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Five lessons for a successful indie games business

By on September 11, 2013
Creative commons image by Tristan Martin
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This is a guest post from Elaine Heney of Chocolate Lab Apps.

The news is of full of stories of app millionaires who went from zero to hero overnight. But the real truth is something quite different. Believing that you can quit your job, invest heavily in your first game and expect to make serious money is dangerous.

Being an entrepreneur is part of my DNA. I empathise completely with the unrelenting drive needed to start your own business. This drive is a part of who I am.  And I think most entrepreneurs share this passion with me. I have worked for other companies in the past, but I never felt that euphoria and exhilaration until I was running my own successful games business.

However I have seen a lot of people struggle with financial issues when starting new games companies. Making apps for yourselfis a completely different beast to being part of a team in a well-established games studio. Working in a large studio is a fantastic experience. You get to learn a lot and really focus on your job. If you are a programmer, you program. If you are a UI designer, you design the UI. Everyone knows what their job is and usually everyone does it really well. Quitting your job in an established company to start your own games business is like emigrating to China – foreign, unfamiliar and very different to what you were used to.

1: Business success vs. passion

Starting an app business is tough. To build a business, you have to focus less on what you love and more on choosing to do what will make you money. A passion is something you spend time on because you love it. You decide what to create, and then you get completely involved, building and analysing every detail until it’s as close to perfect as it gets. You spend five hours designing the perfect button. The journey becomes more important to you than the end result. You get sucked in and you don’t realise it. Passion is great but it doesn’t work as a primary driver to build a sustainable business.

2: Abba were right — it’s about the “money money money”

A business only works if it’s profitable. It really is all about the money. That’s the harsh reality. Forgot the glory, the awards ceremonies and being the envy of your friends. When you begin your target is to get on the right path to earn money. This means one word: SHIP. Every game you ship to the store is another opportunity for you to earn money. Building a game will not earn you any money. Shipping and publishing a game will.

Spend very little. You do not need a lot of money to start a games business. Instead you need to figure out how to do things cost effectively. A major way to do this is by buying existing code. This is both faster and a lot less expensive than making code. Studios of all sizes are doing this – it’s not just an indie thing. Why program something new when it exists already? You can buy code from $50 up to thousands of dollars, the choice is yours. Then you can adapt this code to fit your exact requirements.

Forget about your ego. Your friends cannot accurately predict if your game will make money. When demoing your games, don’t believe what people tell you. If you show someone your game, 99% will say it’s great. They want to support you. Plus it’s awkward to tell someone their game looks terrible when they are standing in front of you.  Fake praise is dangerous to your business. The best idea is to show your game to an accountant. He’ll ask you how much you’re earning.

In terms of earning money, I truly believe the best people to get money from are your customers. A great way to prove you have a viable business is to have people who want to pay and use your products. VC funding does not prove you have a viable business and I’ve seen it become like a cancer in businesses.

3: Education

Many people quit their jobs in large game studios to start making their own games. If you can make it worth there is nothing as rewarding as being your own boss. But there are new challenges you now have which you have to acknowledge and address to be successful. You are no longer working on games built around massive brands. No one knows who you are. No one knows you are making a game. You can’t depend on the ‘build it and they will come’ approach. Hoping for the best will not work (I tried!). What does work is market research. Choosing the right theme can make or break the sales of your game. Do not build what you love. You must build what will sell.

Your team consists of one main person – you. You do not have access to expert monetization, game design and analytics experts anymore.  So you have to learn how to do 50+ new jobs in order to publish 1 game. You have to become a UI expert, art director, QA lead, marketing expert, engineering lead, data analysis consultant, monetisation specialist and a LOT more besides. This leads to two issues. To be successful you have to recognise you need experience in these new roles. You get this experience by shipping a number of small games and learning on the job without losing too much money. Secondly, you can’t publish a big game in a short time frame with a team of one or two people. Big game studios can make big games because they have a lot of staff. Indie app developers and publishers need to focus on what they can create and ship, in a 2 week to 3 month period max.  These will be smaller games. You make money when you ship a game, not while you build it.

You need to focus on building a portfolio of apps. You do not want to risk all of your time and energy on just one game. That is a high risk strategy.

4: You need to hire an artist

It’s all about the visuals. Your game has to look good. Open any of the app stores. Look at the games that are doing well in all of the charts. What you will see in 99% of the apps is that they look AMAZING. If you are starting an app business and you are not a graphic designer, I would strongly argue that to massively improve your chances of getting downloads your app has to look INCREDIBLE. The good news is that incredible does not have to cost a ton of money. There are lots of artists on outsourcing sites like oDesk that will work for between $8 and $15 dollars an hour. People will judge a book by its cover. If you app / game looks incredible, people will assume that it was made by a really high class games studio. They are more likely to assume it’s great and download it too. We judge things visually.

5: Time, focus and hard work

Your time is precious. There are a TON of game and app companies out there that will let you use their software or code for very little – or for free. If you have an idea for a feature you would like to put in your game, spend 30 minutes googling it. Want to cross promo your name? Use Chartboost.com’s free solution. Want to use multiplayer? Check out Nextpeer.com. Want to publish your game cross platform? Use Unity 3D or cocos2d-x. Do not spend months of your time reinventing the wheel. Do not build a game engine.  Neither will earn you money.

Anyone who is successful has worked really smart, and really hard. There is no such thing as luck. Everyone has demons and doubts, bills to pay, and often a family or full-time job that means that their time is limited. Look on these as opportunities not as drawbacks. Have limited time? Spend 30 minutes right now googling how to find tools, people and software to help you publish faster. Have limited money? Learning from lots of great blogs like this one about how to design, make, market and publish apps by yourself. I had no technical background but because I had very little money at the start I taught myself how to do the basics in xCode so I could publish apps without paying a programmer.

Right now I don’t earn money any more, I make money. What I have done is not some crazy secret ‘voodoo’ stuff. I keep my costs low and I made small games to learn my trade. I kept shipping and I learned on the job as fast as I could. Now I can make bigger games and still make money. I love what I do, and I am lucky to be able to help others with their businesses as well.

About Elaine Heney

Elaine Heney is CEO of Chocolate Lab Apps, and #1 bestselling author of the ‘App Escape Plan’ and ‘App Marketing’. She has over 180 apps published, 3 million downloads and 5 online App Development courses. Get the Express, a unique, totally free program for increasing your app downloads at www.thechocolatelabapps.com. Contact @choclabapps