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7 truths about indie game development

7 truths and realities about indie game development. A constructive, useful, honest view of the indie game development business.

I got a bit tweet-happy recently because I had read yet another "post-mortem" on why someone thought their game was such a “massive failure"

These posts are indicative of unrealistic expectations by new indies on the business of indie game development.

It’s not the first time I’ve seen people go into making indie games thinking that it would make them money immediately. I’ve watched people I know pouring their hopes, money and time into a game that doesn’t sell and then seen them give up shortly after. I've also talked to talented amazing people who have decided not to take the plunge because they are so scared that will happen to them.

To be fair stories of success and failure give a confusing picture to people starting out. It seems that either you will become a glorious indie super star or you will fall by the wayside and everyone will point and laugh at your game as the “failure”. It’s either doom and gloom or glory and fame, boom or bust. And there seems to be no one logical reason why it happens to one person and not another, it's often a bunch of reasons that some people spend a long time trying to deconstruct.

It is not a healthy way to view the early days of any business and it isn't a realistic representation.

I am a designer. I design websites, games, products and services. I have been running a freelance design business for 7 years, been an employee at several companies in industries ranging from IT consultancy to tourism to science. I’ve seen many different approaches to running businesses. I’ve seen different amounts and types of success.

A few years ago my husband and I set up our own games development business "Utopian World of Sandwiches". We work in our shed. I support him to work full time in the business. So I have given this a lot of thought...

We need more good businesses in the world. I believe a good business provides a sustainable, encouraging environment for its employees and creates meaning and value in people's lives with its products and services.

Indie game development will drive the future of games. Indie game developers will be the ones to take games beyond what we know, to create truly innovative and interesting experiences. There are indies who are starting out now who will be the business leaders of the games industry in 10-20 years. We are already seeing a rise of indies, we will see more.

Failure is a good thing if you plan for it. Failure can teach you lessons that no success will ever teach you and I believe it is our ability to take those risks,“fail” and learn as indie game developers that will result in the innovations that the games industry needs.

I don’t think any business should be built around making money alone. I don’t think it has to be about high stakes, all or nothing, win or lose. We need to do more. Indie game developers are free to do more because they don't have to answer to anyone and they can take the risks that AAA companies dare not take. We can build innovative, creative, sustainable businesses. But only if we stop chasing an impossible idea of success and embrace failure.

New indies coming into this need to know the realities. They need to be prepared and able to make decisions that will help them to do this.

I want to present a constructive, useful, honest view of indie game development business. I've learnt a lot from the past 2 years, so here are my 7 truths about indie game development and starting a business.

1. None of us know anything.

Games companies encourage people to take paths, to become awesome at a specific skill. Indie game development is different. Indie game developers have to be good at everything.  They are polymaths, constantly learning and adapting.

You might have researched, you might feel prepared. You aren’t. You will learn something new every single day. Everything constantly changes. You will learn through experience and you will mess up along the way.

Roughly 30% of your time will be spent making games. The rest of the time will be everything else you need to do, especially if you are a one man band. You might find that you spend 4 months a year actually making games if you are lucky.

You probably don’t know a lot of things about running a business because it’s likely that you’ve never run one before. And even if you have, you haven’t run this one.

You probably won’t know much about marketing or networking, because honestly it’s a kind of science where you have to try things out, see what the results are and then build on that.

You know nothing about the future, what platforms there will be in 5 years, how the technology or audience will change.

We are all figuring this out as we go along.

Find someone different to talk through your business decisions with and find objective people to look at your game.

You are not your customers. Respect your customers. Let them teach you. You will need other people to help you, so ask for it.

It is impossible to please everyone, not many people will like your game. It will be specific people with specific needs, tastes and preferences. It’s not unusual to figure out who those people are as you go. It might be a surprise when you realise they are different to who you intended them to be.

You will find your audience as much as they will find you. They aren't already waiting there for you.

Be prepared to change direction really quickly based on things you find out as you go along. You are not a massive corporation it will cost you relatively nothing to change your mind.

We don’t have a 5 year business plan written down anywhere, because every week things change, it's like trying to predict the future. We do know where we are starting, where we want to end up and we know the ethos and vision of how we want to get there. We just figure it out as we go.

We may know a lot of things, but we will never know enough.

2. It takes 3-5 years for the average business to make money.

Indie Game development isn’t in a bubble of prosperity. It is the same as any other business. Even Tesla motors didn’t make a profit for its first 10 years.

Each game is a gamble. A huge chunk of why any game is successful over another one is luck. There are very few people whose first game makes them a lot of money. There aren’t any guarantees and even if you do make lots of money you will want to reinvest the money to make the business more sustainable.

You will want to get on to different platforms, be seen by more people, travel to conferences then there's marketing, running costs, software, hardware, the next dev kit... whatever it takes to get the business to the next level. All of this costs a lot of money, to gain a more sustainable income you will need to reinvest. Your wages will be the last thing you will want to pay.

At the same time you need to have a roof over your head and you will need to eat. So you will need a plan that will keep you warm and fed until you can pay yourself wages.

There are a bunch of ways that you can do this, and you need to research and find a way that suits you and how you want to work. You can get investment, grants, join an incubator, run a kickstarter, get a loan, use savings, or just do it in your spare time.

We chose self-funding. I’m supporting my husband, Woody to work full time. We take on extra contract work and we’re living hand to mouth for now. That’s OK. We’re not planning on doing it forever, but we’re secure enough for now to ensure that we can do this for as long as it takes.

3. No one knows who you are and no one cares.

The bad news… no one knows who you are and no one cares!

You have to build a reputation from nothing. You have to earn people’s attention. You have to make something that those people will care about. This all takes a lot of time.

I said earlier that a lot of success comes down to luck. You make your own luck. You have to get out there and make connections and meet people, because they will be where that luck comes from.

You have to ask yourself a lot of questions every day; Do you have an idea that matters to your customers? Are you selling game features or are you selling something that will make someone’s life better?

Give people something to care about. Give people an experience that they will want to share with others. Then take time to let them know about it.

The good news… no one knows who you are and no one cares!

You are so free! You can try all sorts of things, you can experiment and see if anyone notices.

You have nowhere to fall if no one likes it, because if no one likes it then no one will know. You have no one to answer to if you do mess up.

You can release a rough prototype that looks a bit buggy. You should! Because when people aren't playing your games you are learning nothing. No one has any expectations of you. No one will steal your ideas. No one knows you.

4. You need to reframe how you measure success.

All too often I see people base the value of their game in how many people have bought it. They spend their money in their heads before they get it. They are convinced that their first game is going to be their big break and they'll be rich enough to sustain themselves at least. They have researched the figures, a game really similar to theirs made loads of money. Their game is really good and their team is talented. Of course it is, they wouldn’t be making it otherwise.

Basing an idea of success in sales figures from someone else’s games is not a good idea. It is a path to low morale and inevitable disappointment. Doing all that research is time you could spend making the game and releasing it.

I have not seen an indie game do the same as the sales projections or heard anyone say that it mattered in the end.

Success is a consequence of certain conditions. Each game and situation is very different. You can look at other people and maybe see how they did, perhaps use it to judge whether a platform is worth your time, but by no means can you base your idea of success in theirs because it will be an entirely different set of conditions.

We know there is more to life than money, isn’t that why we make games? We want to make good products that make people happy.

I will be the first to admit that we had hoped that Chompy Chomp Chomp would sell better than it did. Yet, we stand by it as a good product. It does make people happy, that is what we set out to do. We wouldn't be making Chompy Chomp Chomp Party if we didn't believe that it was a good product. We don't see the lack of initial sales as proof that the game can't make money in the future either. It’s a timeless game. We have so much we can do with it. We can keep building on our fan base for years.

We have planned all along for this to take 3-5 years so we had entirely different criteria for success than how much money we would make. We measure our success by how much we’ve learned, and how far we’ve come towards our goals.

We wanted to do a few things when we started out:

  1. Create a game with IP that can be used for merchandise and other games
  2. Get our own figures/data on as many platforms as we can
  3. Build a following and a strong google presence for our IP
  4. Have a game to prove we could make a game to people who might be able to give us more opportunities

Here's what happened:

  1. We're working on a few other games and a board game with the IP. We sell T-shirts and toys. We have learned that Chompy fans really want Chompy merchandise.
  2. We have data on Flash, XBLIG and the various stores available on PC and we’re planning to be on at least 3 more platforms by the end of next year.
  3. We have done alright on google for our crazy names and we have started to build a following on facebook and twitter.
  4. Chompy Chomp Chomp has opened up all of the opportunities that we hoped it would. We are now registered Nintendo devs and have signed many NDAs.

We have learned a lot. We met lots of people, did talks, went to expos, we played our games with lots of people and we were interviewed. All of which would have been really scary to me 2 years ago. We now have a good idea of how to keep building on this experience to learn even more.

We see these steps as our first steps towards becoming the sustainable business that we want Sandwiches to become. We are taking this one step at a time so that it is less likely that we go down the wrong path.

We’re on our way and we’re enjoying the ride.

5. It’s your job to make sure you are your own best boss.

We’ve seen these bad things happen or been there before:

  • People working so hard that they end up broken and drained. It impacts their relationships and they are stressed all the time.
  • People working with clients/staff who stress them out.
  • People forgetting about why they started doing this in the first place. They end up chasing cash rather than dreams. They feel jaded, regretful, like they sold out.

So we’ve set ourselves some rules to make sure that these don’t happen to us.

  • Don't work for a living, live for a living.
  • Work with people who understand you and care about what you care about.
  • Live what you believe. Don’t compromise your values.

If you are running your own company it's your responsibility to create an environment that YOU enjoy working in. It needs to be an environment where you can learn & get better, innovate, create and enjoy your life. You need to believe in your purpose. Even if you never plan on getting any future employees, the culture of your company and the way you work is entirely up to you to establish.

It's the journey that is the most important thing, not the destination. You can aspire to have a successful game, but if you don't enjoy getting there then it's not worth it.

Let’s be honest. The only thing that really matters in the end is love. You started this because you love games. You started because you want to have more time to be with the ones you love and you wanted to love your job. Don’t forget that.

Stay true to what you want and what you believe, it’s easy to get lost and misdirected when you have no money and you are worried about the future, but that is exactly the kind of future you don’t want.

6. You will need to take measured risks.

Everything you do is a gamble. You have to weigh up a lot of options and sometimes just take leaps of faith.

The sacrifices that lead to a sustainable long term business tend to be the ones that serve yours and your business’s potential rather than immediate success and gratification.

Sometimes you have to make tough decisions that may sound like idiotic business decisions to some.

We knew that releasing on Xbox and PC wasn't the best platform for Chompy Chomp Chomp. It’s inherently a console game that appeals mostly to kids and people who like cute characters. No one plays multiplayer on PC and the XBLIG market was saturated. We were right to make those 'crazy' decisions.

We needed to start building our experience. It’s like building a CV for your company. You need to show that you can make games before you can make games. You have to start somewhere. We needed a cheap, easy way to get experience of making a game for a console and XBLIG provided that.

Sure, we could have made a game that we thought would sell well on XBLIG & PC. We decided we wanted to make Chompy Chomp Chomp anyway because we believe in its purpose and its value to people. We want to bring people together and Chompy Chomp Chomp is exactly the kind of game we want to be making in the future. If the players aren't there yet, we just have to take the time to find them.

Our measured risk, bearing all of this in mind, was 6 month development (approx 3 months over about a year while we had jobs, 3 months full time for 2 people). A game that we call Minimum Viable Awesome.

You might have heard of Minimum Viable Products, we approach games slightly differently. We aim for the features to be as polished and awesome as we can get them, we only put as many features in as we can polish in the time frame.

We had a million ideas but we knew that if we waited any longer before releasing then the learning to effort ratio would not be balanced.

We wanted to start collecting information about the games we wanted to make and start learning as soon as we could. The best learning is the learning we get from our own experiences. So we make small games, we release them into the world and we learn from them before we decide to invest more time in it. Those are the measured risks that we take. We try to invest just enough time to learn what we need to know in order to progress. We build on our previous experience and lessons learned.

Sometimes we just do something to answer a question e.g. “How much would we learn if we released our prototypes on newgrounds?”  It’s important to incorporate the idea that you have to get things wrong to get them right into your business strategy.

7. It’s always harder than you think it will be. Even if you already think it will be hard.

It takes a lot of courage to take the plunge into becoming indie, and even more passion and drive to make it work. Yet however tough you think it will be, you cannot prepare yourself for every eventuality. It all takes a lot of time, mostly it will take longer than you ever expected... so the sooner you start the better.

It is a really scary, stressful, exciting, fun, boring, fulfilling ride.

You will need to find ways to persist through all the hits and bad patches because otherwise you will end up quitting and it will all be for nothing.

Then again, this has been our approach to the indie game development business…

Don’t do it for the money and success. Do it for the art of making games. Have faith that getting better at this will pay off eventually.

I guess only time will tell whether this is a good strategy for us or not. We may not be getting thousands of sales but we're getting by and we're doing what we believe in. It is what feels right to us and honestly, that's what you should do. No one else can tell you how to run your business. Every game and every business is different, you just need a quick, cheap and easy way of figuring things out as you go. It takes time, effort, patience and persistence.

All you can do is get started, keep trying and do what it takes to make sure you can keep trying. Keep getting better at this. Believe that you will get there in the end. The ones who succeed are the ones who don't give up.

Good luck!

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