A Lone Wolf in a World of Packs
by Geoff Howland

In the 1980's and before it used to be that hit computer games could be and were often developed by a single person. Every year more is expected from current games, their graphics must be up to par, their sound must be good enough to keep it immersive, gradually the bar has just been raised higher and higher. A lot of people have said that the time of a single programmer developing a computer game has passed and a new terminology has been created for those that attempt it, a lone wolf.

The first question that should be asked is, "What exactly constitutes a lone wolf?" By strict definition it would mean a single person doing everything that is needed for the completion of the game. For this article however I am going to expand the range to those people who are working in extremely small groups and do not have currently have outside funding or a publisher. Everyone just mentioned falls in to the same category in that they will all face the same problems and issues when trying to create their game.

This article is written for the experienced programmer who is deciding to try to create a commercial quality game.

Pre-Game Publishing Deals

One way to finish your game is to get a deal with a publisher who will provide you with resources, monetary and sometimes otherwise, to help you complete your game. A lot of people are looking to do this, and no one likes to hand out money, especially if they're not confident in your ability to be able to make it back exponentially.

One way to get a publishing deal is by making a demo of the game or a video animation of it. I would not suggest the video method since it does not give the publisher any tangible proof that you can complete your game. Go with the demo and make it as functional as you can.

If you arenít capable of building a demo then you had better hit the books and practice until you can, no one is going to give someone who can't do the job any money.

How to contact publishers?

The best way I have found is just to email them. Go to their web site and look for an email address for submissions. If you donít see an email address for submissions then email their tech support or webmaster and ask them what it is. I have usually gotten them like this, but not always on the first try.

When you do get the correct email address you donít want to tell them in 50 pages of glorious email about your game, they probably won't read it. Just ask them if they take games in the genre you are working on (shooter, racing game, etc.) and specify the platform (Windows 95/98, Macintosh, Console). This way you will know if they are interested in your type of game. A lot of publishing companies are only looking for specific kinds of things, such as First Person Shooters on the Playstation. They have marketing goals and if your game isn't in line with them they aren't interested.

What do you do after you find out they may be interested in your game?

Find out where their Non-Disclosure Agreement's (NDA) are. If they are up on their web page then download them and READ THEM, then follow their directions that they should have included on procedures for submissions. If they don't have procedures or you don't understand them then email the submissions address again and ask. If they get your demo but do not have a proper NDA signed they will not review your game to avoid lawsuits.

Am I risking anything by signing an NDA? Am I safe?

This depends on the NDA and the people your sending it to. NDA's are always written to protect the publisher, some NDA's will also include terms to protect you as well so that the publisher cannot talk to others about your game. There is a safety in here but if someone reads an idea of yours and it melds with their own ideas you will not be able to sue them for it. In the NDA you will sign that you understand that the publisher may already be working on a game like yours and that you do not have the right to sue them for it.

There is always a risk in showing someone else your work, when you are unknown you are much less likely to have anyone try to steal your ideas. If you become successful then you will have everyone who wants to make a game trying to steal, borrow or imitate anything that you produce.


Contracts decide how much money and control you are going to have on your project. It is a common practice for publishers to take the intellectual property (IP) rights for the game when you sign the deal.

What this means is that they own the rights to the title, any sequels, any advertising they want to do with it, spin-offs, action figure lines, everything. If you think about the implications of you developing say the game Command & Conquer. If you had signed the IP rights over to the publisher they now have a very hot commodity on their hands, and you don't have anything except the right to maybe develop the sequel to it.

Just owning the name Command & Conquer is worth a ton of money for any sequel since it is almost guaranteed sales. Unless you are starving for a contract you should not sign over your IP rights to your prospective publisher.

If you haven't already read the 10 Commandments on What Makes a Good Deal from Gathering of Developers (g.o.d.), then go to their site and take a look now. There is a lot of information in this article that describes different aspects of contracts as well. The article is at:



While you may be able to code everything that is necessary to create a finished game, it is unlikely that you will be able to do all the art for it as well. This leaves you in the position of needed an artist to assist you with your work. A lot of things can be done before you need an artist to really start shaping the graphics for your game. I suggest you do all that you can before you bring an artist on board for two reasons.

If you are going to split the future profits of your game with your artist because you cannot afford to pay him you run the risk of the project breaking up or eventually boring the artist because he is creating art that is not able to be put in the game yet. If your game is already to a point that you can start putting his art in then you will engage him and yourself more into the production of it and you are more likely to finish your project.

If you do have the funds to pay your artist than you will be paying him for work that you cannot currently put in the game. The more he works the more work that will have to be changed over if the artwork doesnít fit properly into your game. This is going to cost you a lot of extra money you didn't have to spend.

How much do artist charge?

This depends highly on the artist, but of the high quality artist I spoke with said it varied by two categories. These were if they charged by the hour, or buy the 3D object.

If you were going to pay them by the hour it was usually about $20 per hour. Some production houses charged much more than this for their services.

If you were going to pay per 3D objects there were once again two categories. Low polygons and high polygons. Low polygon animated models ranges from $200 to $500 dollars and high polygon animated models ranged from $800 to $1200.

These prices are on the high end of the talent spectrum because I only asked artists whose work blew me away. Less accomplished artists may charge less or if they are still in school may want to work for a share of the final profit.

Teams and the Internet

Another route you can go is to build a team or "virtual companies", there have been a lot of these sprouting up on the Internet recently. If you want to see an example of one that is producing quality work do a search on Ward 6 on the Internet and you will get a prime example of how these can work.

Working with other people takes coordination, and not everyone can manage people. If you have never tried before you may not want to try on your first venture simply because it will take away from time you could be actually working. If you decide that it's worth the risk make sure you only work with people that are as dedicated as you are since anything less will probably drag your project down.

There are a lot of people right now who want to get in to the games industry and making a game is a good way to do it, if you can get a small group of these people who are talented this method could work very well for you.

Time to Publish

If you have already created your game on you're own without a publishing deal you have a lot more leverage than someone that has not finished their game yet.

For starters you no longer need start up capital. Your game is basically finished. It will need to be tested on various types of hardware and play tested by a group of people to work out all the kinks that you have not so far. This cost is trivial to a publisher compared with the risks of paying someone who does not have a finished product.

You are also in a much better position to negotiate money on your contract, you can demand a higher percentage of the profit and will have more flexibility in other areas as well.

You also have more choices than just going through a publisher.

What other choices do I have?

First there are other companies called distributors. A distributor's job is to move products to stores. They have contracts with different stores and can place products in their shelves.

You can not, for instance, make a game, print the boxes and then get Babbages or some other software store to sell it for you. You need to have a distribution contract with their company. Publishers sometimes have distributors that they use, and sometimes they distribute their own products.

Distributors sometimes work a little like a publisher. Some distributors will give money to help develop a product. Some of them also have artists to design box art, packaging and advertising. As I understand it, you can usually get a better deal in a percentage contract from a distributor than a publisher since there are fewer middlemen and they are less in the business of making a profit off of small developers.

What about venture capitalists?

There was a brief time when venture capitalists were actually giving money to developers to try to make games. As I understand it, this has completely or almost completely stopped. If you haven't developed successful titles before you may want to explore this avenue but not hold your breath.

What about self-publishing?

You can sell the game yourself as well. Your best bet is probably going to be the Internet. There are services where you can have pay them approx. $5 every time you make a sale and they will handle the transaction for you. However, these are sucking up a lot of your profit and probably causing you to charge more.

My suggestion would be to get an ISP that provides credit card services. Most ISP's provide site hosting and for an additional $20 or so a month you can have credit card services and CGI scripts for a shopping cart. Then all you need to do is set up a bank account with the service or directly with VISA and MasterCard.

Are there any other pitfalls to self-publishing or going through a distributor?

You have to support your own game. If you went through a publisher they will have a tech support team who will handle calls and assist your customers with installation and problems they might have and report bugs to you. If you use a distributor or self-publish you are going to have to handle this yourself. This is extremely crucial to your sales because if people learn you are not supporting your software they are much less likely to buy it.

Can a lone wolf survive?

I have seen a lot of negative comments about whether or not lone wolves can survive in today's market. I'm not going to give you my opinions about the situation, I am simply going to point a few things out and let you decide for yourself if it's worth it or even possible.

Using a publisher

Getting a publisher can be difficult, there is a lot of competition out there trying to do exactly what you are. If you know your trade, and you organize your work well and learn how to show that you understand it and can complete it, it is possible to get funding for your project.

If you can finish a game on your own you will be ahead of the crowd and be able to command more money from the returns of your work. It's harder to do though and you will have to support yourself while you do it. In the end you will come out ahead for it.


Large companies have to make money. If they donít they will lose stock value and will have to lay off employees or they will fold completely. They can't afford to take risks, so they can only create games that they firmly believe will make them money.

With the amount of money that some companies are spending on development in the millions they may have to sell 100,000 to 200,000 copies to break even.

If you sold 10,000 copies of a game you made yourself at $15 a game you would have $150,000 dollars. That's sounds pretty good to me for something that can be completed in 6 months or sometimes less.

Still, 10,000 copies is a lot of people liking your game enough to pay for it. The big companies have the advantage of seasons like Christmas where relatives are forced to buy presents for people so they get purchased just because they're in stores. Shareware does not have that equivalent or luxury, every sale you make you are probably going to have to seriously impress.

Another thing to think about is that large companies cannot make games for small markets. If you are fascinated with the War of 1812, most likely at least a small group of other people are also. While large companies cannot afford to target a small group of people, you can. If youíre the first to do it you will have no competitors and even if you have competitors there are usually room for several games of the same type as people don't like to play the same game always, or forever.

There are many other advantages that come from these basic two ideas but you can see them for yourselves as well as I could explain them to you.

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Date this article was posted to GameDev.net: 9/9/1999
(Note that this date does not necessarily correspond to the date the article was written)

See Also:
Running your own Game Company

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