I have been hanging out in the indie game dev community for a few months now, observing, building games, and participating in discussions. After more than 30 years of software development experience, I think I have something to contribute despite my relative inexperience in game development as such.
One thing that somewhat surprises me is the degree to which people are looking for groups. What surprises me even more is how many people seem not to even do basic research before thinking they can get started.
Note: The term Looking for Group, or LFG, originated in MMO games where players were looking for a group with whom they can explore, fight monsters, and share loot that they would not be able to do alone. In game development, it seems to be a similar approach, mostly because building a game can be a daunting tasks requiring a wide range of skills.
It is rather amazing from several perspective. I cannot imagine any other business where people would join random strangers to build something that will hopefully feed their families. I know, many of these ad-hoc teams aren’t really bread winners, but it is still a large part of the indie game scene.
Quite often, however, I see someone posting a request for programmers, artists, writers, musicians, and so on, because they have an idea for the next big thing in games. They think that they can promise revenue sharing as a viable compensation to these people they want to hire because they do not really have any money.
Now, enough things have been said about revenue sharing and how it never works. And really, it never works in the same way I can say that nobody ever writes Facebook. Sure, one person did, but it is not really a viable business model to expect that to happen. However, even granted that, revenue sharing never works when the idea person initiates it.
The Problematic Ideas Person
Here is the problem with the idea person: your idea may be great but there is no way to know whether it has merit or is just another waste of bits and bytes. It takes a lot of work to prove that your idea is valuable and do not let this stop you, most ideas are not valuable.
As a programmer, I can know whether my code is any good because I feed it a bunch of data and get a result and if I am any good at what I do, I get the result I want repeatedly. It takes work but I have a very clear path from no code to code with specific rules or patterns I can follow to get the results I want.
The artist can know whether their art is good because they can show it to someone and have someone say “Wow, Picasso would be envious” or the complete opposite, “Wow, Picasso would be envious”. The music person can play his clip to friends and get immediate feedback in the form of “Wow, my ears just had an orgasm” or “Wow, my ears just got raped”.
If only Justin Bieber has solicited such feedback, he might have turned into a carpenter or something like that and the world would be a better place.
The idea person, however, has no such benefit until you have all the other elements. You cannot explain to someone what fun is in a repeatable way. You need to feel the game idea to understand whether it is interesting.
Let me give you an example: Explain to me, please, the premise of Faulty Towers in a way that makes me laugh every minute as I usually do when I see the show. Or pick any Monty Python movie any other show or move that makes you laugh. Pick Arrested Development if you cannot come up with anything else.
Explain that show or movie to someone in such a way that they truly get how brilliant those shows or movies are. My wife has tried, several times, to explain why Arrested Development or Bones are really cool series, and even knowing her and that our tastes are very similar, I can’t really say I want to watch either.
Just try it; it is exceptionally difficult to convey a final product in a short idea even when you know the product is brilliant. The term “I guess you had to be there” is a perfect example of how someone experienced something that they cannot really convey later.
That’s not to say your ideas are worthless, only that having an idea and getting to someone else being as enthusiastic about it as you are is really, really difficult. The engineers and artists who build code or pictures or sound have it easy. You have it hard and frankly, most of you are really bad at it.
To make matters worse, this is a very typical “well, how hard can it be?” situation for everyone who isn’t on the inside, where it is really easy to get started conjuring up ideas but where the work from there until you have one other person agree with you is exceptionally long and hard.
Dogfood, Eggs, and Baskets
I work for a game company called LOBster Games (this is my blatant self-promotion). We build a range of different games, from small quick projects like Letter City or Twisto to major undertakings like Final Arena that we don’t even know whether we’ll finish.
I’ve come to appreciate the ideas coming from the other members, or lobsters are we call ourselves, of the team. Whether those ideas are good or bad, we can’t know so we need a method for finding out.
At our company, we take ideas that come up and build them to a prototype stage very fast. In fact, Twisto went from “Hey, I have an idea” to first playable version in less than a week, to a fully feature complete version in two weeks, and to first public beta, mostly polished, in three weeks. If all goes according to plan, we’ve gone from idea to public launch in four weeks, which includes testing by external beta testers. There was a similar pace for Letter City.
That rapid pace means we can quickly test whether our ideas work for the audience. If not, the risk to us is low and we can move on to other projects without necessarily feeling too bad about the loss of time or money. It takes a bit longer and costs a bit more than an elevator pitch but has the same idea behind it.
There are other strategies that may work very well too to reduce the risk. The key question, however, is that as someone with mostly an idea, what exactly do you do to mitigate the risks of the team? Because that’s part of your job.
Have an Idea? Run With It!
So whereas everyone always needs to start with an idea, it is very hard work to get that idea from simply being that and to something that has real value. I am not discounting your ideas in any way. In fact, unlike many people in the community, I encourage you to come up with more ideas.
However, you must realize that it takes a lot of effort before anyone will buy your idea from you and that is why you struggle when you are looking for a group as an ideas person. You must understand that when you approach someone with an idea, you need to not just explain your idea to them but also how you plan to make that idea into reality. That takes skill from your side and if you don’t have that skill, you probably should hold off from trying to recruit others to your fledgling empire of awesome, as much as you are certain it will be just that.