If there is one universal truth in the games industry, it's that being an indie is hard. It comes with a whole suite of challenges and pitfalls that small teams without specialist staff are largely unequipped for.
Success in the indie sphere is a hard won thing, a combination of grit, determination, failure, and luck. Any indie developer will tell you that business development comes second to actually finishing the game.
So while turning to a publisher can help with business development, it comes with a complex web of strings attached. But for developers unwavering in their commitment to independence, it can look like an insurmountable task.
However, Polish studio Superhot Team, developer of 2016's minimalist and genre subverting FPS Superhot, has been working on some solutions for its fellow indie developers. Talking at Dev.Play in Bucharest last month, Superhot Team business developer Tomasz Kaczmarczyk outlined one of the biggest challenges facing indie devs: how to measure performance and adapt accordingly.
"It's impossible to tell if you're doing the best job possible, because you have no reference points... My personal crusade, which I started last year is about fixing this, providing additional information and tools."
Currently in beta, IndieBI is a new platform from Superhot Team that aims to help indie developers establish benchmarks and best practices based on credible data. It allows developers to breakdown their game sales across platforms and in different regions; these numbers can then be compared to other games in order to better understand how well a game is performing.
One of the main problems indie developers face currently is a loose approach to business development, says Kaczmarczyk. The model most people have is "just hustle." Without the time or resources to finely tune a strategy, developers use discounting, promotional deals, bulk sales, localisation, and regional marketing to try and make an impact, but it's difficult to base these decisions on solid, quantifiable data, let alone measure their effectiveness.
IndieBI has been designed to give developers feedback, and allow them to make informed decisions, breaking down the value of a game in different regions, and what changes can be made to capitalise on the market's potential.
The new platform follows on from Superhot Team's recently announced indie development fund, Superhot Presents. Much like IndieBI, the fund is geared towards helping indies stay indie. Speaking with GamesIndustry.biz, Kaczmarczyk says it's about "giving back to the industry, helping developers be smarter and potentially more successful," without relying on a publisher.
"It is a rising tide raises all boats kind of situation, where it makes it better when the entire industry is smarter"
IndieBI was originally developed for internal purposes at Superhot Team. Kaczmarczyk says it was the result of "running out of my mind" trying to figure out what worked and what didn't when it came to business development.
"[We were] also running into problems where you can't answer basic questions like how many games have you sold this month, because there are just too many sales to represent," he continues. "I asked one of the teams to start working for us, and to build a tool to be a little bit more aware of what we are doing on the business development side."
While IndieBI has made Superhot Team's business development more effective, shining a light into the dark and inaccessible corners, it's real strength comes from comparison and feedback. Considering this, Kaczmarczyk says its important that the platform is available and affordable to any developer who wants it. Better-established and more successful developers will be asked to pay a small fee to support its upkeep, which will subsidise smaller companies less able to afford access, but in no less need for its services.
"It is a rising tide raises all boats kind of situation, where it makes it better when the entire industry is smarter," he says. "We won't be able to figure out everything ourselves, I would much rather have other people working with us, and then coming up with best practices and ideas, and what can we do better and how do we manage our games more effectively.
"Then at the same time... if you are just using it internally, it provides some value. It provided value for us for a while, but then you still run into issues where you have no external reference points. You don't have benchmarks, and you don't know if you're underperforming in China, because you have no way of measuring what a good performance in China looks like.
"We also expect that with more people participating in the system, there will be more people speaking the same language and having access to the same data about our games. And the entire industry will be a little smarter."
"You don't know if you're underperforming in China, because you have no way of measuring what a good performance in China looks like"
Of course, discoverability remains a pressing concern for indies. The over-saturation of Steam is problematic for many smaller studios, and the Epic Games Store isn't an option for everyone. IndieBI isn't trying to solve this problem, but if it is able to fulfil its promise of smarter business intelligence, it should help offset the difficulty somewhat.
"People that have games that just aren't interesting or exciting for an audience are probably still not going to break through the noise levels," says Kaczmarczyk. "But what this can hopefully do is, with access to your Steam wishlist information and some additional marketing signals that we'll be able to collect, such as Twitter followers, social media buzz, and your early community, the system should be able to tell you what to expect.
"To have a projection of what similar games have done in the past, so you will not be disappointed, or you will know that launching your game right now has very slim chances of actually doing anything, and you should maybe work on building out your audience first, building something that gets people excited."
Importantly also, IndieBI is engineered as a tool rather than a commercial product, and Superhot Team won't be selling the data. Users will own their information, and if they delete it, "it gets nuked out of existence." Data sharing also rests with the user, rather than Superhot Team.
"It works kind of like Google drive or similar services, where you have to have a measure of basic trust with the service itself, that we're not just going to be leaking your data all over the place," says Kaczmarczyk.
This obviously creates problems for publicly owned companies however, which cannot store their data on external servers. But Superhot Team is investigating ways to adapt the platform for internal ecosystems. This will come at the cost of some functionality, but users will still have the internal tool for their own business intelligence.
"Hopefully, this will help people that don't have a publisher, giving them oversight and advice from whatever their experience is," says Kaczmarczyk. "They will still be able to get the same type of information. They will not be disadvantaged against people who are signed up with a publishers."
Disclosure: GamesIndustry.biz attended Dev.Play with help from the organisers.