What Indie Book Publishing and Indie Game Development Have In Common, Part 1

A while back, I watched Indie Game: The Movie and was struck by how much indie game development and indie book publishing had in common. I had the pleasure of interviewing the talented and inspiring indie game developer, Jonathan Blow. Below is the first in a three-part series that discusses the similarities between developing games and publishing books as an indie.

What do indie gaming and self-publishing have in common? Well turns out, quite a lot.

The documentary, Indie Game: The Movie, shows the ups and downs of being an independent game developer through the eyes of Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes while they worked on Super Meat Boy, Phil Fish during development of Fez, and Jonathan Blow, creator of Braid. The film is inspiring, and illustrates the similarities between publishing games and publishing books.

The Control

Most writers have had aspirations of becoming writers since childhood. Many have been writing stories since elementary school, and it’s a similar story for indie game developers. Fish said in Indie Game he knew he wanted to make games since he was four.

Blow, whose new 3D puzzle game The Witness will soon be released, said in an interview that he’s been making games for over 17 years.

“‘Indie-game developer’ wasn’t really a term before about, I don’t know, 2003 or something,” he said. “But I’ve been in games since 1996, which is when I started my first company with a friend of mine in college and that would have been considered an indie-company by modern terms, but back then it was just we’re starting a game company and we’re going to be small and tenacious and all that.”

But why do content creators venture out on their own?

Indie game developers create games they want for themselves, just as indie authors write the stories they want to read.

“I make games to express myself,” McMillen said in Indie Game.

The Inspirations

One indie author, Gelo Fleisher, wrote his novella Shadowcursed because he said he was inspired by the cutscenes in the Looking Glass Studios game “Thief.” Interestingly, Fleisher also created a free companion game for his book.

Blow said he has been influenced by certain books. One of his favorites is Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, which inspired Braid.

“I like the way it’s structured, like a two to three page vignette with a structure wrapped around it,” he said. “[…] And each of those vignettes is a demonstration of an abstract concept.”

Another book that influenced Blow is Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman.

“It’s got a bit of a similar format, but […] imagining how different laws of the universe could behave,” he said. “So I was thinking that’s what games are good at, building a little toy universe where you can change how the rules behave.”

With Braid, Blow said he wanted a game about absurd things that happen in quantum mechanics, though the game ended up being different. He also liked games in the early 2000s that had the ability to rewind, though he did not think they were very effective.

“It was a big argument on an email thread where one of my friends was saying, ‘You know, all videogames ought to have rewind just like a VCR, like you can rewind a movie, and it’ll be great!’” he said. “Some friends were saying, ‘No you can’t do that because you take all the consequences out of your actions if you can undo any of them in a moment’s notice.’ So there was this big argument about that, but nobody tried it.”

Blow said he wanted to give it a shot, but instead of adding the rewind ability as a cosmetic gimmick, he built the game around it.

“So that actually relates to the quantum mechanics idea a bit, because there’s this idea that if you zoom in on the laws of the universe you don’t see an arrow of time,” he said. “The laws of physics are all the same going forward as they are going backwards.”

The Business Side

With indie publishing and indie game development, there is a huge learning curve, where developers and writers must manage creating, promoting, and working on the business side of their art.

“It’s hard,” Blow said. “It’s a tremendous amount of work and some people are really not set out to do this kind of thing.”

Blow said some people have trouble staying motivated, especially since projects can take more than three years to complete.

“You can mitigate that by doing small projects, which a lot of people do, but then again a lot of the time our projects don’t hold as much public interest and don’t sell as well,” he said.

He said, “There’s other ways to mitigate, like you could do a more active interfacing with the community type of development.”

It would mean treating the game more like a startup, where developers iterate based on player feedback. Some books can be written that way too. Sourcebooks, for example, has used the agile publishing model to crowdsource feedback. Authors then revise based on what their readers want.

With games, Blow said developers could get a set of people to start playing early on.

“Part of the excitement for them is seeing all the new things you release every week and that can help people be engaged,” he said.

Similarly, some indie authors write serials to engage readers. For example, Susan Kay Quinn has written nine episodes for her serial, The Debt Collector.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of the series, which will cover how both indie game developers and indie book publishers deal with marketing, selling, and getting reviews of their products.

UPDATE: Read Part 2 here and Part 3 here.

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