Surviving a decade in indie dev
What's kept Mommy's Best Games going for 11 years? Nathan Fouts details 21 things that helped the Pig Eat Ball outfit get by, and might help others as well
After beginning his career in traditional game development with companies like Insomniac Games and Running With Scissors, Nathan Fouts went indie. He has been making games as Mommy's Best Games for over a decade now. Over that span, the independent development scene has exploded, both in the number of opportunities and the amount of competition.
While Fouts is currently busy with the final stretch of the Fig campaign for Pig Eat Ball (an arcade adventure game with nods to Super Mario Galaxy and Pac-Man and regurgitation-based puzzles) and preparing the game to show at the PAX East Indie Minibooth this weekend, he took some time to write the following list of the various strategies, support systems, and fortunate breaks that have enabled him to survive in the tumultuous and ever-evolving indie scene since 2007.
I've made a lot of games since starting Mommy's Best Games back in 2007. Eleven years ago! I am the only full-time developer at Mommy's Best Games, but I do pay various friends for some programming, music, level-design or story-writing, depending on the project.
Here are some things I tried. A few may work for you!
1. I worked in AAA for 10 years prior. I built a nest egg. We started the studio with it.
2. My wife works full-time. This helps immensely.
3. I live in Indiana. The cost of living is low; the quality of life is high. It is wonderful. Living somewhere good and cheap also helps immensely.
4. Our first game, Weapon of Choice, was pretty good. It won us some money in a contest. I apply to about a dozen contests every year.
5. I launched Weapon of Choice on the XBLIG platform. Microsoft liked our game and featured it. This helped.
6. Alternatively I tried to launch a game on the Ouya. I missed the window on that one. It did not help, and I wasted money on it. I like looking for under-served gaming sectors as places of growth.
7. I've taught an "Introduction to Game Development" after-school class at my kids' school to make extra money. I made up the curriculum. Students there liked it. I used Construct 2 for 8-14 year olds.
8. I teach some summer camps for Unity 3D. Slightly older kids, but they still don't know programming, so we tip-toe through C#. I make some money on this too.
9. While taking five years to make our upcoming game, I stopped to make smaller mobile games along the way. These were Finger Derpy in 2015 and Emoji Scream in 2016. This recharged my enthusiasm for our big game. Those smaller games did not make enough money to cover their dev time though. Don't let "recharge projects" get out of hand.
10. For games whose sales are fairly dead, I've put them into bundles. It makes some money. But never Shoot 1UP. It's my precious. Make sure you know where your value is.
11. I've released eight commercial games in 11 years. Most have done okay but a few have not. Releasing one game every 10 years and selling millions of copies is another method.
12. I strive for great customer service. I have games on Steam that are years old but I still drop in the community section every few months to check. I answer every customer email I get personally. I've seen plenty of games left to die with no customer support and it saddens me.
13. I support button remapping and accessibility in games. It broadens your audience and lets more people enjoy your work.
14. I like to skip big Steam sales and do our own sales on Steam. With our smaller games, they do better sometimes as we don't get lost.
15. I've done deals with online Chinese stores. Didn't seem to impact Steam sales. Made a little money. Possibly reckless.
16. I've done contract work for AAA studios on the side. Good money if you can get it. Keep your ears open.
17. I've got a soft spot for merchandise. I've made t-shirts for many of my games. Squishy balls, Frisbees, pickle-pickers. I wrote it off as marketing. Probably a waste of money, but dang it's fun.
18. I've made five educational games over the years. Side-money there as well. Some of those projects though went over-time and weren't as valuable as I wished.
19. My motto is "always hustling."
20. I also say, "Take breaks to bake pies."
21. And I also say "Long walks make your brains talk."
22. That last one is weird, but you probably get it.