[In this article, creative director and co-founder of Australian indie studio The Voxel Agents -- the Train Conductor series for iPhone and iPad -- takes a look back at the team's first year in operation, sharing facts, figures, and important lessons learned about functioning as an indie in 2010.]
Being independent is a hot topic because there's never been a better time to be creating fresh, original games with complete creative freedom. This retrospective traces the pitfalls and triumphs of The Voxel Agents' first year as an independent studio. The transparency of the article is intended to benefit the community of "indies", many of whom are also in their early stages.
This retrospective focuses on the oft ignored (but terribly important!) business side that fosters the creative environment and provides the studio the long term stability to continue functioning. It aims to expose the realities of being truly independent and the difficulties of having to do everything. It focuses particularly on what has worked and what has not paid off.
* All dollar values are listed in Australian Dollars (AUD), except where specified.
From April 2009 to April 2010, things did not go as we predicted.
Matt Clark, Tom Killen and I, Simon Joslin, started the The Voxel Agents in early 2009. We are friends from university and we always wanted to start a studio, but we felt it would be wise to gain experience first. Matt cut his teeth on code at Pandemic Studios, Tom at Hoodlum Active, and myself as a game designer at Halfbrick Studios. We finally reformed after winning the 48 Hour Game Making Competition (as SIF90) for the second year running. It was time to go full-time indie!
We believed the App Store was a very unique platform and its potential for us was greater than any previous. Innovation on the platform had only just begun, the big companies were yet to arrive, and consumer expectations were primed for games of the size we excelled at making. We felt that, in 2009, it was definitely the best place to get started.
We set out to develop short, sharp, and gameplay-focused titles. Development began hastily, and within six weeks we had Dolphin Hero finished and out the door. Never again would we make a game so quickly! We hadn't given much thought to who would play Dolphin Hero; we just made it. This was a big mistake. Dolphin Hero earned just $300 in its first 6 months on the App Store, but we persevered.
We came to our senses for the second game and spent two days brainstorming ideas, and two weeks prototyping the six best ideas. A winner quickly emerged, and Train Conductor was born. We developed Train Conductor between July and December 2009. Two artist interns from a local games college joined us two days a week for 12 weeks. Art quality improved well beyond what we achieved with Dolphin Hero and the end result was top notch.
We attempted a few relatively simple marketing strategies; announcing the game with a teaser video, releasing a trailer at launch, sending out press releases at multiple stages, releasing wallpapers, blogging about it, posting on forums, spreading the word to train enthusiasts, sending out preview copies (only one small website actually took us up on that) and various other attempts.
Train Conductor was a success! Our first cherub ever totaled $12,000! Additionally we were getting local press and online traction, so while it was working, we kept feeding it. We also began to receive the attention of the local industry and government agencies that help exporters. Suddenly we were sending a delegate to promote the game to press at GDC. We expanded, hiring a full-time artist and upgrading our interns to part-timers on contract. Things were looking good.
Players were loving Train Conductor, and they wanted more. We had so many ideas of where we could take it and we decided to develop the game further. We dedicated the last three months of our first Voxel Agents year to developing Train Conductor levels set in the USA.
However, after months of work and just days into our second year as a company, we realized that the new content had advanced beyond the original gameplay and it was being held back by the design decisions of the original game. It was a tough choice but we knew it was best to drastically expand, polish and eventually release the new content as Train Conductor 2: USA.
Train Conductor 2: USA launched in July 2010, which is month 16 in the Voxel Agents timeline. TC2: USA outsold TC in just six weeks. Together, they have generated $76,000 in the first six months of Year Two. We are proud to have also shipped two major content updates for both of the Train Conductor games.