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Don't let your first game be your last | Opinion

Game Dragons' Philip Oliver advises indies on how to select a project that will set up the future of their studio

Deciding what game to make when you first go into indie development can be tough. If you want a hobby making games then it doesn't really matter what you choose, but if you want your first game to lead to a successful career then you need to think more carefully.

Now let's start by saying that we know you want to be successful -- we want you to be successful -- but it's important to not underestimate how tough that's going to be. Things won't go exactly to plan, they rarely do, but at least having a plan means you're more likely to go the distance.

It's an incredibly crowded market out there so you've got to think about how you're going to stand out, and not just make what you fancy.

What does your game need to achieve?

Your first game won't be your greatest. Don't worry, though -- nobody's is. Our first published game was very crude, but it gave us the motivation and confidence we needed to try harder and make sure the next game was a lot better.

What does a successful first game need to be for you? What are you trying to achieve? If it's to have a break-out critical and commercial hit, then it's time to reign back your expectations.

"Your first video game won't be your greatest. Don't worry, though -- nobody's is"

A successful first game should be one that you're pleased with, that you've learnt from, and which puts you in a good position to make another better game next time. It needs to be a positive experience with a good outcome at the end, and for there to be an end, it actually needs to be finished and released. Many fall at this basic hurdle. You need to learn all the skills associated with debugging, mastering and publishing a game, as well as actually making the thing.

Being a career developer and building a successful studio is all about continuous learning and improvement. You can't shortcut that process so get it out there and into the hands of players.

Take some time now to write down what you would consider sensible, achievable success. If it's wildly more successful, then great, but remember to be realistic.

Let's start with planning what you need to achieve with your first game to make this the case.

Being an indie developer is about business as much as it about making games

If you want a successful long-term business then your first consideration should be turning a profit. You need to think hard about what you can make that people will pay money for.

In our early days, we went down the publisher route because there weren't the easy options to go direct to market that the current digital stores now provide. That said, there are pros and cons of any route so you need to think about what's going work best for your business.

Philip Oliver (right) advises indies to take inspiration from popular games, but avoid competing head-to-head with them

Many indies think that going with a publisher is somehow a sell-out but we certainly don't think that's the case. Attempting to be great at everything first time is a big ask, and a good publisher can bring a great many benefits to you, but you need to ensure the deal on offer is fair to both parties and will help you achieve your goals.

And even if you ultimately self-publish, by taking your game around to all the publishers you're going to learn how to pitch yourself and get some invaluable feedback about the commercial opportunities. They'll want to see a small but high-quality chunk of the game, and understand your vision for the rest of it, so you'll have to make your reasons clear for why you think people will be happy to pay for what you're producing. Whilst they are in the risk business of publishing, they are only going to back a game that they feel stands a great chance of commercial success.

What's your game going to be?

So how do you go about deciding exactly what to make, and working out what people are likely to pay for?

"Most indies start with the idea of the game they want to make, then work out how to make it and sell it. Reverse that thinking and start with what people will pay for"

Most indies start with the idea of the game they want to make, then work out how to make it and finally try and work out how the can market and sell it. Our advice would be to reverse that thinking and start with what people will pay for. Then you can consider how to make it, and finally adapt your own ambition to relish the challenge of making this first game successful.

Start by researching what people are already happily paying for, and see if there's a niche that would suggest they'd pay for this new game, if it existed. Try to avoid going head-to-head with a highly successful game at this stage because chances are you'll lose. You can be inspired by previous successful games of course, but you need to do something different that you think a lot of people will find better or more appealing. Also, don't attempt to be too ambitious with your first project either. Making a great game is a lot of work and requires inspiration and belief.

But before you go headlong into creating it, think about how you'd market it too. What's it called? What's its style or image? What description and key artwork will hook people? How are you going to get players to pay for it?

Create drafts of some of this first and ask some people you consider the target market what they think of it. If you can't sell them on the idea at this stage then question if making the game would still find the audience you're after. It's highly likely that at this stage you'll get some feedback that will change your plan, but the reason for having a plan is that you have something to adapt based on feedback!

In summary

If you don't want your first game to be your last, think first about writing a game that people will find and pay money for. That might not necessarily be the dream game you want to write and play, but let's take this one step at a time.

If your first game is successful, your next game will be a lot better for it and hopefully you'll be on your way to a successful career making games for years to come. Good luck.

Philip Oliver is co-founder of new consultancy firm Game Dragons and one half of the veteran Oliver Twins. This is the first in a series of columns from Game Dragons offering advice to developers on growing their business. You can read the rest here.

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