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The End of the Journey: One Indie Studio's Tale
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The End of the Journey: One Indie Studio's Tale

November 6, 2012 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 5 Next

Starting Small: Run Boots Run

It was just before Fashion Star was released that I met Tim Knauf. I was somewhat intoxicated at a party, he turned up and said he liked making games, and a week or so later we were in business together. Easy.

These were fun days: Tim was working at a bookshop, and I had just gotten a job as a technology writer for a magazine. In our spare time, however, we were plotting what to make together. It had to be tiny, simple, and a quick way of learning a new framework. For whatever reason, we chose to make a Flash game, and so began my love/hate relationship with the crash-prone Mac versions of Adobe's programs.

Run Boots Run is a simple endless runner -- made before they were cool! -- that has you controlling a… thing, possibly a cat… through a semi-random level that gets faster and faster.

You can collect diamonds as you run along, but -- in a hilarious showcase of our beginner-level design skills -- they don't do anything. We just couldn't think of what they might add to the gameplay, but stuck them in there anyway, and watched as players still tried to collect them even after they realized they were functionally useless. If nothing else, it gave me a taste to learn more about player psychology.

Never underestimate how good your players might get. Tim made a non-looping music track that was about two and a half minutes long, but we started seeing high scores popping up that went significantly longer than that.

It's so easy to be smug about how difficult you think you've made something, only to have your cockiness punch you comically in the gut when your players blast through the seemingly solid walls you've created.

Either that or they found a way to cheat. Probably that.

Boots is meant to be a cat, but I couldn't work out how to animate a tail in Flash.

Scaling Up: The Pretender

We'd released one game together, and suddenly thought we knew enough about Flash to make something a lot more complicated: a puzzle/platformer trilogy with a tragic tale of love and hubris weaved into it.

To say this was a step up from Run Boots Run would be quite an understatement, but it allowed us to flex our storytelling and puzzle design muscles: two things that are very important to Tim and me.

After roughly three months of development, in June 2009 we put The Pretender: Part One up on to see what kind of bids it might attract. Within a few weeks, we had a bid from Spil Games for US $5,000 for a primary license. This allowed us to also sell cheaper secondary licenses to other websites, so Part One ended up making closer to $9,000.

The game was very well received, and it's around this time that I discovered how sadistically amusing it could be to design super-hard puzzles that few could solve. But as you can see, the amount of money gained wasn't enough to ensure any kind of stability for our company.

Compounding this problem was the fact that we were aiming for a trilogy, but at the same time were very eager to move on to completely new projects. We produced the Pretender sequels in between other games, and we didn't manage to finish the trilogy off until November 2011 -- nearly two and a half years between the first and last episodes. That's far too long, and it meant we had to constantly refresh our memory of the story and try to drum up enthusiasm for something that had, in our own minds, been relegated to the past already. If you don't like consolidating and iterating on a single product or franchise, then never promise multiple games!

Still, it's been lovely seeing fans discuss levels online, and it's always a good feeling when people take it upon themselves to create video walkthroughs on YouTube of your games!

Making the Jump: Zoo Lasso

The iPhone had come out, and more importantly, the iPhone 3G had just been released: the first iPhone to hit New Zealand. It looked like a fun, lively market with a low barrier to entry, so we decided to take the plunge -- along with just one or two other developers.

As with Run Boots Run, we knew we had to keep our first game on a new platform relatively simple. Zoo Lasso came from a mechanic Tim had thought up some time ago, involving drawing loops around groups of bugs for points.

Interestingly, we released at the start of the "race to the bottom" period of the iPhone market, when 99-cent games weren't nearly as common as they are now (and quality free games certainly weren't dominant, what with no in-app purchases available). In fact, right up until launch we were seriously considering launching it at $1.99. Times change!

Zoo Lasso ultimately suffered for a few reasons. Both Tim and I were still learning about game design, and didn't have the skill to fully develop the game's concept. As a result, it feels underdone, like half a mechanic in search of a game.

Marketing was another sticking point, one that would remain through all of our projects. We released Zoo Lasso and saw practically no sales for a week. There was no budget for marketing, and frankly we felt like we were floundering: we had tried to get gaming websites interested in reviewing the game, but those few that did cover it didn't add to sales in any significant way.

And then a week later we got onto Apple's "New & Noteworthy" section on the App Store and shifted 10,000 copies. We were over the moon -- but of course, as soon as the feature spots ticked over a week later, sales plummeted once more. It's here that we had our first experience of the agonizing roller coaster of emotions that is watching chart positions. I had to force myself away from the computer after a couple of days -- I wasn't doing anything except refreshing and seeing how high we were (or weren't) climbing.

As a learning exercise, Zoo Lasso was a great introduction to the iOS platform, to Objective-C, and to the Cocos2d framework we ended up using for all our iOS titles. What it wasn't: a successful enough title to make us both quit our jobs and go full time. But for better or worse, we didn't let that stop us from quitting our jobs anyway.

Article Start Previous Page 2 of 5 Next

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Rami Ismail
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I disagree with the conclusion. Indies, please run before you can walk, please start hopeless projects, please start companies that fail, please learn design by throwing games at the audience. Please up the stakes, please work long hours. It's not forever, it's until you either fail or realize the way you're working is a bad idea and become wiser for it.

I also disagree with some other of the conclusions: if you want to make a game, make said game. If you want to challenge new genres, challenge new genres (I'm co-organizing Fuck This Jam this weekend, a genre specifically aimed at doing just so).

However, talking to fellow developers all the time and learning how to market your game are extremely important.

Thanks for writing this piece, though - for those that might start running just now, it is extremely valuable information and a nice look at things they might avoid while doing their own run.

Either way: look at what you've achieved in just three years from not having a safety net, by having to manage a company, by having to learn how to market and by having to push yourself beyond and by working with great people. You couldn't have learned that walking. Keep running!

Christer Kaitila
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This is such an inspiring and informative article. It may ultimately be a cautionary tale of indie gamedev failure, but underneath the doom and gloom is a positive, enthusiastic vibe. I'm on the same journey as you and expected to come away discoraged. Happily, I feel motivated and enthusiastic. Great work! You deserve tons of success and I expect you're on your way to great things.

Wasin Thonkaew
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Really inspirational thing I ever read. I can say the same as Christer's comment above that I'm on the same route which ever takes me to at the end path. Despite the result that you guys cease things up, but those precious progress and wonderful collaboration you guys have, those things some people would never appreciate or experience. Good luck to you guys, and me too on this path of walking.

Muir Freeland
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I really enjoyed this. I'd love to hear more details about what you guys would do differently if you decided to do it all again.

Curtiss Murphy
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Great story! Enjoyed following you through your journey. Thanks for sharing.

TC Weidner
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Look at your first sentence, you already have won, you live in New Zealand. ;)

The only mistake I saw that you made was to try to make this your primary income source. Jobs and family take up time, but still leave time for hobbies and passions. So a full time 8 week game production may prove to take 6 months in a part time environment. So what, you have way less stress, the added time allows for better perspective, testing and reflection making for a better game.

Some guys hobbies are building cars, some guys play golf or ski, guys like us like to create games. Its actually cheaper than some hobbies. See it as a hobby first, see you creations through, if they hit the lottery and make money, great, if not, so what..

Brandon Van Every
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Treating development as a hobby is giving oneself permission to slack off, be vague, not set real goals, not define the scope of the project, not ship, not learn the customer base, not deal with business, etc. It is a recipe for decreasing the chance of ever arriving at a sustainable full time business model. If you want to do games in your spare time, potentially for the rest of your life, fine. If you want a full time career, treat it like one.

Tristan Clark
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Hi all! Thanks so, so much for the comments.

Rami: Encouraging a 'walk before you run' attitude really wasn't my intention - it's certainly not something I'll ever heed in my life! But there were a bunch of mistakes we made that I think people could avoid, while still shooting for the stars, so I wanted to share them. Going full-time so early, as TC Weidner mentions above, is probably a very good example.

My biggest fear writing this was that people might think we all feel defeated, which just isn't true. I tried to emphasise that what it's really done is crystallise what I want to achieve in this industry, made me smarter, and made me want to try even harder next time around - and there WILL be a next time. :)

Neal Nellans
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Thanks for the informative article.

You said, "It launched at $20 on portal sites like Big Fish Games, and it's sold about 100,000 copies since 2007. My cut as the developer was roughly $25,000, spread over half a decade"

By this account your first games gross was $2,000,000 and your take of that was $25,000. That is a net operating income of 1.25 percent. I suggest that if you start a new company your first hire be an accountant or a contract lawyer.

Jane Castle
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Even prostitutes get a much better cut from their pimps......

Lex Allen
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No, no, no! These numbers don't add up. You have to realize that most people did NOT spend $20.00 on that game. They probably spent more like $6.99 or less depending on what promotions were being run.

Brandon Van Every
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Let's guess that the download market changed and the game found its own level. 2k copies @ $20 = $40,000. 8k copies @ $7 = $56,000. 90k copies @ $1 = $90,000. Total gross $186,000 of which he took $25,000. Net operating income still doesn't look very good.

Craig Stern
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Great piece. I tend to agree with the gist of what Rami is saying: make a game because that is a game you're passionate about making, not because it's easy or likely to make money. (That said, there's nothing wrong with taking a few months to familiarize yourself with the fundamentals of development before taking on something huge and ambitious.)

Of course, if you *were* going to make a game purely for the cynical purpose of going after money, Neal is also correct: your fashion game made $2 million in sales over five years. That's very, very good. In your moment of desperation, I'm a little surprised that you went for a Match 3 game instead of tapping into a proven market where you already have a good track record.

Josh Todd
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Excellent article! I see a lot of myself in there. I think the important thing is that you did take the leap, and look at all you accomplished!

Kevin Oke
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Great read, thank you!

Will Burgess
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This is why I love indies; they're like living, breathing Disney characters. Thanks for the great write-up.

We need more "Studio Post-Mortems" like this. :)

James Hofmann
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My indie story feels very reminiscent of this one, the only difference being that I've stayed solo, I haven't stopped yet, and as of late I've latched onto the idea that I should be increasingly radical with each successive project, because, in Yogi Berra-esque fashion, "low risk has become too risky."

The experiences from trying to "flip" a wide variety of projects in a timeframe of a few weeks or months - which, as in this story, I had a little bit of success and mostly failure at - really crystallizes when you decide to go for a moon shot, because even if there's a major design or technology challenge, most of it is stuff you've become aware of previously - specific business processes and a sense of "maturity" about the production and marketing that allow you to course-correct over the dev cycle without expensive/disheartening setbacks.

Lex Allen
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97%+ of us share the same story. The biggest mistake that they made was quitting.

You guys know what went wrong! Fix it and try at least one more time!

Craig Page
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Your story was very entertaining, but I don't see why it has to end.

Instead of renting an office, and doing this full time making a new game every 2 months. Why not do it as a hobby and make 2 games a year?

Galen Tucker
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Awesome story! (Albeit disappointing ending... thus far). Postmortems, both positive and negative results, are some of the most valuable sources of information in this or any other industry, in my humble opinion. :)

I do look forward to seeing what you 3 get involved with in the future. Indie game development isn't for the faint of heart, in fact, while the entry barriers (often sweat equity and some computers you already own) are very low, the number of skills/luck/support/etc... are actually very high.

Now, as to the assertion that publishers might be the answer... well... here's my take on that:

Good luck with your future endeavors!


Will von Bernuth
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It seems like marketing for iOS is always one of the culprits. A lot of the indie stories about success and failure talking about how difficult it is. My belief is that more than just the quality of the game you need the $$ to spend on marketing which is tough.

The quality of Tristan's iOS games certainly are good if you believe gaming reviews. For example, my site, AppMyWorld, tracks professional review scores for iOS apps / games and the three iOS games mentioned in the article all score well:

Mighty Fin - 83 AppScore based on 16 professional reviews:

Scarlett and the Spark of Life - 78 AppScore based on 4 professional reviews:

Monster Flip - 78 AppScore based on 6 professional reviews:

Babak Kaveh
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Great Story! Even though I felt you closed on a pessimistic tone, you guys still made plenty of games for such a small group, and a lot of players played and enjoyed your games, so, chin up! Based on the article, and please correct me here, besides too little experience in development, I think the biggest mistake you guys made was the constant dilemma you had between making the game that you would absolutely enjoy making, vs. a game that you thought will pay the bills.

Now, working at a large studio before going indie is a great way to gain experience in making games, specifically it will teach you that:

1. Make a game that you would enjoy playing - vs. making!

2. Only go for a genre-buster if you and every other industry insider you talk to about your game is absolutely in love with the prototype.

3. Don't make the games you think you should possibly make, rather, make a game that you can make really well (i.e. in a polished pro looking package). Unfinished concepts, and unpolished executions will not make back the money invested in them, even if it is a tiny amount of money.

4. Don't ever make a game just so you can earn petty cash - make the game that you BELIEVE will get you a huge return.

If you cannot fulfill all of the above on a particular PROTOTYPE don't quit your day job, or rather, get a job in the industry before setting out on your own.

Despite all of that, you guys now have a great portfolio of lessons learned and we are grateful you shared some of that with us.

The Le
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Not really understanding why people are claiming this is an "informative" article. There is very little information at all. Every page is exactly the same - "we wanted to make a game, so we did, and we sold X copies". There is very little details in any of it to be of use.

Tim Knauf
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Hi 'The Le', we're definitely keen to help others out by being as informative as possible. What is missing from this article that you would have liked to see?