Bespoke Indie Games?

I was reading an article on T=machine earlier in which the author complained about people coming up to him and saying something like ‘I have a great idea for a game, if you do all the work to make and market it for me I’ll let you have 25%, whaddya say?’

Reading the post sparked a thought. I’d love it if there were a trustworthy channel through which I could from time to time take a part of my investment portfolio and, instead of investing in financial products through the public markets or mutual funds or a savings account or whatever, find an indie developer and say ‘I’d really like to play an [RPG/Point-and-click adventure/X-com clone]. Would you be interested in developing something like that and sharing some of the upside with me (if any) if I finance part of your development costs?’ The developer gets relatively cheap finance and a more or less understanding investor, and the investor gets something more interesting to do with the risky part of their portfolio than buying junk bonds or impenetrable financial products. The reason for having a channel/central clearing house that a third party handles is to help screen out fraudsters, and maybe confirm that developers are actually capable of coding.

The idea is based on the premise that there are a significant number of enthusiastic gamers who could spare say US$10k-25k each from their portfolios and would be interested in investing it this way, and that a small number of people putting in this kind of amount would cover a substantial chunk of the costs of developing an indie game.

It would be kind of like a micro-scale VC fund I suppose, with the twist of having some input into the creative process. Maybe this sort of thing already happens and I just don’t know about it?

I posted something along these lines as a comment to the T=machine post, but I’m posting here because I am interested in knowing what QT3ers think about the concept. I guess it’s a question for Cliffski and other indie devs; would the benefit of access to capital on this basis outweight the costs and the annoyance factor of having outside investors?

Beefeater: I was actually thinking along similar lines myself after reading a recent Economist article about crowdfunding. There are some parallels – and indeed, I just checked Kickstarter, one of the sites to which that article refers, and found it has a games section – but what you’re proposing sounds different in a couple of ways:

  1. It would allow the investor to proactively suggest projects (as opposed to just choosing from what’s on offer); and

  2. Bargains would be struck in the explicit expectation of financial return (Kickstarter explicitly notes that “raffles, discounts, coupons, financial returns, and investment offers are prohibited”.)

It is definitely a fascinating idea, and I would also love to hear from devs on this point.

Hi ME. Thanks for the link, interesting article and I agree about the differences. The other thing about 2. is that the law in most jurisdictions prohibits people other than securities industry professionals from going out and offering investments to the public at large - because of the risk of fraud - whereas there’s generally no problem with approaching someone and asking if you can invest in their business.

I’d also add another point:

  1. Individual investors would be putting up amounts that are substantial in the context of independent game development projects: say a minimum of 5-10% of the total project cost. Scale-wise, it falls between the crowdfunding donations model and the minimum investment to be an LP of a VC fund.

I find this idea interesting as well. I think the third party should have the function of a manager with at least these responsibilities:

  • screening against frauds
  • proactively seeking out potential developers (mostly form the modding scene I guess)
  • defining possible projects and making these public (think of a shop where you see the proposed projects such as X-Com clone, BG clone, etc) with all the details such as current developer, current financees, expected chance of ROI, etc.)
  • defining milestones ( this is the interface between investor and developer)
  • canceling projects if they significantly lag on achieving milestones or dropping individual developers out of the project and replacing them with others

Technically the ownership of the games would have to be with the developers and ‘dropping’ or ‘cancelling’ only means canceling the financiation from this third party. Some agreement needs to be set up that even in case of canceling if the indie developer later anyway becomes successful with his project he at least returns the investment plus some percentage.

The third party should ideally be close funding-neutral, that is all its functions should be covered by enthusiasts who are neither financees nor indie developers.

Funding game developers without a publisher-level knowledge of the gaming industry - what could go wrong?

While I agree that funding random game-makers with no track record isn’t probably the safest idea – ‘publisher-level’ knowledge isn’t really required for indie games, and is often in fact why they succeed they don’t have to implement stupid decisions by publishers.

Those are so pretty damn huge assumptions. In fact, if they’re true…why not start a publisher and clean up?

It seems like the core premise here (especially given “bespoke”) is the idea of having indie developers working on a game of someone else’s choosing (rather than one of their own choosing).

This seems like a fucking terrible premise given the nature of indie game development.

(Yes, I understand they agree to it. I’m just saying there’s a situation where they make the game they wanted to make, and there’s a situation where you have some influence over what game they make rather than them just making the game they inherently wanted to make, and you seem to be aiming for the latter.)

It’s “micro-publishing.” I don’t see any problem with it if both parties agree to the arrangement. It isn’t “indie game development,” though.

For those of you knocking BeefEater’s idea, could you point me to a website/company that does this? I’d like to invest.

Its micro publishing, its like funding an indie, so you could afford to fund an indie whose game is more niche. Indies get by often by fulfilling a niche that the big publishers consider too small fry to bother investing in. Sometimes it hits big though, like Minecraft.

For example of publisher stupidness. We had a publisher, on a third person action game, insist that they could walk into any female bathroom, on any level that had a door to one. Nevermind the other doors that lead to nowhere, our management caved and had our artists model the bathrooms, even though there was no gameplay in them.

Example 2: Out of this World, did you know originally publishers wanted him to change it to be a point and click adventure game, because that was what was hot at the time?

That being said, why not be a publisher? It takes money to make money, and supporting random teams with no track record sounds incredibly risky (good luck trying to get your money back from some dev in a foreign country), not to mention that getting people to make the exact game you want won’t happen, and sounds like a headache.

Sure, it sounds great from the investor side, but that’s because it’s a terrible deal for the developer. If I were an indy dev considering working on someone else’s idea with a small slice of profits, I might as well get a real job in a development house and have a steady salary, office space, health care, ect. What’s the point of being indy if you aren’t making games you want to make, or getting the lions share of possibly profits?

I think this sounds really interesting. It’s sort of the next logical step now that eBay, Kickstarter and probably several other similar sites that I don’t know about has proven that you can generally trust strangers on the internet. Weird, considering the vibe I often get from forums.

Problem is, unless you’re a pretty talented or experienced coder, making games isn’t exactly a walk in the park. It takes time and unless the project is small and you find someone who’s like those web development arsenals with legs that design, code and manage your web site for you, only doing games, it’s hard to say what you end up with. Keeping teams happy isn’t exactly easy either, and I can imagine it gets worse when they’re all distributed. Or maybe not?

If you want anything but a quick clone of something existing or is willing to find a proper group of sponsors that could potentially finance a meagre existence or enough to inspire someone to not watch television, you’ll run into problems.

Find a kid trying to make a cool platformer and give him some bucks to inspire him, sure, but unless you’re willing to put in the cash, like $1000 dollars or something that could take an indie developer or dude who hates his job away from working on their own mad ideas, a real custom game like a Syndicate or X-Com clone will be tough. You say 10-25k … are you sure there’s a lot of people willing to invest that way? Do you know any? Are you really prepared to do that yourself?

Unless, of course, you’re thinking about this as a sort of hobby relationship where you help pitch in ideas and do testing and maybe some marketing and PR and financing, like basic stuff – on the scale of what most indie teams accomplish.

But if you mean something serious, like a Kickstarter with more dedication, sort of a group of small investors who can finance maybe a coder and an artist and do a lot of work pitching good ideas and really working on the game and understanding the process, then that’s a really unproven idea. I think it’s doable, though. Depends how much you want to lead rather than support the development.

You’ve seen the 8-bit Funding site, which is like Kickstarter for Indie games, right?

The sort of people who say, “I have a great idea for the game and I’ll let you keep 25% of the profits!” are also exactly the sort of people who are likely to say, “You failed to execute my awesome vision properly. I’m not paying you a penny for this crap” after you implemented their (probably pretty terrible) idea exactly as directed.

As a dev it’s much easier to deal with investors who merely want a monetary return than investors with a Vision.

I’d say this would be really hard to get going. The benefits of going indie is getting to be your own boss and make the game you want. If you’re going to be subservient to someone else, what’s the point? Broadly it could work, especially in niche areas of games, and if you could provide a selling point bigger than simple cash, so you’d have a creative stake in the process. If you’re a writer, or artist, being able to say, “I will contribute X amount of cash, plus the artwork (in a heavily stylised game) for this project” might help in someway to assuage any doubts. Long term I think something like this will happen, but it will be a more collaborative process based on communities and social networks rather than purely transactional. The idea that someone here i.e. Quarter to Three Forums gets talking to a dev who wants to strike out on his own, they have a common interest in such and such type of game, and provides funding for it. There the direct link is purely financial, but it bypasses the creative link because of a community.

Anyway, this often comes up in my billionaire fantasies. Being allowed to establish a studio for making indie/iPhone/android games. Getting someone experienced from somewhere like here to mentor it. And employing fresh graduates who although raw, are full of ideas, and need to get experience (just like me atm :sigh:)

Thanks to everyone for taking the time to respond. The biggest problem with the idea is the one that quite a few people raised: people go indie to do their own thing.

On the other hand, there is an opportunity cost in going all out on a project full time instead of working for the man, and access to cheap funding would mean that people who otherwise didn’t have the capital to go it alone could do so. Maybe there are devs out there who would see this as a good deal, maybe not.

I think this is probably as much discussion as this needed, but for those who were kind enough to share their thoughts I’ve tried to address your main points below.

I don’t think it should mean parting with the lion’s share of the profits. If you need $100k to make your game and you only have $50k from your own resources plus friends and family, you’ve got various options: wait and save up; take on bank debt (which is likely to be expensive as games are high-risk propositions); find investors. This is just supposed to be a twist on that last one: find a like-minded investor who will give you better-than-market terms in exchange for a game they want to play being made.

I don’t really see the investor taking a prominent role after funding. In my mind it would be like getting a bank loan with a below-market interest rate and a reasonable upside share. Certainly the investor shouldn’t be hovering over the dev’s shoulder saying ‘Hey, I ordered a cheeseburger!’

I would have thought the other benefit to a developer would be getting someone else to pay for you to make a game you agree with them you want to make?

Both good questions. I don’t know if there are a lot of people willing to invest like this. If it was done properly and there were adequate safeguards against fraud, would I? Absolutely. Most of my the people I know are like me, i.e. late 20/early 30-somethings in law or finance, who meet the criteria of having
(a) grown up playing games; and
(b) disposable savings at around this level, which we’d otherwise invest in something less interesting.

The corollary, to address Jason’s point, is that the reason we have disposable savings is that we work long hours at our regular jobs and our skillset is for our own jobs, not coding or software development.

In a nutshell, that was the idea: channeling surplus capital from busy people to aspiring indie devs who need money to get started.

No, I hadn’t, and thank you for pointing me to it! This thread, as they say, delivers.

I think the difference is that I’m thinking of this more as an investment option than a donation-with-benefits. In opposition to 8-Bit funding, you really do have to convince a stuffy old suit like me that I’ll earn back my money. The quid pro quo is that investors would individually and collectively invest larger amounts than donors to 8-Bit funding. Incidentally I see that both Kickstarter and 8-bit Funding take a 5% arranger’s fee. Interesting that the market rate for this is already established.

Anyway, looks like it will have to wait for someone to invent it. :(

But in the meantime, 8-bit funding looks cool.

It’s not really bespoke, though, if when the investor hands over the money he says, “I’d like to back a X-Com-like tactical PC game” and then later the dev comes back and says, “Based on our skills, our budget, and the market, we eventually decided to make a match-three game for the iPhone instead.” And yet this scenario – a dev company forming with the goal of making a game of one type but then ending up making another type of game entirely – happens all the time.

I definitely can see a valuable role for an indie games organization that matches up small investors with small developers, something akin to microfinance. But adding a bespoke component to that sounds unwieldly (and hence expensive to execute) to me.