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"Indie Game: The Movie"

What it’s like to create an indie film during the golden era of indie video games

Ellen Rolfes May 21, 2024
Heard on:
Ed McMillen, one of the developers of Super Meat Boy, takes a break from coding. Courtesy BlinkWorks Media
"Indie Game: The Movie"

What it’s like to create an indie film during the golden era of indie video games

Ellen Rolfes May 21, 2024
Heard on:
Ed McMillen, one of the developers of Super Meat Boy, takes a break from coding. Courtesy BlinkWorks Media

This month, we’re exploring what it takes to make a successful video game and how that’s changed in the past decade. Our “Econ Extra Credit” selection for May is “Indie Game: The Movie,” which is available to rent or buy on several streaming platforms.

When “Indie Game: The Movie” was released in 2012, the idea that video games could be a form of art was just gaining mainstream acceptance.

Lisanne Pajot described the time as a kind of golden era for indie games. The creator pool was still relatively small, and any game had a real shot at making a splash with little or no marketing money behind it. 

But a lot has changed in the industry, Pajot told “Econ Extra Credit.” For instance, independent game developers have more competition and less visibility, making it harder to break through.

We spoke to Pajot about how the challenges she and co-director James Swirsky faced making an indie film mirrored the struggles their subjects faced developing an indie game. Pajot, who has continued to document game development through her company, BlinkWorks Media, told us why she thinks “creator stories” are universally appealing, even when they’re a grind.

Here are edited excerpts of our conversation. 

Econ Extra Credit: As the industry has grown, so has the amount of money invested into games. While the indie developers in your film said they wanted to make something personal and not think about whether the game would have a huge following, they also needed their games to succeed so they could pay their bills.

Pajot: Yeah, there’s that tension. I think that’s like all indie creation, right? Whether people are making films or games, you want to make sure the time you spent making something was worth it.

I think the tension was also heightened in the film because in that particular time, the idea of games as personal creation, personal storytelling, [or] art was newer in the mainstream. There’s probably even more games as art now than there was then. It’s just harder to break through now.

At the time of the film, there were fewer games. [Online gaming community] Steam had probably under 20 games a month coming out. Now it’s like thousands, probably 1,500 games a month. So, there’s, like, such a big jump in creation, which is great. It’s just harder to make a living as an independent creator.

EEC: Did you see parallels between the creative process and financial pressures for indie game makers and your work as an indie filmmaker?

Pajot: So, we raised money through Kickstarter. I think we were one of the first films to use Kickstarter at that time. We tried to raise, like, $10,000 to begin with, which isn’t enough to make a film but seemed like a lot to ask for from strangers on the internet.

But when we went to distribute the film — we had gone to Sundance [Film Festival], which we were really lucky to be part of — there was tension. There was a certain way that films were released at that time, which was windowed per territory. You couldn’t buy films online that easily. We had all these Kickstarter funders, and we knew if we had sold the film to a distributor, it would have been windowed and it would have taken a really long time for those Kickstarter people to finally get the film.

So we decided to distribute it ourselves. We put on a tour, booked theaters or our own theatrical [release]. We created a website. We created an app on Steam. We got on iTunes and then we ended up marketing all the merch — DVDs, the Blu-Ray [discs], all the T-shirts and posters. It was insane. It was, like, a really busy time. That was similar to what was happening in indie games at the time. People were creating their own distribution direct to their audiences. And we thought if we had, like, 1,000 people buy the film, we’d break even and that would be a win. So that is what we did. 

EEC: Did you break even?

Pajot: If 1,000 people bought the film, that’s like $100,000 — that would have been pretty close to one year of salary [$50,000 each for Pajot and Swirsky]. [Production lasted two years, so] we needed to make $200,000.

The film came out in 2012, and we continued marketing and distributing it for another two or three years after. In the end, we made enough to pay for the five years of work that we put into it. But when we decided to go and start filming this out of, like, my small car driving around North America, did I think that would happen? No, not at all.

EEC: Were you surprised by how audiences responded to the film?

Pajot: I think people took what they wanted from it. Some people would take it as “This is so inspiring, I want to do this, I want to make an indie game.” But then some people watch it and think, “Oh, it’s such a grind. They don’t seem to be having very much fun. It seems very intense. I don’t want to be part of that.”

Looking back now, I think people are hungry for reasons to create, like, so when you see someone creating something, even though it’s hard and doesn’t look fun all the time, I think that people are attracted to that because they have a yearning to create something for themselves.

I sort of know what the solution would be. The solution to everyone’s problems in the film is staff, having people to work with them. But at the time, none of them knew that it would work out and none of them had enough money to hire people, but they still wanted to do it.

And we [as filmmakers] were in a very similar situation. We really wanted to make a film. We didn’t have enough money to pay people, so we did it all ourselves. And as a result, it’s a lot of work.

EEC: Maybe if people really knew what it would take, they wouldn’t start?

Pajot: No, you wouldn’t do it.

EEC: You haven’t made another feature film since “Indie Game.” Why is that?

Pajot: Oh, we’ve had fits and starts of doing other feature films. I think the reason why we haven’t ever jumped in is we have had a lot of other opportunities come to us.

We have been working with the Game Awards for almost a decade — we make short docs for the show every year. And we make other stories that are all usually funded by a company or a brand, like Roblox. They’re all basically stories about people in the world of games.

I keep thinking that someday the opportunity is going to run dry. And then we’ll have to figure it out, make something on our own. And you know, that still might happen.

But we’ve been really lucky to get funded opportunities to create work, often with our friends. And it works for our, kind of, season of life, having young kids. Like going off in a car for six months to just follow a story is a young person’s job. That’s what they can do. It’s harder now. But you know what? My kids will grow up. Maybe then I’ll do something else.

Play along with us

We’ll be 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

A few recs: 

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