It's been a while since I read Roger Corman's book "How I made a hundred movies in hollywood and never lost a dime." but I remember its lessons vividly. His book title is pretty literal as he made profit on every film he made, no matter how low budget or schlocky.†In this post I'd like to share how some of his best techniques can be applied to indie game production so you too can never lose a dime!
1) Exploit genres
Corman's films were often labeled as B-movies, Genre films and Exploitation. He was a master of creating and exploiting niche film genres such as Bikes, Nurses, Women in cages, Edgar Allen Poe, etc. Some would see this as a negative, but his bottom line sure didn't. These subgenre's were generally considered exploitation because they exploited shock value for attention, something worth considering when deciding between creating yet another fantasy game or going the Edmund Mcmillen and Adult Swim games routes. Negative press is still press!
Exploiting a newly popular subgenre or niche gives you the benefit of being a big fish in a small pond rather than trying to get normal mainstream attention in the already crowded world of games journalism. Wacky, weird or shocking will get people talking and playing! Unfortunately this "technique" also leads to tons of me-too games whenever a genre shows mainstream success, ie. Zombies, Bird games, etc. Come up with your own or pick something underutilized!
Wikipedia page of exploitation genre's in film
2)†Aim for low profit, and even lower budget
A good part of the reason Corman always made profit is he knew how to scale his production budget to match his expected ROI (return on investment). He didn't try and make 500 million a movie while spending 200 million just to make it and another 100 million on advertising, he knew he'd only make X, so he spend much less than X and boom, profit! Find out how much your "competition" realistically makes (hint, don't consider Angry Birds your competition) and then aim to spend much, much less than that. I recommend doing some Game Jams to really learn how to scale your production down in terms of time and money! The other lessons here offer some great tricks on ways to keep costs down but look for many more and never stop stealing hacks and techniques from other low budget mediums like film but remember, time is money too!
The frugal auteur
3) Market yourself as legit, cheaply
One of the more innovative tricks Corman used to promote his films that unfortunately can't easily be repeated now was using theatres as an advertising platform to legitimize his films. The way he did this cheaply was to only make two prints of his film (prints were really expensive so he made 1 for show and 1 in case the first got damaged), then tour around showing his film in theatres for only a week or two at each theatre. What's important about this idea is that in this day and age of direct to dvd movies there is a legitimacy associated with actually being shown in theatres, a certain status as a film possibly worth seeing. He also realized that people mostly see films during the first 2 weeks of release and wasting his time promoting it at a theatre for longer than that wasn't a good way to make profit from his print.
How does this apply to you, the indie game developer? Rather than spend your money on advertising, spend your time promoting your game in short run, high attention areas like Game Jams, Festivals, Competitions, Conferences, Platform specific featurings (iOS featured games of the week, Steam free weekends/promotional sales etc), Bundle sales, Charity drives, Tournaments (DOTA2 anyone?), Kongregate achievement competitions, and more. Tour around for a couple weeks and get facetime and game press whenever possible.
Here's the key to understanding how to make this work financially. You will only make profit for a short time when your game is new and attention is on it, the profits will drop off quickly and be barely a trickle after that (bundles can help later, see below). Why is this good? Plan for it and instead of focusing on trying to sell your games as a service (which is a good alternative biz model but not within the scope of this post) just start working on the next game. Angry Birds was the 52nd game for Rovio, they waited till they had a HUGE hit before putting their eggs in one basket. Focus on making games quickly, low budget and profitable and your quality will naturally improve as you learn new things with each game and your company/name fame (or infamy if you follow lesson 1) will grow with each release. Robert Rodriguez's first big hit film El Mariachi was actually made to just be part of a 3 part direct to video b-movie series just to help him fund doing bigger and bigger films. He makes profit on every film he makes too!
Indie student game competitions
PAX (Penny Arcade Expo)
Humble indie bundle
4) Exploit undervalued content
One of Corman's lesser known money making tricks was to buy foreign films cheap then re-edit them and dub new dialog to make a sort of remix or new film. This lead to great profits with relatively low upfront cost and much less work and crew required. There are thousands of small indie games and experiments that could be transformed into a profit if done well. This could be done poorly ( Ninja Fishing vs Radical Fishing†and Minecraft vs Fortresscraft†) or smartly ( Muffin Knight vs Super Crate Box ). I don't want to suggest blatently cloning another popular game for another platform and shamelessly raking in profits ( Gameloft ) but rather finding underappreciated or unfinished games and either buying them outright or working with the developer to make them into a quick buck for everyone involved. Want a great head start on this? Check out Ludum Dare game jam competition entries, they are open source, unfinished/unpolished game ideas that have already gotten some feedback, exposure and playtime without an expectation of anything more. Heck I've even put together a list of which games use which kind of programming language/engine/tool to make it easier for you to find one you can easily take the ball and run with. If you want to go a bit more experimental than check out the Experimental Gameplay Project for some radical ideas and people open to taking their concepts further. Once you reach a certain level of recognition you can even potentially act as a publisher or someone who can help port games (the way Halfbrick has been doing for indie's lately).
5) Employ hungry amateur talent
First to be clear, when I say amateur talent I mean it in the sense of talented people not currently using that talent at a paid professional level. One of the things Corman is famous for is helping apprentice great talent into hollywood. Perhaps you've heard of Jack Nicholson, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Ron Howard, Joe Dante, James Cameron, Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, David Carradine, or Robert De Niro? All of them got their big breaks working through and learning from Corman. He was great at recognizing hungry talent and giving them a chance to work on something that would actually be seen by an audience, something they couldn't easily do on their own. Many of those directors started off editing trailers for Corman till he gave them a chance to direct one of his films. Jack Nicholson started off as a screenwriter till Corman decided to throw him in one of his movies.
What I'm suggesting for Indie game developers is that you find talented people out there who are hungry for a chance to be involved and show off their stuff. Be upfront with them about how little profit and pay there will be and that you will work them HARD but what will make it worth there while is that you WILL finish and release the game and that it will be PLAYED by a good variety of people. Many indie projects never accomplish those things but you will be different because you're armed with the tricks of this post and a focus on making profit to make the next great thing. Recently graduated game school graduates are a great source of talent looking to build a portfolio!
"The Corman Film School"
Game Career Guide forums
6) Pre-sell your product
Part of the reason Corman was able to guarentee that he was able to make profit was not just keeping his initial budget low, it was also partnering up with other companies and pre-selling his films. Often he would pre-sell his film to a†distributor for a profit and then as long as he kept the film on budget he didn't even have to worry about the films profit possibilities during film or release. Other times he would get a script or at least treatment written and then partner up with an interested studio or film financer to cover as much of the production cost as possible up front. This works similar to how book authors will get advances from publishers to cover the cost of sitting at a typewriter for ages. This can be a difficult thing to do when you're relatively unknown and your ability to make profit is untested so rather than focus on selling to middlemen, why not pre-sell your product to customers? There's nothing better than knowing the demand for your product is there in the form of cold hard cash. This model is already gaining significant ground in two forms: Kickstarter and selling alphas/betas/preorders.
Kickstarter and Pre-v1.0 fundraising systems both work off a similar concept, you provide a pitch in the form of media (mockups, trailer, design docs, etc) and/or playable content (prototype, demo, alpha/beta version, etc) and then get people to pony up to help fund the game in exchange for a copy of the game and some additional bonuses. Kickstarter differs in that its usually not a playable game yet, there are different payment levels with different kinds of bonuses, and money isn't withdrawn unless the funding goal is hit. Prototype/Alpha/Beta sales differ in providing a constantly updating playable game, an ability to help influence the development of the project, and money transactions (and something to play!) are instant regardless of any funding goals. There are tradeoffs and benefits to each method so pick the one most appropriate to where your game is at now, what you can provide customers, and whether you think you can reach a funding goal. You can always try Kickstarter while at the early stages (non-playable) and if it fails to reach a funding goal focus on building your prototype and then sell as soon as you can. Keep in mind these depend on virality so take advantage of any marketing tricks you can! See below for some successful examples.
Zombies, run! Kickstarter page
Frozen Synapse pre-order page
7) Work fast
Corman often challenged himself to see how fast he could make films both for profit reasons and just as a personal development idea. He pushed the same mentality on his pet screenwriter, Charles Griffith, sometimes calling him in the evening, outlining a script idea and asking to get a first draft script by morning, and getting it! His quickest production was a whole 2 days, 2 days! This kept costs down, keep things creatively exciting and kept him learning and making new things. The important thing is that he didn't release films he thought were garbage, he just kept his production expectations low and scaled accordingly. This again is where I'll recommend Game Jams as the ultimate boot camp in learning how to do this. There's nothing as exhilirating and satisfying as conceiving and finishing a game in 48 hours. In order to successfully pull it off though you need to learn how to focus your game and polish a pearl not a bowling ball. You will have to cut out lots of features but what's left will be that much better for it. Once you've got the hang of doing this it will be that much easier to follow the suggestions of lesson #4 and play off game jam games for quick turnaround.
Many indie's and game studios see growth and financial success as an opportunity to spend longer on their games (ie 3D Realms) but length doesn't always equate to polish or profit so don't fall into this trap, make each game quicker than the last (see the next lesson for how).
Little shop of horrors shot in 2 days
Global Game Jam
8) Reuse assets
One of the biggest reasons Corman was able to film movies in sometimes as short as two days was good pre-production combined with reusing sets and props. This works especially well when working within a subgenre such as when he did multiple Edgar Allen Poe films. There was even one of his films where he realized he had a spare day or two before one of his Poe sets was going to be dismantled and had a script written that night to take advantage of that small window to produce one more film. Games are designed in a way that reusing assets should be even easier than in films as they are often based around lots of components and the rules for how those components interact. Reusing your assets, characters and settings can have two amazing benefits: cost/time savings, world/ip building. There's tremendous value in building up a world/ip when it comes to building a fan base and marketing so why not make multiple games that take different approaches to the same world or characters? Heck look at all the things they've done with Mario, Sonic and Crash Bandicoot that have nothing to do with their debut games but I'm sure some of them reused assets (probably sound more than art but I digress). There's also of course the obvious move of making sequels but that may not work as well for subgenre exploitation games as it does for AAA tentpole games, so better to explore new mechanics with the assets you've got.
Many of you reading this have probably seen or at least heard of the Corman classic Death Race 2000, but did you know that the car sounds were reused from his F1 racing film (which itself used real race footage he recorded cheaply by going to the races)? Lloyd Kaufman of Troma once put a car crash scene in one of his films and considered it kind of an expensive stunt so he mitigated the cost by finding some way to include that scene in as many of his other films as possible! If you spend money on something, don't throw it away after 1 game! I'd also recommend studying what has worked/not worked for Telltale with their episodic games as a great learning opportunity for asset reuse (sadly they probably don't reuse as much as they could).
Cheapass Games reuses board game components
9) Exploit Bundles
Corman defends the original meaning of the term B-movie by explaining why it wasn't originally an insult, it simply meant the second feature of a double feature showing (like drive-ins still do), similar to the term B-side in music. The upside of B-side songs and movies is they are usually the riskier but sometimes more interesting releases, the ones not as easily marketed but still potentially profitable. Having a B-side bundled with a more marketable product allows a company to mitigate the risk of lower profits by providing a bundle with not only an increased value perception for the customer but also the possibility that the B-side could also be successful and help drive sales further.
Steam has been great at providing and promoting bundles for indie games of various categories to not only help promote the individual games but also to increase sales due to the value provided. There are quite a few Indie games gamers might not have otherwise played had they not be part of a bundle and profits that might never have been gained. This also provides a great way to get a short boost of income using your old, unpopular games to boost the bundle value. You see this with Steam's bundles from publishers providing back catalogue games that probably wouldn't sell on their own anymore but that gamers might have some nostalgia for or want to play because they missed it when it was popular. Another great example is the Humble Indie Bundle which coincidentally is today offering a special Frozen Synapse Bundle (two things I've mentioned earlier as great examples).
You don't have to wait for someone else to create a bundle, create your own "greatest hits" catalogs or special promotional bundles (especially if you create a great series of single ip games by following lesson #8). Go one step further and use the bundle sale as a fundraiser or kickstarter for your next game (as in lesson #6). Imagine the sales that could have happened if J.K. Rowling had put up a page saying "I need funding for the final two Harry Potter books as they are a two-parter, as a special promotion if you buy the first 5 Harry Potter books as a bundle at this special discount price you will get the next two books free!".
Valve Orange Box
10) Always finish or recycle
Corman understood you can't make a profit on your films if you don't sell them, and if you can't make profit you can't make more! All of the previous lessons include ideas that will commit you to a promise of finishing your game, fast, within budget and make profit, hopefully as early as possible. He put a lot of focus on good pre-production planning and working with constraints instead of against them, both of which go a long way towards making that finish possible. His focus on using the profit from each movie to fund the next one made sure that if he was excited about other film ideas he still had a great reason to finish the current one first.
If you're an Indie developer that probably means you want to make a living making games and you can't do that without selling what you do. As the Joker in The Dark Knight said, "if you're good at something you should get paid for it". That's the difference between an amateur and a professional, a professional asks for money and comes through with their promises. If finishing a game really becomes impossible or the game is just absolutely not working and looks unsaveable from a design perspective then you absolutely must recycle the assets and time you've spent into something that WILL sell. Chances are you can reuse code, art and sound and maybe even some design, but probably not all of it (maybe in a future game though). Treat this rebirth as a bonus challenge to develop the new game using the remaining time you had budgeted for the game you are scrapping so that you absolutely still hit budget and make profit. You can do it so don't wuss out!
Derek Yu - Finishing a game
Chris Hecker - Please finish your game
I highly recommend reading the book yourself as it's a great read about a great Director/Producer. If you find low budget film making technqiues and hacks interesting and want to learn more to apply to your game production I also recommend Robert Rodriguez's "Rebel without and crew" and any of Lloyd Kaufman's (of Troma fame) books on filmmaking (he even has a dvd version now).
Cheeky plug: If you liked this post check out the most recent episode of the Game Developers Radio show I co-host, "Exploring Design", on the topic of gimmicks in games.
Hope this helps at least provoke some thought for the indie's out there struggling to make a living!
UPDATE: Here's a great article about the background of Kickstarter including details about making good pitches so you don't get rejected!†http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/07/magazine/the-trivialities-and-transcendence-of-kickstarter.html?_r=2&pagewanted=all
UPDATE: First half of the episode of Exploring Design discussing this article, gives me a chance to elaborate on some of the points!†http://www.gamedevradio.net/?p=412