For first time indie developers, successfully selling a game - your own game - is hard. Forget the actual making of the game; that’s a clear path in comparison to the many other things you need to know and do when selling the game you’ve poured thousands of hours into making! Though there are many talks and articles that cover this topic, I want to discuss what I believe are the most important steps I took on my way from being a solo hobbyist working alone in an attic, to owning a small(ish) studio with a bright future.
After about 2 and a half years of work, two of which was as a solo-ish developer, we shipped our debut title Before We Leave (a non-violent city builder) in May 2020; less than one month after NZ had emerged from it’s first Covid-19 lockdown. Now, Before We Leave has sold 50,000 copies - success achieved!
Before my adventures in game development, I was a software developer for 20 years. I’ve worked in everything from graphics for live sports broadcast to motion capture for children’s TV, to being the Dev Ops Architect for an educational website. I also spent a couple of years working with a small game studio, helping them create games for larger clients with specific briefs. All these experiences prepared me well for some of the challenges of making a game - but certainly not all of them!
I’d also like to briefly acknowledge how privileged I am - I’m a middle-class cishet white male from a relatively wealthy country, meaning that I have access to a lot of opportunities that others might not have. Please take my advice with a grain of salt, and know that certain things will change for you depending on your life circumstances.
Arguably the most important step I took to ensure Before We Leave’s success was entering Kiwi Game Starter (KGS) in 2018 and 2019. KGS is an award and competition for NZ game developers that are just starting out, usually run alongside the annual NZGDC conference. Submitting a build of the game and the feedback I received was valuable, but what really helped me was working on the other things I had to submit with it; an analysis of similar games, a budget, and a marketing plan. While none of what I submitted worked out exactly as I estimated (the game ended up costing about 5 times as much to produce as my initial very naïve estimates, for example), the exercise of doing the analysis was a foundational step in the journey I was taking. One of the KGS organisers commented that the fact I’d engaged with this boring (yet crucial) paperwork is one of the things that made me stand out in the competition - I was one of the 4 finalists the first year I entered and I won the competition the next year! Around the same time as KGS, I also attended the ProIndieDev online conference - a series of talks created by veteran developers discussing how to be successful making your own game. Luckily, the talks covered the same topics I found useful when working on my KGS submission which helped solidify my knowledge. I recommend ProIndieDev, or even a conference like GameDev World; anything that helps you learn about the business of making games. I know that you just want to make your game, but even being aware of this necessary analysis and paperwork will help you in many different ways. It’s important to have this understanding and knowledge!
From my first Kiwi Game Starter entry in 2018, something amazing and unexpected happened - a successful game developer who was looking to ‘pay forward’ their success came to me and offered to fund development of Before We Leave! This meant that I could move to developing full time, and allowed me to hire an artist and a PR person. Obviously something like this doesn’t happen often, and this random act of kindness is what allowed me to seriously develop Before We Leave from 2018 onwards. However, I don’t want to focus on this point too much - though the investor changed the velocity of my path, it was the actions that I took in things like preparing for the KGS that really set the direction - doing the research, doing the paperwork, being realistic about my chances and my costs, trying to learn what all the aspects of game development were and how I might go about doing them.
The next important step on the journey was in June 2019, about nine months after my Kiwi Game Starter success. I’d been working full time for about 6 months, and it was time to announce Before We Leave publicly. Like every indie dev, I knew this announcement would need to make a whale-sized splash (pun intended), since this would be the first time prospective players would be hearing about Before We Leave. In order to achieve this I focused on three things: PR, the announcement trailer, and a Discord server.
First, I recognised that there was no way I was going to be able to do effective PR for the announcement. PR is 99% research. If you truly want to learn it, you can do it yourself but finding a freelancer eases the burden a lot. So I found someone (by happening to see them tweet about being open for freelance games PR work!) who could help getting my announcement to all the important places - the main gaming news websites in particular. They were also super helpful in advising me on what to work on to make the ‘surface’ of the game as good as it could be and designing the best announcement trailer we could.
In case you haven’t met the term before, your ‘surface’ is the most visible parts of the game that make the most difference in helping an undecided player to decide to buy the game. For example, your thousand years of in-depth written lore might be awesome, and might be a great hook to keep someone playing the game after they’ve purchased it, but it’s unlikely to convince someone to buy the game initially! Working out what was ‘surface’ for Before We Leave - things like the way planets assemble as you explore them, the way the clouds move and the overall art style - and concentrating on them in the announcement was one of the keys to making it as noticeable as possible
Make a compelling trailer
We worked together for several months slowly refining the announcement trailer to be as good as possible. Getting your game’s announcement trailer as perfect as you can is vital.
We needed to achieve several things:
- Showing players what the game was about, and
- Drawing people in immediately.
These two must-haves can be tricky to implement into a single trailer! Generally, you have around 5 seconds to grab a player’s attention before they’ll stop watching your trailer - and even if you get their initial attention, you’ve got another 10 seconds to convince them to keep watching. Think very carefully about what a prospective player watching your trailer would enjoy seeing, and in what order. But at the same time, tell the player what they can do in game. Show them what the experience they could have looks like. Now, that said, you need to be very selective about what you show - I know that the details of your intricate combat systems are fascinating (and once a player has bought your game and soaked in it’s ambience they’ll probably agree), but leading with that in your announcement trailer will kill it deader than a headless fish! Additionally, thinking about the right piece of music for your trailer and researching other trailers from competitor games will help you immensely.
But fear not! Capturing in-game footage and editing video these days is pretty simple - I use OBS and DaVinci Resolve personally.
Build your grassroots community
What I’m about to tell you is one of the most useful pieces of advice I’ve gotten about getting your game noticed, and I hope it helps you as much as it did for me!
- Once, getting your game in all the right publications - magazines, then websites - was crucial to your success. Those still matter, but not as much as they used to.
- An evolution of this was getting your game covered by a popular influencer (aka, a streamer or a content creator). This is still important, and can help enormously, but it’s also no longer the most important thing.
- The thing that really matters now to ensure your game’s success is to build a community around it. If you’ve got a community of fans that are excited to play your game and talking about it, you’re much more likely to be successful.
That said, you can’t just make a server and expect it’s community to flourish without any work. Having a solid press release and a great trailer will help, but those alone won’t drive people to be an active community member. Thanks to this great GDC talk from Mike Rose (which is also where I got the above advice), I made sure that the server had something to do on it - an idle game!
At the time of Before We Leave’s announcement, the idle game was an abstracted, text-based game that felt similar to what the main game was going to be, playable with commands in a set of channels on the Discord server. This meant that when people came along to the server (following the Call to Action from the announcement trailer and press release) there was something there for them to do. Players had a reason to come back and engage with the Discord server, becoming a part of the community. The idle game contributed incredibly well to the growing community all the way up to release, providing a huge boost to our confidence and to the game’s visibility. To this day, engagement with the idle game is still very good.
I also made sure to foster an inclusive and safe community, removing negative influences from the Discord as quickly as possible. I did not want to risk damaging an entire community to cater to a vocal, negative minority. Design your community to be a safe and welcoming place, and you will be rewarded with happy, positive players.
To my great relief, the announcement was successful! We had articles written in gaming press websites like PC Gamer, Kotaku and Rock Paper Shotgun. And most importantly, our Discord server grew very quickly - going from 42 users to nearly 2000 in 2 weeks. Another word of advice - make sure you have some moderators ready to go before the announcement!
A month or two after our successful announcement, I was contacted by a few different publishers, and also by the Epic Game Store about releasing Before We Leave through them. This was unexpected and frankly it weirded me out for a while! I assume (I never actually asked) that this happened because of all the work we’d put into making the announcement as big as possible. So as well as moving ahead with building the game, some big decisions had to be made. Fortunately, by this stage, my wife (now the managing director of Balancing Monkey Games) and a few others were advising me, which helped make this enormous decision easier.
For example, going with a publisher would have significantly lowered the amount of money Before We Leave would make per sale, but there was a potential to reach a much larger audience - which could increase the actual net income. One thing that dissuaded me from using a publisher was advice that, if I went with a publisher, I would be shielded from some of the jobs needed to release a game - all the marketing and PR work would be abstracted away from me. Going with Epic would mean doing that work myself, and I’d learn what it was like. The idea was that if I learned a bit about marketing and PR, I would be able to make more informed decisions in the future about what was worth doing myself or handing off to someone else.
Ultimately, we decided to opt for the Epic Games exclusivity deal. It was a hard decision, and not something we did lightly! We were concerned about backlash - some gamers were vocal in their negative opinions of the Epic Games Store (EGS). I knew of studios that had announced their Epic exclusivity and had been eviscerated on social media, which was something I really didn’t want to happen!
Thankfully, the storm of controversy had mostly passed by when we announced our decision. There was (to my relief) surprisingly little backlash to our choice, in part because of the deliberate steps we had taken to ensure we had a calm and kind community. Any further fears were allayed by how great Epic have been to work with - they are really supportive and helpful.
As well as the potential for learning and better decision making in the future, the opportunity offered to me by Epic was huge! We were offered a guaranteed minimum income if we released as an Exclusive on the Epic Game Store, which was large enough that we knew the game would be financially successful from our small point of view right from release. As a starting indie developer, and more importantly, as a husband and father with three teenagers and a mortgage, knowing that we’d be able to stick around to make another game was security I couldn’t ignore. Additionally, they advanced us some of the money before release which meant I could hire a second programmer and a community manager, both of whom have been extremely valuable in making Before We Leave’s release a successful one.
Six months after signing with Epic, Before We Leave shipped. Apart from one memorable 2 week period shortly before release, it was done without any real crunch, too!
And now, it’s December - a whole 7 months later. In that time we’ve released 4 free content updates adding everything from Submarines and Road Decorations to whole new Island Biomes. We listened to our community’s feedback, and added many changes they requested as well.
We’ve also sold 50,000 copies - something that we’re very proud of! For a new IP from an unknown studio run by someone that had never released a full game before, something that is equal parts rare and amazing! There are high points and low points to any venture, business or otherwise, but achieving this milestone makes for an incredible high.
I have learned a lot through my several year journey - here are some of the most important things an indie dev just starting out needs to learn to do, based on the experiences I’ve had.
Analysing similar games
Analysing similar games in your chosen genre is vital to your success. There are several things you must find out:
How many other similar games are there?
Figure out if your chosen genre is too crowded, or too niche. Too crowded may mean it will be difficult for your game to stand out; too niche could mean your potential audience is too small, and you’ll never sell enough copies of your game to survive.
How many copies in your genre sell?
For this exercise, I’d recommend purchasing access to Steamspy and then spend at least a day really searching it. It’s not as accurate as it once was due to changes to the Steam APIs, but it’s still a treasure trove of great data! Also keep in mind that it only tracks sales on Steam, so take into account that a game might have sold well on other storefronts, or be established enough for physical sales to be a significant factor.
Look at games across the spectrum, not just obvious success stories or you’ll wind up with survivor bias. Find games that made average sales, and even games that fail. Ask yourself what the differences between those categories are; why did Game A sell 100 times as many copies as Game B? What does this mean for your game - are there any learnings you can take from that?
How many people does it take to make games in your genre?
There is a reason some types of games take hundreds or even thousands of people to make, and no amount of passion will enable you and your friends to replicate them!
What kind of people play these games?
Ask yourself some questions about your potential audience - how old are they? What countries do they live in? What other games do they play? Looking up games in Steam, and then finding other games that share the same tags is a good way to find similar games you might not know about.
Try and be realistic when working out what your game can achieve, but be optimistic too - you may not achieve the stars, but you should shoot for them!
The first time I wrote a budget I had no clue what I was doing! The simple act of researching and trying to estimate what various elements of the game were going to cost - especially things like art and PR that I knew I wasn’t going to be able to succeed at by myself - was very valuable. Not only did it give me an idea of what making this thing might actually cost, it helped me think of work that would have to be done that I hadn’t even thought about. It gave me a much better picture of the full development process. And remember - pay the people who work for you. Don’t try and pay people in “exposure” - it doesn’t work and you’ll look like a fool for asking.
The biggest mistake many new game devs seem to make is assuming, “if you make it they will come”. This simply isn’t true for games these days, if it ever was. Unless you want your game to remain a hobby project for no one but you to play (and there’s nothing wrong with that. If that’s what you want, stop reading my drivel and go forth, you’ve got a whole different bag of dragons to slay!) then you MUST think about marketing your game right from the start. Is this a game that will even sell? How will you find the right people to sell it to? How will you attract them, what will the visible surface of your game do to sell them on giving you money? What channels will you use to find and capture them? Can you afford to do the advertising and PR you need? Be realistic!
Like it or not, games now live or die based on the community around it. As your garden-variety introverted computer programmer, the idea I had to be out there being personable and friendly to build a community was terrifying, but there’s just no way to get past it. Put in the time and the effort to do this right from the start and it’ll pay off - you’ll also meet some cool people along the way.
And now, for some very tough love - if you want your game to make money and thrive, you need to engage with planning, budgeting, marketing and community building. If you don’t want to do these things, be at peace with your game making no money, or consider doing something else with your time.
So in the end, what did I learn? I think it comes down to three things:
- Look for support locally. Is there an opportunity for funding you can apply for within your city, or perhaps country? Find people who will advise you and help you on your journey. They’re out there!
- Admit there’s a bunch of stuff you don’t know, and understand there are more things you don’t even know that you don’t know. Be open to learning things outside your knowledge and comfort zone as they will influence your chances of being successful and making a living off your game.
- Admit there’s a bunch of stuff that’s completely dull and unsexy and you’re bad at that still just has to be done if you want your game to reach an audience. Do the boring bits and the sucky bits, because they have to be done if anyone is going to hear your voice, and the world will be all the richer for it!
If you can accept those facts, and work at finding and solving their implications, you’re going to put yourself in a much stronger position to give your game the best chance of success it’ll have - who knows, maybe you’ll even make it to 50,000 sales one day.