Opinion: Lessons Learned From The Indie 'Meatgrinder'

Daniel Cook, chief creative officer at game developer Spry Fox (Realm of the Mad God, Triple Town) offers his take on what he sees as common -- and sometimes devastating -- missteps for indie developers.
[Daniel Cook, chief creative officer at game developer Spry Fox (Realm of the Mad God, Triple Town) offers his take on what he sees as common -- and sometimes devastating -- missteps for indie developers.] Up on the sixth floor at last weeks' PAX 2011 -- above all the cacophonous, hateful marketing that replaced all human interaction -- there was a much quieter space, where the indies and board games gathered. Every station was manned by someone who had poured their souls and life savings into make a dream reality. I sat down with devs. We talked. I played their games. They told me about their relationships, their trials and their bright hopes. Honestly, it was heartbreaking. So many great games. And yet so many broken business models, broken production techniques and broken philosophies of what matters. Eighty percent of the games being shown will not make back their development budgets. Maybe 30 percent of the teams won't survive the next two years. Some will be burnt out on games forever. This human loss is a loss for all of us. A handful will get lucky and stumble towards success that gives them another year or two of financial runway before they crash and burn when luck runs out. Many of the devs are 95 percent of the way there to supporting themselves financially, yet they cling to views of the market that prevent them from ever feeding their families with indie games alone. Here are some particularly painful observations -- not all games I saw have all of these issues, but they were very common. No understanding how to put their game on multiple platforms: Your game is fun and is pure gold. Leverage those years of work by putting it everywhere. Partner if you don't have the resources to do it yourself. No understanding of the logistics of multiplayer: You can easily make a multiplayer game that is impossible for others to play. Just do local multiplayer, only with no join-in-progress feature and no friendly way to play with strangers. You've just guaranteed that the massive effort you put into multiplayer will be enjoyed by a tiny percent of your players only a handful of times. By hamstringing multiplayer with design philosophies from 20 years past, you've essentially crippled all long-term social value for your game. No trial or freemium version: There's this weird hope that people will see a screenshot of your game and buy it. That is how the world worked for Nintendo in the 1980s. That isn't how the world works now. Give the player value and then upsell them. Over-reliance on PR: Press doesn't translate directly into sales. You need distribution first and foremost. Steam is a start. Mobile is good. Flash portals are great. If you can get into Summer of Arcade or other gatekeeper-controlled promotions, there is an incredibly slight chance you can make money on XBLA or PSN, but that indie-friendly window has mostly closed. No monetization strategy: Many of the games have reams of content, but they aren't charging for any of it. The "one low fixed price model for everything I build for the rest of my life" sounds lovely for a gamer, but damns developers to the poorhouse. Years spent building expensive consumable content: This kills me. Indies sacrifice richness and length of gameplay for production values and throwaway levels. Painful tales of crunch and burnout result. Afterwards, each one says it wasn't worth it. Yet they do it again and again and again. Future games are 5 percent more efficiently made because "they learned their lesson." They need to be 80-90 percent more efficient. No long term vision for a game: So many teams think they'll make a game and then move onto the next. Instead, ask how you turn your game into long term franchise. You've created immense value. Don't throw it under the bus. Limited metrics or playtesting: Few teams have a version up and running in front of players on a regular basis. Many are showing the game to players in large numbers for the first time at PAX. Focus on engines: much passion for cool engine tech. Such an incredible waste of life. Almost every single design I saw did not require a custom engine and could have been done in half the time with Unity or Flash. And the gameplay would not suffer in the least. And 100-1000 times as many people would play it. Complete ignorance of running an online game: Turning their great gameplay into an online service that brings in a steady stream of revenue is a completely alien idea. History has good lessons for indies here. When you create disposable games you get a highly bursty revenue stream with a high likelihood of zero cash flow times. No cash flow = death. Every single one of these will kill your game and your company even if everything else about your work is great. And it really doesn't take much to fix them. A shift here, a tweak there. What if there was a slightly easier way of learning these lessons without having to go through a multi-year, multi-game meatgrinder? To cut out just some of the divorces, the resentful kids, the broken friendships, burned up years and the wasted savings? Perhaps by talking about how financial issues create an emotional rollercoaster, a handful of indies might skip ahead a few steps on their personal journey and have one or two fewer scars at the end. Yet, when I mention any of these issues, they simply do not compute or are seen as minor unimportant side items. Indie devs have deeply held assumptions and huge time investments in their games. (Talking about engines alone is a nigh holy war.) To question some of these topics is to question the foundations of their passion. So the best I can do often is give them hugs and words of encouragement. I have deep love and respect for those that choose to learn through failure in their own passionate ways. There is something quite heroic and deeply tragic about the blind journey. I've been down it myself many times. Go indies. Further info: Work life balance - Rules of Productivity Efficient Production - Content is Bad - Goodbye Handcrafted levels Distribution - Game of Platform Power - Flash Love Letter 1 - Flash Love Letter 2 Generating ongoing streams of revenue - Learning from touring bands

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