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  • How to Pick Indie Game Collaborators: 11 Things to Watch Out For

    [06.24.09]
    - Russ McMackin
  •  Introduction and background

    If you've read any book on getting into the game industry, every single one of them will urge you to join a modding or indie group as the best way to get noticed and develop a portfolio. As the "why" has already been extensively covered, I won't be rehashing that here.

    Unfortunately, books usually stop there at the "why", and don't talk at all about the "how". Having personally wasted a lot of time in indie groups that were bad for a variety of reasons, I hope to teach people new to the scene on some of the things to watch out for when considering a group. The indie world is chock full of wasted effort, and you will inevitably have a lot of your time wasted as well. For every shining pearl of a team out there, there are many pieces of coal... or worse.

    I first started doing personal game projects in elementary school. Unfortunately, that's not to say that all of the time I spent between then and now was valuable or efficient. Like Jonathan Blow, my first years had no internet and no teachers -- it was very slow going. If in any way you can attach yourself to a mentor in any capacity, it will be an amazing change in your learning/productivity.

    I didn't start joining indie groups until after college, which is my biggest career regret, hands down. Nowadays, trying to balance a full time job, girlfriends, family, and other responsibilities, along with finding time to do an indie game on the side plus volunteering design/programming time in Microsoft Game Studios is quite the chore. I'd give anything to have started back when I was living with my parents and didn't even have to worry about cooking for myself.

    The first groups I joined taught me most of the items I hope to pass on to you in this article. They all had heart, and lots of dreams, but very rarely did they have sufficient talent, dedication and management. I spent easily a year and a half spinning my wheels, going from group to group, before I found a really good one. On the side, I was doing personal projects, but never could even give them the full attention they deserved since I was split between that and the other groups.

    In the beginning, I jumped in too freely, getting a design assignment or two, churning out multi-page design docs overnight, and then sitting on my thumbs for weeks until the group folded, or I left, realizing they'd never be in a position to use the ideas. As I became more jaded, I learned to be more skeptical, to wait longer before bothering to produce work, and to think harder before joining a team.

    By the end, before I found the group I'm in today, I was talking to three to five groups at once, watching them and evaluating, waiting to see which teams would produce content first, or do something to really make me believe that they would stick together and get something done. If I had been more selective from the very start, I wonder where I'd be now and what I'd be working on today.

    The group I finally settled into grew into ToltecStudios.com, where we're currently working on Phase 4 of The Ball, for the MakeSomethingUnreal.com competition. They had already won first place prizes in Phase 1 of the competition. Like I'll advise in this article, I joined in a cross-role as a programmer, even though I was really looking to join as a designer. The team was led by Hourences, the award winning and reknowned level designer from the UT world, and were a fairly small team with an interesting idea that they didn't let get too large.

    Even though I already had a dedicated designer position in another team at the time I joined The Ball, that had some exceptional artists and dedicated leadership, and a decent chance of finishing a project, it was something I was willing to let go for this new team. That's simply how important it is to actually finish projects. I was more sure about The Ball than the old group, and it turned out to be the right choice.

    While art/sound producing roles always have something to show even if the project fails, programmers and designers do not. In my old role, over half a year later now, I'd still not have anything to show for it. But now in this new group, when my programming duties are finished, I get to spend my extra time on design, in a group that never would have taken me (or anyone) as a designer otherwise.

    On The Ball, I've learned a ton about the Unreal Engine, which specifically gave me the skills I needed when my mentor at Microsoft Game Studios needed help doing some work on Gears of War 2. Under him, I got to participate pretty deeply as both a designer and programmer, and meet and indebt myself to some very experienced, and very influential people. If it weren't for joining The Ball as a programmer, even though I wanted to be a designer, I would never have been able to take advantage of this opportunity.

    I now present these notes to you, in hopes that you can shave off some of that time in learning how to find a good indie group. If you're just starting out, it might be the biggest time saver of your future career. My last year and a half, while eventually fruitful and very educational, would have been incredibly different, and incredibly more productive if I had an article like this to read when I first began as well.

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