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An Open Letter to Indies & Startups – Zach Lehman

I started in games by modding with the Neverwinter Nights toolset, Aurora Engine.  I loved creating new worlds – and still do!  I eventually graduated from total conversion mods and moved into the indie development scene, where I spent roughly 7 years working on several successful (and unsuccessful) indie games that were 100% royalty-based collaborations.  I uniquely understand teams whose investments into their products are comprised of 95% sweat equity.  During my time modding and working as an indie, I also learned a lot about the business of games.  I failed a lot as well.

The fear of doing business.

There are many common fears in the business of indie development.  It makes sense too, since most developers don’t have any experience in licensing, distributing, publishing or marketing.  ‘Is my budget too big or not big enough?  Should I talk to a publisher?  Should I talk to THAT publisher?  Do I really need to form a corporation?  What does this legal agreement really say?  Am I screwing myself?

I’d like to respond to those fears by highlighting some of my critical learning experiences (some would call them failures).  This isn’t to scare you even more with horror stories, but rather to show you that I’ve been there.  That risk you’re worried about?  Yeah, I’ve probably blundered my way through something similar.

So here we go!  One time…

  • I turned down a publishing deal because I was afraid they’d take advantage of me.  We would have been the first game they’d ever published as a company.  That company is now one of the most successful mobile publishers in the world.  No, my game wasn’t graced with any other offers and no, it wasn’t better off without.  Talk about a swing and miss.
  • I sold one of my IPs to a publisher that went on to sell millions of units and have several expansions and sequels.  Ouch.
  • I decided to take a poorly optimized first-person shooter PC game and port it to iOS because nice graphics on mobile was a new thing at the time.  Mmm headaches.
  • I negotiated permission for non-exclusive rights to make a new game in a well-known franchise with an unproven indie team.  For free.  When we were nearing completion of the game and gaining traction, the rights-holder sold the IP rights to a AAA game developer who promptly shut down our project.  So smooth.

I have missed some great opportunities.  Invested into bad ones.  Put my proverbial foot in my mouth in more than one pitch meeting.  I have learned, and learned, and learned.

I have gained wonderful insights that have led me to many successes as well.  Over the past 13 years I’ve managed to build a solid network of developers, publishers, investors, talent agencies and outsourcing companies.

I’m here to help you navigate the business of games, so you can get back to focusing on making them great.  I love indies – it’s why I’m always offering discounts and inexpensive package rates that aim to quell many of those common fears.  Please do not hesitate to reach out at any time.