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

November 6, 2012 Article Start Previous Page 4 of 5 Next

Change of Course: Mighty Fin

And then we had a self-imposed reality check. Money simply wasn't going to last: we could try and rush out the next Scarlett game, but it would be truncated and compromised, and we'd still be left penniless by the time of its release.

I still remember the day we met up in a café to discuss what to do. It was really tense! We basically had to decide whether we wanted to continue doing the thing we love in the face of likely extinction -- or shelve that ideal for now and try to pump out a smaller game that would hopefully get us back on track.

Whether you're talking about making games that aren't close to your heart, or doing contract work for other people's IP, it's easy to justify when you're looking to stabilize your business and put some money away for the glorious day when you can get back to your dream projects.

But as many people have found, it's extraordinarily hard to pull free from the kind of projects that only allow you to limp towards the next project. We had certainly seen it before, and were simultaneously hugely wary and strongly idealistic: two traits that made this a hard conversation.

Eventually, though, our goal became to spin the roulette wheel and get a 99c game as far up the charts as possible.

This time, we were determined to do things properly. We entered into a two-week concept phase with the goal of generating a series of prototypes, from which we could pick the best one and develop it further.

One idea soon emerged as the leading candidate: a one-touch endless runner -- well, swimmer -- starring a fish travelling through some very hazardous seas. Very early on, we nailed the concept of buoyancy, and the (not entirely true-to-nature) idea that the deeper you dived, the higher you jumped. That core proved to be a winner with everyone we showed it to, and it became the basis for Mighty Fin.

There followed an eight-week development period. I wouldn't recommend it. The good part: it was fantastic working alongside Tim and James, extremely focused and now experienced enough to give this a good shot. Our roles were set: Tim on programming and music, James on the art, and me on design, level creation and... asset wrangling? This was probably the peak for us working as a tight little unit, and while it was stressful, I also enjoyed it immensely.

The bad part: eight weeks for a game we wanted to get to number one? Against the likes of Angry Birds and Tiny Wings? Crazy! The tight deadline meant we had little room to make mistakes in: Mighty Fin had to be great from day one.

We knew by this stage that marketing was going to be a tough sell. Who would care about yet another casual-looking endless runner? So I doubled down and focused everything on the one thing we knew about: a feature spot on the App Store. I managed to find more contacts at Apple, and tried to put our best foot forward when it came to the release.

Relying on this was an awful feeling: it's like relying on the lottery. But it was hard to know what other route to take: we knew what website coverage we did get wouldn't translate to many sales, and the kind of people who would be most receptive to buying Mighty Fin wouldn't be reading those sites.

The first prototype. We always wanted to put that red triangle in the final game as a costume.

In the end, we got a fairly good "New & Noteworthy" spot on the U.S. App Store. It propelled the game up to 39 in the overall US charts in the first 24 hours, and shifted 29,000 copies in the first couple of weeks. Again, though, it quickly spiked and sank, despite doing whatever we could think of for marketing the game.

It was enough money, however, to continue supporting Mighty Fin, and we felt there was still a lot we could bring to the game. One and a half months after release, we unleashed a huge update that doubled the number of levels, added unique music for each level type, made a new game mode, and doubled the number of collectible costumes. It made the game significantly better, and user (and critic) reviews reflected this.

And thanks to being named "Game of the Week" on the Australian App Store, the update sold better than the original release. In fact, it topped the charts in Australia, briefly outselling Angry Birds in the region -- our biggest claim to fame, financially speaking.

To date, Mighty Fin has sold 81,948 copies, and sits with a 4.5 star rating around the world. It remains our best-selling title, but as you can appreciate, it still wasn't enough money to survive for very long. We had to size up our options: what else could we do in a short timeframe? Should we even be continuing at all?

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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?