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

Does indie game development have an ageism problem?

Hi, I’m an indie game dev. I have been since the early days when we had to sell our games at a market stall on punched cards. Actually no, that was a JOKE but still…

I remember before the invention of the compact disc. I remember the fall of the Berlin Wall & nelson mandela being freed. I recall Ronald Reagan being elected president. My first car had one wing mirror and a manual choke. I went to see Metallica’s ‘master of puppets’ tour. I grew up during the cold war and recall Brezhnev as leader of the USSR. I remember TV with only three channels to choose from.

To put it another way…I’m 49 years old. I’m a proper Gen Xer. Not gen Y, or gen Z, or millennial. Gen X, the cool generation. What little hair I have left is about half grey. I read dead-tree newspapers at the weekend and proper books. I saw the original theatrical release of ‘star wars’.

Because I live in a village whose average community gathering looks like a Dark Crystal cosplay convention, I’m known as ‘that young man’, whereas in fact, not only am I ‘middle aged’ but as far as the indie development community is concerned I am…almost dead.

When I think of indie game devs my age or older… I mostly strike out. I know Jeff Vogel certainly looks around my age, but honestly who else? maybe Jeff Minter? was it it about indie devs called Jeff? The other UK-based indies I know of are all younger. yes even the slightly grey-haired Cas from puppygames or Jake ‘I don’t dye my hair yet’ birkett of grey alien games, both younger than me. Even ‘elder statesman indies ‘introversion‘ are all younger than me.

Now I get it…someone has to be the old timer, and I guess its me, and frankly I don’t give a fuck. Middle age is frankly awesome. You can go out for a meal without caring if your clothes are fashionable or if your ass looks too big or if anybody fancies you. Car insurance is trivial, and I bought my house when they cost about as much as a mouse mat. Oh I forgot…you don’t remember mouse mats do you?


I don’t CARE that *I* am old, but I do care that the age-range of indie devs seems to be…roughly 16-21 years old. I exaggerate for hilarious comic effect, but here is a random group of people. See if you can guess which one is NOT an indie game dev.

Hahaha, we old people are so funny. However, maybe this isn’t funny at all. Maybe in all the excitement and righteous identity politics crusading of the last decade or two about making sure indie game dev is ‘inclusive’ we forgot one group of people. One really big group of people. One really obvious group of people… older people.

(BTW dont go all angry on my ass about that pic. I used those 3 people because I know them, not because they are somehow indicative of anything other than being devs I know).

In theory, there should be OVER-representation of middle aged people in indie game dev. Think it through: We have WAY more development experience than you youngsters have. We likely already have experience of triple-A dev and have learned from their mistakes. Finance-wise, we are no longer paying off college debt. We bought our houses CHEAP and are not saving for a deposit for a house. We are likely married, and thus may be able to balance out the riskiness of starting a business with a 2nd income from a spouse…

Go a bit older, to my age and things may be even EASIER. Our kids have left home, the house is paid off, so is the car… and we have even MORE experience, both as coders/artists and as people who have seem gaming trends come and go. We have access to cheaper debt if we want a bank loan to fund our company. Hell..we may even GET a bank loan, unlike anyone with zero credit history. We have seen friends try and fail at running a business and can learn from their mistakes. We know a LOT of people in the industry….so…Where are all the 40+ indie game developers?

Mark Morris from uk indie devs ‘introversion’

Now I can immediately see a list of counter-arguments. We may be wary of ‘risking’ a stable home life with kids and a spouse depending on us. We may even have a pretty good job in the mainstream industry, and be relying on that for job security. We may have realized that gamedev is too risky and not as fulfilling as we once thought and now be working in the *much better paid* finance or web development industry. We may be burned out by overwork and want a quieter career…

But my own experience just doesn’t back this up. I could NOT switch careers now, from indie game dev at age 49, NOT because I’m too old to get a new job (I’m pretty qualified and very experienced now), but because nobody can afford to pay me enough to quit my indie game gig. To earn what I earn now, I’d probably have to get a job managing 20-50 people (or more) and it would involve the hassle of commuting, attending endless meetings and probably never typing another line of code…

…in other words, my current job is perfect for a 49 year old coder. Its frankly VERY well paid, its work-from home, so I can go walk the dog (I don’t have a dog), pop out for lunch (I do actually do this) and basically work when I feel like it. I can live somewhere remote in the countryside, and take holidays when I feel like it. Its bliss. Show me the stressed out financial software contractor commuting to central London to do a job he likely despises who does NOT instantly want to swap places with me. At age 49, this is great.

And yet at every indie gathering I attend, I’m the oldest. Why? It might be chance, but I cant help but think it might be a sort of unconscious prejudice. Lets be honest, when we imagine indie devs, we imagine someone in their early twenties with blue hair on a skateboard, an apple macbook covered in stickers with edgy slogans on it, and a latte in one hand and avocado toast in the other. Indie game dev is a young persons world.

2019 GDC indie party

Go to a party at GDC and you will find loud music, lots of alcohol and people excitedly yelling at each other. Later, if we are lucky, skrillex may play. yay? at the end of the evening we will celebrate the thirty under thirty. I expect to see twenty under twenty soon. Maybe a special event for pre-teen devs next year?

Indie development is COOL its FRESH its YOUNG! Its people all living together in the same house! its all game-jamming till 4am on a train! its loud music! its an obsession with ‘retro! (because to so many devs the 1980s feels like ancient history, known about only from fascinating documentaries).

This is worrying. We should NOT be gatekeeping indie game development to any small narrowly-defined group of people. The biggest irony about the game dev ‘community’ (actually a very cliquey set of people following each other on twitter) is that they INSIST that they are very very inclusive (and will be offended by any suggestion they are not), but in fact its really a club primarily of relatively well off western middle class twenty somethings.

If you want REAL indie development inclusivity , show me the people in their forties and fifties at your indie event. Hell, show me people over thirty. There is nothing magical about indie game development that means only young people can do it. Computer games are not THAT new.

13 thoughts on Does indie game development have an ageism problem?

  1. I really liked reading your perspective on this. I’m 37 and always felt like the consensus is that game dev is strictly a young man’s game. I didn’t necessarily think I was too old yet, but starting in my 30s felt very late compared to many of the success stories you hear. I imagine I’ll be at least 45 or older before I possibly make enough money to quit my comfortable job, so it’s nice reading something that makes me feel a little less ridiculous chasing that goal.


  2. You’ve been, I think, absurdly lucky/successful as an indy; I get the impression that Jeff hasn’t done as well as you financially, and most people don’t find they can afford to have a family, save for old age, etc. *consistently* on indy salaries & schedules. I’m 3 years younger than you, currently working a not-so-horrible job in London but have most of my experience in the US, and frankly can’t see doing serious gamedev for another decade – at which point, yes, my kids should be out of the house.

    1. …most people don’t find they can afford to have a family, save for old age, etc. *consistently* on indy salaries & schedules…

      That’s pretty much where I find myself.

      A few years ago, I slipped to my partner the idea of relocating to Indonesia to live with the kids on the cheap and do this kind of work… She asked me what was the estimated revenue per year that I could make, and I offered a sensible estimate (not a wildly optimistic one). She very clearly told me that such an idea was complete bollocks, that it would be retarded to abandon my career to take a chance at making silly things like games :)

  3. I do know one or two middle-aged indie devs but I always figured they were the minority because while games have been around for a while now the indie development scene is newer. I mean just 16 years ago there was no Steam to publish on (and it didn’t accept many games at that time either), there was no iPhone for indie apps to publish on. Console games were a lot more difficult to develop on and publish on, there were less good development tools, no Unity, etc. PC was the only source for indie games, published on their own websites rather than a dedicated store, and even there the options were limited. There were some RPGmaker games, but even very simple indie games like visual novels which are more popular now were less common since Ren’Py hadn’t been published yet.

    I know a lot of devs like you can code and publish successfully without any of those tools or storefronts, but many can’t.

  4. I understand you completely. But what should I say? :))
    Well, I’m “only” 31 years old – or may I introduce myself as András “bald for more than 6 years already” Illés? :)) I have a theory that I’ve lost my hair because of stress in that so well paid finance sector as a dev. But I’m not sure that indie game dev (to me right now) is any more healthy. BUT! At least I enjoy it much more.

    Just got a mortgage tho. I’m brave, right?

  5. I’m the (slightly younger) version of you that stayed in Finance tech :-)

    I’m 40, I worked in banks, AAA dev, then mobile dev. But ultimately, when I had kids, I had two choices when the dev I was working for showed signs of going down the tubes.

    Uproot the family, or move industry. Going indie was never a realistic proposition, because I had a level of outgoings that demanded predictability of income.

    Fundamentally, that’s the issue for me. I had kids and acquired a mortgage too early, so couldn’t take the risk. Fundamentally, that’s why there’s a youthful indie skew. It’s like any startup. You can really only do it if you can afford to take the risk.

  6. I’d point out that Mouse Mats are still around…. apparently these days they tend to be called “tactical gaming surfaces” and come with RGB LED lights (for some reason…)

  7. The reason there are so few older people in the indie scene is because they are the only ones who made it. The rest went broke or burned out.

    I think most of these purpled haired soc justice warrior kids are basement dwellers with wealthy parents. When they reach the end of their 20s they will get tired of LARPing as fake game devs and go and get a job so they can move out of home. The few that remain in the scene will only be the ones that consistently made really good money.

  8. Might it be that except for outlier cases like our host, “successful indie game developers” go on to be just “game developers”? I’m not trying too hard with the stuff I do on Android, but if something takes off I’d sell the rights or become a studio and hire people to do all the things I’m not interested in as soon as I could and just do the things I like (which is what I’m doing now anyway…they just don’t get done at all). I’m too old to take pride in my indie status, plus all the mortgage/kids/security/retirement (ha!) stuff. There’s easier ways to make a buck than trying to do it all as an indie. My hat’s off to you Cliffski, although I don’t think you realize how unusual you are.

  9. I think indie game dev is similar to indie musician. It’s not a route that most choose for economic purposes, but rather self expression / stardom.
    The median return on investment is horrible, and older people tend to be more realistic and humble.
    I think that continuing making games as you age can be reasonable if you had early success, as your brand guarantees some exposure, but I don’t expect “non celebs” to keep trying at 40+.

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