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Response to "8 keys to indie success"
by Thomas Steinke on 04/15/13 02:45:00 am   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.


In the last week my article “How to Make it as a Professional Indie Game Developer” or “8 keys to indie success” caused quite a stir.

How to Make it as a Professional Indie Game Developer

I wanted to take some time and address a lot of the comments and questions that people have raised in one concise place for everyone to see.

I had thought about writing that article for a while, but was reluctant to do so. Not because I thought it would be highly controversial but because I thought it was too boring. To me this represented a set of abstract commonsense business ideas that weren’t really worth talking about in the limited detail that I could in a small article like this.

By far the most controversial part of the article was the “Pick the right projects” section where I advised aspiring Indies to pick projects based on popular trends. This idea seemed to stab at the heart of what it meant to be Indie and highly offend some people. This apparently came off to some people as “make games you hate for cash”. Although it may be possible for someone to make great games that people love that they absolutely hate, it definitely wasn’t the case for me. I loved making every one of the 15  games I have made as DigitalDNA Games, and as I said in my previous articles my time as an indie has been by far the most rewarding work (emotionally) that I have done in my career. 

First some Clarification

Before I go any farther I want to clarify some things and set some facts straight.

I talk a lot about being a “professional” in the article. People interpreted this in a lot of ways, some thought I was implying that being a professional was somehow a badge of superiority or success, coloring the entire article; this was not at all my intent. When I refer to being a “professional” I really only mean one thing. The activity is your primary source of income. The intent of the article was to give advice to people that aspire to quit their day job, whatever it is, and make their own games full time.

The original title of the article was “How to make it as a Professional Game Developer”. Gamastura re-titled it in their news feeds as “The 8 keys to indie success”, that title ended up being used in the reposting of the article to other sites, and the original title was dropped completely. Although this is a subtle change, the meaning to me is very different. The original title is about helping people that want to sustain themselves on the income of being an Indie developer, the later implies that I am discussing how indie developers find “success”. As I have said in many of my articles, that success is something that people define differently and I respect and applaud anyone that feels the need to express them self though making games.

People later asked why I would publish such a business centric article to For the record I would like it to be known that approached me asking permission to post the article, which I gave them. Honestly I wasn’t even aware of the site until this.

Although I feel some of my thoughts may have been overstated and/or taken out of context, I am not apologizing for them or retracting them. If anything, I qualified most of my thoughts in the article saying that the advice applies to you if your particular goal is to make making your own games your primary source of income and I stand by that. Having the distinction of being the highest grossing developer on XBLIG, with a history of repeatable success, I am not postulating how I think one might become a financially successful indie. I am simply stating how it did it. Given that I would have liked to go into more detail, especially how I pick projects, I intend to write another article in the future specifically about that.

So let me take this opportunity to address some of the questions/comments specifically.

You are only successful because of cloning Minecraft…

I usually start my articles with a synopsis of my success on XBLIG, simply because I am not making the assumption that most people have heard of me. This became repetative and seemed selfserving so in this case and only mentioned our best selling title CastleMiner Z because it has the distinction of being the best selling Xbox Indie title of all time.

Because people accuse CastleMiner Z of being a “Minecraft Clone”, this detracted a lot of attention away from the message in the article and some simply dismissed the message of the article as “Clone Minecraft and become successful”. Although I will address this topic specifically, I want to stop here and point out that I was arguably the most successful developer on XBLIG before the release of the CastleMiner games. I realize that not everyone stays on top of this channel as much as I do so I want to spend some time talking about our other games. I have been developing games on XBLIG for about four years now and had multiple #1 bestselling titles before the CastleMiner games.

Here is the complete list of titles that we have released on XBLIG.

Six of these games ended up spending some time as the daily #1 best selling title; most of them have been in the top five, and some of them have been only second to our own titles.  For a considerable amount of time we have held at least 3 of the top 5 titles simultaneously, at one point all of the top 3. If you take a look at the top downloaded games of all time from XBLIG you will see 6 of our titles in the top 20.

Cumulatively our games outside of the CastleMiner games have sold well over a million units. The CastleMiner games have made up about 50%-60% of our total income from XBLIG. This is admittedly a very large percentage of our sales, but by no means our only successful game. Since the release of CastleMiner Z, we have had the luxury of spending more time and money on our games, and have since moved to a philosophy of working on fewer titles overall and investing more in each one leading to less titles overall. Avatar Laser Wars 2 is the only title we have released since CastleMiner Z. On average, most of our titles have yielded a healthy six figure return and have been received excellently by our fans.

You met a large portion of your success by cloning Minecraft…

This has become a very interesting topic that I have intended on writing an entire article on. Simple put I don’t see CastleMiner Z as a Minecraft “clone”, but a creative expansion on a genre.  This topic becomes even more interesting due to the fact that Minecraft is essentially a “clone” of a lesser know game Infiniminer.

In Notch’s own words…

 “But then I found Infiniminer. My god, I realized that that was the game I wanted to do. I played it in multiplayer for a while and had a blast, but found it flawed. Building was fun, but there wasn’t enough variation, and the big red/blue blocks were pretty horrible. I thought a fantasy game in that style would work really really well, so I tried to implement a simple first person engine in that style, reusing some art and code (although not as much as you’d think) from RubyDung, and came up with this:”

Here is one of Notch's first videos of Minecraft. the description reads.

"This is a very early test of an Infiniminer clone I'm working on. It will have more resource management and materials, if I ever get around to finishing it."

Infiniminer had the misfortune of coming out in a time when it was much more difficult to monetize a game. I actually think of that developer a lot. I would imagine it would be pretty painful to see Minecraft become so popular in light of it’s origins. The story of Infimiminer is very interesting. Essentially  the developer lost control of the distribution of the game after his source-code was leaked. After that, he stopped development.

 “I stopped working on Infiniminer when the source code was leaked. It was totally my fault, as that’s what I get for releasing an un-obfuscated .NET assembly, but it nevertheless enabled hackers to create hacked clients and players upset with my balancing decisions to fork and write their own clients and servers.”

There is no doubt that Minecraft is a brilliant game. The funny thing is that I had a very similar experience playing Minecraft as Notch did playing Infiniminer. In Minecraft  I really enjoyed the first night where you were fighting to survive but after that the game was less entertaining to me than it was most people. The games I primarily like to play are military shooters and survival horror games (which also happens to be very popular with the Xbox crowd). I wanted to expand on the sandbox genre by bringing the elements of these games to a sandbox game; hence was born CastleMiner Z. I appreciate that people may not be able to understand how this experience is different from Minecraft from a few screen shots or videos, but assure you the reason that CastleMiner Z has outsold the other 20 or so “Minecraft Clones” on the Xbox is because of this. Also to clarify CastleMiner Z was not the first of these games there, it wasn’t even the 3rd.

Somehow expanding on an Idea that is not well known or monetized is somehow more ok or more noble than expanding on one that is well recognized. Although I completely understand this from a PR perspective given a fan base that may not be aware of all the facts, it seems a little backwards to me. To me, expanding on a genre that everyone knows seems more respectable than capitalizing on an idea from someone that simply wasn’t able to successfully monetize himself. This is even odder to me considering that “cloning” a game that isn’t popular isn’t met with such disdain, i.e. “cloning” an old NES era game, or a lost PC game from the 90s.

Building an actual clone of Minecraft would have in fact been far easier. There is a complete existing work to reference. Of the other “clones” on XBLIG there are actually some that are much closer to Minecraft. Now there can be a lively debate about where the line is drawn between a “clone” and an “inspiration” but that is very subjective. Ultimately, if the intent was to copy Minecraft our game would have been a lot more like it.  If you are going to be an indie purest and discredit me for expanding on a genre, that is fine but I feel you would have to lump Notch in there too.

Some people want to fault me for not giving Notch due credit. After all, in the quote he basically came right out and said he cloned Infiniminer. Although the value of doing this seems a bit odd, like Call of Duty giving props to Wolfenstien 3D for having the idea of a first person view with a gun, but for the record…

Yes I was inspired by Minecraft, it was a brilliant game, thank you Notch.

People were just playing your game because MC wasn’t available on the 360 yet?

It is true our games came out before MC360 was available on the Xbox. Since it has been almost as long since MC360 came out as the amount of time between the release of CastleMiner and MC360; I thought I would run some numbers. It turns out we sold about 1M units of Castleminer before the release of MC36 and about 1.5M units after. In fact, the last few months have had record sales for CastleMiner Z.  17 months after its release, CastleMiner Z is still the daily best selling Xbox Indie game.

Doesn’t making games specifically that sell well go against the spirit of being indie?

“Indie” means a lot of different things to different people and like I have said in many of my articles, define your goals however you want, I truly respect that. However, when I started making indie games, it never even occurred to me to think about making games for other reasons besides making ones that were best sellers. The intent was to make games that people loved and in turn, make the best selling games on the system.

Personally, I don’t judge my success by anything else except the sales numbers. To me, there is no better vote of acceptance than someone putting down money for your product. Some people accuse me of simply being a businessman that happens to sell games versus an artist. I would say that I never prescribed to be either and am a mix of both.

Maybe because I have spent so much time in the game industry it is hard for me to think of games as something else besides a product. I don’t find anything wrong with making a product that people love so that they will buy it, allowing you to make more and better products.

However some people seem to take the idea of games as an art to an extreme. Believing that they are a pure form of expression and need to be completely unique and busting at the seams with creativity and design regardless of being desirable or even entertaining. To them, tailoring a product specifically to a marketplace seems “soulless” or even evil. These people should definitely NOT take any of my advice; we are not on the same page. The reason I wrote the article is that I see hundreds of Indies failing and often have them coming to me asking for project or marketing advice, which I am more than happy to give. I figured I would consolidate some of the basic business advice into one article.

Isn’t what you are describing a Job? Doesn’t that defeat the purpose of being indie i.e. “independent”?

I often make this joke “I became Indie to make the games I wanted and now I am just stuck making games for the customer”

Yes what I do is a job plain and simple. I wake up every morning start making games, planning, having meetings, doing taxes, dealing with health insurance, payroll, usually working well into the night and on the weekends. It is having a job as much as running any other small business. However I would take it any day compared to the time I spent in the professional game industry.

Running a business IS independence, and although I am constricted to making the games that appeal to the marketplace, I still can choose what I get to make, and decide how to make them. Better yet, I reap the rewards for my decisions and am 100% accountable for what I do.

Our first big hit was Avatar Paintball. That first year I made something like $300k, which was more than I had ever made in a single year at any job I had ever had. Our revenue has nearly doubled every year after that. If someone has another job as good as this, please sign me up.

Don’t you feel bad sacrificing your creativity or passion?

Honestly I don’t feel like I have done this at all and I am not advocating it. Coming up with ideas that would work in the marketplace is a very creative endeavor. For the most part, the games that we made represented things that had never been done before which is why they sold so well. For example, Avatar Paintball was the absolute first FPS with Avatars. Although that might not seem like such a big deal to people, Xbox users loved their Avatars and wanted more to do with them. Some of the most fun I had was making the little lightweight apps, and finding new unconventional uses for the Xbox, that previously hadn’t been thought of. For example, VoiceChanger 360 was the first XBLIG to use the microphone. When I was little I had a crappy Transformer voice changer helmet, it sucked. I thought I could re-imagine this on the Xbox with a high quality Vocoder. People loved it, it was a #1 hit and sold hundreds of thousands of copies.

Putting your financial success first is a tool that will allow you to continue doing what you want to do on your own terms and I don’t think that any indie developer should be shamed into not looking out for their best interests. I think the pure creativity that people desire is something that ultimately has to be earned. At this point in my company’s development we have more flexibility than ever to take some accelerated risks which I plan to take advantage of completely.

Anyways back to making games… My best to all of you.

Thomas Steinke
DigitalDNA Games

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Jon F
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Great article.

Thomas Steinke
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Thank you Jonathan

Jungwoo Lee
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If Notch was like Apple, he would have definitely sued CastleMiner Z because it stole MineCraft's 'look and feel'.

Jungwoo Lee
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Dear Mr. Steinke,

as a person who has a little bit of insight on both business and Indie perspective, I will provide my analysis of mixed opinions you've been getting recently.

On business side, I can understand and I even respect your financial success of your products in XBLA. Apple copied Xerox. Microsoft copied Apple. Samsung copied Apple. And they all made billions and lived happily ever after. It's Business 101 to take the least amount of risk to draw the most amount of profit, and you nailed it.

On Indie side, however, your idea could be a downright offense. When I said 'Indie', it's not 'Indie' as in non-triple-A-company, but as in Indie Game movement which prioritizes risk and innovation over monetization in order to push the boundary of the industry. With all do respect, a clone game making a huge financial hit could negatively influence the quality of the market as it introduces more opportunities for 'quick-cash-with-clone-product' that encourages competitors to follow the same route instead of taking risk to innovate. This happened before in software industry and is happening in Appstore and social games right now.

Sales number may prove that this is what the majority of audience wants, but Indie game developers are on the mission of changing what people want out of gaming. Your stance is understandable since you haven't heard of prior to writing of that article, and is the number one frontier of Indie Game movement (which explains why reactions there were much more hostile than they are here). I just want to advise you to use the word 'Indie' more carefully next time.

Thank you.

Thomas Steinke
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The problem is that it doesn't mean that. It just simply means developing independently without the constraints of a publisher. People have assigned that meaning to it with an idealistic view that for some reason that needs to happen.

All I want to do is deliver games to people that they love to play. I am not trying to prove anything else, and never subscribed to someone's philosophy of what they think games should our shouldn't be.

The ironic thing is these idealists want to put constraints on development, denying people games that they want, they are going against the fundamental idea of the "movement" which is the freedom to make the games you want to, for whatever reason you decide.

Jungwoo Lee
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I was hoping you could stop being too defensive and try to understand this movement instead of simply dismissing it as a mere idealism.

Christian Nutt
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People trying to take ownership of the word "indie" are wasting their time, IMO. It's too broad and all-encompassing already. If you want a word that has a specific meaning, get involved with a MOVEMENT -- like notgames, for example, if that's what you want to do. Or start one, if you don't like that one. They do it in art and in film.

Paul Tozour
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"Sales number may prove that this is what the majority of audience wants, but Indie game developers are on the mission of changing what people want out of gaming."

Says who? Indie game developers can stand for whatever the hell they want. I'm indie too and I don't recall ever signing up for that particular crusade.

"I just want to advise you to use the word 'Indie' more carefully next time."

No. You don't own that word.

Jungwoo Lee
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I got too carried away with idealist portion of Indie it made me undermine the scope that Indie industry covers. My sole intention was only to explain the stir, which other comments do much better. I apologize for making wrong impression on Indie.

David Roberts
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"Somehow expanding on an Idea that is not well known or monetized is somehow more ok or more noble than expanding on one that is well recognised"

^ Because capitalising on a concept that isn't well known requires effort and risk - generally because the concept often needs to be refined before it can be exposed to a wider audience.

Whereas, capitalising on something that is already known to be popular/successful (i.e. cashing in) does not require such a risk.

This is the distinction

Alexander Krasij
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"I think the pure creativity that people desire is something that ultimately has to be earned."

Well said. $ Work harder, hard worker.

E McNeill
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From the RPS article you link: “Infiniminer is a combination of Infinifrag, Team Fortress 2, and Motherload. I wanted to make a competitive mining game, and this was it.”

Judging from everything I've seen of Infiniminer, Minecraft borrowed the basic "voxel world" concept and perhaps the digging/placement mechanism, which are important mechanics but hardly the soul of Minecraft. Crafting, survival, exploration, the world design, etc. were all added by Notch. The similarities between CastleMiner and Minecraft (world, interface, basic dynamics) seem a lot more substantial to me.

E McNeill
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Maciej: Do you believe that there is such thing as cloning? Even if it's within a genre, or if it features cosmetic changes or minor mechanical changes?

I haven't played CastleMiner, and so I can't address it specifically.

Jacob Germany
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@Maciej Depends. Are you referring to a platformer where you play a short plumber wearing red that grabs mushrooms and fireflowers...but you can shoot zombies with guns, called something like Super Siblings Z? I'm unfamiliar with that game.

Cordero W
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My only gripe with with the article author is that Castle Miner IS the reason he is at today, and the fact that it acts as a credentials for success is a bit insulting. I know all about XBLIG, and I know what led to its success, as well as a lot of other top games that have topped that platform. Even the game Arcadecraft plays off the Minecraft name to cash in on getting more notice, despite it being an entirely different game. From a business perspective, I won't say you did badly. You did what any sane business person did. You followed the bandwagon and hit it large by taking advantage of another game's prestige. No different from how the business usually runs.

But it also leaves a bad taste in the mouth. I don't adapt the "indie movement" philosophy or anything like that. I'm a "game developer." I make games, whether I have the backing of a publisher or not. Game development is the business of bringing an interactive entertainment to an audience. If they want another minecraft clone, by all means give it to them. It brings money in, and money talks. But don't act coy as if you don't want to be called what you are. Own up to what you did and move on. As far as I'm concerned, you have my respect as a business person. But as a game developer, I don't think you're any more creative or innovative than the rest of developers who build off others' success without making any kind of image of their own.

In conclusion, it's going to take a lot more for me to be convinced that you're credential as a game developer, indie or not. I follow both business AND ethics. If the ethics aren't there, then your word isn't meant much to me. And all those criticisms you got in your previous article are likely under the same feeling. The feeling that you aren't as much of a game developer as you are just a businessman cashing in on the video game scene. There's nothing memorable under your list so far, and it's the same stuff we see on XBLIG everyday. That is the problem with you that me and others have.

Michael Joseph
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when I watch Infiniminer videos on youtube, I think to myself, Notch fundamentally copied that game. The primary difference is Notch created a more consistent fantasy art direction which gives Minecraft it's own unique style & narrative instead of borrowing Mario-esque designs and mixing those with scifi.

It appears that Notch added one major feature... creating new blocks from the resources of destroyed blocks (aka crafting). Maybe that feature was already in Infiniminer... I couldn't tell from the videos I've watched.

I'm sure Steinke's game has some differences too. So I don't see how anyone can come down on the Castle Miner dev without also coming down on Notch. Perhaps you do\are.

Lance McKee
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Cordero W, I just wanted to add my humble two cents and say that I got a much different understanding from this article than you seem to have gotten.

To me it seemed like the author was saying that he enjoyed Minecraft but felt as though certain things could improve it, which led to the creation of Castle Miner. Considering how many people out there obviously can't get enough of that genre, I can't imagine why any developer should avoid offering their idea of a "better" game along the same lines.

Looking through the App Store or whatever it's called on iPods, etc. it's easy to find a lot of examples of what you seem to be describing. A lot of games on there have almost identical designs, use almost identical artwork and style, and even have almost identical names and icons as popular games. A lot of movies do this same thing as well. I personally hate seeing that as it seems the goal is to trick people into buying something when they were actually trying to buy the original game or movie. The Castle Miner games don't seem to fit into that category at all to me.

Heinz Schuller
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The entire games, music, and video industry was built on derivative work. You can argue ad nauseum about what magical degree of mutation is needed before something is considered "original". But given how subjective this all is, it kind of seems pointless to do so.

Notch put a pretty fine point on this topic:

Quote: "I get slightly too much credit. I just assembled a bunch of ideas. They’re not original in any way."

Jacob Germany
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So, your point is that it's pointless to argue where we should draw lines because a line must be drawn somewhere, so it's all the same? So plagiarism is the same basic thing as writing a novel hailed as original (or... novel. Ha ha!)?

Odd point to make. To me, the presence of some vague similarities between a work and some other work produced in history does not diminish valid complaints of highly unoriginal works, nor their effect on their respective industry/medium/what-have-you.

Reonne Slater
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Thank you Mr. Steinke for both articles. I must admit that the first one was initially off-putting to me but I came to understand and appreciate the perspective. Being new to the indie game environment I am quite impressionable so this second article was useful to clear up some misconceptions. Jungwoo's first comment was amusing but it's sad to see situations like that in the gaming industry. Best of luck to you sir.

Sean Kiley
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A great business plan but no soul. Now that you've made some money, lets see something really great!

Evan Hartshorn
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Arguably, someone who considers the needs of others first has more soul than someone who considers his own needs first.

Thing is, the mindset of most entrepreneurs I've met seems to be this: "If I give people something they are missing, they will reward me with money." It is a quest to fill a gap, which therefore necessarily considers others.

The difference is not some war between that game being meaningful because someone bled into the code, and this game being un-meaningful because someone made it for the masses. The difference is whether you are making games to serve a vision, or people.

And that's not an intrinsically moral dichotomy. It's the distinction between artist and craftsman, between the woodworker who made the sculpture on my desk, and the one who made the desk and the chairs. There may be as much soul in the desk as in the sculpture, but the sculpture was made to serve a vision, and coincidentally served my needs, whereas the desk was made specifically to serve my needs.

If I read Mr. Steinke adequately, I would paraphrase him as saying "it is noble to be an artist. But an artist makes money randomly if at all. So if you wish to pay for your food with your work, you must choose between accepting the roll of the dice, or becoming a craftsman. As a craftsman, this is how I operate..."

As an artist trying to turn craftsman, I find this all highly helpful. And I very much intend for all of my tables and chairs to have soul in them.