Independent Game Developing

In promoting Tortured Earth, I find myself bouncing from convention to convention a lot. As a result, I tend to meet a wide variety of new game developers - all asking the same basic question: How'd you do it? Honestly, I wish I had someone to drill with that very question.

At the time we published, there were a lot of vague internet resources out there. Tidbits of information here and there. Good sounding advice. etc. There really wasn't anyone simply willing to open up and spell it out. The best advice I can start with is: 

Don't quit your day job. This may sound a little disheartening, but in reality it's quite sound. When we started out, there were shameless visions of instant success. Droves of fans and all the other unrealistic fantasies that go along with creating your first large work. The truth is this: The large companies have a huge chunk of the fandom and the fans are simply not open to trying something new. Our first venture into a game shop was disastrous. I had never encountered the concept of a 'game snob' before and it honestly took me aback. Most developers are quite open to new ideas and concepts largely due to the creative process. Certain groups of gamers are die-hard, and even though your product fixes a lot of the issues they complain about in their current system, they will not so much as entertain the idea that something else might actually be better.

If you are working with a partner or group, have an Operational Agreement established. Most new concepts begin with great work crews and willing play testers. As the process wears on, members become bored with the process, develop new interests, or simply withdraw from the project for personal reasons. An Operational Agreement details the specific role, conditions for removal, and terms of re-instatement the group is expected to abide by. If the Operational Agreement is established from the onset, foundation members have say in its terms and conditions. If a member is not fulfilling their obligations, the project may continue, but their role in it may be terminated. The Operational Agreement should be mandatory as soon as money is involved. Despite how the reader feels when reading this, friendships can terminate when money is involved. In agreements formed through mutual consent, the expectations are established and defined.

Be willing to promote. Please understand, to promote is quite different from advertising. To promote, you must be willing to have people invested in your product. Although the promotion tactic varies from game to game, it all comes down to the same idea - Running Game Sessions. Game shops, conventions, company sponsored events, etc. Anywhere your target audience gathers, your game should have demos set up. Depending on the composition of the development team, two tables are best demonstrations. On one table, have a quick 10 to 15 minute session in which players are introduced to the game mechanics, flow of game play, etc. The quick session introduces the player to your system, but isn't so burdensome, they feel committed in endless hours of uninteresting game play. You will have people sit at the quick table, listen to the quick pitch, and want to leave. Let them. Trapping a negative person at the table only lowers the interest of others who may be truly interested in what you are presenting. After a few sessions, you'll be able to quickly spot those interested in the game and, conveniently direct them to the full session at a nearby table.

Make Friends with other Game Developers. Networking at the entry level of game development is a survival skill. Funding is limited to personal investments with most new game companies. Unfortunately, most new game developers act like sharks in the gaming areas. It is important to understand, large, invested corporations hold the largest portion of the market. A single company may hold license for hundreds of games within the same genre. They are your competition. Not the other independent next to you. Until your company pushes through that envelop and becomes a self sustaining entity, you will need help. When entering the gaming area, I will actively seek out the other independent companies and make them this offer: When you finish a game session, please suggest to your players to try our game as well. I'll do the same for you. At one convention, we managed to form a ring of four game developers trading off gaming groups. As a result, all four of our games made record sales. The tactic works - if you're willing to put yourself on the line. Cactyys Totem and Tortured Earth have held a friendly alliance for a few years now. Through that relation, we have traded printing information, artists, advice, table space, and other essential information. As a result, both companies have reached a state of stability that - before the relation began - was a far reaching goal.

Listen to your play testers. Play testers are an essential part of the game development process. As a concept is developed, they will have to endure the same scenario over and over and over and over again. It is boring. As a writer of Tortured Earth, I cranked out over 750 pages of material in a 4 month period. I wrote to the point I could no longer see what I had written, only what I intended. The role of a play tester is to poke holes in your master piece so you can fix them. Sometimes that means a total revamp. Sometimes if means tweaking a line. As a writer, it is frustrating. Brace yourself. You will get mad. Really mad. Deal with it. The truth is in order to have a good product, it has to work at all times with all groups. Every mechanic must fit with every other mechanic to produce the game effect the designer (yes, that would be you) desires. If, at any point in the process it does not, it must be fixed.

Get someone brutal to edit the document - and listen to them! Find that evil English teacher who butchered your essays from your name to the last word. Most English teachers will be glad to read something not written by a student. Let them do what they do best - and correct your work. In college, I was forced to take Technical Writing. It has proven to be one of the best investments of my time. A game guide is a technical document - an instructive paper written to direct a person. There are accepted rules as to what the document should look like. Do a little research and investigate the standards. 

If you are checking out this post for the first time, you may access our website by clicking here: Tortured Earth Website


  1. I am writing my own RPG as well and these insights and tips are fantastic!

    Regarding gamer snob, as a long time wargamer, I am still amazed at how much people complain about Warhammer and its terrible rules and yet still stay with it (I have since moved on). Same with a certain TRPG.

    I love your suggestion on making alliances with other independent RPG makers. Sometimes you see people doing the same thing as you and you can't help but see them as competition while the real problematic competitor is that old red dragon with a golden hoard under it that has gone complacent. I also would have never thought of having two tables as you suggested.

    1. I'll begin by giving a heartfelt, "Thank you". It's flattering anytime someone sees value in your work.

      Congrats on the RPG! As mentioned, we are in the editing stages of our second edition and it is a strain. I don't know what part of the process you are currently in, but take your time on each part. Make sure you are satisfied with the mechanics and playtest the heck out of it.

      To be honest, I first saw other TRPGs as competitors and did react a little icy towards them. As your experiences grow with the promotion portion of the business, you meet some really sincere people. Networking with them, sharing experiences and information, and openly discussing pitfalls really does change your point of view.

      Finally, be careful with the two table approach. Communicating with the game floor coordinator is essential. If the game coordinator has abundant resources, they are often thrilled to have independents fill tables simply to broaden the attendee options. They especially love it when they don't have to provide staff to man tables. At smaller conventions, space may be limited and you are often lucky to get a table for a few time spots.

      Feel free to email me personally with thoughts, ideas, and experiences. I'd love to hear from other developers!

      -K. B.


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