The price of independence: What it really costs to be an indie developer

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The price of independence: What it really costs to be an indie developer
Will Stallwood is a gambler. He's had the same addiction for years, yet he's never stepped foot inside a casino.

He's never found himself hunched over a table fitted with worn green felt, sliding his last two chips between sweaty, shaking palms. He's never felt the sick dread as a slot machine whirs through its final frame; he doesn't know if he prefers red or black. Stallwood has been addicted to gambling on the success of his indie studio, Cipher Prime, since its triumphant launch of Auditorium in 2008. But this year feels different. This year Stallwood feels as if his lucky streak may finally be running out.

Cipher Prime isn't an unknown team of novice developers working out of a garage, but that doesn't mean they're rolling in dough either. Its previous titles were successful, but after a deal went raw with Fractal's publisher, Zoo Games, Cipher Prime was stuck with a rushed title and more debt than it ever expected.

Stallwood and Cipher Prime co-founder Dain Saint had to legally fight for the rights to their own game, eventually getting them back more than 200 days after Fractal launched on the App Store. Saint and Stallwood were understandably turned off of the old-school publishing route.

"We were not a fan of the publisher model before, because it just covers development and we never see royalties no matter how good the game goes," Stallwood said. "Now, we're just completely sour to the whole thing. We're not completely opposed if it means the difference between making games or not, but if there is any way we can avoid it and still make games, we're certainly going to try."

Cipher Prime has found another way -- it hopes -- with Kickstarter.
%Gallery-148865%Stallwood and Saint began a campaign for Auditorium 2: Duet yesterday, with a goal to raise $60,000 over the following 30 days. It generated almost $10,000 in its first 24 hours, which is a good start, but a long way off from the final goal.

Stallwood still feels as if Cipher Prime is rolling the dice on Auditorium 2: Duet's Kickstarter, but after years of funding his projects with personal credit cards, racking up debt and stressing over whether the game will do well enough for him and Saint to buy groceries the next week, Stallwood said it's time to try.

"It's so utterly mind-bendingly scary," Stallwood said. "You just pray you don't go bankrupt."

Stallwood and Saint, headquartered in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, each made $24,000 in 2011 -- which is $12,000 less than the average household income for the county -- they're unable to pay off student loans and they both heaped up a ton of debt, Stallwood said. For two years straight, funding their own projects, they worked seven days a week from 10 a.m. to as late as 2 a.m. the following morning. Under the publisher, they obviously didn't get much respite either.

Stallwood faces a scenario that plagues many indie developers, where following his dream is financially draining, even though it can look like he's living a star-struck lifestyle. Even his friends think he lives lavishly, happily coding games by day and counting his money by night. Not quite, Stallwood said.

"Everyone thinks our life is the easiest thing in the world," he said. "In Philly, there are not a lot of game companies, so it's sort of seen as a hobby lifestyle. We've also had a lot of success with articles in the past. Every article that goes live on us just fuels the flame of 'God damn they have the best lives ever.' Of course, everyone also thinks we're totally loaded."

"The emotional toll has been quite high. It's becoming harder and harder to be creative when we are worried about everything else that is in the air."

- Will Stallwood

Not that a perfect publishing deal or more successful games would have generated enough revenue for Cipher Prime to roll around in piles of money. That's not how it works, Stallwood said.

As Tim Schafer made clear in a video for his own, wildly successful Kickstarter project, developers generally don't make enough money off their previous titles to keep funding the future ones, and this goes doubly for indies. Eventually, you either get lucky and can live comfortably, or you get creative, which is what Cipher Prime is doing with its Kickstarter project.

"To be honest, three years of excessive risks has worn on us and we just want a break for a few months," Stallwood said. "When we started this whole endeavor we only had 50 bucks we used for Google ads, so we're certainly in a better spot financially. But, the emotional toll has been quite high. It's becoming harder and harder to be creative when we are worried about everything else that is in the air."

Not that any of this is going to stop Cipher Prime from following its passion -- developing games.

"Every success is just a chance to lead 'normal' lives for us," Stallwood said. "On the flip side, we absolutely love and adore what we do. We wouldn't have dedicated so much of our lives to this if it wasn't something really important to us. So, to everyone who thinks we have the coolest job in the world, well, they might just be right there."
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