Cliff Harris had what many consider a dream job. He was a programmer at Lionhead Studios, home of star designer Peter Molyneux and the eventual developer of such titles as Fable and Black & White. But one man's dream job is another's soul-crushing grind.
"I was fed up with the way games companies are run. The long-hours culture, the complete chaos and the fact that obviously I was a frustrated designer working purely as a coder," explains Harris, now head of his own studio, Positech Games. "I had been self-employed before, and I think I just have the DNA that makes me a better lone gunman than someone else's employee."
Harris is one of an increasing number of mainstream video game veterans who have abandoned big-budget, big-business game development and "gone rogue" as small, self-funded, often self-published independent game developers, or "indies." Some see indie development as an entry point into a career in the majors. But for some jaded professionals who love gaming but are dissatisfied with the mainstream industry, indie development offers an escape - and a unique opportunity.
How could anybody abandon the steady paychecks, access to the best tools and engines, large teams of skilled colleagues and the glory of working on one of next holiday season's blockbusters for a chance to labor in relative obscurity on tiny, niche titles?
Steven Peeler was a senior programmer at Ritual Entertainment. For him, leaving and forming the one-man studio Soldak Entertainment came down to a desire for creative freedom. "I really wanted to work on an RPG, and Ritual only made shooters," he says. "There were some annoying politics going on that was really frustrating, I disagreed with the direction the company was taking, I was really tired of pushy publishers and I just wanted to do my own thing."
Others found themselves forced into the indie life. Nick Tipping and Mark Featherstone were previously at Gremlin Interactive, Infogrames and Rage Games. "When almost every major studio in Sheffield closed at the same time, we decided it was time to give [indie development] a go," Tipping says. "Severance pay and racking up huge debt on multiple credit cards saw us to the end of out first project at Moonpod."
Chris Evans, of Outside the Box Software, felt frustrated with his lack of growth potential in a modern, compartmentalized development environment. According to Chris, "today's game industry pigeonholes you into a particular category and puts you in a cubicle for four to six years. You are basically a cog, and they encourage you to remain a cog."
Learning the Business
The lure of creative freedom and being one's own boss is compelling. But new indies find that it takes more than mainstream experience to build a small business capable of paying the bills. Game development - their first love - doesn't always take first priority. Says Peeler, "There are a lot of non-game things you must do as an indie like setting up your business, taxes, creating a website, marketing, taxes, interacting with your customers and more taxes. Did I mention taxes?"