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Tommy Refenes, one of the developers of Super Meat Boy. BlinkWorks Media via IMBD
"Indie Game: The Movie"

Indie games are a “heart-dominant” business

David Brancaccio May 14, 2024
Heard on:
Tommy Refenes, one of the developers of Super Meat Boy. BlinkWorks Media via IMBD

A buddy of mine used to star in a reality TV show, “Taking Care of Business,” in which experts would parachute in to help troubled small businesses right their sinking ships.

I remember one episode with a couple who owned a bed and breakfast in Harlem, the community in New York City. When the advisers showed up at the address, they ran right into issue No. 1: The place was hard to find. Where was the signage? I remember the proprietors saying they didn’t want a sign because they worried that it would draw too much attention in the neighborhood. 

Next issue: The place offered beds but no breakfast because, if memory serves, the owners weren’t morning people. The show would have you think this was a business that may have needed more focus on the needs of the customer.

Our “Econ Extra Credit” documentary this month, 2012’s “Indie Game: The Movie,” features more entrepreneurs who are less than laser-focused on the customer. We see a pair of developers working feverishly for years to finish an indie game called Super Meat Boy, featuring a mercifully low-resolution character who is made of meat and no skin.

This project is not a hobby. One of the developers, Tommy Refenes, indicates he only needs a net profit of $20,000 over two years if he keeps living simply. Refenes is many things, but he is not a sellout — he says he doesn’t care if players end up thinking his game is awful. To Refenes, it is not about pleasing customers.

“Because even though it’s a game that people are supposed to buy,” he says in the film, “it’s not a game that I made for people. I made it for myself, you know.”

Now, a small-business coach (the Small Business Administration can help you get one) will hear that and shake their head in despair. Conventional wisdom says a startup needs a business plan, and any business plan will have a section where you identify the intended market for the product, and how the product will meet the customer’s needs better than the competition.

I, however, am not a small-business coach. Watching Refenes working to realize his indie game vision, I am on his side, even as he seems to snub his own market. If you want a business plan with a hyper-focus on potential customers, there are companies for that — ones that make or publish so-called triple-A games.

What indie game creators like Refenes and his co-developer, Ed McMillen, can offer is a singular vision the way an artist might approach a canvas: No focus group of potential buyers would have clamored for Picasso to make portraits of faces that look two ways at once. “Dora Maar with Cat” sold for $95 million, though not in Picasso’s lifetime. Am I comparing Super Meat Boy to a Picasso masterpiece? I think I am.

When business builder Anthony K. Tjan was working on a 2012 book he co-authored called “Heart, Smarts, Guts and Luck,” he surveyed hundreds of successful startups and found that 70% did not start with a business plan. In the book, he divides entrepreneurs into several categories, including one that fits the developers from the film quite well: “Heart-dominant.”

These are folks whose “business journeys originated in a different place, a place we call the Heart. They were conceived not with a document but with a feeling and doing for an authentic vision,” Tjan wrote in Harvard Business Review. “Clarity of purpose and passion ruled the day with less time spent writing about an idea and more time spent just doing it.”

Eventually, once the vision from the heart is realized, the expert advice is to then research and understand your niche market so you can get something good to the people who will appreciate it. In the film, Refenes continues to say he does not care what people think of his game, even after it’s released with a flashy Xbox promotion. Yet there is Refenes’ face lighting up with pleasure when he watches videos of players loving what Team Meat has produced. What the customers think does matter, if not in the beginning, then in the end. 

How to watch and play along with us

“Indie Game: The Movie” is available to rent or buy on several streaming platforms. We’re also sharing some of our staff’s favorite games all month, and we’d love to include some of yours too! What video games did you like as a kid? Do you still play them? Do you have a new favorite?

Send us your picks and stories by replying to this email or sending a message to extracredit@marketplace.org

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