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Response to "8 keys to indie success"

Last week my article “How to Make it as a Professional Indie Game Developer” caused quite a stir.I wanted to take some time and address a lot of the comments and questions that people have raised in one concise place.

In the last week my article “How to Make it as a Professional Indie Game Developer” or “8 keys to indie success” caused quite a stir.

How to Make it as a Professional Indie Game Developer

I wanted to take some time and address a lot of the comments and questions that people have raised in one concise place for everyone to see.

I had thought about writing that article for a while, but was reluctant to do so. Not because I thought it would be highly controversial but because I thought it was too boring. To me this represented a set of abstract commonsense business ideas that weren’t really worth talking about in the limited detail that I could in a small article like this.

By far the most controversial part of the article was the “Pick the right projects” section where I advised aspiring Indies to pick projects based on popular trends. This idea seemed to stab at the heart of what it meant to be Indie and highly offend some people. This apparently came off to some people as “make games you hate for cash”. Although it may be possible for someone to make great games that people love that they absolutely hate, it definitely wasn’t the case for me. I loved making every one of the 15  games I have made as DigitalDNA Games, and as I said in my previous articles my time as an indie has been by far the most rewarding work (emotionally) that I have done in my career. 

First some Clarification

Before I go any farther I want to clarify some things and set some facts straight.

I talk a lot about being a “professional” in the article. People interpreted this in a lot of ways, some thought I was implying that being a professional was somehow a badge of superiority or success, coloring the entire article; this was not at all my intent. When I refer to being a “professional” I really only mean one thing. The activity is your primary source of income. The intent of the article was to give advice to people that aspire to quit their day job, whatever it is, and make their own games full time.

The original title of the article was “How to make it as a Professional Game Developer”. Gamastura re-titled it in their news feeds as “The 8 keys to indie success”, that title ended up being used in the reposting of the article to other sites, and the original title was dropped completely. Although this is a subtle change, the meaning to me is very different. The original title is about helping people that want to sustain themselves on the income of being an Indie developer, the later implies that I am discussing how indie developers find “success”. As I have said in many of my articles, that success is something that people define differently and I respect and applaud anyone that feels the need to express them self though making games.

People later asked why I would publish such a business centric article to For the record I would like it to be known that approached me asking permission to post the article, which I gave them. Honestly I wasn’t even aware of the site until this.

Although I feel some of my thoughts may have been overstated and/or taken out of context, I am not apologizing for them or retracting them. If anything, I qualified most of my thoughts in the article saying that the advice applies to you if your particular goal is to make making your own games your primary source of income and I stand by that. Having the distinction of being the highest grossing developer on XBLIG, with a history of repeatable success, I am not postulating how I think one might become a financially successful indie. I am simply stating how it did it. Given that I would have liked to go into more detail, especially how I pick projects, I intend to write another article in the future specifically about that.

So let me take this opportunity to address some of the questions/comments specifically.

You are only successful because of cloning Minecraft…

I usually start my articles with a synopsis of my success on XBLIG, simply because I am not making the assumption that most people have heard of me. This became repetative and seemed selfserving so in this case and only mentioned our best selling title CastleMiner Z because it has the distinction of being the best selling Xbox Indie title of all time.

Because people accuse CastleMiner Z of being a “Minecraft Clone”, this detracted a lot of attention away from the message in the article and some simply dismissed the message of the article as “Clone Minecraft and become successful”. Although I will address this topic specifically, I want to stop here and point out that I was arguably the most successful developer on XBLIG before the release of the CastleMiner games. I realize that not everyone stays on top of this channel as much as I do so I want to spend some time talking about our other games. I have been developing games on XBLIG for about four years now and had multiple #1 bestselling titles before the CastleMiner games.

Here is the complete list of titles that we have released on XBLIG.

Six of these games ended up spending some time as the daily #1 best selling title; most of them have been in the top five, and some of them have been only second to our own titles.  For a considerable amount of time we have held at least 3 of the top 5 titles simultaneously, at one point all of the top 3. If you take a look at the top downloaded games of all time from XBLIG you will see 6 of our titles in the top 20.

Cumulatively our games outside of the CastleMiner games have sold well over a million units. The CastleMiner games have made up about 50%-60% of our total income from XBLIG. This is admittedly a very large percentage of our sales, but by no means our only successful game. Since the release of CastleMiner Z, we have had the luxury of spending more time and money on our games, and have since moved to a philosophy of working on fewer titles overall and investing more in each one leading to less titles overall. Avatar Laser Wars 2 is the only title we have released since CastleMiner Z. On average, most of our titles have yielded a healthy six figure return and have been received excellently by our fans.

You met a large portion of your success by cloning Minecraft…

This has become a very interesting topic that I have intended on writing an entire article on. Simple put I don’t see CastleMiner Z as a Minecraft “clone”, but a creative expansion on a genre.  This topic becomes even more interesting due to the fact that Minecraft is essentially a “clone” of a lesser know game Infiniminer.

In Notch’s own words…

 “But then I found Infiniminer. My god, I realized that that was the game I wanted to do. I played it in multiplayer for a while and had a blast, but found it flawed. Building was fun, but there wasn’t enough variation, and the big red/blue blocks were pretty horrible. I thought a fantasy game in that style would work really really well, so I tried to implement a simple first person engine in that style, reusing some art and code (although not as much as you’d think) from RubyDung, and came up with this:”

Here is one of Notch's first videos of Minecraft. the description reads.

"This is a very early test of an Infiniminer clone I'm working on. It will have more resource management and materials, if I ever get around to finishing it."

Infiniminer had the misfortune of coming out in a time when it was much more difficult to monetize a game. I actually think of that developer a lot. I would imagine it would be pretty painful to see Minecraft become so popular in light of it’s origins. The story of Infimiminer is very interesting. Essentially  the developer lost control of the distribution of the game after his source-code was leaked. After that, he stopped development.

 “I stopped working on Infiniminer when the source code was leaked. It was totally my fault, as that’s what I get for releasing an un-obfuscated .NET assembly, but it nevertheless enabled hackers to create hacked clients and players upset with my balancing decisions to fork and write their own clients and servers.”

There is no doubt that Minecraft is a brilliant game. The funny thing is that I had a very similar experience playing Minecraft as Notch did playing Infiniminer. In Minecraft  I really enjoyed the first night where you were fighting to survive but after that the game was less entertaining to me than it was most people. The games I primarily like to play are military shooters and survival horror games (which also happens to be very popular with the Xbox crowd). I wanted to expand on the sandbox genre by bringing the elements of these games to a sandbox game; hence was born CastleMiner Z. I appreciate that people may not be able to understand how this experience is different from Minecraft from a few screen shots or videos, but assure you the reason that CastleMiner Z has outsold the other 20 or so “Minecraft Clones” on the Xbox is because of this. Also to clarify CastleMiner Z was not the first of these games there, it wasn’t even the 3rd.

Somehow expanding on an Idea that is not well known or monetized is somehow more ok or more noble than expanding on one that is well recognized. Although I completely understand this from a PR perspective given a fan base that may not be aware of all the facts, it seems a little backwards to me. To me, expanding on a genre that everyone knows seems more respectable than capitalizing on an idea from someone that simply wasn’t able to successfully monetize himself. This is even odder to me considering that “cloning” a game that isn’t popular isn’t met with such disdain, i.e. “cloning” an old NES era game, or a lost PC game from the 90s.

Building an actual clone of Minecraft would have in fact been far easier. There is a complete existing work to reference. Of the other “clones” on XBLIG there are actually some that are much closer to Minecraft. Now there can be a lively debate about where the line is drawn between a “clone” and an “inspiration” but that is very subjective. Ultimately, if the intent was to copy Minecraft our game would have been a lot more like it.  If you are going to be an indie purest and discredit me for expanding on a genre, that is fine but I feel you would have to lump Notch in there too.

Some people want to fault me for not giving Notch due credit. After all, in the quote he basically came right out and said he cloned Infiniminer. Although the value of doing this seems a bit odd, like Call of Duty giving props to Wolfenstien 3D for having the idea of a first person view with a gun, but for the record…

Yes I was inspired by Minecraft, it was a brilliant game, thank you Notch.

People were just playing your game because MC wasn’t available on the 360 yet?

It is true our games came out before MC360 was available on the Xbox. Since it has been almost as long since MC360 came out as the amount of time between the release of CastleMiner and MC360; I thought I would run some numbers. It turns out we sold about 1M units of Castleminer before the release of MC36 and about 1.5M units after. In fact, the last few months have had record sales for CastleMiner Z.  17 months after its release, CastleMiner Z is still the daily best selling Xbox Indie game.

Doesn’t making games specifically that sell well go against the spirit of being indie?

“Indie” means a lot of different things to different people and like I have said in many of my articles, define your goals however you want, I truly respect that. However, when I started making indie games, it never even occurred to me to think about making games for other reasons besides making ones that were best sellers. The intent was to make games that people loved and in turn, make the best selling games on the system.

Personally, I don’t judge my success by anything else except the sales numbers. To me, there is no better vote of acceptance than someone putting down money for your product. Some people accuse me of simply being a businessman that happens to sell games versus an artist. I would say that I never prescribed to be either and am a mix of both.

Maybe because I have spent so much time in the game industry it is hard for me to think of games as something else besides a product. I don’t find anything wrong with making a product that people love so that they will buy it, allowing you to make more and better products.

However some people seem to take the idea of games as an art to an extreme. Believing that they are a pure form of expression and need to be completely unique and busting at the seams with creativity and design regardless of being desirable or even entertaining. To them, tailoring a product specifically to a marketplace seems “soulless” or even evil. These people should definitely NOT take any of my advice; we are not on the same page. The reason I wrote the article is that I see hundreds of Indies failing and often have them coming to me asking for project or marketing advice, which I am more than happy to give. I figured I would consolidate some of the basic business advice into one article.

Isn’t what you are describing a Job? Doesn’t that defeat the purpose of being indie i.e. “independent”?

I often make this joke “I became Indie to make the games I wanted and now I am just stuck making games for the customer”

Yes what I do is a job plain and simple. I wake up every morning start making games, planning, having meetings, doing taxes, dealing with health insurance, payroll, usually working well into the night and on the weekends. It is having a job as much as running any other small business. However I would take it any day compared to the time I spent in the professional game industry.

Running a business IS independence, and although I am constricted to making the games that appeal to the marketplace, I still can choose what I get to make, and decide how to make them. Better yet, I reap the rewards for my decisions and am 100% accountable for what I do.

Our first big hit was Avatar Paintball. That first year I made something like $300k, which was more than I had ever made in a single year at any job I had ever had. Our revenue has nearly doubled every year after that. If someone has another job as good as this, please sign me up.

Don’t you feel bad sacrificing your creativity or passion?

Honestly I don’t feel like I have done this at all and I am not advocating it. Coming up with ideas that would work in the marketplace is a very creative endeavor. For the most part, the games that we made represented things that had never been done before which is why they sold so well. For example, Avatar Paintball was the absolute first FPS with Avatars. Although that might not seem like such a big deal to people, Xbox users loved their Avatars and wanted more to do with them. Some of the most fun I had was making the little lightweight apps, and finding new unconventional uses for the Xbox, that previously hadn’t been thought of. For example, VoiceChanger 360 was the first XBLIG to use the microphone. When I was little I had a crappy Transformer voice changer helmet, it sucked. I thought I could re-imagine this on the Xbox with a high quality Vocoder. People loved it, it was a #1 hit and sold hundreds of thousands of copies.

Putting your financial success first is a tool that will allow you to continue doing what you want to do on your own terms and I don’t think that any indie developer should be shamed into not looking out for their best interests. I think the pure creativity that people desire is something that ultimately has to be earned. At this point in my company’s development we have more flexibility than ever to take some accelerated risks which I plan to take advantage of completely.

Anyways back to making games… My best to all of you.

Thomas Steinke
DigitalDNA Games

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