Sunday, September 4, 2011

Indie Developer Survey Results

After putting together the indie survey last week, I feel obligated to both my readers and other respondents to provide a follow-up with the results of that survey. So in today's post, I'm going to do just that.

The Results
For the most part, everyone with a web browser can see the same data that I can. So I'm not going to re-post the survey results directly.

Instead, I'm going to call out some of the more interesting things I noted. Some of it is based on some data crunching and slicing. And all of it is based on my personal bias, so please apply the appropriate context when reading.

Who Responded?
All told, it had a pretty good response rate. In one week of activity, it collected responses from 121 people (myself included). The lion's share (56%) went to those currently employed and considering becoming an indie. And of those, 62% were employed by a game studio. Surprisingly, indies only made up 27% of the respondents. In retrospect, it isn't impossible to imagine such an outcome. Perhaps the readership is skewed accordingly? Maybe word of the survey spreads faster among employee pools? Maybe employees are more willing to take time for surveys than indies? We can't say for sure, but those are some likely candidates.

I should also point out that my survey's first shortcoming turned up in the "employment situation" question. I left out two key groups in the survey, based on the phrasing:

  1. indies who are currently employed but working on games part-time.
  2. indies who became indies directly from school or other unemployed status.

Even with those accounted for, the variety of specific working conditions made that question contentious for some. It's safe to say that there is no small number of optional responses to that question that would satisfy all respondents.

What Are the Biggest Reasons People Go Indie?
Not surprisingly, the most popular reason for going indie was "creative freedom." 73% of all respondents cited that as a reason. "Sharing one's ideas with the world" is in second, with 58%, and "improved working hours" was 49%.

Interestingly, 47% of respondents cited "the chance to earn more than a salary and/or benefits." That's one I didn't expect, given my perceptions of the indie scene. Everything I've read to-date has suggested that if one is seeking money, indie is the last thing one should try.

Also, game studio employees had roughly the same top 4 reasons and percentages as non-game studio employees. I had expected a slightly different set of reasons between those two groups.

I did one other data slice to compare game industry employees to non-game industry employees. I checked which reasons game studio employees cite more often than non-game studio employees. Expressed as a ratio of game studio employees to non-game studio employees, here are the biggest discrepancies:

  1. Tired of the IP: 4.7:1
  2. Tired of the genre: 4.4:1
  3. Concerns with current project quality: 3:1
  4. Concerns with current project marketing/publishing support: 2.8:1
  5. Friends laid off: 2.1:1

The first two are probably to be expected. IP and genre probably don't figure into non-game employees' decisions if they work in an industry without a game IP or genre. #s 3 and 4 are interesting, though. Is project quality and marketing/publishing effort really that bad in the games industry, compared to other industries? Also, do game studio employees see more frequent layoffs than other industries? The above numbers may suggest just that.

What Are the Biggest Reasons NOT to Go Indie?
Asking the inverse question turned out to be similarly symmetric both in and out of the games industry, and equally unsurprising. The biggest reason? Inability to go without pay long enough to ship a game (54%). Lack of business acumen also figured in equally inside the industry vs. out, at 37%.

Two deviations did occur, however. First, "family depends on income" showed up more frequently outside the industry than in (43% outside vs. 30% inside). Also, game studio employees cited "liking coworkers" 34% of the time, compared to 20% outside the industry. It appears studios are hiring good people, and that matters to employees.

Also, one reason which was strong for studio employees vs. other employees was "liking current project." Despite the apparent dissatisfaction with IP, genre, and project management cited above, it appears 3 times more game studio employees like their projects than those outside the games industry. Wait a minute, based on the data in the previous section, that sounds like a contradiction. Why the discrepancy?

As it turns out, it's a very small fraction in both employee groups. 15% inside the industry vs. 5% out. So while more studio employees like their project than non-studio employees, they are both very low numbers overall.

What Did I Learn?
Did it answer any of my questions? Yes and no. Many of the responses are about what I expected, so I'm not sure how much I learned via the data directly.

However, I did learn some things from the failures of my survey:

  1. The employment situation of indies isn't as clear-cut as my first question implies.
  2. My provided reasons for becoming an indie are nearly complete (very few "Other" responses were wholly different than a provided option)
  3. Roughly 4% of indies had no fears or reasons not to become an indie. (as indicated by "Other" responses)

For a game studio, I think there are some useful lessons to be learned. If I were to list them, they would be (based on above data):

  1. Find a way to better engage employees' creative instincts, and let them express and share it with others. This can be creative input on the project, or on side projects. And my guess is there are as many non-content creators (e.g. programmers, QA) in group as there are traditional creative-types (e.g. artists, designers).
  2. Crunch is not yet a solved problem in our industry. Get off the crunch crutch already!
  3. Consider ramping-up profit-sharing alternatives. The fixed-ceiling compensation is stifling employees.
  4. Provide a greater latitude in genres and IPs for employees to work on, to prevent burn-out.
  5. Keep up the good work on hiring inspiring coworkers.

Improved project quality showed up frequently in responses as well, but I didn't list it above because it's a bit hard to interpret. Every studio's leadership wants improved quality, I'm sure. Unfortunately, you can't just pull the "improved project quality" lever. However, some things which might help include:

  • increasing employee input in project decisions (and therefore increasing employee buy-in)
  • avoiding projects with extreme constraints on time (e.g. movie tie-ins or financial quarter Hail Marys) or scope (e.g. sequels with little room for creativity/innovation)
  • allowing creative side projects on company time (e.g. Google Fridays, studio-wide Ludum Dare, etc.)
  • allowing creative side projects outside the company

Also, Marketing
I also learned a few things about marketing. For example, my personal internet reach is pretty small. Posting to the blog, twitter, Google+, and Facebook resulted in a limited number of results. It was pretty clear early on that I was going to need some more publicity to get useful results. So I started leveraging other communities where I saw indie discussions occurring.

Initially, that included a post on, and a comment on a blog. The former had shown up on my blog stats radar due to an "indie start-up" thread that linked to me, so I figured I'd give it a go. The latter was a comment on an article related to what made me put the survey together in the first place.

Later, I decided to use gamasutra's blog feature to make my first post. As it turns out, that was a good move. My post got featured on the first page as an "Expert Blog," resulting in a large increase in traffic. Both polycount and gamastura represented large influxes of readers for that week. Forum posts on and made a difference too, but not quite to the degree of the former two.

It's taught me a bit about juggling target audience vs. audience size. Both indiegamer and tigsource are probably well-defined groups of readers who would appreciate the blog, but gamasutra and polycount generated a larger volume of interest. One piece of the puzzle which is missing, though, is who filled out the survey from which source? In other words, did 100% of 10 visitors from site A fill out the survey, and 1% of 100 from site B? And that's a big lesson learned: employ better metrics next time. For now, I'm satisfied knowing a bit about the reach I have, but I should've at least asked "how did you hear about this survey" in there somewhere.

So there you have it: The GDGR's first indie survey! Will I do another? Perhaps, but not until some time has passed. And not without some much needed edits. Until next time!


  1. Using Gamasutra's blog feature is a good move because the community is already established there. I think Google+ will ultimately end up being the best of the traditional social media outlets for this sort of conversation, but it needs to refine a few features first. I've been posting back and forth this weekend with some Google staff making suggestions, but once you get the hang of using Google+, it's really pretty awesome for meeting new people and having great conversations with them.

  2. I agree. Google+ seems to be making strides as a social media hub. I especially like the circles feature, as I have different needs for different groups.

    I still think it has a ways to go in terms of attaining critical mass. I'm not sure everyone I want to reach is "there" yet.

    Also, last time I checked, I wasn't able to find a way to integrate my blogger and G+ accounts. I've put all this work into a blog using one Google service, and I'm reluctant to drop it and switch to another. Ideally, they'd be merged in a way that readers find seamless.

  3. Great Article Dan. As the tools get easier to use and there are more options to self-publish on different platforms I think there will be a lot more people making the transition as you and me did.

    One big reason for me was the learning space indie game development provides. When you work at a studio you're pretty much stuck on the same tasks for the duration of the project. I think a lot of indies are drawn to dipping their toes in different areas of development and being the jacks of all trades which is not always possible on bigger team productions.

  4. @Tomasz, I hear ya. I was dying to do some art, coding, game design, and audio work by the time I resigned. And after speaking with a few interviewers about whether I could do those things, it became clear no one was going to just trust that I could do them without a portfolio of proof. So going indie was not only a chance to flex those atrophying muscles, but also a way to prove what I can/can't do.