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2014: Year of the Indie?

2014: Year of the Indie?

Fri 10 Jan 2014 10:17pm GMT / 5:17pm EST / 2:17pm PST
BusinessDevelopmentMarketing

Being a successful indie developer is getting both easier and tougher

One of the big trends developing over the past year has been the rise of indie developers. Indies have been scratching out a living for years doing games in Flash in browsers, but the advent of mobile platforms opened up new territories. Some indies became big mobile developers, and many more people left the shrinking area of console development to start up new companies focusing on social, mobile, or browser games.

Fast-forward to 2013, and we see the emergence of crowdfunding as a viable financing method. At the high end, Chris Roberts has piled up more than $35 million in funds from an increasing audience of fans eager for his Star Citizen game. On Kickstarter alone, last year saw some $57 million in pledges, and the number is sure to grow. Now the last bastion of game development has been breached, with Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft all pledging to support indie developers much more than in the past. Console makers will no longer require developers to buy expensive development systems, and the bureaucracy to bring games to market is being reduced.

"Wait, why aren't they all downloading my game? Perhaps because they've never heard of it"

On the development side, tools like Unity are making it easier and less expensive than ever to support multiple platforms, as well as reducing development time and effort. The emergence of the Unity marketplace for 3D items has been a huge help to InXile's development of Wasteland II and Torment: Tides of Numenera, according to CEO Brian Fargo. Tools for creating iOS or Android games abound, and some of the most successful games have been created in a few months rather than a few years. If you're not trying to create cutting-edge graphics on the newest platforms, development can proceed more swiftly at less expense than ever before.

All this means 2014 is shaping up to be a great year for indie developers... or is it? Yes, more opportunities are opening up, but getting noticed will be harder than ever. Making a profitable living as an indie developer is going to be tougher, too.

For one thing, there are now hundreds of thousands of games out there. Apple recently noted there are more than one million apps in the App Store. Any week sees hundreds, if not thousands, of new games appearing on mobile platforms, consoles, PCs and online. The audience for gaming has expanded tremendously, with over a billion gamers worldwide - but the number of games to choose from has also grown, and will continue to do so.

The fundamental problems of game development (aside from getting the right team together) used to be access to distribution and capital. When the only viable way to make money on games was to sell it in a retail store, you needed to cut a deal with a publisher for funding, distribution, sales and the money to build inventory. Now, of course, access to distribution is easy. Just pop your game into an app store, and it's available to millions of people. Wait, why aren't they all downloading my game? Perhaps because they've never heard of it.

The new fundamental problem of game development is creating an audience. A lucky few indie developers already have an audience from past games, so they've got a head start. Everyone else has to begin from scratch, and often this effort only begins when the game is nearly done... which is far, far too late for most games.

More than one PR professional has told sad tales of developers coming to them for help with their Kickstarter. "When will that begin?" is the question usually asked. All too often the answer is "Oh, next week." Bzzt! Wrong answer. A Kickstarter campaign is about generating funding, yes, but it's really about building an audience that is interested enough in your game to put money down for it. You will have a much higher rate of success if you've started that process at the same time you began kicking around ideas for the game design.

"games these days are something that develops over time... Think of it like gardening - you need to prepare the soil for the seeds, then tend the garden over time to get the best yield from your crop"

We are seeing the emergence of services to help indie developers create or find an audience. Many of the companies who have built large game audiences (on mobile, social, or online) have begun efforts to find and distribute promising games from otherwise unknown developers. Of course, indie developers will have to give up some of their potential revenue for this help, but that's better than 100 percent of not very much.

2014 will be the best of times, and the worst of times for indie developers. Opportunities abound for new games and ideas to reach the market, but making good money from that effort will be harder than ever. Indies who desire to make a living from their craft need to think about marketing, about monetization early in their projects, or partner with someone who can help with those areas.

Lavish the kind of creativity and care you put into a game design on marketing and PR, and your odds of a successful game launch will go up. Remember, games these days are something that develops over time, it's not a fire-and-forget item like console games were ten years ago. Think of it like gardening - you need to prepare the soil for the seeds, then tend the garden over time to get the best yield from your crop. Some crops can provide bountiful harvests for many years if properly managed, and that's the sort of game you should be striving to create.

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22 Comments

Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development

925 1,569 1.7
Lavish the kind of creativity and care you put into a game design on marketing and PR, and your odds of a successful game launch will go up. Remember, games these days are something that develops over time, it's not a fire-and-forget item like console games were ten years ago
Here's my recent counterpoint: http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/PaulJohnson/20140111/208448/Combat_Monsters_A_postmortem.php

Posted:10 months ago

#1

Andrew Goodchild Studying development, Train2Game

1,254 421 0.3
@Paul
Any plans to get Combat Monters on Amazon Android store? I tried to get it on Kindle Fire, where Google play is out of the picture.

Posted:10 months ago

#2

Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development

925 1,569 1.7
Absolutely. We're working on a massive content update atm and the plan is to cover all the missing formats once that goes live around end of Feb. We simply ran out of time before.

Posted:10 months ago

#3

Robin Clarke Producer, AppyNation Ltd

26 50 1.9
@Paul Johnston

Interesting post mortem. The game seems to have at least done something (and to get a foothold on two formats is no mean feat). I do wonder if being so dismissive of free players isn't making it harder than necessary to grow the base of paying players. "Pay up or go away" doesn't work when there are a growing number of well-designed F2P games that can be played forever for free.

You don't need millions of dollars to get visibility either. And if it's any consolation, specialist press attention is almost completely irrelevant for F2P games. On-device ads can work (but yes, you are going to have to learn about how they work, which is hugely tedious and seemingly never ending) but you also should look at your in-store presentation (if the paid marketing person you mention didn't raise this I would be very surprised) - your low end IAP pricing is quite possibly turning people off too. Basically making sure every part of the 'hosepipe' has no leaks in it before turning on the tap.

Hope this helps or gives some food for thought anyway..!

Posted:10 months ago

#4

Carlos Bordeu Game Designer / Studio Co-Founder, ACE Team

71 93 1.3
I'm actually seeing more the PC as the place where more indies seem to be thriving. Obviously the super successful indies on mobile have made more than anyone, but getting there is almost impossible. Right now DayZ, Rust and Starbound are making millions (I assume) and beating games like Metal Gear Rising in the top sales charts of Steam, though I do suppose that getting to that spot is pretty difficult, with tons of games trying to get noticed on Greenlight... but I have to wonder if it is harder on PC or on mobile.

Paul:

I read your postmortem (great read, though it's a shame when you put so much into a game and don't get what you expect in return). One thing I have to ask: For a team of six people, isn't it kind of too little to have just one artist? I ask because at ACE Team we made our first game (Zeno Clash) with a team of seven and we had the exact opposite: Only one programmer (though we did have the whole Source Engine to work with). The reason I ask is because having so many artists allowed us to get a lot of press and people interested precisely because of the art of the game - not necessarily the game itself. We got a ton of coverage without having any PR specialist. This was many years ago, so I know things have changed... but it might not hurt to consider having more people who can push the art side of your titles.

Posted:10 months ago

#5

Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development

925 1,569 1.7
... your low end IAP pricing is quite possibly turning people off too.
Can I ask what you mean by that please?

@Carlos, you're probably right but even that guy is a on a back end deal - we couldn't afford any more staff at the time we did all this. And now still can't, lol

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Paul Johnson on 12th January 2014 9:54am

Posted:10 months ago

#6

Andrew Goodchild Studying development, Train2Game

1,254 421 0.3
The problem with a tripler could be that the very people it should appeal to, those who want a pay once game, look at it and think of it as a paid "cheat" (which adult core players are often less inclined to use, whilst kids are less likely to have ready cash). I confess, that has sometimes been my reaction in free games with a currency multiplier. Your explanation in the post mortem was a good one, but obviously most players haven't read that.

So is there a way to get across that it is designed as the normal state if you only wish for one off payments, as opposed to an option to pay to cheat, which may put off adult core player from the purchase?

Posted:10 months ago

#7

Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing

1,161 1,228 1.1
f2p from the perspective of Jeff Strain (Diablo, Starcraft, Warcraft, World of Warcraft, Guild Wars, State of Decay):
These games put designers in a position where they spend their time not thinking about what is fun. They’re not designing a game to be fun. They’re designing a game that can channel people into stores. They’re designing ways to tempt people to use in-game currency.

The two articles on combat monsters by Paul Johnson certainly make for one interesting case study. Best of luck with Combat Monsters, if the game is as good as the store reviews say, then you really might only need to crack the code on how to sell it.

Posted:10 months ago

#8

Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development

925 1,569 1.7
These games put designers in a position where they spend their time not thinking about what is fun. They’re not designing a game to be fun. They’re designing a game that can channel people into stores. They’re designing ways to tempt people to use in-game currency.
That kind of black and white presentation isn't doing anyone any favours. It's clearly not true in our mindset and I doubt it is in many others either. There are some very oppressive f2p games out there that this process describes but they're easily avoided. Don't target sheep and all the limitations go away again.

Posted:10 months ago

#9

Robin Clarke Producer, AppyNation Ltd

26 50 1.9
@Paul Johnson

Correct me if I'm wrong, but is the cheapest virtual currency item you can buy in the game $4.99? In general it looks more attractive if you also offer lower tiers which makes the higher ones look like better value. Although there's no one-size-fits-all solution. Getting people to pay the first time is the big hurdle and very few are going to spend $5 on something they're not absolutely sure they love.

Posted:10 months ago

#10

Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development

925 1,569 1.7
Right, that makes sense thanks. We can't go lower than that as there is a thing about our referral bonuses, but it's a fair point.

Uur next update will have a one day only doubler for a dollar that should do well, especially when a big payout for an achievement is beckoning. :)

Posted:10 months ago

#11

Robin Clarke Producer, AppyNation Ltd

26 50 1.9
My instinctive reaction would be that players wouldn't see that as good value... but if you remind them about it just before a big payout that could be interesting.

I'd still be tempted to charge for it with hard in-game currency (if you have a two-tier currency system) rather than real money though. YMMV

Posted:10 months ago

#12

Felix Leyendecker Senior 3D Artist, Crytek

184 204 1.1
Agree with Carlos, there's merit in seeing the PC indie scene as a seperate thing from mobile, seeing as they are mostly pay2play without microtransactions and singleplayer focused.
They may not be raking in the cash like mobile "indies" (not sure if the term is warranted) but they certainly established a presence on GOTY lists. (Talking about games like papers please, spelunky, gone home, stanley parable etc)

Posted:10 months ago

#13

Bruce Everiss Marketing Consultant

1,692 594 0.4
Problems with indieism:

1) The low barrier to entry and global nature of the market mean that competition is immense. You really need to bring something new to the party. Or in management speak you need to differentiate to gain strategic advantage.
2) Finance. 3Fs and kickstarter are best. The vulture capitalists are circling and will give you £100 for 75% but only after you have sold your children and have 5 million users.
3) Visibility is nearly impossible. Most people don't understand marketing, even many who think that they do. The customer is far closer now so we are all in marketing. Especially development staff who think that they aren't. Marketing is just as creative (or more creative) as game development.
4) People coming from boxed console games bring bad baggage with them. If an indie game doesn't go from idea to MVC in test markets within 6 months you are in trouble. A third of resources should go into pre production planning of every last detail. If you are throwing away art or code then you are doing it wrong.

Posted:10 months ago

#14

Bruce Everiss Marketing Consultant

1,692 594 0.4
Advantages of indieism:

We are in the middle of the biggest explosion in creativity ever in the history of the video game industry. And it isn't happening on console. We are in the middle of the biggest explosion in customer base ever in the history of the video game industry. And it isn't happening on console.
There are over a billion active PCs and approaching 2 billion active smartphones, before too long there will be 7 billion. Soon there will be billions of active tablets. Not all the users of all these devices play games, yet. But that is our fault for not giving them the right games and the right business models. Angry Birds proved that new audiences are out there. It is our job to reach them.

Consoles will embrace indies more and more. They have no option because indies is where all the creativity is and consoles will be left behind unless they come on board. The model to follow is Apple's App Store. One of these on a PS4 or Xbone would be a winner.

Posted:10 months ago

#15

Jakub Mikyska CEO, Grip Digital

207 1,123 5.4
Popular Comment
While I agree with most of your points, Bruce, there is one place where I think you are wrong and even contradict yourself - Low barriers of entry and visibility are a problem X consoles should follow the App Store model.

Console's content management and relatively high barriers to entry are actually a very good thing. If you have a great game that you want to put on consoles, there is a good chance that the platform holders, or someone like us (GRIP Digital) will publish your games there for you, if you don't want to go through the process yourself. But you won't be bothered by thousands of worthless games and copycats. In another words - if you make a great game, you have a solid chance of making money. Such correlation does not exist on the AppStore.

The consoles must not ever adopt the App Store model.

Posted:10 months ago

#16

Neil Young Programmer, Rebellion Developments

309 398 1.3
@andrew - haven't played Paul's title, but I'm generally in favour of one off "upgrade" IAPs (I'm far more likely to buy those than in game currency). To me, they feel like a sort of shareware approach - the base game is free, and you can play it without the upgrades to see if you like it; but the upgrades allow you to progress faster once you're decided you like it, with a longer term benefit than from a one time currency purchase.

Could see them as an evolution of demo/full game model into freemium?

Posted:10 months ago

#17

Keldon Alleyne Handheld Developer, Avasopht Ltd

455 443 1.0
One of the reasons I got myself a console license was because the barrier to entry was high and the maths spoke out to my particular situation (this was back in 2010).

But in terms of the iAP, I was thinking the same thing as Robin as I'd imagine that people who have had a taste of doubling and tripling would be more likely to then later purchase it.

I also have more hope for forecast as I've seen how much new users a review can bring in to a game, especially if that game allows free play. So each time the game is reviewed you are going to see spikes from the new visitors. And I'd wonder what would happen if those reviews came with coupon codes for two days of doubling (or is that too cheesy).

So going back to the indie scene, my only question is what the economy is capable of sustaining, and then comparing that to the size of the competition (if I wanted to truly measure the level of competition). At the moment it's more like an oligopoly, but with the right discovery platform that could change. Still it's shape is not a problem in itself - that shape is just a result of how much difference discovery can make.

7 billion devices (as paying customers) is a little optimistic of the global economy given that 80% of the world lives on $10 per day.

Posted:10 months ago

#18

Bruce Everiss Marketing Consultant

1,692 594 0.4
7 billion devices (as paying customers) is a little optimistic of the global economy given that 80% of the world lives on $10 per day.
The capital cost of a $48 Android smartphone is $2 per month on a two year contract and confers huge economic advantage to the owner.
Many global brands are keen to reach this audience so there is advertising revenue waiting to be had.

Posted:10 months ago

#19

Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development

925 1,569 1.7
Many global brands are keen to reach this audience so there is advertising revenue waiting to be had.
I beg to differ...

Posted:10 months ago

#20
is the cheapest virtual currency item you can buy in the game $4.99? In general it looks more attractive if you also offer lower tiers which makes the higher ones look like better value.
Looking at revenues of multiple top grossing games, one can see that the trend is towards NOT offering lower tier IAP's at all. You do get lest spenders but the one you get are bigger by far. But as you put it, there's no one-size-fits-all.

@Paul: Great and painfully honest post mortem. I wish you and your team great success for 2014!

Posted:10 months ago

#21

Craig Page Programmer

386 220 0.6
@Paul I think your game's payment model and target audience are a terrible match for each other. At least for the PC version. When I think of all the people I know who played Magic the Gathering, and then I think of all the people I know who play F2P games, they're not the same people!

You could probably revive the PC sales and interest in the game by selling a standalone "game of the year" edition for $10 or $15 on Desura and every other web store you can get it on. Then every 4-6 months sell a new DLC pack.

Posted:10 months ago

#22

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