spare time and release and sell it for actual money to a few hundred people. If that isn’t possible, then do not do it. The challenges of making enough to LIVE off, are WAY higher, but most people vastly overestimate the ease with which they can sell a game to people.
      Make something small, put it on, and don’t make ANY decision about quitting a job until its sold $1,000 worth of copies. Sadly that rules out 90% of people. I really wish everyone did that first.

      FWIW I did this with 2 games, back in the 1990s before I ever thought I’d make a living from it.

      1. It is very good advice!

        I’d say the transition could be even slower, so Claire could first accept part-time jobs before “jumping”.

        1. I’ve been trying to get part time work in game development for years :) The closest I’ve come so far is 4 days a week for the company and one day a week for myself but things are still a bit too slow going for me.

          I did make and release a game before for iOS and PlayStation Mobile, and it made enough to repay the advance Sony gave me to release it as a PSM launch title (£10K). But this was some years ago now and I feel the climate for Indie games is worse now and I wouldn’t say it was easy then.

          I also ran my own contracting business a few years back and have 23 years of game programming experience to fall back on so I’m no stranger to going it alone. But I have also experienced a lot of the bad things Cliff mentioned in his post and I know how quickly your savings will diminish without a regular income.

          It’s still a really scary prospect. I think as suggested, I may try to re-release my previous game as a VR title as it works really well in VR and would require the least amount of work to polish up. But it’s my actual 2nd game that scares me the most.

      2. I think that’s a really good advice too.
        It’ll put you in most of the trouble of making and selling a game, but on a smaller scale.
        After that I believe anyone will have a much clearer picture to decide if that’s what you really want.

  2. Loved the article and the reality it frames. My only problem so far as a freelance game developer is your sentence:
    No reading of blogs or twitter is as good as real world ‘pub-chat’ with people in the same position.

    I live in a 3rd world country with practically no industry presence. Number of developers are a handful and they all seem to have just started with barely any experience.

    What does one do in that case to connect with others and get that sense of “pub-chat”? Specially when I fall into the category of ” I’m unlikely to follow you unless I know you personally…partly because I just *do not know who you are*.”?

    1. Yup, I feel for you, because that part of it is *really* hard. I’m in the rural UK which is also not ideal, but likely way better than your situation. I guess it still helps to meet up with local developers even if they are inexperienced. Everyone has something they are better at than the others, and its good to run ideas past people in person.

      1. I see your point. I guess I could try — maybe even go to the length of creating something similar to a mini IGDA meetups nearby.

        Either way, thanks for the article. It made me realize quite a few things about my current state that I wasn’t able to put into words.

  3. Great article, really “brutal” and real, in the best way possible. I can relate to this and ran/run into a lot of these problems as a solo Indie developer- it’s always nice to know I’m not suffering alone.
    I just found out about you and your site today (though I’ve heard about your games before) and I have to say that’s a big inspiration to me, being a solo developer/publisher with multiple titles under your belt. As unlikely as it is, I hope to travel to rural UK and catch some pub-chat with you, one day! (:

  4. Wow! This article is so spot on, it really felt like me looking into a mirror.

    I love the indie lifestyle though, and will never want to change it .

    I hope you’ll also someday write about how to overcome some of these problems, or maybe lessen the impact somewhat.

    Thank you for writing this… Reality that we need to be reminded of sometimes.


  5. Most people want to do it backwards. They save up a lot of money to go full time until they burn through all their savings. It doesn’t work out and they have to go back to work feeling like failures. The way to do it is how Cliffski did it, Have a 9-5 job and do it as a hobby and if it makes a lot of money, only then consider doing it full time.

    To even have a small chance of making it, I would have to make games I don’t like, as not many people like what I like. So I figure what is the point of doing work I don’t enjoy and will not get paid for, when I could do a 9-5 job I don’t like and get paid each week, and work on games I like in my spare time? Its a no brainer.

  6. I just wanted to add something for anyone thinking “dev talk, not my field”: Even if some of the article mainly apply to game development or other creative area, lot of it does describe perfectly well the reality lots of freelances are confronted with, especially on the personal/financial side. As a freelance translator, I was literally nodding in agreement while reading (another advantage of working from home: nobody notices when you talk to your computer).

    I guess where I’m going with this is: Talking to people in similar fields helps, but talking with somebody in the same situation in another field is better than nothing. Worst case scenario he won’t understand the technical side, won’t have any solution, but will understand and empathize on a personal level.

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