There are thousands of indie game developers all over the world who make games, but only a fraction of those developers have any experience with game contracts. I was one of those developers when I decided to seek out an opportunity to work on a project for an educational game company. When my portfolio was deemed high enough quality, I was elated and super excited to start working and have my game published on a legitimate platform.
Unfortunately, my experience working with the company was less than ideal. Perhaps there were some warnings early on, but I did not know what signs to look for. Also, the company seemed eager to share information with me about how to complete the project successfully, with lots of background information. They set up a video call with me, e-mailed me the PowerPoint that illustrated some of the requirements needed, and gave me access to the platform where other developers submitted their games that might provide some inspiration for what game I should make.
At this point I shoukd have maybe asked some more technical questions, but I was very excited when I started the project. I also noticed many of the games that were submitted through the platform were quite basic, very simple games. In my head it seemed a little bit surprising, but I knew there was a requirement to complete the game in three months and I felt confident I could put out a game that was more interesting than most of the ones I saw on the platform. In my mind there was a clear incentive to do this, because game developers were paid out based on the percentage of users who played your game.
What I didn’t realize, and what wasn’t made clear to me, is that the game I built had to work seamlessly on an internet browser on old iPads. This was the reason that the games I saw on the education platform were so basic. Unfortunately, during my on-boarding the technical aspects of just how simple my game needed to be were not discussed. I had no idea that I could not have a three dimensional game where you could move a character around an environment with arrow keys because the iPads running Chrome could not handle rendering at that frame rate.
It was a huge blow to my motivation and excitement about game development when the testers reviewed my game and said that it was unplayable on the required platforms. It was also a shock because I had been using the testing platform provided by the company many times, and before I submitted the game I ran it on the testing platform and played through it religiously. It seemed to me very counterintuitive for the company to provide a testing framework if “passing” the test didn’t actually mean your game would be accepted.
I attempted to refactor my game by reducing the complexity of my game by compressing the graphics and simplifying the 3D models in the environment. Unfortunately after another round of testing I realized that there was no way my game would work on within a web browser on an iPad, and that there was no way I would be able to refactor my game within the last week or two I had before the three month limit ran out.
In retrospect, I can’t help but wonder if the company was trying to take advantage of eager indie developers who wouldn’t know how to distinguish a sketchy arrangement from a legitimate one. I was one of those developers, who trusted that the information I needed to succeed would be provided to me. Perhaps it was not intentional malice, but disorganization and mismanagement on the part of the company that the technical requirenents were not made clear to me. Regardless, the result was the same.
I wanted to share this story because I’m sure there are other indie developers out there who are looking for contracts to prove their capacity and get their work seen by more people. It’s an admirable goal, and far be it from me to discourage any indies from doing that. However, its important to be aware that many companies take advantage of indies eagerness to get professional experience. I wish I had done more research and asked more questions before diving into making the game. Hopefully this post will help those of you reading to be aware of some of the pitfalls, especially in cases where you are working with a publisher that has very specific rules about the types of games that they accept.
It was not a lack of motivation or excitement about making the game on my part. I worked hard for the whole three months on my game and read through the rules, visited the forums, and took time to explore the platform the company used. The fact that I had pretty much completed the game before I learned it would not be publishable on the platform was a huge blow.
Spending three months on a game that ended up not returning any profit is bad enough, but the bad taste it left in my mouth is still there an entire year later. I can only imagine how much worse it would be had I signed a contract on a game for six months or even a year. I know this has happened to other developers, and I think the industry needs to do a whole lot better in terms of making the technical limitations transparent, without taking advantage of indie developers passion for game development by making unfair agreements.
Even though my game didn’t get published through the company I was working for, I decided to publish my game publicly on itch.io instead. After all, it is a shame to work on something and have it sit unseen on my hard drive. It’s an educational game geared toward middle school students where you navigate a boat through the rapids of the grand canyon collecting gems and answering questions about erosion.
Are you an indie developer? Have you had any bad experiences with game development contracts? I would love to hear from you in the comments.
Thanks for reading and feel free to follow me on Twitter @nadyaprimak where I talk more about game development, art, technology, and more.