On January 26th, my company became exactly 4 years old. As a brewing tradition, I'm publishing my yearly reports and experiences about being indie game developer. Last year’s post is here. I’m going to go through the year’s event and just summarize the things that I’ve learned.
"Aesthetics first" approach
We started development of “Merchant of the Skies” by figuring out the graphic style and it worked out really well for us. I think aesthetics help to sell games, but good gameplay makes people stay. You can probably make a decently-successful game with only one of these two, but the real trouble will be to keep traction.
For the next games that we make, we are going to try finding out the style first and tuning the gameplay later. Basically the process would go: Theme → Style → Gameplay
Game designer Adam Mayes visited the Latvian Gamedev Conference in (I think) 2017 and he said something like “You wouldn’t start filming a movie by preparing the set with decorations first and then asking to write a script.” At that point it did not resonate with me as I was very gameplay-first type of person, but as time goes I tend to agree with this more and more. You don’t have to sacrifice a good gameplay if you go with art and theme first. Rather, you are just building a strong game design and marketing foundation right from the start by working on a theme and art of the game.
Predicting the success of the upcoming game
Last year, I've been 100% sure that success of one game does not guarantee the success of the next one. I still am. But I'm fairly confident that you can predict if your game is going to work out or not. It does involve a good bit of self-criticism.
Wishlists is the #1 stat for me now before launch. If I had access to Kickstarter – I’d run it for most of my games. Financing is secondary, the primary function is to measure interest / gather response from the audience that you have already gathered.
I don’t think high amount of wishlists matters by itself, you still need to have a decent quality game on launch to maximize the effect. Player feedback at convention can help, but this is not an ultimate indicator. You also have a hunch, but you really need to be honest with yourself here. If it is not turning out to be amazing – it’s hard to admit it to yourself. You can still release an OK game, just don’t ramp up your hopes up.
Statistics and Data
Despite paying for plane tickets / partial stay at the GDC, year 2019 expenses are lower than 2018. This surprised me, but it has an explanation: we had one more worker for 4 months of 2018.
I guess the overall lesson is "employees are expensive". In Latvia, I (roughly) have to pay 0,66-0,7 EUR in taxes for every 1 EUR of salary that workers get paid to their bank accounts. This was not a surprise for me by itself, but it reinforced my tendency to be extra careful when I consider expanding the studio.
Income sources by year: freelancing vs from our own games
I think this is the first year where our games could effectively sustain us, even if we skipped freelancing altogether. Let’s hope this is not the last.
Merchant of the Skies early access launch ramped up the resources a bit, but essentially that only means that we can self-publish a next game comfortably. Don't get me wrong, this is still a good result for us. The final release and console ports are a bit further down the line, which could boost the income quite a bit for 2020, but I don’t expect the same peak as in 2019.
Continuing to work on Merchant of the Skies made little sense financially roughly around November 2019, but making the game as good as possible (at least within our abilities/deadlines) has been our #1 focus right from the start. The plan right now is to release a final patch in April, take a break in May and port the game to consoles in June/July. I think the part that “we would be earning the same passive income if we were not doing nothing” gets to me a bit (especially since we are trying hard to come up with cool content and campaigns), but ultimately I just want to have a good game in my portfolio that I’m proud of. My personal regular income would be at least 4 times higher had I stayed at my Software Engineering job
I still take different types of freelance jobs occasionally, albeit much rarer now. It still remains mostly a passion-driven career choice. Quitting my job was 100% worth it, as I enjoy this type of journey with insane ups and downs much more than I enjoyed office work. Always have a backup option though. Always.
I thought that I was ready for anything, but I’m not sure now. As soon as I posted the game, I did not feel like it belongs to me anymore (but that was the plan since purpose of Early Access is exactly to get player feedback). I think what got me is the constant need and pressure to deliver meaningful updates every month. I don’t mind the work, but the constant anxiety whether I’m doing it enough made me question every life choice that I made. It extends far beyond just games. I took a step back to maintain better work/life balance now and I think this is helping. Drink more water, take more walks, etc.
I'm giving a talk at the GDC
My talk about aesthetic driven development got accepted to GDC this year. I’m going to be talking about how we picked the graphics before we actually started developing Merchant of the Skies and how everyone (with access to art) can do something similar. Don’t be shy and come say hi if you visit GDC this year.
I think persistence pays off, since financially 2019 has been our most successful year so far. I still see posts on gamedev reddit saying how someone spend 3+ years on a game and it did not work out and I feel really bad about it, especially since my first game took 2 years (after-work hours) and it turned out bad. Do not think that you are entitled to grants/publishers/sales just because you worked on the game for long, otherwise you’re setting yourself up for disappointment, it is easy to fall into that trap.
I think we managed to get where we are now by making smaller scope games first and then ramping up gradually as our skills grew. We are not successful, but we are sustainable so far. I still have major doubts every time we ship something; I acknowledge the issues with the games but I am just very strict with my own deadlines. Occasionally, I am starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel.