For Art or For Business: Keeping Your Credibility

I understand that this is not like my other posts. I wanted to post this here because it's been weighing on my chest as of late. We'll return to our regularly scheduled programming soon.

You may ask, right now, “what could you possibly know about being indie?” Where does your credibility stand, you corporate-lumbar-support-chair-sitting-tie-wearing-suit?

I do my share of indie press, staying up into the wee hours of the night manually assembling my zines for the next Alternative Press Expo or comic book convention. You’ll see me hunched over, hands aching, cutting out hundreds of circles to manufacture my own 1" buttons/badges as giveaways so people can remotely remember Wandering Panda Comics. 1,100+ pages of hand-drawn comics later, I'm still doing it every day.

I do my share of indie music, composing and writing music as an Asian-American in the states. I know I will probably never cut it in the mainstream, for many different reasons not worth mentioning, but that doesn't stop me from going to open mics and performing at small shows around the area in front of crowds of fourteen strangers to larger venues with a few hundred people I don't know. You may have seen me playing and singing at a local fundraiser benefit in San Francisco recently.

I also do my share of indie game development, making games for the sake of making them because I'm clearly entertained by it all. I know that a game where you button mash to exhibit how EXTREME SPORTS Franklin D. Roosevelt is will probably do poorly in the mainstream, as exhibited on the sub 2.0 score on Kongregate, but I made it anyway. I've become the person who says, "wouldn't it be funny if there was a game where..." and I make that game. The best performing game I ever did was an advergame for a television show. I would probably rate that one the worst of my games, but the public would seem to disagree.

The point isn’t to toot my own horn (I hear it’s impossible actually, har har), but to show that a close decade of this has certainly helped me earn my indie merit badges, calloused my skin and honed my filters.

Why do I spend all this time to bring this up? I’ve seen, read and heard a lot from individuals from the same community spread their gospel as of late. I’m completely open to discuss and hear what they have to say. But more often than not, I hear some that stand upon this higher ground, stone tablets in hand and burning bush behind them. They’re trying to tell everyone that your credibility as an indie is at stake and you must not let the corporate demons corrupt you, otherwise you compromise all that makes indie beautiful. It’s like there’s this unspoken code to be a “true developer”.

If I were to ask you to focus your energies at turning your craft and art into a business focused endeavor, you may say that you would be nothing more than a "sell out". But if I were to ask you if you would love to be able to do what you love (indie press, music, game development, whatever) full time, would you perceive it the same way? Probably not. But, how is it any different?

Let’s be completely honest here. We do all of this because we love it, but our hopes are that we can actually make some money off of it. I don’t mean copious amounts of cash like light-your-cigar-with-$100-bills money, no. I mean enough to survive and live comfortably off of it. Pay your rent, feed your family and avoid having to live in a box down the street. That doesn’t seem greedy or selfish to me at all. That seems like a dream come true. Why is it then, when money becomes the perceived focus that all this gets thrown out the window and you’re no longer empathizing with the indie spirit? I understand the "starving artist" mentality, I really do. I just don't think it's required to be true to what you do.

Let’s take a look at Flash game development, since we are primarily focused on Flash. If you were simply doing it for the art, you would create the game and hope someone will come in and play it. If people do, great. If people don’t, that’s okay too. You should be satisfied that you’ve created something and that should be enough because, as you said, you’re doing it for the art and love of it. The moment you attach paid ads or apply for a sponsorship or anything similar, you are now doing it with the interest of money. You can try to approach this from any way you want, saying that the original intent was for the art and money is a secondary option, but you cannot deny that money has now become a factor.

Now there are those out there who create games and hope for the community to donate, to show charity and appreciate their work. It works for some, but it doesn’t work for most. I suppose this would be the purest indie/artistic form of receiving money for work, a direct conversion of appreciated value of the engaged to the pockets of the engager. If anything, this is very much akin to the man on the corner, guitar case open and singing a beautiful ballad in the rain. Canabalt did it and I feel he deserved every penny. But how are those efforts any more valiant than a game that asks players to pay for optional content? In both situations you’re asking for money. In both situations a fully playable and enjoyable gaming experience is available (I’m obviously not referring to demo to full game unlock games). They’re both hoping to earn your support. One asks after you’ve experienced it all, the other asks and thanks you with additional content (which, to emphasize, isn't required to fully enjoy or complete the game experience). Personally, I’ve gone and purchased virtual goods simply because I wanted to support the developer financially. To this day I’ve never played those extra levels I bought, but I don’t think it was a waste at all. I have no regrets. Consider it my form of a donation.

I am not saying that having a business plan or even hoping to earn money from your work is bad or against the spirit of indie. I am saying the opposite. Being an indie, being true to your art, is about setting your goals past the stars and to have unreachable aspirations. It’s to look and truly believe you have limitless potential. You do it because you love it. I want you to be successful. I want you to be able to quit your day job and do this full time. I want you to do whatever it is you have to do to be able to make this your livelihood, not just as a hobby during off-hours of wake. Do not limit yourself based on some kind of ideological definition that tries to state one person is more anything than another. Do not feel guilty for being practical and realistic. That’s simply ridiculous.

For art or for business? Knowing and keeping a balance of these two things is what makes you smart. Doing what you love regardless of anything else? That’s what makes you true to your passion.

Now what about those who have made it? Personally, I feel that we shouldn't shun those who have made it from indie and moved to form a completely successful business. We shouldn’t look at their success with disdain or jealousy. We should applaud them. We should be extremely happy for them. It's watching one of our own succeed and make it. All this does is let us know that if we try, and I mean really try, we can do it too.

If you excuse me, I have to do art for my point and click game about making toast. I think writing a soft standup bass and marimba tune will fit perfectly.