How Indies Can Escape Work-For-Hire

How Indies Can Escape Work-For-Hire

What is best in life? If you’re a creative person with a passion for video games, there’s enormous satisfaction to be had in founding a game studio and bringing your own IP into the world. Nothing extravagant; just a small team of talented fellows and ladies who want to help you give birth to your sassy ledge-hopping cat.

Unfortunately, unless you have a great deal of money to cushion potential falls (and there will be falls), indie studios usually end up as work-for-hire joints for far longer than what is desirable. Working on a contract obviously brings in necessary funds, provides valuable experience for the team, and establishes contacts, but when you have big dreams about doing your own thing, it’s rough to break your heart over someone else’s idea for years at a time. But dreams take money. How can the average indie studio jump off the work-for-hire treadmill?

Four Door Lemon (FDL), an indie studio based in the UK, has been there and done that, as far as the transition from contract to original IP goes. In fact, FDL built up its resources as an indie studio some time before digital distribution became widespread. Having published games on the Xbox, Xbox 360, iOS systems, Wii, Nintendo DS, PS3 and other systems, FDL’s staff is happy to share a few tips about moving away from constant contract work in favor of a game based on an original IP.

(Side note: Aspiring indie developers, make sure you choose an awesome name for your studio. Whenever you need to light your darkest hour, remember that names like ‘Four Door Lemon’ bring fun and happiness to the industry.)

Taking a risk on an original IP means doing whatever’s necessary to build a safety net in case that IP should unfortunately fail. However, saving up money doesn’t mean cutting costs to the bone so much as it means spending wisely. For instance, FDL’s blog talks about the benefits of building an actual team versus relying on contractors. The former costs more than the latter, but there’s no workforce like a motivated, closely-knit workforce. Remote workers are cheaper, but run the risk of complicating communications and product submission.

Then there’s the issue of workspace. Nowadays, FDL writes, it’s far easier to work out of one person’s house or even a coffee shop than it was in the past. If the team is small, that cuts down quite a bit on rent and overhead costs.

FDL’s most notable piece of advice for indie studios looking to break away from the work-for-hire yoke deals with the issue of risk. Taking a chance on an original IP is a risk, but to even reach that point, an indie studio has to take a chance on bigger, more lucrative projects.

“To cover the burnrate of staff and offices larger projects (or a larger number of projects) are required to pay for it,” FDL writes. “This requires further management time and introduces extra risks for the company (in terms of projects going wrong or being cancelled due to circumstances out of your control or not). I’m not necessarily talking about contract work here, the ambitions of all of your products needs to be higher than it would be as a solo or remote working developer.

“On the flip side to this of course this does mean that you can be involved in some really interesting big projects that you and the team can get your teeth into.”

It takes money to make money, as they say, but it also takes risk to take a risk.

There’s no such thing as a foolproof game plan: Even with FDL’s good advice, betting the farm on an original IP is difficult and, frankly, terrifying. Failure means going back to the drudgery of contract work, but survival in this industry is a commendable thing on its own. Above all else, don’t lose hope: Believe in your sassy cat.

For more on the realities of indie game development, see recent movie Developers vs. Publishers: Who Wins?

About Nadia Oxford
Nadia is a freelance writer living in Toronto. She played her first game at four, decided games were awesome, and has maintained her position since. She writes for, Slide to Play, GamePro and other publications, and is’s Guide to the Nintendo DS.

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