Why “Starving Artist Syndrome” as a Indie Game Developer Is Bad, but Sometimes Good
But please, do not actually starve yourself. Your game won’t magically sell more copies.
Before I get into this discussion, I want to start with a disclaimer. Please, please do not neglect your physical and mental needs in order to become a better game developer. Don’t do it to become a better anything. I think we can all agree that 2020 has been quite a tough year, and given the current state of society the last thing I want is for someone to take on undue burden.
If you are a game developer or even slightly interested in the video game industry, you are already aware of the state of the industry. Independent game developers (otherwise known as “indies”) are a dime-a-dozen. Tons of new games, of vary degrees of quality, are produced every single day, many of which are buried under the next batch of games. The market is saturated with indie developers that make low quality clones or model swaps of purchase assets.
It is not all gloom and despair however. Indie developers can make a living, albeit an often arduous and irregular living, and I’ve outlined how that’s done in a different article. But if you are not part of a triple-A studio, and are flying solo, there’s likely a reason for that. Either your reason for making games is inherently opposite to that of AAA studios, and you have a dream that you want to execute on without compromise. Or you are someone who does not work well in large groups and organizations. So with freedom comes compromise.
“Starving artist syndrome” is the mentality in which an artist foregoes, sacrifices and sometimes refuses financial well-being for the sake of their art. This mentality usually stems from the concept that “selling out” is akin to selling your soul, and corrupts the artwork and the person. With the indie game market the way it is, it’s not difficult to apply starving artist syndrome to indie devs as well. If you are not working full time in pursuit of your “dream game” — you are likely in this category.
Starving artists traditionally fail, and their art is seldom appreciated in their lifetime. So it goes without saying, but I will say it anyway, it’s best not to imitate the starving artist. Quitting your full-time job without research and planning, and refusing freelance work to focus on your vision is too risky, especially if you do not have your life sorted out. Like the hit video game says, “Don’t Starve” — starving for the sake of starving is always a bad idea.
However the starving artist developers who do make it are often held up on a pedestal for their achievements. Think of “Stardew Valley” and “Undertale” success. Both games were created by a single developer, as a passion project that was meticulously crafted around one central vision. And the years of sacrifice paid off for these developers — as they sold millions of copies to an audience that was hungry for their game.
Where am I going with this, you ask? Is taking on a solo game dev project in lieu of a day-job a smart or stupid decision? I would say it’s both. You are the master of your own fate, if you handle the following crossroads properly.
Are you Willing, or are you Unwilling?
The first question you ask (after you have sorted out your basic needs) is, “Am I willing?” If you are familiar with personal development expert Gary John Bishop, you may already know this quote.
Many times game developers and designers start out with stars in their eyes, focused on the destination of millions of sales and stardom. They are often unaware of what it takes to get there. Financial and social sacrifice, hours of non-stop work to meet deadlines, and managing your own business are no small feats. You will be passing up on stable income, socializing with friends and furthering a career in another sector. So you must ask yourself if you are truly willing to take on this task. Because if you are not, and you don’t confront it, you are certain to fail.
The other side of the coin is equally true. Some people resonate with “Am I unwilling?” more. Are you unwilling to stay at your unrewarding 9-to-5 job? Or are you unwilling to sacrifice to make your passion project come true? Working with resolutions is key, and sticking to them.
- The Good: Confront yourself on your willingness to commit to your dream. Use that resolution to get started.
- The Bad: Do not take the plunge before you’ve had the chance to ask yourself if you’re willing to do what it takes.
Take Incremental Steps
“Rome wasn’t built in a day, but they were laying bricks every hour.”
This is a very common spin on the English playwright John Heywood’s quote. You can’t expect your dream to come true immediately, but you also cannot freeze up and not work toward it. Many times developers rush into their dream game only to be daunted by the task and stop halfway through.
If you are comfortable with taking small steps towards a greater goal, then you will be sure to succeed. Simply the action of “doing” will bring you closer to your final product.
- The Good: Take small steps regularly towards your goal. Build habits and routines that help you get closer without burning out.
- The Bad: Don’t tackle a huge task head-first without breaking it up into more manageable pieces. Take action — don’t get stuck in your head.
Nothing of Worth is Created in a Bubble
Creating a game alone is a noble feat, sure, but if you hope to have players play your game you need to market it. Your passion project that amassed 1500+ hours of dedicated work will never be played unless you get the word out.
What do you do outside of cranking out code in Godot Engine, building models in Blender and fiddling with an electric piano for just the right melody? Outside of making your game, you need to tell people about it, get involved with the game development and gaming community (online and local) and find your audience. Even the most experimental, artsy, esoteric game can build a following online.
Making a party fighting game? Get in contact with the Super Smash Bros community to garner interest. Creating an immersive VR rhythm game? Beat Saber enthusiasts would love to know. Find them on Twitter, Discord, Instagram, Meetup.com, Itch.io, Reddit, and public forums.
- The Good: Working alone / in a small group means you can reach out to your audience directly and build a following organically.
- The Bad: Don’t get caught without a marketing plan, and don’t let your solitary lifestyle get in the way of building an audience.
Focus on Self Preservation
When push comes to shove, you must cut the slack and run your operation at minimum spend. This means instead of splurging on that $200 Unity art asset, you need to prototype with cubes and capsules. Instead of a pricey MediaTemple website, make due with social media profiles.
The “Lean Methodology” school of thought dictates that you should create a Minimum Viable Product as fast as possible, without putting undue effort or resources in before your concept has been proven. Focus on having money for rent and time for the occasional night out, instead of going all-in on being a starving artist.
When the going gets tough, sell out, and live to see another day. Are your expenses piling up? Did the war fund run dry, and you’re selling your belongings to make rent? Now’s the time to pivot — take freelance work or re-enter the corporate world. And bring your experience working alone to bear on your next endeavor. Who knows, you might be back to making games again in no time.
- The Good: Practice the “lean methodology” and don’t go all in on expensive software or risky strategies. If all else fails, pivot.
- The Bad: Don’t double down on being penniless and passionate. Nothing good will come from forcing yourself into a bad financial situation.
So is it worth it to take on a “starving artist” mentality? It truly depends. But so long as you take care of your basic needs you will see clear benefits from your endeavors.