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50 Easy Steps to Indie Success

A tongue-in-cheek advice guide to the often contradictory advice indies get when they express an interest in making a successful game. Production, monetisation, marketing, design -- it's all here!

As the director of Kitfox Games, I have read dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of articles claiming they will assist my 4-person team in making "a successful indie game." New articles come out every day, all with helpful advice for me and my team. Some were linked to me by personal friends, family, colleagues, or industry mentors.

I like to think these people were well-intentioned. 

So, having read all of this, what's my plan to succeed? Follow my lead:

  1. Okay. Obviously the best thing you can do is FINISH YOUR GAME
  2. But wait, don’t ACTUALLY finish it! I hope your game isn't done yet! You’re supposed to start marketing first
  3. So how do you market? You need a hook. I hope you weren't planning on just making a good game! Don't be ridiculous! You'll need a unique tagline that's more interesting than the other 1000 emails in a stranger's inbox.
  4. Now that you have a hook, the best way to get your hook out there? Presskit(). No, this part isn’t a joke. Do it. 
  5. Then contact the press! Here’s some checklists on who to contact and how. You’ll probably need “at least 6 months worth of one person working full time” 
  6. And aside from actual journalists, "take social networking sites very seriously." 
  7. Even reddit. Or maybe especially reddit.
  8. But advertisements? Definitely "don't spend money on traditional marketing and customer acquisition." 
  9. But you don’t want to disappoint anyone. “Be realistic about what you can do.” So, mobile games are easier to make, right? Right. Let’s be realistic. 
  10. Except “a lot of people never pay anything on the App Store” 
  11. And “most apps fail commercially”. Probably because the mobile scene is "completely commoditised".
  12. But don't go console. “Chances are you won’t be able to quit your day job by releasing a game on XBLIG.” “The vast majority of games on [Xbox 360] make … less than $1000”.
  13. And putting your game on Ouya might just be worth it ... but maybe not.
  14. So, PC! Just make sure you're on Steam, or else. You'll need press first if you go traditional, and going Greenlight means community management.
  15. Plus, if you’re on PC you can maybe get hundreds of thousands of sales through bundles! But even bundle salespeople say to use bundles only “during the long-tail period of your game’s lifespan”. 
  16. Does your game design have multiplayer? Incorporate multiplayer “to create long term value for players”. 
  17. Try to speak "to a wider audience".
  18. No, wait, find a "small niche long-abandoned".
  19. But did you want to make money? Free to play is “the only way to make money in video games”. In fact, "freemium will dominate. You can't beat free."
  20. No, wait, that’s Evil Game Design. Almost as evil as those coercive, greedy pay-2-play techniques
  21. But whatever you do, don’t make money your number 1 priority. It's, like, ironic.
  22. In fact, indie heroes try their “utmost hardest to ignore any commercial pressures that may arise”. 
  23. Besides, when failure can be “one of the happiest and most satisfying times of [your] life”, why not do away with the word failure entirely and “redefine success”?  
  24. And if you DO make money, feel bad about it! You’re probably “after weak people in vulnerable states.” 
  25. In fact, “Not all games can be free-to-play.” So… figure it out yourself. You're probably doing it wrong anyway.
  26. And remember those journalists you talked to? They're not interested in free to play
  27. Just remember, “there’s nothing wrong with people wanting to play your game for years.” No need to get defensive or anything.
  28. Besides, premium games get pirated like crazy. Might even turn your most successful game into your "least profitable."
  29. But hey, pirating can "make an indie game into a success"! 
  30. In fact, if it’s premium, maybe start selling your game as soon as it’s in alpha.  
  31. Wait, isn’t this the same as a Minimum Viable Product from business? No, that can’t be the same thing. Never mind. 
  32. No wait, in games, it's called a demo. “There is simply no excuse for failing to have a demo at an early stage.” 
  33. Or you can just give away some for free, as a gift
  34. No, wait, game demos halve your sales
  35. And if your demo's good, someone might clone it faster than you finish it. 
  36. You still need money? You could do a Kickstarter. Everyone loves crowdfunding.
  37. But don’t ask for high numbers. You shouldn't actually need money. 
  38. And be careful about using stretch goals. Never stretch goals.
  39. Unless you’re famous already. Then stretch the goals.    
  40. Just remember if you get too much money, the internet will turn against you.
  41. And maybe “the Kickstarter bubble is strained to breaking point”...
  42. But you can avoid crowdfunding nonsense altogether if you build in metrics to track your monetisation and get those DARPUs sky-high! They say “your game has to fit a ‘million dollar+ formula’” 
  43. Actually, "there is no single right answer or standard model" in business intelligence, so just get used to flailing about with your metrics. After all, Ultima Online used metrics. Are you better than Ultima Online? 
  44. But metrics alone can’t save your monetisation.
  45. So, I hope you haven't been specialising too narrowly, because you’ll have to be a master of everything. Programming, business development, marketing, art, design, production. 
  46. And not just game stuff. You’ll need cinematography too. “The worst thing you can do is make a bad trailer and deliver something that’s not the same level of quality as your game.” 
  47. Well, maybe you don’t need to track your schedule and budget. You might as well take your time and deliver when you’re done, since quality is what matters
  48. So just make an awesome game! Get really good review scores! 
  49. But reviews won’t matter. In fact, “making a good game doesn’t guarantee you anything” You’ll still flop. And that’s okay
  50. On second thought, don’t worry too much about the design. You probably suck at it anyway.  

So! Have you made a million dollars and won IGF yet? Ha! No, me neither.

Of course, the real lesson to take from this is what we all knew already: every game is different.

Advice is often given by genuine experts in their field, and yet it still might not apply to what you're doing when taken literally. Unless this guru is specifically playing your game, and has a telepathic connection to every niche of your platform, and can look into the future to see what will happen when your game releases, any insight naturally comes with caveats. Some advice has timeless common sense behind the words. Most doesn't.

My team and I will make mistakes, but we'll learn from them, and if asked, we'll give others advice based on what succeeded and what failed. Hopefully they won't take that advice at face value and will interpret it carefully for their own game, team, goals, and situation.

As long as we keep creating, you and me, we'll be all right.

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