Congratulations, Your First Indie Game is a Flop

By Matej Jan

[An indie developer reflects on how he spent too much time and effort trying to make a failure into a success, sharing his experiences about going from iOS to PC and Mac, and why being first out of the gate doesn't substitute for having a truly compelling game.]

Seven. I log into IndieCity again and check the total sales number to see if, by some miracle, the figure went into double digits. It didn't. Total units of Monkey Labour for Windows sold: seven. And that's not thousands.

While selling seven games in two months is horrific in any case, this is not, however, another whiny post from a disillusioned indie game developer. It's just the result of an experiment at the end of a longer story that needs some explaining. I am not complaining. In fact, I am already happily working on our next game. I still get to work on what I love. In my book that's all that matters.

What it is, though, is yet another scenario of what can happen when you decide to start making games for a living. More important, it's a story about game publishing, marketing, and sales. I'm not one of those guys who just want to focus on their art or their code. I love the business side of making games. This article is about what I've experienced in a good year of doing so.

One more note before we begin: Monkey Labour was developed by Dawn of Play, a small game studio founded out of a larger research and development company Razum. While I'm part of the team just as much as anyone employed there, I am technically an independent contractor, working under my sole proprietorship Retronator. While I can talk about Monkey Labour's numbers open handed on most parts, I have exact work figures only for my own contribution to the game.


A peek at my IndieCity dashboard

 

Part 1: The (iOS) Story

What does it take to make the minimum possible game?

I'm not going to talk much about what Monkey Labour is -- in its place you can imagine any small, polished game. The goal is minimal content, so that you can make it in a month or two. It's very important that it's nonetheless of good quality, as this is the first barrier of entry, the basic requirement to combat today's flood of games, if you will.

Suffice it to say that Monkey Labour indeed is such a game, with generally favorable reviews and a score of 75 on Metacritic. It's not the best thing ever, but still a nice little game that won over the nostalgic hearts of a lot of its players. From a production standpoint, it's something me or you can realistically create when you decide to make your first commercial game.

So how much time goes into making and selling your simple little game? Two to three times as much as you imagine, that's for sure. As always, it all depends on a multitude of factors, the major ones being the size of the game and your previous experience with doing exactly the things needed to realize it. This can all vary wildly, but let's get concrete with our example.

I have been making games as a hobby for over 15 years and recently taught classes about it at university, so I'm no stranger to game programming. I also spent the summer making my own iOS framework before going into this project. It would be the same if I took an existing framework and got really familiar with it. What matters is I knew exactly how to make this game. After the guys at Dawn of Play briefed me on the design, it was pure execution.

I had a very good base, in other words. But in spite of that, for a simple, one-screen arcade game with a basic menu, my programming time clocked in at 109 hours. That's a month and a half of part-time work (three to four effective hours per workday, done alongside my teaching gig). Game Center integration (leaderboards and achievements) were done by an additional programmer and took two extra man-weeks.

It would take less today, but every project has a thing or two where you end up chasing strange errors for a week more than you've anticipated. We later published an update to the game, which took another 71 hours to make. All in all, just the coding part took eight man-weeks of full-time work (assuming you squeeze six hours of quality productive time into each workday).

Now, if you ever had the idea of coding something up in your bedroom each day after school or work, even if you spend two hours per day on average making it (and I'm being optimistic) you'll be locked in your room for six months just to write all the code for a simple arcade game, polished up enough to make a serious entry into the App Store world. And that's just the code! At that point you'd still be selling zero, with your programmer art graphics, no sound, no trailer, no webpage and only your Facebook friends knowing this game even exists -- at least those that still read your status updates, after you've dropped off the grid for half a year.

When you're doing everything as a company, things move faster, but they cost more as well. Add the in-house graphic designer, who makes all the pretty graphics and webpage designs, the director, management, hiring outsourced sounds and music, filling in forms on iTunes Connect... Did I mention the music and sound effects cost money?

And of course you'll need a trailer for your game. An office, Internet, accounting firm, fire safety certificates, not to mention the time for catching up with legislation and paying taxes... It all takes some time to do and you're going to be the one doing it. There are so many little things we don't think about when we dream of writing the next Tiny Wings in our spare time.

It's almost impossible to get the planned money/time figures off by less than a factor of three. Whether you're doing this with a couple of buddies in your free time or going the full-out company approach -- while the real money spent on the production can vary wildly, the amount of work is the same in any case. Be prepared to put it all in with your bare fingertips.


Monkey Labour
team: the artist, the director, the coder, the additional coder, the additional-additional coder

So, after five people (plus two outsourced for sound and music) spent the greater part of two months on a game for whose production any solid developer should reasonably charge $50,000, the game was released on the App Store.


How much can your first indie game make?

This question has been answered many times in the last year and we now know some important things about full or part-time independent as well as hobbyist iOS game developers:

Here's why: the median earnings are almost linearly dependent on the amount of games you've published previously. If this is your first game, it'll most likely bring in just 500 bucks. I really recommend you check out the numbers of this survey for yourself, so that they seep down into your expectations of what you can realistically make out of this business.

Thinking you're somehow going to outrun this is like planning to make a living by playing the lottery. Sure, it happens to someone, but it'll not be you.

Why not to give up  

There's something more I can add to the above numbers, and it's the story of not giving up. It all starts with the game's initial appearance on the App Store, when no more than your friends and random strangers shuffling through new releases buy your app.

You're happy that your first game even made it through the App Store review process, and you spend the night drinking with your colleagues, collecting bets on how many sales you'll get on the first day. We got 52. We released on Thursday and the number stopped at 260 at the end of the first weekend.


Monkey Labour
weekly sales (version 1.0)

The project lead sent about 30 emails to various websites, trying to get the game noticed. We got a couple of good reviews, and even a feature from Apple under new and noteworthy games. That's usually a big deal and can greatly drive your sales, but not in January 2011. That's when Apple took away the usual games link in the App Store in exchange for a Best of 2010 retrospective. So for the whole time we were supposed to be featured, there was no way to reach that list on an iPhone. Needless to say, those few that saw it through iTunes didn't help our release much. The sales reached 270 in the second week, and then halved with each following one.

By the end of first month we already reached the miserably low long tail with about 10 apps sold per week. Total first month sales: 790. With about two thirds of the $1.99 price coming into our pockets, you can imagine we weren't jumping up and down in excitement. It was before the above-mentioned earnings survey was published, and we were finding out the results the hard way.

I would have expected it today, but even back then we didn't resort to panic (right away). "People have only started to notice the game," we thought. "We'll push an update and get back on track."

I finished my semester of teaching in February, so it was perfect time to get back to coding, creating all the neat little things I didn't have time to squeeze in before Christmas. It was a lot of fun, even making viral videos in the process (if you count one Reddit post and 5,000 views on YouTube "viral", which I don't, but it's still the most watched video on my channel, at any rate).

After I spent the aforementioned 71 hours coding the update for the game, it took me 113 more (that's one month of effective creative work) to run the marketing campaign, including making a new trailer (which flopped) and a special webpage with a promotion to drive traffic to our Twitter and Facebook page. I spent the rest of my time sending dozens of review request emails, organizing promo code giveaways, and replying to review comments and forum threads. If you just want to focus on your art and code, forget about running an indie game business.

The promotion went well (ish) and with over 200 people on our social networks (you gotta start somewhere) we promised a price drop to $0.99 when the update hit. The re-launch day was full of meeting nice people on our livestream and again it was fun, fun, fun. Enjoy it! That's what it's all about. If you don't love what you're doing, you're going to give up. Especially when the numbers come in the next day:


Monkey Labour
weekly sales (v1.0 plus the first two weeks of v1.1)

We sold 215 copies in the first week and only 24 the one after. I was like, "Shit, we're right back in the long tail."

I was ready to accept that Monkey Labour was a flop. No one, NO ONE, decided to write about us. With barely over 1,000 units sold, I would be happy if Dawn of Play ever wanted me to work on games again, let alone allow me to send another email to a review site. Below you can see what my PR effort looked like -- if you ever wondered what kind of email to send out (or not, judging from the nonexistent results.)


My press review request email template

It's much better than the first version I wrote (the one where you get the idea to re-imagine the way you communicate with the press by sending a very personal story about how this game will touch your heart and soul -- yeah, forget it). But obviously these guys get tons of normal to-the-point emails just like this one. Result: our retro handheld homage would be left undiscovered by the wider public.

And then something amazing happened. I remember screaming and jumping around the university lab when I read the news: Monkey Labour got a great four-star review on the main iOS gaming site TouchArcade. Sales went boom:


Monkey Labour
weekly sales (all versions)

The effect of a TouchArcade review proved the site's reputation. It's nothing like getting featured big-time by Apple or getting on the overall charts, but for a niche game such as ours it's been enough that I stopped feeling shitty about myself. I used the gained momentum and wrote a similar review request to other Metacritic-approved publications, landing a total of 11 critic reviews for the game. The final score of 75 made us the highest rated iOS app launched at that time (not that it mattered to sales, just to give you some perspective). My PR experience points poured in and I felt like I leveled up. I finally knew what I was doing.


Monkey Labour
's combined press response on Metacritic


One battle won... kinda

At this point we could have (and, looking backward, should have!) closed the book on Monkey Labour. From what I know now, it was our first game and it has in fact earned more than the majority of titles do. We should have turned the page and started working towards the second one.

But not so fast. Your second game won't sell twice as much just because some statistics say so. It's the culmination of everything you've learned, the gamers you reached, the connections you made. It's easy to be a general after the battle, but unless you gain the experience on the field you haven't raised your potential.

I say you should try everything and see what results you'll get. Unless you go ahead and do it yourself all the estimates in the world won't give you the real answer. That's how, with one completed, critically-acclaimed game (still quoting the green 75 Metascore as a good enough proof of that), I set out to conquer yet another mountain: downloadable PC space.

Part 2: Your desktop is not your smartphone

Proving the concept

I mentioned I spent the summer of 2010 writing my own game framework for iOS and the following autumn/winter teaching students how to make iPhone games. Coming from a Windows/Xbox background I used to write my games with Microsoft's XNA Framework.

It's one of the most cleanly designed objective-oriented libraries, which makes it well-suited for education. In practice, it's used by hobby and independent developers, and even triple-A studios utilize it for faster development of tools. There are many compelling reasons to use it, except that it's only available for Microsoft's platforms. So I decided to do the students a favor and bring it over to Objective-C for iOS game development.

I registered Retronator as a sole proprietorship at that time and received about $5,000 as a government grant for self-employment. The plan was to slowly use it to cover insurance payments, but I ended up buying an iPad and spending the rest of the summer rewriting the XNA Framework for iOS. I named it XNI and it was very well-received in class (unlike the Objective-C language itself). In those two months of part-time teaching, part-time indie game development at Dawn of Play it served me well as a fast way to make Monkey Labour.


Student games made with the XNI Framework which reached the App Store

After the iOS story of Monkey Labour was over, I returned to my own studies. I wrote my thesis on XNI, and while waiting for my mentor to read the draft, I was curious to test one premise I hadn't had the chance to yet. Because XNI was written as a class-to-class copy of XNA, I thought it should make it relatively easy to port an XNI game back to C# and have a version for Windows/Xbox/Windows Phone with the XNA Framework.

To approach the task of bringing my code from Objective-C to C# in a lazy, programmer kind of way, I looked at tools for source code translation. I sure as hell wasn't manually going to rewrite all those smalltalk brackets. After a week of learning an obscure functional programming language TXL and another two writing formal grammar and transformation rules, I had a working version of something I called Automagical. With the press of a button and eight more hours of manual tweaking I had a playable version of Monkey Labour for Windows.

So what to do with it? My plan was to release it on a new distribution channel I previously heard about on Gamasutra. Called IndieCity, it was like Steam or Desura, but without the gatekeepers, focusing only on small, indie games. It was to launch towards the end of 2011, and I was excited! We could finally be first somewhere when the doors open for customers. I really believed in it and decided to risk my own (Retronator's) time and money, splitting the potential profits with Dawn of Play later.

The IndieCity fiasco

It took me a month of lazy full-time work (four effective hours per day on average, 80 hours total) to make it happen. This included coding the integration of IndieCity achievements and leaderboards, making a PC version of the game's webpage and, to keep things fun, a new “homemade” trailer recorded in my parents' attic. I even begged a voice actor to record the line at the end of the video for 30 bucks plus a promise of my signed artwork and a couple of Monkey Labour promo codes. I was going broke, since I was doing this on my own (I'm not great with saving money), so I hustled everything to get this done in time IndieCity launched.


On set (meaning my parents' attic) filming the new trailer

At this point I should say that I love IndieCity, especially since I'm going to follow by saying how badly it turned out for us. Its premise is great. Lovely designed website. I didn't even give the downloadable client grief, because Steam and Desura force you into one as well. Hell, since it's torrent-based, it scales more easily and offers higher royalties in return (85 percent if you integrate with their system, 75 percent otherwise). Last but not least, it offers support for leaderboards and achievements, both of which are utilized to great extent in Monkey Labour.

I was sure launching on IndieCity would be big. And I was wrong. And things would soon start turning out badly.

First, completely out of nowhere, the site launched on December 8. A little heads up would be nice, but they called it a "soft launch", just to test out if the system was responding as it should before they let the masses in. We sold about four copies to our friends and parents who could finally play our game (WIN!) After the “real launch,” planned for the following week, the crowd would pour in and all our troubles would be forgotten.

I guess I expected some heavy press, all the big gaming sites writing about it. After all, I read about it on Gamasutra and IndieGames, something I couldn't do with my tiny indie game press release. Unfortunately it didn't happen. One Rock Paper Shotgun post can't change the world.

The guys at IndieCity are in fact like us. Just another small startup with hopes to change the world, but little power to succeed with their first appearance. Unfortunately, for what press IndieCity did get, people haven't responded with great excitement. Most hate download clients (or at least having yet another one) and they hate DRM.

The user base of IndieCity may have grown by the time this article is published, but my plan of being out of the gate at day one failed miserably. After almost two months, the numbers stayed scary low: seven units of Monkey Labour for Windows sold.


When to give up

Since we learn from our experience, I was not ready to give up on Monkey Labour for PC yet. Maybe the IndieCity promotion failed, but we still had a solid product, undiscovered by many potential players. The iOS version even won an AppCircus award, a global competition for mobile apps (not just games). With the nomination for Mobile Premier Awards and the judges asking me blankly how on Earth we sold only 4,000 copies, I was once again sure we had a great product that only failed in its marketing.

To complete my XNI Framework story, the last missing piece was to create a port from iOS to OS X. Since both operating systems are powered by Objective-C and the same basic frameworks, I quickly had a native version running on my Mac.

Not to spend another week reinventing achievements and leaderboards, we just ditched the online component and published a build with only the pure gameplay at half the price. Planning a joint press release for both desktop versions, I thought I could save this again with my leet PR skillz, now at Level 2.

I felt confident in the way I acquired those 11 Metacritic reviews and sent a similar email to a whopping 50 publications to announce the coming of our game to both major personal computer platforms.

One day of chasing contact emails and mad copy/paste/inserting-name later, I went to sleep and let the European night become the American working day. And when I woke up... Nothing happened. AGAIN.


Monkey Labour
running on my Mac

The Mac launch came and went with a single mention, and the Windows version stayed untouched, even though a lovely Romanian site wrote a really nice news piece about it. At least on Mac, we sold seven units in the first three days instead of two months. Still, publishing on the Mac App Store has nothing near the potential of getting the launch right on iOS, where, even without any substantial press, we managed to get a couple hundred sales in the first weeks.

To top it all off, I sent an email to Steam, Desura, and Big Fish Games and got rejected three times. At this point, I should have started feeling bad about myself. The problem was not in IndieCity, not in the Mac App Store, not in the press. Nobody wanted to hear about a year old iPhone game coming to PC. The game world today is fueled by novelty. It was time to quit.

I may have learned the hard way, but I didn't feel bad about it. I believe as long as you put love into what you're doing, while you have fun doing it; results don't matter that much. Yes, you'll feel shitty for some time, and once or twice you'll want to throw something at the wall and call it quits. But your happiness really shouldn't rest in the outcome.

Even in the case of a flop, you won't know in advance of its release. If you enjoyed the process, that's what matters. If you get to continue doing it, you've won. What you learned along the path is what's important (and that's why I'm writing this for you). The Windows port served its own purpose of proving the concept for XNI. It also launched Automagical, a product I hadn't even realized people needed. And yet, without sending 50 emails to tech websites, more people have found their way to it and bought it than Monkey Labour Windows. But while the game sells for a dollar, a beta version of Automagical is about $20. That's a multiplier that can keep me optimistic.

The story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe

I know I did my best. While Monkey Labour didn't nearly cover our production costs, I'm confident our next game will get nearer. Thanks to the R&D part of our studio we're lucky to get to try again. And perseverance, coming from actually loving to do this, is what will eventually win this game.

One of my university professors said it's hard to predict things, especially the future. While I was busy finding out one way of how not to sustain an indie game business, I've kept my eyes on the scene as a whole. Together with the things I've learned, here are my thoughts on how to go about it in the future. It's what I personally (and naively) believe in:

Conclusion

The main point is: if you love doing what you're doing, you'll do it even if the business side doesn't work out the first time around. From more and more stories like ours, it's becoming apparent that you simply can't start from zero and feed one game's sales into the production of the next one -- not in the beginning (unless you're really lucky). But if you love doing it, that won't be a problem. You'll keep your day job, you'll still be doing websites for business clients, and you'll still be creating games after hours, because this is what you want to do.

Your first game will probably be a flop in business terms, but it's an epic win for you. 95 percent of the guys that were loud on those hobby gamedev forums you've grown up on never got that far. But you -- you've done it!

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