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Principles of an Indie Game Bottom Feeder

February 9, 2012 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

Ever since I founded Spiderweb Software and released my first game in January of 1995, I have been a proud indie game bottom feeder. I have fed and grown fat upon the scraps left behind by the mighty predators above. I have learned well the secret power that writers of indie games can use to actually make a living: We can find a small niche long-abandoned by the big companies, settle into it, and thrive.

I write low-budget, hardcore, turn-based role-playing games. The sort of game that was really big in the previous century, largely abandoned in this one, and that has still enough fans to enable me to buy a house. I've been writing my games for 16 years. I have no intention of stopping, and they'll have to drag me out of indie gaming feet first.

For 15 years (before my games appeared on iTunes and Steam and my life completely changed), I had a simple plan. Every year, I wrote a game, extensively reusing the code and assets from the previous one. Then I put it on sale for $25, with hint books and character editors available alongside for a little extra revenue.

My goal was 5,000 sales. Five thousand! Imagine what a negligible amount that is in this industry. Usually, I sold a couple thousand more than that, thanks to the small, loyal audience I spent many years building. And, if you do the math, you will see that there's a pretty decent living in there.

It's great being a bottom feeder. I get to lurk in my basement and watch the titans of the game industry punch each other silly far above me. I don't work 80 hour weeks. I design my games to be writable in the period of time allotted, and I release them when they are actually ready.

I also spend a lot of time answering questions from the young and ambitious about how to get to do what I do for a living. I tell them to find a niche that is underserved. To work hard and to remember how difficult it is to get someone to spend actual money on something. I also urge them to get a chair with decent back support.

And I push a certain set of principles until I'm blue in the face. They are the principles I feel any group of ambitious game developers should take to heart, if you want to make a living selling your little games.

If It Was Fun Once, It's Fun Now

I'm old enough to remember the Atari 2600. Man, but we played that thing. Hours and hours and hours. You know why we did it? Because it was fun.

And the Atari 2600 is still fun. It's just not fun enough. The art of game design has progressed far beyond it, and Pitfall doesn't have what it takes to compete anymore. But you know something? All of those old games can be updated. All of those old genres have tons of fans out there. They just don't know they're fans yet.

Twin-stick shooters. Adventure games. 2D platformers. (2D platformers are like Viagra for indie game developers.) Bullet hell games. Tactical wargames of Aspergian complexity. Flight sims. Puzzle games of nearly infinite variety. Yes, turn-based RPGs. These were once hugely viable genres, and there's a good reason for it. They were awesome.

But now the mainstream game industry mainly writes first-person shooters with RPG elements sticky-taped on. All of the old genres have been left to you, waiting to be recreated for a new audience that will be thrilled to discover them as if they were new.

There was a long period in there when nobody wrote RPGs. Just me. I got so many emails complimenting me for inventing the role-playing game. What do you say to that? "Thanks," I guess.

People love indie games. They really do. But I don't think it's for the reason people say. I've long felt that indie developers aren't that much more innovative than mainstream developers. What's awesome about us is that we keep the gaming ecosystem vibrant and lush. We're the ones who maintain variety and keep the old ideas alive.

So you want to be a bottom feeder like me? Think back to the sort of game you really loved once, the sort that nobody makes anymore. Then write one of those.

Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

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E McNeill
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"I've long felt that indie developers aren't that much more innovative than mainstream developers. What's awesome about us is that we keep the gaming ecosystem vibrant and lush. We're the ones who maintain variety and keep the old ideas alive." ... "There are so many sorts of games out there, waiting to be picked up, dusted off, improved, and sent back out into the world."

While this business niche clearly exists, I don't think this is where the great potential of indie games truly lives. Braid, Minecraft, Sword & Sworcery, and other indie success stories didn't make it thanks to an underserved fanbase, but because they broke new ground.

I agree that the mainstream industry has been wallowing in established genres and mechanics, but I don't think the obvious response to that is to focus on older established genres and mechanics.

Fernando D'Andrea
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I don't think we should derive a rule from examples that are clearly exceptions. The indie dev community would have a hard-time creating a minecraft a day, let alone any single developer. Thus, I think what Jeff is plain right.

Jim Anderson
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Not to mention, I think Jeff's examples are more intended for the ears of folks who *want* to start developing games, but are intimidated by the idea that they have to come up with something as original as minecraft.

Ferdinand Joseph Fernandez
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Are you implying Minecraft wasn't a copycat of existing games? Next you'll be saying he didn't copy, he was inspired. And we're back to the discussion of how most mainstream developers think. Don't think all indie developers act the same way. There are indies that innovate, there are ones that don't. AAA devs exhibit the same thing.

I agree with the old games. To me, the looking at of older games' design is a different topic.

Tiago Costa
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@Jim Anderson... Minecraft original? really? Minecraft?

Minecraft was (to my recolection) a copy of Infiminer, a game presented in the TIG Source forums a couple of years ago...

From Minecraft wikipedia (not a valid source I know) "The gameplay is heavily inspired by Infiniminer by Zachtronics Industries and Dwarf Fortress by Bay 12 Games."

Notch copied and improved the concept an existing game.

Was it bad? No...

Shannon Quesnel
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"I don't think the obvious response to that is to focus on older established genres"

I don't think Vogel wrote about sticking exclusively to older genres and mechanics. He just went on why HE was successful.

In the last few paragraphs, on page 3, he goes on about why modern indie games are kicking butt - it is because they are breaking new ground and trying new things.

E McNeill
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I love what Jeff does, and I agree that his method is entirely viable, but I don't think that he's talking about breaking new ground and trying new things. The article talks about resurrecting old genres and maintaining variety, rather than forging more novel games. That's totally viable, but only a small part of the promise of the indie games movement. It's a little strange as a call to arms.

Michael Brough
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Pertinent comment, this was my first thought as well. However, those are just a few among many other games that have tried something new, broken new ground, and not met with success. Innovation is risky - and indies don't tend to have a huge financial buffer with which to take risks. So this seems very practical advice, even if it's less exciting than inventing brilliant new things and having a small chance of major success and a big chance of major failure (exciting!).

Paul Szczepanek
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I'm still not brave enough to risk it. I keep thinking that one day I'll be financially secure enough to try it without worry, but I've been 9 years in the business and I begin to suspect there might be other reasons why I'm still salaried.

Cartrell Hampton
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Bottom feeding for the win!

Blast Force, I'm lookin' at you.


- Ziro out.

Eric Schwarz
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Fantastic article. I've, somehow, only recently begun to get into the Spiderweb games, but have been having a complete blast with them. I think Jeff Vogel is about as close to the ideal developer, as far as providing support, community interaction, responding to feedback, and so on. He is just one man, and has far more mobility than large corporations, of course, but it really pays off for him and for customers as well.

I ended up buying Avadon when it went on sale (on the PC, not iOS), but I will have no qualms about buying Spiderweb games at full price in the future, knowing that it goes towards both making great games and keeping these sorts of positive, mutually beneficial relationships between gamers and game creators in mind.

As I said, it's not viable for everyone and everything, but frankly, the games industry, as far as customer relations and service goes, is just not very good. It's impossible to make everyone happy, but even then the number of times I've seen poor handling of PR-sensitive situations, or been told to, more or less, piss off by customer service representatives, is pretty appalling next to other industries. As much as gaming wants to be taken seriously, gamers are going to become more and more aware of these poor practices as time goes on.

Nobody in particular does or should shoulder the blame for this, but the whole industry will suffer as a result. Certain publishers are already starting to learn that it's not enough to simply buy big IP and throw a million advertisements at customers to succeed; you need to be smart about selling your product, and considerate of customers as well. This 1950s-era "make it and they will come" attitude can't last forever.

Bradley Johnson
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"Piracy is far less common on iOS and such"

My iOS games have a 95% piracy rate.

That doesn't seem far less common.

But does it take money out of my pocket? Probably not.

Joe McGinn
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Less than 10% of iOS owners have cracked systems that are even capable of pirating. Check the source of your numbers.

Jane Castle
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Also pirating is one of those things that the industry LOVES to bandy about as well as the scourge of used games.

If pirating is such a large issue why did Double Fine manage to scrounge up $1,153,263 (last time I checked) from their kickstarter campaign? Surely with all the piracy going on no one would bother to pay to fund a game (an adventure game at that)?

As always there are two sides to every coin. There are people willing to pay and people that aren't willing to pay. Where publishersdevelopers miss the "forest for the trees" as it were is that they concentrate on the people that DON'T pay to the detriment of their paying customers.

Michael Gribbin
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Quick question! How do you know what your piracy rate is? Do you have some sort of hook that pings back to a server?

Jeffrey Crenshaw
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"If pirating is such a large issue why did Double Fine manage to scrounge up $1,153,263 (last time I checked) from their kickstarter campaign?"

Really? This was typed?

Andy Krouwel
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Looks like you're making games that have a strong appeal to pirates.

Might not be the most successful strategy long term, but concentrate on the 5% and it could work.

Jonas Hedenquist
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Like others have pointed out in these replies, the number of jailbroken users (which is inescapably, unavoidably required for pirating iOS apps) is less than 10%, so your numbers seem very improbable. Not to mention that for most apps, acquiring such numbers is not possible, or is a very inexact process.

Should your numbers be true, they are in no way representative for the iOS platform. Among the few devs that have methods of tracking legitimate and pirating users, piracy rate is far lower than 10% (as many jailbreakers do not involve themselves in piracy. In fact, the comonly used tools for such, such as Installous, are downloaded by a rather small percentage of Cydia users).

Ted Brown
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Jeff! You are my hero. Seriously. =)

Craig Stern
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I really appreciate Jeff showing us those revenue/sales numbers; it makes me feel better about not caving in and joining the race to the bottom on pricing in my own games.

Gregory Booth
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Awesome article!

Thanks for writing it!

Keith Nemitz
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There's so much wisdom in this article, it takes my breath away. Thank you, Jeff.

(um, about Avadon... I started it, was intrigued to play well into the first dungeon, until it got too grindy. I'm more interested in advancing the story than leveling up. Likely I'm an 'end of the bell-curve' case. You have a wonderful fan base. More power to you!)

Jeffrey Crenshaw
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Fantastic article! Nice mix of business and artistic pride, just what this site was made for.

I agree with what was said about piracy; don't fight it, rely on customer goodwill and all that. But it still worries me. The more and more we become a capitalist society, the more "justified" it is for someone to act in their own (and only their own) self-interest -- thus, as irrational as it may or may not be, I can't help but slipping into the fear that games will eventually just have to be free if we don't fight piracy. After all, that is the "market value" of what we create. It seems like for this approach of ignoring piracy to work out in the long run, we need to evolve beyond the short-term profit model of modern capitalism, but people defend that like it's a virtue now (perhaps because it is in contrast with a totalitarian socialist state, but this isn't the 60s anymore). In other words, people need to be as ethical as we hope they will be. And looking at the rhetoric at least in the US, from politicians on both sides to businesses to individuals, that ethical landscape seems to be dissolving.

I hope someone can convince me I'm wrong :).

Ben H
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That study shows that while piracy is common, people (even amongst teens) who rely solely on piracy to obtain digital media are rare. This really merits an explanation of piracy that isn't just equating anyone who pirates anything as a thief who couldn't care less if every digital media industry burned to the ground.

I can't claim to know what every individual person's reason for pirating something rather than buying something is, but studies like that -- showing that relying solely on piracy is very rare -- suggests that the consumer is more than happy to legally acquire digital media in most cases. It could well be that piracy is just a symptom of people's desire to try games before they buy them, or to acquire games even though they've already exhausted their digital media budget. Who knows? But more importantly, who cares? All that matters is that most people, irrespective of whether they're 'dirty pirates' too, are paying consumers. The answer is in treating one's customers like fans, not customers. Make them want to support you, because you sure as heck can't force them to support you.

Vis-a-vis your anti-capitalist argument, I'm not really sure how socialism could eliminate this problem. Even if we pretend that piracy is a much more serious problem than it is, I'd flat out hate to be in a society where I'm forced into some sort of blanket tax to support content developers. The good thing about capitalism is it essentially crowd sources the ability to decide the worth of a product and, much like evolution, selects for those products which best adapt. All piracy does is give us another, and currently too neglected in this industry, dimension on which to adapt: customer service.

Samuel Blomberg
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In an indie industry where the de facto standard is $0.99 apps, it's refreshing to hear someone who doesn't conform to that mold - and still makes a living. Thanks for the article and actually publishing some sales figures. Will be giving some serious thought to this for future business plans!

Ariel Gross
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I bought Avadon because it looked cool. Now I feel even better about it.

Nicholas Bellerophon
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I've been buying and playing Jeff's games since I found Exile I on a Mac games magazine CD way back in 1995. I've been a loyal fan ever since. For me, Jeff's greatest achievement is his brilliance as a storyteller; I don't care how big the budget of the game is, you'll be hard pressed to find ANYTHING out there on a par with, for example, Avernum V. What Jeff does is to put players in situations that are intensely morally ambiguous, and indeed present the whole adventure in a frame that questions itself.

What's so fantastic about Avernum V is that there is no turning back; as in life, the party is borne ceaselessly downstream into an increasingly wild frontier. We feel like we are moving both into the past and into increasingly frightening potential futures. And eventually, the struggles of men are left far behind us, and we are at last in the deep caves. Our prey is close; but we passed the last portal pylon some time ago, and we are no longer the confident, fearless hunters we thought we were. Our mission has led us here; and we realize with an unshakeable unease that this lonely, hostile hell could be the destiny of our whole race. So we wonder... should we follow our orders and kill the killer? Or was he right to rebel? Which decision will save our world from the future that is all around us? Does it even matter?

If you want to understand the core of what an RPG needs to be, you need to learn from Jeff Vogel. None of this banal heroic "I'm the good-guy" nonsense, nor indeed the equally banal anti-heroic "I'm a badass with the biggest gun". You have to make decisions here, and they are really, really tough, and you never know whether they were important or not until it's too late to change your mind.

So, actually, I almost don't care whether Jeff is an Indie developer or has two hundred people working with him. He's a master, that's why people buy his games, and that's what we should strive to be if we want to work in this business.

Steven An
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Great article - and, I think I just realized I'm a member of your niche market :) Your games remind me of Fallout 1 & 2...good company.

Bram Stolk
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Well done, and insightful.

I have experienced the same trends in pricing as you did.

I twice doubled the IAP price of my indie crane simulator game.

First from .99 to 1.99 and then from 1.99 to 3.99 price point.

Both times, revenue went up.

Roger Tober
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A lot of good points brought up. You can't compete head to head with AAA titles if you are an indy, so always do something different.

Thomas Lund
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Super happy about this article. It made my Monday morning, so thank you.

For the last 3 games, we as a studio also have narrowed down to serving a niche - tactical turn based games. And we are seeing similar success as you - people ARE willing to pay "premium" money for niche titles that are of high quality. Not gazillion of dollars, but a nice steady revenue.

I would absolutely love to hear more about how you maintain your userbase, what you do for marketing and such. Either as another article - or in direct communication offline.


Achilles de Flandres
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Fantastic article! I was hooked on every word.

Jonas Hedenquist
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Jeff wrote: "(Note that this is for PC and Mac games. Piracy is far less common on iOS and such, but you also need to charge far, far lower prices. It kind of balances out.)"

Actually, among many devs who do cross-platform development for iOS and Windows/Mac, reports indicate something else entirely. The ease that iOS users access and purchase content with, thanks to the App Store, combined with piracy rates of less than 10%, means that the cross-cut of the EFFECTIVE and the RELEVANT user base (those who might actually purchase a game) of iOS apps is abnormally high, leading to greater profits, even with a fraction of the original desktop price.

I know that Jeff have long debated the viability of porting Avernum/Geneforge/Avadon to iPhone, with the primary counterpoint (since we are long past the "can't adapt gameplay/UI to such a small screen/touch screen devices" argument, what with games FAAAAR more complex and originally thought unviable already present on iOS, even on the iPhone) being that he would be charging so much less for the same game that iPad and PC/Mac users get. So, Jeff, should you happen to be reading this, take that leap :-) With the game already ported to iPad, resizing UI and graphics would be the main challenge. After all, turn-based games such as Avadon and Avernum are near-ideal for the platform, requiring no reflexes that might be thwarted by inexact controls (which actually is not an issue with good design. See Street Fighter IV Volt, and the success of the online competitive Street Fighter community for iOS).

So, only the issue of profit remain, and as indicated by reports from many iOS devs, this is not an issue, but a great possibility for a wider userbase and increased gain.

Colm Larkin
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Hear hear!

Ian Stocker
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Pricing is my new favorite topic in the sphere of game business and marketing. Thanks for a really fantastic article and for backing it up with hard statistics.

I am embarking on a career as a so-called bottom feeder as well. One bit I would add to this is that in my experience, when pricing your game, each marketplace has its own price at which you will make the most money. I stood by my premium price of $3 on XBLIG for years, with the mantra "niche market, niche market, hold fast." Since dropping to $1, revenue is way up. I wish I had done it from the start, it would have meant thousands of dollars.

I'm just now moving into the PC space though, and have a lot to learn about this very special market. I appreciate you sharing your wisdom on the topic and wish you continued success.

Daniel Marcoux
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Thanks Jeff.

Great article!

It inspires me to keep working hard to one day be a bottom feeder like you. :)

Eric Ruck
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If I get a decent free demo I'm happy to pay up for games I like. Not $25, I don't expect a $25 game on any mobile device, but easily $5-10, I have in the past and expect to continue to do so. I guess the key is to provide enough, but not too much, game in the free sample.

At least that's one school of thought.

I'm wondering if the new prevalence of cheap tablets will change things. I'm considering taking a niche game I develop for a client over to Kindle, I believe the demographics are right and I suspect Amazon Kindle customers will purchase rather than pirate.

Jason Carter
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Great Article! As someone starting to get into game development more seriously, I'm trying to get a broader knowledge of systems and ways to make games that I can sell later. Right now I just make games for fun and free... it'd be nice to someday make even a little bit of money for developing games haha.

Still your article gives hope to us aspiring indie devs who don't have the experience or *proper* degrees to get jobs in the industry. [Damn Business and Japanese Degree!]

It's nice to read articles by indie devs who simply LOVE making games. I think that is how the indie industry ought to be: the result of hard work, passion and perseverence to create something you can be proud of.

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Lex Allen
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How do you actually find a large enough and enthusiastic enough game niche to make your development worth while?

Lex Allen
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Dorothy Finnigan
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This is a great article, not just its content, but its overall tone. Jeff, thanks for sharing tips, experience, and wisdom, with a positive, big-pie outlook. Even if it's partly about developing a positive public image, ;) it comes across as genuine and honest, and not everyone has the actual personal character to do that.

Having read many articles about prolonged game development cycles, and being in the midst of my first one myself, I think one of the most impressive things Jeff shares about is his development scope/time. "I design my games to be writable in the period of time allotted, and I release them when they are actually ready."

That's quite a feat in the game industry. I don't know about making cash or getting users, but I'd hope my partner and I could achieve that. :)