Repeating what has been said a thousand times – Guide for indie game devs
What follows wasn’t invented by me. It’s stuff most indie devs going at it for some time have said before so why waste my time repeating it? Well, apparently many people are having a hard time doing some research before blindly following their “dream” and again and again we keep hearing these stories about indie devs being caught by “surprise” by this harsh business. So maybe this post will be seen by a few that have missed every other posts on the subject that were there long before I became an indie dev myself.
It might be your dream but it’s also a business
And a brutal one. I mean, there’s nothing wrong about pursuing your dream but if you don’t see the business side of it then you might have some surprises.
Have you ever heard an indie dev saying something like “I’m not passionate about my work” or “I don’t really care to dedicate myself much to my projects”? No? Exactly, you’re not special. Your enthusiasm and your vow to work hard won’t set you apart.
People don’t care about your smile when you wake up in the morning or the amount of sweat you put in your projects, they care about what you release.
Also remember that there are many dreamers out there…
Don’t quit your day job…
Again recently I’ve seen this written in a postmortem as some big secret nobody ever revealed before. “Don’t quit your day job” doesn’t have to literally mean that, it might just be to make sure you have money to survive during the development of your game. For example, it might not be a crazy idea to try running your Kickstarter campaign before quitting your day job instead of betting on this after the fact.
When I lost my job and decided to give a shot at full-time game development I secured myself a salary in the publishing deal. Worst case scenario? If the game would have flopped then I would have been simply back to the same point I was when I lost my job, without any new debts and still with a roof over my head.
Working on games while having a day job can be a frustrating experience as often you don’t have the energy to work a few hours more in the evening and progress can be slow. It’s not perfect but it might be a lot less stressful, specially if you have never released a game before. Oh and beside, you don’t get some kind of official indie badge when you leave your job. The only one who notice it is you.
This point is also a reminder that even if you build it they might not come. Think about your plan B in case things don’t go as hoped and don’t wait until the release of your game to put your plan in action. The worst that can happen is you make a load of unexpected money and might want to change your plan. That’s a nice problem to have…
If you did quit your job then don’t take years before releasing your game
This motivation you’re enjoying at the start of your project will eventually wear off. We’re not machines and can’t ask ourselves to be equally enthusiast over a long period of time. You’ll have doubts, you’ll run into issues and become frustrated, some days you won’t even believe in what you’re doing anymore so the longer your development cycle is, the bigger is the risk of the whole thing going sideways. Specially if you’re part of a team as you won’t be alone to have these feelings and it might not happen to everyone at the same time so it might make the management of the project difficult.
If you are working on a game that will take years to release and money is an issue for you then you’re probably not working on the right game…
The middleman always win
Be wary of anyone who wants to get involved in your project and doesn’t create anything. It doesn’t mean that all publishers are evil, there are some very friendly indie publishers out there, but middlemen spread their risk over many projects so if you make a deal with the wrong person, you might not get the attention or the results you were hoping for.
Just take a look at the portfolio of a few publishers and you’ll be amazed by how many games you never heard about. Ask yourself how helpful they really were for these unknown games.
The press won’t have much impact or won’t talk about your game
Unless your game is already a hit… Don’t put any hope in the press getting you the sales you badly need. Sure, it’s still better to have the press to cover your game than not but it won’t turn your game into a hit.
You should probably check the post The press probably don’t care about your game. That might be ok. from Cliff Harris of Positech. This guy has been releasing successful games for years now and still struggle with press coverage while doing more than okay anyway.<
We’re mostly all clueless when it comes to marketing
And anyone pretending to know exactly what you should do should activate a loud alarm sound in your head. Before spending money you don’t have to go to expos or buying ads when you don’t really know how to properly manage them you should try cheaper alternatives, both in time and money.
I’ve seen indie teams doing much more marketing efforts than what was done for my game March of the Living (emails with keys were sent and that’s about it) and my game still ended up doing better. Why? I have no clue maybe beside saying that you just need the “right” game, whatever this means. Picking the “right” project to work on is probably much more important than having an elaborate marketing plan.
Learn to count
Steam takes 30%, your publisher (if you have one) will take another cut and then you have to split what remains with your team. Check the price at which you plan selling your game and then calculate how many copies you need to sell to make a salary for basic living expenses. Now add to that the money you need to develop your next project. Do you need to sell 100,000 copies to make all that possible? Don’t be surprised if you don’t.
When I check the gross sales of March of the Living on Steam VS what I actually get at the end there’s a big gap and profits are only split two ways in this case (publisher and me). Add one or two devs in there and I’d have to call this project a financial failure.
Your publisher might keep a bigger cut at first until he made back his money so you might not get much at first. In my case the publisher made his money back in only 3 days but it’s mainly because we had a very modest budget. A game with a tight budget and tiny team have a higher chance of being profitable faster than a game with a big budget and many team members.
Do some research before diving head first
If it’s the first time you see the “Don’t leave your day job” point then you’re probably getting into a business you know nothing about. Don’t act so surprised or disappointed when you’ll encounter the same issues that hundreds of indie devs went through before you.
At the very least do a search for “postmortem” on Gamasutra. This won’t tell you how to become successful but it will show you the many issues you’ll have to face yourself.