With Indie developers appearing (and disappearing) faster than you can say "game over", there is no shortage of Indie games flooding every corner of the market. From the PC to your favorite smart phone/tablet, from the Xbox 360 to the upcoming PlayStation Mobile games, Indie games are everywhere.
There’s even buzz about a new console named Ouya, which will offer free-to-play games for your TV. It raised a million bucks on its first day on KickStarter, even as naysayers have been pointing out its flaws. For established indie developers, churning out yet another anticipated sequel virtually guarantees millions in the bank. But, for aspiring developers, every new game may mean months of work with no success. Back to Ramen noodles!
But what does success really mean for an Indie developer? Is it a 4-star rating? Or is it thousands in sales? Or is it just breaking even and making a profit?
Instead of answering these questions directly, let me offer two pieces of advice.
The first point is very important if you want to keep getting motivated to do what you love. The latter is even more important for keeping yourself on track. As a great philosopher once said, "It is better to succeed than to just suck."
Let’s say you’ve just released your first game, and you’ve learned a lot from your experience. You may not have sold very many copies, but you’ve learned enough about game programming and the industry to do better next time. If you have dismal ratings and horrid graphics, most gamers will shy away from your game. They may never have the chance to experience your game, even if you feel that the gameplay makes it worth playing. This may discourage many Indie developers from making a second game.
However, there is a different way of looking at it: don’t simply look at your game as a miserable failure. Learn from your mistakes, and read between the lines of what others have to say. What can you improve in a future update? Does it make sense to build a better sequel? A completely different game, perhaps? You may not have been successful at releasing a hit game, but you were at least successful in completing a game. That is a lot better than many developers who give up before releasing their first game.
If you are an Indie game developer, you are most likely a full-time software developer at your day job. Either that, or you at least have the ability to get a new job as a programmer. Use your game-development experience to bring something useful to the workplace. Get out there and meet other local developers. Attend conferences and join user groups. Build a website and share your work. Spread the word through social channels.
The more you exchange information with others, the more you will learn. You will eventually find your niche and start to excel at it. Whether your expertise lies in tap-tap games on iPhone or Minecraft lookalikes on Xbox 360, only you can determine this path.
Reflecting on my own rollercoaster indie experience, I have to mention that I started off with 2 simple games. My first game came about one evening after I read "Learning XNA 4.0", while my second game was built in two weeks, on top of the Platformer Starter Kit. Both games spent weeks in playtesting and peer review before being released. 2D Math Panic remained at 3 stars on Xbox Live Indie Games, while Angry Zombie Ninja Cats did a little better at 3.5 stars after bouncing back and forth between 3 and 4 stars. Both were profitable, since I had no expenses except for my $99 annual fee. But neither game has the looks or the charm to write home about. But what followed was what redefined my success in the world of Indie games.
As you may know, I took my experience from my first two games and put together the XBLIG Sales Data Analyzer (SDA) and the XNA Basic Starter Kit (BS Kit). With a string of media coverage by The Indie Mine, Armless Octopus, VVGTV, and Indie Gamer Chick, my tools were promoted and accessed around the world. Even today, Google-searching "xblig sales data" puts my Analyzer in the top search results. Better yet, try searching for simply "sales data analyzer" and my Analyzer dominates the search results.
Fortunately, my contributions to the .NET community were recognized at work. I was asked to put together a presentation on XNA for my colleagues, and I have also been working on a prototype for Kinect in the Workplace. Plus, it was a huge bonus to be able to attend Microsoft conferences for free, from the inaugural Security Development Conference in Washington DC in May 2012 to the annual TechEd conference in Orlando in June 2012.
Beyond dev tools, I’m also working on video tutorials (screencasts, if you will) for Indie developers. Going beyond the Xbox 360, I plan to develop games and tools for more Indie developers across more platforms.
Not all projects will turn out the way you want them to. You may even have to put some projects to sleep when their time has run out. Cut your losses, and make the best of what you’ve completed so far. Corporate behemoths do this all the time, and so can you. Sega discontinued their Dreamcast hardware to focus on their software, when they realized that they couldn’t keep up with the competition in the console market. Google Labs (precursor to Google X) killed off projects periodically, if they didn’t amount to anything.
In the same line of thinking, I started to build a new game last summer, with the intention of submitting it to Dream.Build.Play and the XNA Last Dance website. It was built on top of my very own Starter Kit, as a complete game which could also serve as a tech demo. But, when I realized that I couldn’t finish the game on time, I shelved it temporarily and focused on updating my Starter Kit instead. I had made some improvements to the Kit’s core engine while working on the game. So, I uploaded the latest version of my Kit to the OnekSoft Labs site.
Finding your own success is not an easy feat. You may even discover that game development is not for you. Or you may realize that you need some formal education or real-life experience in game development before you can build something on your own. Take a look at top developers like DigitalDNA Games. From "Ask Angela!" to "Avatar Paintball" and the best-selling CastleMiner games, today’s success came from years of hard work. Even the Indie Gamer Chick had to start somewhere. From a no-name indie slayer, she has become the "most-read Xbox Live Indie Game critic in the world."
Don’t worry about trying to impress the critics. Do what you love, and be honest with yourself. If you think you can do better, just do it. Or not. Just make a decision and own that decision. Don’t go blaming the competition or the market for your results. Learn to adapt to any market, and you will be successful in your own right.