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12 business tips for indie game developers

By on February 15, 2011
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This is a guest post from Paul Taylor of Mode 7, an indie development studio based in Oxford. Their current project is Frozen Synapse, a critically acclaimed multiplayer and single player squad-based tactical game for PC and Mac.  Check it out at www.frozensynapse.com

Paul Taylor

I’d like to take Nicholas’ post on The Future of The Games Industry and expand on one part of it. Go and read that first, then come back!

This post will be of most use to people in the “Anyone Who Wants to Make Games” category, which is where we at Mode 7 would place ourselves. We don’t have ambitions to be the next Zynga or Activision; we want to be small but profitable.

If you find yourself in a similar position, or even if you’re a one-man-band developer trying to make a living from indie games, you may find the following helpful. I don’t pretend to have all the answers – far from it – we’re all learning as we go.

1. Business brain required

To make a living from indie games, you will have to start running your own business.

If this idea scares you, or you find it uninteresting, then get yourself a commercially-minded but creatively-sympathetic business partner immediately.

You should try and get hold of a good business accountant (hard to find!) and get some basic advice from organisations like Business Link.

There is nothing about the basics of running a business which is remotely difficult: your accountant should be able to help you out with anything you don’t understand.

2. Have realistic sales targets

How much money can an indie game make? Well, we’ve now seen that a statistically insignificant percentage of indie games can sell over a million copies!

More sanely, Amnesia, an indie game from a developer with an existing fanbase, which features graphics approaching AAA quality recently managed to sell nearly 200,000 units.

Other indies are delighted when their games break 10k or 20k units.

So, this is a “how-long-is-a-piece-of-string” situation. But suffice it to say, if a new developer told me that his or her PC-only game required sales of over 10k units to break even, I would be concerned for them.

Simon Carless has some interesting sales stats at http://www.slideshare.net/simoniker/independent-games-sales-stats-101

I think the ideal project duration for an ambitious indie game is 1.5 – 2 years, but that’s just my personal opinion!

3. Concept, Aesthetic, Gameplay

 

Fundamentally, nobody really knows which games will sell well until they are launched. They can guess; with a lot of relevant data they can make ballpark predictions, but they can’t know.

 

However, I think there are boxes to tick in order to allow your game a chance of being a decent product:

Concept

There’s no formula for coming up with a great concept; you’re trying to divine something that will appeal to a range of people, or a specific niche that you think is under-served.

Also, there’s almost no point giving direct advice about this, save that it’s important to bear in mind what people other than yourself will think about your concept. Here are four very different games that I believe have very strong concepts; they’ll illustrate my point better than another paragraph of my waffle:

  • Retro City Rampage
  • Farmville
  • Uplink
  • World of Goo

As soon as you encounter each of those games, it’s very clear what’s going on and why you’re likely to have fun if you play them. That’s the goal of a concept.

Aesthetic

Your indie game must look spectacular to even be a mild success. Heaps of visually attractive indie games are coming out literally on a daily basis: just take a look at TIGsource or Indiegames.com or RockPaperShotgun to see what I mean.

People will come for the graphics and stay for the gameplay; you need both. I’m not talking about expensive AAA graphics here; I mean something that has a massive visual impact instantly. Even Dwarf Fortress does this: its ASCII look is immediately intriguing.

You need to develop a way of creating a brilliant original look with very little cost. Not easy, but as an inventive indie, doing clever things is your job!

Lexaloffle have done this by resurrecting a forgotten graphics technique in a low-fi but striking way…

That’s why their trailer has 200k views already!

Finally, two things that will never, ever hurt you: detail and “spice”. Once your game is visually functional, go back and add stuff – funny things, little animations, quirky details, hidden areas, motion graphics for the menus.

Polish is an accumulation of small, hand-crafted details: reviewers and customers will notice the effort you’ve put in.

Gameplay

Good game design involves both a strong grasp of abstract rule systems and a practical hands-on iterative approach: skills which are at opposite poles. If you’re good at the former but poor at the latter, get other people involved at the earliest possible time when feedback is useful. This is where the tried and tested “release early and often” concept comes in.

One word of warning: most gamers find it almost impossible to evaluate gameplay without some decent art on top.

Game design is a skill that takes a lifetime to master: it’s a vocation. Like many vocations, a lot of people think they’d be great at it if they just had a chance to do it: these people are almost always wrong.

If your gameplay isn’t good enough for people to recommend your game to their friends, you won’t sell enough copies to keep going: that’s a fact.

4. Make payment models part of your design process

 

Think of your payment model as part of your game design.

Here’s some mild conjecture: free-to-play games incorporating virtual goods offer the highest possible ceiling in terms of revenue on PC and Mac right now. They allow customers who love the game to pay more than average, and they also capture small amounts of revenue from players at the other end of the scale, who otherwise might not buy a “full version” of the game.

However, just because something has the highest ceiling does not mean that’s where you should aim: it may simply not be suitable for the type of game you want to make. Remember, we’re in the “Anyone Who Wants to Make a Game” category here; you’re doing this because you have something you want to create, not because you want to make the most money possible.

So, it’s important information that traditional “pay-once” titles are still very viable for individuals and small companies.

One caveat: if you do go down the pay-once route, I would definitely urge you to look into DLC and ways of offering more value to customers who truly love your game. Pay-once arguably offers more opportunity for immersion and scope than free-to-play, so you may well gain some very passionate fans who would love to get hold of more content.

It’s also more customer-friendly: you don’t have to keep badgering people to give you money every five seconds. That could lead to a more meaningful relationship with your customers.

For a good example of how to make the most of long-term customer commitments in gaming, look at Penny Arcade. They make products (and hold events) that their fans love; they have a truly mutually beneficial relationship with their community. There’s no reason that an indie games company couldn’t adopt the same approach.

5. Offer pre-orders – and add value to them

Pre-orders are a very strong route for indie developers making pay-once games.

When someone pre-orders our forthcoming title Frozen Synapse, they immediately get a copy of the beta as well as a free copy for a friend; this has had a reasonable degree of success for us so far. The most important thing we did was to wait until the beta was exciting to play and fairly polished before we released it in this way: I’d urge anyone considering this to do the same.

We decided not to put out a demo with the pre-order, ensuring that only those who were excited by the concept enough to invest made it in to the beta. While I believe that this has restricted the size of our pre-order community, it has also created an extremely passionate and supportive group who have helped us out significantly with development. When the game is ready to reach a wider audience through a demo, it will be in the best possible shape because of this decision.

I think, though, that if you have an alpha with the ease-of-use and accessibility of something like Minecraft there is simply no excuse for failing to have a demo at an early stage.

Like everything, you should make this decision based on what suits your game.

6. Consider online to beat piracy

Piracy is a very real issue for indie developers: it effectively means that your game needs some kind of online component in order to offer value to customers who do want to pay. Only very good-natured people will buy something they know they can get for free elsewhere with no negative consequences.

There are many ways of solving this problem by incorporating online components, but I’d urge you to do that in a way which is pro-customer rather than anti-customer. Don’t just force the game to contact your server for no reason: think of an interesting online feature which can add value.

7. Go direct, and go indirect

To have a decent success on the PC with a downloadable game, you’ll need to be on every major portal. The secret of getting on portals? Make a popular game and release information about it early!

Don’t just rely on distributors to sell your game for you, though: there is still significant money to be made from direct sales. You’ll need the following:

  • A reliable payment provider (we recommend Fastspring)
  • A clear website which allows easy access to information about your game, a demo download and a buy page
  • Time spent on optimising your website and tuning it for conversions
  • A marketing plan based on generating traffic

Your website doesn’t have to be flashy or even particularly attractive (providing your game itself looks good); it just has to be simple and work.

8. Market, market, market

I wrote a big piece on indie game marketing for Gamasutra a while back, which covers most of what I want to say.

The only thing I want to add to this now is that it never seems to be possible to over-do it on the blogging, videos or social network front. Loudness seems to correlate directly with success in my experience: be as attention-seeking as possible without harming yourself or others!

9. Know your numbers

You must have a good web analytics package on your website: this is the single most useful piece of marketing advice anyone has ever given me. Without this, you won’t know why your game is selling or not selling. Google Analytics is immensely powerful and free: I highly recommend it.

10. Work with other indies, and the indie community

Increasingly, indie developers are banding together and collaborating. Look at some of the cross-marketing in games like Super Meat Boy, or projects like Cliffski’s ShowMeTheGames.com. Getting actively involved with the indie games community can really benefit your work: just don’t get distracted by the posturing and in-fighting.

11. Use events wisely

Don’t spend much money on events: I’ve yet to find anyone who can demonstrate a clear return from paying for a big stand at a show or similar.

Definitely try and find legal ways of going to events for free!

In any case, do go to some events and talk to a lot of people about your games: there is always a small-but-not-insignificant chance of making a really valuable contact.

If you’re in the UK (or even if you’re not) I urge you to support Gamecity – it’s an event which sums up why I want to be part of the games industry.

12. Do it, and don’t ever give up

Persistence is the most important trait you’ll need as an indie developer. You’ll need to make mistakes, learn from them and carry on anyway.

You have to love doing this in order to do it at all: that’s why the indie games scene is one of the best places to be in this cruel world!

I like to hear about other people’s projects so give me an email if you’d like to talk about anything: [email protected]

About Paul Taylor

Paul Taylor is managing director of indie studio Mode 7 games. Tweet him at @mode7games