7 min read

Building Indie Success

Going indie? This is a quick primer on some of the "fail" and "win" conditions you might encounter.

You might be an industry veteran, tired of an unhealthy life/work balance hoisted upon you by the guys in the sports cars who made their biggest money years ago.  You might be a student and believes -- actually, knows -- you can make the world sit up and pay attention.  

Or maybe you’re like me: you been lucky enough to soak up experience working on AAA titles, but never got the royalty checks to show for it.  Holistic design is your forte, you’re able to program and do a little art.  And while you’ve got a mortgage, a family, and some chickens that would prefer being fed to being eaten, you want to give it a go as an indie developer.  

That part with the chickens might just be me.  Sorry if I shrunk the Venn diagram too much there.

In today’s video game market, economies of scale can be leveraged to our advantage, turning pennies a day, per user, into millions a month.  We are reaping the benefit of nearly a decade of widespread, dedicated tools development.  Amazing game platforms like the iPhone and the PC are commodities now, instead of hobby purchases.  Digital game sales have turned the corner, removing the obstacle posed by retail distribution.

Basically, there has never been a greater time to go indie with an original concept.  

And while I know the big money is in free-to-play apps, I’m talking to the garage developers right now.

So: you’re banking your future on this game concept of yours.  What is the best, most predictable path to success?  To find our answer, let’s flip that question to: what are the most common ways to fail?

Fail Condition: Overwhelmed by Burn Rate

Your team has (X) dollars, and a (C)ost per month.  Your game will take (T)ime to complete.  Does X/C = T?  Great!  But what happens if your game is released, and you don’t start generating enough revenue to cover C?  Worst case scenario: you go into debt, the team splits up, and you lose a lot of friends.

You need enough in the bank to cover costs after launch, clearly, but that’s not my point here.  It’s not a spending problem, it’s a revenue problem.  (thank you, Congress of the United States of America, for recently highlighting the difference in such a… positive way)

Fail Condition: Lack of Exposure

An indie game is like a plant.  You need water (money) and nutrients (work) to get it out of its seed.  Yes, Captain Obvious, the seed is the game idea!  But without enough exposure to the sun, your potential customers, it will die.  Marketing is now your closest friend.  Scott Steinberg has written an excellent primer on this, as he as with so many other topics.  You can read it on

Fail Condition: Bad First Platform

So you have money in the bank, a discovery campaign in full swing, and a game on the iPhone.

Oh.  Well... about that.  Did you know 120 games per day are submitted to the Apple App Store?  (It was “only” 80 less than a month ago!)  Did you know that titans of the game industry already pretty much control the market on mobile platforms?  Is that a battle you’re equipped to join?

There are many indie success stories on iOS, but far, far more indie also-rans and outright failures.  It’s an overcrowded, controlled platform, where, all to often, discovery is accidental.  You can’t rely on that.

This is also true of Xbox Live.  The thought of putting your game on the same system you play Halo or Call of Duty on is almost too tempting to resist, but do yourself a favor, and read about people’s experiences with it so far.

Fail Condition: No Long Tail

Does your game have an ending?  That’s a risk.  A game, once finished,  is likely to be discarded, and never discussed again.  You have to keep people talking about your game, because a business needs new customers to survive.

Win Condition: Emergent Game Play and/or Constant Updates

The accepted wisdom is that a game must have an “emergent gameplay” component to keep people coming back.  When they do, they are more likely to talk about it with their friends, which ties back into your goal of getting discovered.

If this emergent content is co-op, competitive, or creative (expressing yourself in the game), players are more likely to join or start an online community for the game.  And these communities can generate revenue.

This is the model that free-to-play games have been leveraging for... er... well, for about two years!  And they’ve taken over the world, it seems.  But it’s not restricted to them.  If you release a game, and continue to update it, owners of the game will return to check it out.  You will also be building value into your product, making it more lucrative for people previously on the fence.  This is the model used for Minecraft and (until it went F2P) Team Fortress 2, among others.  (Does this mean that if failed “episodic games” had used this method of “buy once, get the expansions for free”, they would have met with greater success?  Discuss!)

Win Condition: Release on the PC

I firmly believe that the PC platform has the best synergy between discovery and download.  (I am also actively searching for research material supporting or contradicting this statement vs. smart phones!)

I have often gone to a site like or, read a feature on an indie game, and -- after watching a video or seeing some screenshots -- found myself at the checkout page with a credit card in my hand, thinking “Oh wow, that was fast.  I have a new game!”

That kind of efficiency is estimable.  Especially if you are properly canvassing the internet with news about your game.

Win Condition: Discuss Your Game

Lots of people will buy a good game.  A smaller, but still effective, segment will buy a game from someone they support.  There’s a big difference!  I sent money to the folks at Project Zomboid not just because I was in love with their aesthetic, but because I liked their design goals, and sympathized with their position.  I wanted to help them out, in other words.  Even if the game didn’t pan out, I felt good about supporting their indie endeavor.

On the internet, trust builds on trust, like a snowball rolling down a hill.  As more people and media outlets pile on their Likes and +1’s and Tweets and Tumblings and old-fashioned blog posts, people on the fence will start coming over to your side.  They are investing their time and an iota of interest, so make it worth their while and discuss, discuss, discuss your game.  Who you are, what you’re making, why you’re making it, problems you’ve encountered, mysteries you’ve solved.  

Stories sell games, in other words.

Wrapping It Up

I need to get back to my own indie project, Ninja Baseball.  We’re doing all of the above: creating a game with emergent play on the PC, funding it by selling the story of its development, and planning to support it with free updates.  The wrinkle here is that we’re raising our money through Kickstarter.  Our feeling is, if we can’t succeed in the art of discovery, and if we can’t get people interested in our development story or the game idea, then maybe the concept isn’t ready.

Would we prefer money in the bank and time to develop a proper demo?  Absolutely.  We are totally at risk of failure number one: overwhelmed by burn rate.  But at least for this month, we’re living free.  It's not a win condition, but it's close.

Good luck out there.

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