Cockroaches, Games Development, and You

Hmm… it’s been a while since the blog had a new entry. It’s been even longer since I opened my virtual mouth to make commentary on the industry (and what fun that is!). But, the tripes are heavy, and thrice has the cock crowed under a full moon. The portents are good!

I recently had the good fortune to babble away in a thread on Facebook with Old Guard Indie Derek Smart, one of the very first and most prominent indie developers around. I got onto a subject which has been nagging away at me for some time, which I shall now dub “The Roach Theory of Indie Games Development”.

Bad Business

Much like the music business, the games business is not a very glamorous one when you’re on the bottom. If you were to start a band up today as a private limited company or whatever your national equivalent is, and expect investors to come running with their cash (“but we’ve identified an actual target market! Men in their 20s with beards, tattoos, ironic glasses and wallets on chains! We know what we’re doing!”), they’d laugh and walk away – that is, if they even bothered to read your excitable “business plan” email. And so it is with indie game development, which has roughly the same sorts of barriers to entry as the music business and it seems surprisingly similar patterns of economics. Maybe a bit less coke and sex. Ok, a lot less sex. Unless you’re me, in which case, you get laid constantly and in awesome ways, but that’s because I met Mrs. Prince before you did, hah.

This is because your business plan is a dreamer’s fantasy.

All indies’ business plans are dreamers’ fantasies, in fact. Even the ones who are now sat atop a giant, stinking pile of filthy green lucre, telling everyone they knew what they were doing all along.

No sane businessman would touch any single one of our companies with the gift of investment… because it would be like investing the money in a cockroach.

Welcome to the Roach Bucket

Individually, indies are like cockroaches. We are legion, generally worthless, expendable, and there’s plenty more where that came from. Even development studios these days are little more than clusters of roaches huddling together for greater chances of survival. Ultimately of course, individual roaches don’t have much chance at all. Virtually none. Every roach does its little thing in its own little way with its own little variations.

Occasionally one of the roaches comes up with a little variation on what it does that catches the eye of roach fanatics around the world and it is taken away from its peers and fed Premium Roach Chum, and it grows fat and happy. The other roaches all look on at that fat, happy roach and they think, I can be like that guy. I can be one of those fat, happy roaches. Yeah.

But which roach? There are 10,000 of them! And they keep, you know, dying, and more roaches keep turning up. How do you know which roach out of all that lot is going to mutate and do its thing just that bit differently and be lauded above all other roaches? Well… you don’t. If you’re thinking of investing Premium Roach Chum in a roach, you won’t be singling out individual roaches and feeding them up in the hope that they don’t just, you know, die, and leave you totally out of pocket, when the odds of finding that one roach in 10,000 that does its thing just so are… well, 1 in 10,000. So what do you do?

You catch as many roaches as you can and put them all in a bucket.

Soylent Green

Now you’ve got a business with an actual plan. You have 10,000 roaches in a bucket, and you have an actual investable plan that people with money are interested in. This, my friends, is the indie games business. Not yours or my poxy 3 man studio in a bedroom. That was never a business. That’s just hard work powered by dreams and probably doomed to failure and obscurity.

So now the owner of the bucket… well, he doesn’t have to do a lot to keep the roaches alive. Roaches, you know, just abide, somehow, on crap and scrap. Some of them eat each other. Some roaches stand on the shoulders of the corpses of their failed comrades to get to the rim of the bucket. And yes, some roaches do their thing just so, and are picked from the bucket and go off to live fat, happy lives and the other roaches look on from inside the bucket and dream of their escape.

The reality is that the other 9,999 roaches will eventually be noticed as not being all that useful and they get whizzed up into a delicious (for certain values of “delicious”) protein shake which the owner of the bucket makes a tidy sum from (typically about 50% or so over the cost of drip feeding them crap and scrap). Now there’s a business I’d invest in. A man with a bucket of mutating roaches selling protein shakes. The Krusty Krab. Then of course the bucket just sort of fills up with more roaches. Plenty more where they came from, eh?

Meanwhile in Beverley Hills

The fat, happy roaches who have escaped the bucket and live a life somewhat more touched than the others of course will try and tell you they knew what they are doing all along. Maybe a very few of them actually did have a plan and execute upon it but the deep, dark, dirty secret is that they didn’t know what they were doing at all. They just did their little thing at a time when it was deemed interesting or fashionable or cute or clever by the largely illiterate masses on the internet, and they got plucked from the bucket. What they probably don’t mention is that they’d actually maybe been trying to execute their plan for ten years already and hadn’t actually gotten anywhere. Then suddenly it just “happened” and poof! Fame and fortune and a $70m mansion in Beverley Hills, followed by some sort of hindsight-based ability to justify that they knew what they were doing all along to get to where they are now. But it’s not like that, at all.

What it’s like is that the owner of the bucket is reliably and consistently making a fortune selling protein shakes from minced up roaches, and the odd mutant successful roach is plucked from the bucket to ensure that the remaining roaches don’t give up hope.

And Then, From The Jaws of Defeat Comes…

By now you sit in a black cloud of despair reading this tirade of hopelessness. You have recognised your situation. You are a roach, and if you’re vaguely lucky, you’ll be in a bucket, maybe even one of the larger ones. You have come to realise the indie games business is largely built on large numbers of enthusiastic roaches just like yourself, and that the only people who really have an actual sane plan are the ones who own the buckets. May as well nip out and shoot yourself now.

But no! There is a ray of hope. A little Bhuddist philosophy will see you through.

Bhudda, He Says

First of all you must realise that all life is suffering, and that’s no different for roaches in the bucket. Secondly, don’t aspire to be that escaped roach, for that dream will end for 99.99% of us in a protein shake. You won’t have the right ideas at the right time and in the right place – it takes 10,000 roaches to come up with one work of Shakespeare in a timely fashion – so stop dreaming about it. Instead, just be a roach and be happy with it. Learn to love being a roach. When all those other roaches are reaching for the edge of the bucket clambering over each other to get to the edge, remember that they’ll be the ones scooped up and put into the protein shake first. Lurk at the bottom and do your thing. And this is the crucial bit: if you lurk there at the bottom doing your thing, for long enough, eventually, you’ll be doing that thing just when everyone is suddenly interested in it.

But don’t hold your breath.

Guest Starring

Escaped Roaches

Markus Persson as the Archimandrite Ultraroach of Beverley Hills
Ron Carmel (“there is no God but World of Goo” roach)
Jon Blow (“… and Jon Blow is his Messenger” roach)
Phil Fish as the mad bearded gibbering reclusive roach
Edmund McMillen, Roach Emperor of Poo And Wee
Phil Fish again (because if I say Phil Fish three times, I invoke the internet bogeyman. Whoops! There, I just did)
Peter Molyneux as the delusional God complex roach

Bucket Owners

Humble Bundle

Bucket Extras

9,998 other roaches

9 thoughts on 'Cockroaches, Games Development, and You'

  1. Well said, sir. I am an amateur writer (see, and not that far off what you describe above. Although you have the courage to go full time with your passion whereas I write and have kept my day job. And now that I have kids, don’t write anymore.

    So, keep the faith, my friend. Looking forward to Basingstoke!!

    1. If you believe Christine Catherine Rusch’s advice and some others’, all you need to be a full time writer is to stop being a part time writer.

      I think that it’s somewhat harder for games, because we’re not yet where they can be created quickly. With writing you can train yourself (allegedly, I never tried it) to write quickly (and writing full time helps).

      1. Of course the problem with indie games is that they’re also worth near zero dollars to most players, which I think Caspian Roach discussed in the past.

  2. Great article, very entertaining! I appreciate that there’s a little hyperbole in your writing, but you definitely emphasise the negative side.
    A positive aspect of the amount of ‘bucket’ market places is that there’s so much opportunity to distribute games these days, it’s unprecedented.
    Also, the games industry is not the only one with low-barriers-to-entry and lifestyler business people. Take professional sports, anyone can swing a tennis racket and children grow up dreaming of being pros. Sport has the additional problem that it depends on your fickle body, whereas programming games just requires sitting on your butt.

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