I stood out in the Double Fine parking lot, on the phone with my wife Holly, somewhat dazed and confused.
"I just got an email from Ron"
"It looks like we have enough money. Holy #$%*"
There are 2 things to note here. #1 I'm at Double Fine, who for some reason, let me work out of their office space despite only having backed Broken Age at the $15 tier. #2 I just got my game funded by a bunch of amazing and successful indies. Maybe if you're not me, indies funding indies doesn't seem all that amazing. We've seen the awesome of Indie Fund time and again. For me, being an Indie Funded game would be amazing. What blows my mind is that this happened after Indie Fund said no...ish, and that they were only one of ten signatures that ended up making Duskers possible. So how does either #1 or 2 above make any sense? I purport that the simple answer to both of these is that indies are astoundingly great at helping one another, show me an indie dev and I'll show you a plethora of indies that helped them.
Struggle. In a word that's what indies do. Don't get me wrong, we all signed up for it. In the balance of life it seems warranted. You get to make the video games you want to make, interact with fans who love playing them, and get paid (eventually... maybe), and in exchange, you struggle.
Earlier this year I decided to give everyone on my team a Holiday Bonus. I did this because I knew Misfits Attic was close to going under. This may seem odd, but understanding that I pay my team horribly may help. I figured that if the day came when we ran out of money, I'd have rather taken those last month’s expenses and put them in the pockets of the people whose sweat had made everything possible. Just a few months later that day had come, and I told my small team I couldn't pay them going forward. That didn't seem to stop them.
It's not that contract work is the end of the world, or even working without pay. Holly and I funded A Virus Named TOM with our savings account. And the first half of it was in my night and weekends while I was working at DreamWorks. But that had taken its toll on my family. I don't like having to work when I could be chasing my 3 year old daughter around as zombie Spider-Man. No child should go without zombie Spider-Man.
As an indie you convince yourself that everything will be fine after you launch. After A Virus Named TOM launched... we still struggled. The game continued to make enough for us to keep the lights on, but only barely, and always only for the next few months. It felt like we were constantly sinking, and each time before we drowned a piece of driftwood would come along and save us for a time: a bundle, a sale, etc. Holly was rightfully reticent about starting another game without knowing how we’d fund it, but I realized that as an indie you just have to run towards a cliff, having faith that you'll be able to get the next section of bridge in place by the time you get there. So using TIG Jam as an excuse, I started our next game: Duskers.
Maybe it wasn’t chance that I made a game about survival and being alone in the dark. Duskers was about piloting drones into derelict spaceships in a universe that had become a giant graveyard. But it was also about gritty tech that broke down, isolation, and adapting to survive.
Perhaps it was knowing how uncertain things were, and that this could be my last game, a game that I possibly didn't finish. Whatever the reason, I stopped compromising my game design with worries about how I would sell the game, or how I would fund it. On the contrary, I actually somewhat delighted in making decisions that I felt would get me laughed out of a pitch to publisher: A command line interface, avoiding combat, manually controlling individual units in an RTS.
What's ironic, is then needing to get said game funded...
If you’ve watched my silly puppet videos you'll know I'm not a huge fan of pitching to publishers. I was emailing around to find out what publishers indies might recommend working with when Ron Carmel asked me why I was seeking publishers. He encouraged me to submit to Indie Fund, which I had planned on, but felt my odds were about as good as getting my game funded by Indie Fund. I recalled Andy Schatz hinting to me about a magical land where indies outside of Indie Fund were interested in funding games. I brought that up, and Ron said this land existed.
So I put together a build of Duskers, put my designer-esque pitch into video form, and shipped it off. After a bit of deliberation I was informed that Indie Fund wasn't willing to take on Duskers. This I expected. They felt it was in too early a state and the budget was a bit high... but they'd put up some money if it meant the difference between Duskers being made or not. This I did not expect. Wait what? Add to this the fact that Ron, who had reached out to help me, and brought the game to the group in the first place, said he'd be willing to pony up a chunk of his personal money to see the game made. I was blown away, these guys really wanted to help. Now I just needed to figure out how to fill the rest of the budget.
At this point I assumed I had to somehow pound the pavement, like a traveling pitch man trying to get investment around town. Just, instead of publishers I'd be pitching to other indies? I'd never really done this before, so I went over to the one place in town that had helped me from the day I launched the beta of A Virus Named TOM on my website with a humble widget.
If you've never met Jeff Rosen or John Graham, find a way. For a pair of guys that took a humble bundle and turned it into a mutli-million dollar operation, they still seem... well humble (sorry). I genuinely feel they just want to help indies succeed, and play Starcraft.
Jeff dug Duskers and told me he'd be interested in chipping in. Holly and I spent the night drinking wine (we do live in the bay area) and grinning like idiots. It's kindof like that moment where the fear of the train crashing is gone because it's already coming off the rails and you've accepted it, but you can day dream about this possible world where superman is going to save you, because you now believe that he's out there somewhere.
We had found some money, but there was a ways to go, and I had no idea who to talk to now. I didn't have a Rolodex of successful indies so amazing they'd be interested in taking a risk on other indies. Apparently Indie Fund does.
Ron told me he'd email out some indies to see if they'd be interested in helping. I was happy for the help, and figured it'd give me time to think of who I could approach. A few hours later I was getting emails from Cliff Harris and Tommy Refenes, excited about Duskers. Our Duskers! I felt kindof like I decided to write a book and George R. R. Martin, and Orson Scott Card called me up to see if I needed help. Cliff was asking me about my marketing plan, suggesting some ideas I hadn't even considered. Tommy was describing scenarios he'd played out on the build I'd sent. Just having someone play the game and like it was thrill enough, but having someone who's game influenced the design of A Virus Named TOM was taking it to another level.
We've meandered back to the start of this post. 24 hours after Ron told me he’d emailed possible indie investors, I got an email from him telling me we had enough money. MIND BLOWN. What?! How does that work? I looked at the list of names. Sarah and Colin Northway (Northway Games): I felt so grateful, an awesome and incredibly talented indie couple that Holly and I knew and are constantly inspired by. Jeff Rosen: as he said he would, once again helping me out. John Graham: he hadn't been around when I showed Jeff the game and here he was contributing to make Duskers happen. The only way I can ever picture that man is smiling, and finding some way to help me out.
Almost more amazing was the list of people that I'd barely met, if at all: Cliff (as Positech Games) and Tommy were there, apparently my responses to their questions hadn't turned them away. Indie Fund, true to their word, had come through and contributed to push us over the top(Jonathan Blow, Ron Carmel, Kyle Gabler, Aaron Isaksen, Kellee Santiago, Nathan Vella, and Mathew Wegner). Some Indie Funders had even double dipped and ponied up their own money in addition to the Indie Fund money: Aaron Isaksen (with John Bizzarro as AppAbove Games), Kellee Santiago, and of course, Ron Carmel. All three of whom had responded to my unsolicited requests for advice when I was making A Virus Named TOM. The universe was telling me I was heavy in indie karma debt.
At the end that’s how Duskers got funded, not by my clever orchestration, but by indies that want other indies to succeed and have built a structure to do just that. So what was the deal like? Pretty much like the public Indie Fund agreement. Humble Bundle, Valve, and Indie Fund must share the only lawyer that doesn't get paid by the word because their agreements are somehow fractions of the lengths of other contracts. Even so, this one blew me away at a whopping 3 pages.
So if you're an indie developer that's reading this, I'm hoping that this story inspires you instead of making you want to punch me. I think the takeaway from this is one that I've heard from countless indie devs, at countless meetups and conferences. The people that can help us most is us. We're not competing, we're too small to worry about stealing sales from each other. So find other devs, help them, and trust that they'll help you. It's what separates us from those trying to make a quick buck by exploiting players or devs. I genuinely believe the hippie dippy concept that the indie ecosystem is a win-win, where helping other indie devs simply adds aweseomsauce to the whole indie sandwich.
And as I sit here typing this under the shelter of Double Fine's roof, getting brilliant ideas for Duskers from all manner of indies, funded by indies that have succeeded before me, know that I'm in serious indie love debt. So hit me up if you need some help and I'll do my best to pay it down ;) email@example.com
[Edit] You can now pre-order Duskers at this snazzy website Holly just made