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Making a living with indie games in 2014 (and beyond)
by Aaron San Filippo on 01/10/14 05:45:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

Note: Cross-posted from Flippfly.com / Follow me on Twitter: @AeornFlippout

The games business is changing at a faster pace than ever. Not only are we in the midst of a console transition, but the mobile market has gone through a maturing phase, and a variety of new platforms have gained prominence. Indie games have gained mainstream relevance. New and veteran developers are entering the indie scene at a feverish pace, while some of the more successful indies are expanding into small studios.

As a full-time independent developer, we spend a lot of time at Flippfly thinking about the future and what will give us the best chances for financial success. Here are some thoughts on 2014 and beyond.

Quality is more important than ever

With every passing year, the bar for indie games is raised a bit higher, and 2013 is no exception. Games like Gone Home and Brothers: a Tale of Two Sons have showed players that games can provide emotional, mature narratives, while Kentucky Route Zero and others have continued in the tradition of Limbo, cementing the idea that an affordable indie game can have world-class production values.

There was a time on the App Store and the Steam marketplace where any decent game with good marketing could be a financial success. It seems those days are waning. As Valve slowly opens up the floodgates of Greenlight, the question is shifting from “How do I get on Steam?” to “How do I stand out on Steam”?

Nothing has really changed fundamentally here: The games that succeed are the ones that do something better than the rest of the competition, and where the developer markets them better than the rest. But 2014 will be more competitive than ever, and we would do well to think about how our products will stand apart.

There is no clear “best platform”

During a good part of the last few years, the Mobile app stores may have been the best platform for indie developers trying to get started. It seems this may no longer be the case. With the app store thoroughly saturated and big publishers focusing much more attention there,  it seems that the best way to compete on mobile is to bring a known franchise there, or to be a developer who has a strong relationship with Apple or a strong reputation for quality. 2014 will favor established developers even more.

At the same time, creators of all 3 of the big consoles have made major efforts to get indies onto their respective platforms. It’s easier than ever to get a game into a living room without being an established publisher. The Microconsole revolution championed by Ouya in ‘13 seems to have fizzled somewhat, but we may see some big moves from more established companies this year.

Likewise, it’s becoming easier get onto the Steam platform, which means less visibility for each game on average, and less time on the front page where the revenue happens. A good relationship with Valve, and a game that’s proven to be popular seem to be big factors in success here.

Portals such as GOG.com are also growing, and while not the same size as Steam, other web distribution channels should not be ignored for PC game developers.

Flash portals such as newgrounds and Kongregate seem perhaps less explosive than they use to be as this audience is moving to mobile, but still have the ability to drive huge audiences, and great revenues for the right games. Kongregate’s Unity support makes it easy to get your Unity game in front of thousands of players. Many successful mobile games have built an audience on web platforms and then brought that audience to mobile. We’ll likely take advantage of this in the coming year in some form, if for nothing else, testing the waters on new game prototypes.

At the same time, Facebook is looking to get indies more involved, and with Unity’s partnership, this seems like a good avenue to explore, especially for those with a free-to-play model. For an indie game without a marketing/user acquisition budget, the ability to gain an audience here seems unproven, but for the right game, Facebook could be the perfect platform. Do your research, and if possible, talk to others who’ve tried this path already.

The takeaway here is: There are a lot of options for publishing your game, and the sands are shifting quickly. Don’t blindly jump into a plan without knowing what your potential audience size is there - talk with others who’ve tried it, read “numbers posts” and be realistic about your expectations. Get to know your distribution partners - their support is crucial to your success.

For Flippfly, we are happier than ever that we chose to use the cross-platform Unity engine. In theory, it will let us publish to any of these potential distribution channels. For Race The Sun, we plan to take advantage of this and port to additional platforms now that our Steam launch is complete. For our next game, we will have the freedom to develop and release it for whichever platforms make the most sense for the game - hopefully multiple platforms. In a market where the power is constantly shifting, agility is king.

Indie Development is growing up

Related to the last point, many indies are getting more business-savvy. A number of “Indie Publishers” have sprung up, putting marketing dollars and PR smarts behind projects. Successful individuals are teaming up, and indie games are finding their way into the mainstream. Many indies are diving into multi-platform development, and this will require increasingly larger teams and resources. At Flippfly, we are considering the opportunities of the various platforms, and thinking about how to take advantages of these revenue opportunities without spending all of our time on them.

PR has changed

​Over the last year or so, we have seen a startling shift in the way consumers learn about their games. The last decade has seen the virtual death of print magazine’s relevance in favor of the web model. And over the past two years, it seems that the Youtube “let’s play” has become the preferred method to learn about games. We were covered by hundreds of press outlets in 2013 - but all of our biggest spikes in traffic came from Youtubers. In fact, when Dan Nerd Cubed covered Race The Sun a month after launch, we saw more sales and votes on our Greenlight campaign than during our entire launch week combined.

Indie game developers would do well not to ignore this. Getting the attention of the big Youtubers is not a trivial task - get to know them and what they like. Talk about your game everywhere you can. Don’t ignore the traditional games press. Get on Twitter and engage people. Look at smaller Youtube channels as stepping stones, and above all, don’t give up. Sometimes it takes months of hard work before people start taking notice of your game - this is the new norm in a world where dozens of quality indie games are released every month.

From a development point of view, forward-looking developers will be thinking about what makes their games not only fun to play, but fun to watch. It’s no accident that games like Spelunky and The Binding of Isaac have become staples of Youtubers - these games offer a fresh playing and viewing experience that directly affects their longevity. The idea that “The best PR is the game itself” has never been more true.

Customer behavior is evolving

It’s interesting to think back to when we were kids with a single game console. A SNES game cost something like $60, and when we got a new game, we would play it for dozens of hours. As massive Steam sales, bundles, and $0.99 mobile games have become the norm, our attention spans seem to have dwindled. I personally have dozens of games on my iDevices and Steam account that I’ve yet to play. Many players are focusing their time on free-to-play games, especially on mobile.

What does this mean for developers?

We should be thinking about making it as easy as possible for people to access our games. With the ability to buy and install a game with a couple clicks on the app store and on Steam, the idea of purchase and installation being a multi-step process is quickly becoming a foreign notion  to players - especially those outside of a traditional gaming audience. Players may be buying games in sales and bundles at a feverish pace, but their actual play time is divided among an ever-increasing list of possibilities. It seems more important than ever that we find ways to make it easy for players to get into our games, engage them, and keep them engaged.

I believe 2014 will also be the year that many indies embrace the free-to-play model, and explore other monetization methods. It will be interesting to see more developers explore the possibilities in this space, and whether a balance can be struck that’s both financially viable, and ideologically acceptable to a crowd of developers and gamers that have traditionally resisted this model. This goes hand-in-hand with the maturation of the mobile market - a successful indie F2P game will require team members with business savvy, and for most indies, this will require either expanding team size, or skillsets.

With growing enthusiasm for e-sports and mass spectating of games, there may also be new revenue channels opening up for developers willing to think outside of the box. Pay-per-view multiplayer matches? premium-priced elite leaderboards? Sharing of Youtube revenue in exchange for exclusive content access for Youtube celebrities? The possibilities are endless.

Conclusion

Gaming is evolving at a rapid pace, and developers who succeed in 2014 and beyond will be the ones with a finger on the pulse of their players and where they are going. Our strategy for success at Flippfly is to continually focus on improving our games’ quality, accessibility, and presentation, and to find new ways to expand our audience.


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Comments


Paul Johnson
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Good piece, agreed with every single paragraph.

The only thing you got a little wrong imo is the number of new (and actually good) games coming out on mobile now. It's more like several a day ime, it's just that only some show up in the media and only on the "what's new" lists for about a minute due to all the crap that floods out alongside.

Aaron San Filippo
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Hey Paul, thanks for the comment. To be sure I understand, you think I understated the saturation of the mobile markets?

Paul Johnson
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Definitely. :)

According to this, there's many hundreds a day coming out and they can't all be bad.

http://148apps.biz/app-store-metrics/?mpage=submission

They're not necessarily quality competition, but their very presence is enough to make sure you only spend about 3 minutes in the "what's new" newsfeeds.

(Having just checked the link still works, I see a drastic drop off for the last several months though, and I predicted that in one of my blogs on here... :) )

Sven Uilhoorn
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Seems like that has more to do with "Note that due to approval delay, the last few weeks may not be properly represented and are not displayed. ".

I imagine the last two/three months are underrepresented then? I guess a small decline could be expected, but this drastic?

Zachary Strebeck
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That just highlights the important need to distinguish yourself and to really harness social media and other outlets to generate hype. Easier said than done, but most of the games coming out are junk. Them being so bad is doing half the work for you! :)

Andreas Ahlborn
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@Aaron

Did getting featured bei TB sth. for your sales?
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O4hb3XRuSUM

Aaron San Filippo
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Hey Andreas,
It was a little hard to measure, because this happened during our Steam launch week. But I'm sure it did have an effect on our sales!

Mihai Cozma
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Thanks for the article. It has confirmed most of my fears and feelings about it, while teaching me some new stuff too.

Benjamin Quintero
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not to get on an anti-F2P rant but I just hope that 2014 is the year they still make games for people who don't want to haggle for their enjoyment of the experience. F2P feels like having to get tickets through TicketMaster for your favorite ____. When the fees are as much or more than the cost of the product you get that gut feeling that something just isn't right. Then you get there and its $20 to park, $5 for a soda or $8 for a hotdog + soda, and $15 for the album, and $25 for the tshirt, and the list goes on...

the younger generation is embracing a disposable future and it just breaks my heart. So this is me, just hoping that 2014 is the year that some developers take the vow to make a product that will still be around in 5-10 years, as an all inclusive and memorable experience.

Aaron San Filippo
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I don't see premium games going away anytime soon!

Chris Melby
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I was worried about F2P also, but since then have noticed that my sibling's kids, cousin's kids, friend's kids, and so on, are all playing Minecraft -- when their parents allow them. I hope that this isn't just a trend with in my scope, but all over.

Kujel s
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I can assure you Benjamin I (and I'm sure others too) will continue to make singleplayer offline games as long as I can :)

Mike Howell
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Excellent insight. Thanks. It's a strange thing that we'll now put more time into deciding what to order at a burrito joint than whether to buy something in a Steam sale or Humble Bundle. ...and I have many unplayed titles in my steam/hb account, most of which cost significantly less than a burrito.

Doctor Ludos
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Thanks for the post, very interesting points, especially about the youtubers one!

Regarding F2P, I don't think many indies will be able to leverage it, because in order to generate profits from your game, you need a really big audience, when only 0.5% of them are giving you money. If you add the moral issues that these kind of game poses (i.e. being "exploitative" of your "weakest" users to generate money), I don't see many indies competing and succeeding in this field. You'll have better change to get profitable with a premium game on Steam than a F2P, IMHO.

Aaron San Filippo
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I think for most teams of one or two, this is true.
But at the same time - there are a lot of "maturing" indie studios who are becoming more capable in the areas of business. I think we'll see more of them exploring - and succeeding - with this business model.

Christian Nutt
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I suspect (could be wrong) that an indie game with a well-targeted audience that genuinely likes it could engender higher conversion rates with a non-coercive F2P model.

Aaron San Filippo
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Christian: I agree.
And just like indies are leading innovation on gameplay, I suspect (and hope) that they will also start leading innovation on monetization.

Right now it seems that there are "best practices" that dominate F2P monetization, and many of the old guard find some of these methods to be offensive. The big problem right now in my opinion is that there's little exploration in these areas.

And really, on the business side of things, studios like NimbleBit show that you *can* succeed at F2P, even with a very small team.

Ryan Sumo
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I'd like to believe this, but my own experience has me skeptical. Aside from Nimblebit and maybe Spryfox, are there any indie studios that have managed to make F2P work positively?

TC Weidner
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good news- Its easier than ever to make games- Bad News- Its easier than ever to make games
Good News - Its easier to distribute games than ever -Bad News-Its easier to distribute games than ever

even worse news, short sighted suits have basically painted the whole industry into a corner via 99 cent pricing and F2P schemes.

So basically as the story goes, It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..

Amanda Fitch
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I feel like I'm experiencing déjà vu...

Quality is more important than ever IF you are attempting to make a style of game for a market that has matured. I come from the indie casual game scene, and this implosion folks are seeing in the indie core game scene right now is similar to what we experienced a few years ago. A few leaders will arise and go mainstream, the market will be flooded by a certain type/style of high quality game, and in a few more years, gamers will have fatigue and seek out something new that doesn't need to be polished, just different and refreshing. Some of the market leaders will survive if they keep an eye on the future, but most will die.

I've watched game channels rise and fall over the years, and for anyone who thinks doom is here because you've been locked out of a specific channel... none of them last forever. Just think of where we were 5 years ago. 10 years ago. 15 years ago. The market is always changing and when things get static, new channels arise.

Keep the faith and don't give up!

dominic cerisano
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Thought I might inject some very recent practical information here.
Obviously success in the gaming vertical now relies on market penetration, a very sobering reality.

I am now going to publish some very real numbers from a simple one-week twitter marketing campaign for a recent android game launch from http://www.standard3d.com that ends tommorow (1/14/2014)

Platform Impressions Engagements Eng. rate Spend
iOS 6,046 591 9.79% $17.56
Desktop 628 22 3.50% $1.67
Android 175 20 11.43% $0.47

Stare at this table for a while. First thing to note is that iOS is by far the most successful target for impressions.
Secondly, the engagement rates for gaming ads are astounding. 0.5% is considered "good" in any campaign.
Thirdly, the fact that this is an Android-only game made a significant positive difference in engagement.

I am finding it hard to believe these numbers. There are, according to any research, more Android users out there than iOS users. But this table gives the grotesquely opposite "impression". Are we to believe that Android users don't tweet?

Why is iOS being served 3454% (34.54 times) more impressions?
Food for thought. Please contribute your own experiences (and data please!)

Aaron San Filippo
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Hey Dominic, thanks for the comment!
This data actually sounds really interesting; and I'd personally love to see it turned into a full blog post explaining what some of these numbers mean.

scott stevens
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My guess is that this has to do with the market culture on iOS vs that of Android. Android is widely viewed by users and developers as a "shareware" market - the typical user here is more averse to paying for games and apps than the typical iOS user.
The iOS platform has a well designed, integrated, singular marketplace that is core to the experience of all the devices that use it. As such, the users of iOS are better trained for monetization, better trained in how to use the marketplace, and more likely to pay for the convenience afforded them by this well designed marketplace.
It's just easier to buy shit on iOS.

Jim Fisher
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Thanks for this article. It makes sense and your observations about the dwindling attention spans of consumers really resonated with me. Clearly writing a quality game and charging a premium doesn't cut it.


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