From the dozen or so indie game dev (IGD) collaborations I've been part of, I think I've gotten a good scope of all the various types of management styles that are typical in this world. I've seen an antisocial Project Lead whose development has been totally dead since day one, but will still leave a message once a month or so insisting "this project is not dead" (I'm actually still part of this collaborative, for "research purposes," and will likely do an article about it once it officially dies). As mentioned in my last IGD article, I've also been part of projects full of talented people, that fell apart due to bad leadership and politics. These are just a couple of the experiences I've had thus far in IGD.
The reason I'm writing this article right now is because I booted my computer, logged into Windows, and immediately started getting Discord notifications from a new game dev server I forgot to turn the alerts off of. I'm now looking at a chat room where the story is being negotiated in the same manner as a start-up business being bought out by a conglomerate. A couple of weekends ago, I was in a voice chat with these guys likewise listening to a democracy. But before all that, I need to explain how I was recruited.
For the purposes of this article, I'll change my contact's name to "Winston," named after the Orwellian protagonist of the same name. Winston was one of my first conversations ever on Discord (in January 2018), where he was looking for a Producer for a different game dev project than the one mentioned above. The story begins there.
As is usual in IGD, Winston’s having team issues and needs someone to come in and organize everything. He confesses he annoys his teammates with just how he speaks, and they end up quitting the project. After giving him an idea of the things I'd do if I were to join, his response is:
Winston: Hey look, I have no experience being a producer aside from, well, producing content, so meeting someone with that experience is really eye-opening. It's hard being a chaotic person expecting people to be on the same level as you, and when they're not it makes me feel really sad. Anyway, you've provided a pretty reasonable system that looks like it can indeed work.
So being pretty new myself in that space, I’m willing to come in and do the heavy lifting to help get his project to completion. After a pretty good conversation, I check in with Winston some time later, and find out he’s also a writer. Then, I read his GDD, and the problems become apparent.Winston is an off-the-wall kind of creator, who has created a very strange, indecipherable sci-fi universe in his mind, which makes perfect sense to him, but cannot be understood by anyone else. Sometimes these types of stories can be overcome with excellent gameplay and / or mechanics, but that's certainly not something a Project Lead should be counting on, especially at the unfunded indie level. Story is one of the few free tools you have to break through in an enormously competitive space, but if it's already garbled from the beginning by a writer who won't compromise, then the project is being set up for certain failure.
This doesn’t matter to Winston. He has his story, and he’s sticking to it.
A Weirdo on Speed Dial
Given the massive depth, I ask Winston if this sci-fi story is his magnum opus, and his response is:
Winston: No. I started making 1 game. Then it became too big, and I started making a smaller game. Then that became too big, and then I started making this. Those games are going to happen. And I think the next one will be the magnum opus.
Winston then goes on a long philosophical rant about his influences and wanting a multiple-genre series, finishing with the statement, "People probably will hate it." He logs off, but touches base with me later apologizing for "going off"; he was tired, and will refrain from that in the future, he says. I didn't really mind, but it seems going on those types of one-way conversations are what irked his past teammates, and he’s remarkably self-aware. Winston has that insight the next day, "It was unfair of me to talk about myself yesterday." Having since talked to others who are similar one-way conversations, this was incredible introspection for me to witness. Expressing this to him, he responds, "Well, you got a weirdo on speed dial, lol."
Pointing out that after reading his GDD, that the sci-fi game is scaled to an AAA level that would be impossible to achieve on no budget, Winston almost immediately gives up on the project, and suggests he wants to do a visual novel instead, "Like that Doki Literature thing I think."Though logical in this case, this is usually a red flag when a creator is constantly starting up projects, and then quitting at the first sign of adversity, resulting in a track record of failed products in their rear-view mirror.
Shoot Yourself in the Foot to Succeed
We get to talking about staff costs in a game dev project, with me suggesting writers are the cheapest, and Winston responds defensively to the idea of another writer joining the team. I reveal to him that he's talking to one. Surprisingly, he is impressed, somewhat strangely encouraged by my novel. He then reveals he's not really much in tune with pop culture or television. I advise him to watch Game of Thrones, which I exalt as an education on how to write large, complex narratives effectively.
Winston: I've heard allot of good things, but I'm just scared about getting invested in one more thing when I'm dying trying to make this one thing. Like, time I "waste" doing something unrelated to the game makes me really anxious.
He then inquires about the future of my novel, and I casually play it off as "whatever happens, happens." Then, things start to get weird.
Winston begins by suggesting I could approach an AAA game developer and get an adaptation done, just like that. After responding that big name studios don't really solicit ideas like that, he changes course and says, "I meant like, a big independent studio like the guys who made Inside or something. Maybe even a tad smaller." Winston then begins to give me a consultation, "The other option is paying off some huge publisher to advertise your work. Or maybe you could make the game yourself?" I explain to him how publishing actually works, and if you've self-published, you’re pretty much disqualified from approaching the Big Five publishers. His response is, "The world is dark."
Winston is not deterred, however. He keeps suggesting things just for the sake of it, not really making sense, stopping only to say "I'd offer to help you, but it seems you got it handled. I'm pretty much a hack anyway if I don't get this game made."
After, he continues to push that I should make a game of my novel, as if it's that easy a task (which I remind him, from his own experiences, is anything but). He suggests I should make it a visual novel, that if someone purchases off of the Steam store, it would automatically unlock a free version of my book on Amazon. Rather than point out how increasingly ridiculous these ideas are getting, I simply state that the infrastructure doesn't allow it.
He asks if I can publish my book on Steam, and I explain to Winston that Steam is a gaming platform. In retrospect, I'm not sure why I continued to entertain these ramblings (aside from not wanting to appear rude), but I did, and it just went on, and on, and on, and on. He inquires if there's anywhere else I can publish my book aside from Amazon, "Like idk Best Buy, Walmart lol." I tell him he might be overthinking it, and he responds with the excellent line, "Sometimes you gotta shoot yourself in the foot to succeed."
Winston: You could make it a paid version that, if bought, nets you the other version for free
RTL: Amazon doesn't really give books for free like that (there's a loophole there somewhere), and it would be impossible to do trying to connect Steam with Amazon so that a customer gets a novel when they buy a game.
Winston: What if it comes with a redemption code?
RTL: Amazon doesn't do promo codes for Kindle books.
Winston: Nah I mean like, you put the codes manually into someone's purchase. Like, send them an email or something. Maybe it's in the receipt.
RTL: IE: Just send them the file after they've bought the game?
Winston: If you're doing the bundle on Kindle then that version could come with a Steam code for the VN
RTL: Yeah, the platform doesn't really work like that. There's literally nothing you can do marketing-wise on the KDP backend except edit keywords, upload the MOBI file, and set the price. You can't even send the novel to your family / friends for free.
Winston: Damn, tough ride. Maybe you can have some kind of note saying that if anyone wants the VN for free they can contact you, and say they bought the book or something. Idk, just spit-balling. Or you could have the raw book incorporated into the VN, and that's the more expensive bundle version. You have the version with VN gameplay, and then the book version within the same game.
RTL: That annoys Amazon if your work is available elsewhere, and they have zero hesitation to take your novel off their platform without warning / reasoning. From recent experiences, they're major bullies in the e-book world.
Winston: If they tried to do that to me I'd tell them to F-off honestly
Throwing Everything at the Wall, Hoping Something Will Stick
Winston goes back to wanting me to adapt my book as a visual novel game, asking, "Like, how many people are willing to read books compared to people who want to play games. Even if it's a VN." I explain that as an author, I'm trying to attract a readership. Winston won't have it. One after the other, he suggests I publish "a version of the novel that contains pictures," a comic book, a manga, "even a web comic. That's how One Punch Man took off." I repeat my earlier sentiment about repetitiveness.
RTL: Well, the idea is to direct people to purchasing the novel, and not necessarily the other way around.
Winston: I ain't gonna read The Shining, but I'll def see the movie
RTL: Yeah, but if I'm Stephen King, then you're not necessarily the customer (a film viewer) I'm trying to attract. I'm trying to attract readers. To develop a following and advance my writing career.
Winston: Then have the books set ahead of the adaptations. That way impatient people just cannot wait for the adaptations, and go ahead and read the books.
RTL: That's assuming an adaptation is being made at all.
Winston: Always have an adaptation one installment behind the current narrative
At this point, I realize Winston has become obsessed. He's projecting his fantasies about his own written works becoming super successful, and being adapted in every medium possible, onto my modest novel. What I notice is that Winston doesn't seem to have the connection to reality to realize that you can't just declare, "I want a movie or game made from my book," and have it be so. That's a lottery that needs to be won by the millions of published writers around the world, which is no easy task. Winston's thought process goes from desire -> ideation -> fantasy, and not desire -> ideation -> pre-production -> development -> post-production -> refinement -> completion -> reality, overlooking the massive amount of work that's required in between.
And that's the thesis to this article, because Winston is just one of many fantasists who exist in IGD. It would seem not that big of a deal, but the issue is that there are actual professionals floundering in indie game dev desperately trying to develop a portfolio so they can get a real job in the industry. In order to do that, they need completed games on their résumé (never mind success as a factor). A lot are joining projects like these for free on blind faith that the Project Lead knows what they’re doing, and those talents are producing good quality work that will unfortunately never be seen, because the project is destined to fail (usually in the first phase of development, fortunately almost) due to naïve optimists like Winston.
My conversation with Winston in January ended with him going back to wanting me to develop a visual novel (that, at that point, I had expressed an extreme distaste for—which didn't seem to discourage Winston), then "hiring some YouTube guys" to make a fan film "like that Power Rangers one." I finally let loose on Winston, letting him know he had "officially gone off the rails," and his final string of messages were the following:
Winston: I'm just saying, why go to Hollywood when Hollywood is already where you are. People can make amazing things on their own without having to go to a huge studio in places like Hollywood like in the old days. It's why YT channels are so successful. Granted they have exposure, which is why you contact some of the best ones. Maybe not high-rollers, but people who know what they're doing.
I kind of admired this, reminding me of a time when I was just as much of a dreamer. That was the last time I spoke to Winston, until some five months later...
As you can probably tell from the intro to this article versus what it became, this deviated from the story that I was originally set to tell, to a character study on my good friend, Winston. But the “democracy” management story is followed up in Indie Game Dev: The Democracy (Part 2), and concluded in Indie Game Dev: The Democracy (Part 3).