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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 5 of 5

Once More: Monster Flip

That last question had been rearing its unwelcome head for a while now. At what point should we just cut our losses, get jobs elsewhere, and pay back the money we had borrowed from amazingly kind friends and family?

We had a lot of unhappy discussions about this, but in the end we determined to have one last throw of the dice -- call it collective delusion if you like, but we knew we were getting better at making games, and we simply loved it so much that it was incredibly hard to let go. It was, frankly, a drug: the lows were frequent and extreme, but the highs were so easy to fight for.

Towards the end of 2011, we prototyped a bunch of game ideas and soon discovered the one that would become Monster Flip. The fact that it was a match-3 game was a surprise to all of us, but we found a few twists on the traditional gameplay that made it interesting enough to develop.

This time around, we signed up with local iOS developer and publisher PikPok to help us with our game. We knew we needed more marketing muscle behind us if we wanted a shot at surviving, and working with the talented folks at PikPok turned out to be a uniformly positive experience. They helped make the game better, through QA, the amazing audio of Jeramiah Ross, and the great work done by Mike Cosner on the trailer.

Most of our games are associated in my mind with the flat I was living in at the time. I have very strong memories of the late nights we spent at each and every dinner table in those places. When James came on board to re-draw Scarlett, we spent two consecutive weekends crunching in my lounge (I was living with a very kind and patient flatmate). We set up tables for myself and Tim, while James was using the PC that was hooked up to my flatmate's 55" TV. It looked a bit ridiculous using that setup for Photoshop, but we had to make use of whatever computers we could.

When you're working out of home, it becomes incredibly important to keep it separate from your home life, for the sake of your own sanity. After years of doing this, I'm not sure I ever managed to properly find that balance, so it was a huge relief when -- as Monster Flip kicked into life -- we finally got an office to call our own.

We had a lot of fun in this office -- what developer hasn't blasted out AC/DC at 4am with the windows open while they're frantically finishing a title? -- but we were all too aware of how desperate the situation was, and how burned out we were all getting from sheer worry.

Monster Flip is, to my mind, the most tightly designed of our games. You can chart a huge amount of improvement from our first titles to this one, whether in the unified color palette and art style James created, or the sheer slickness and amazingly bug-free coding Tim produced, or the system and level design I strived to make as good as possible.

Despite that, though, the game came out and promptly sank without a trace. In this case, we released in what ended up being a very busy week, minimizing the amount of feature coverage we got from Apple. And being a casual match-3 game, Monster Flip didn't manage to snag much in the way of press.

The game itself, meanwhile, is probably too much of a subtle slow burner in a genre that really demands bright colors and a ton of audio/visual fireworks to stand out. I think the gameplay systems we put in place are really solid and deep, but it could take a while for the game to reveal those systems. This could probably have been solved with a longer development cycle, but -- again -- there simply wasn't enough money to develop for longer than eight weeks.

When the game didn't do well, I think we all just felt resigned. I was amazingly burned out by this stage, having invested a huge part of my own self worth and identity in the fortunes of the company -- as so many developers have done in the past, I'm sure. We released one update to Monster Flip (again enjoying a high App Store rating if nothing else), and officially called it a day and put Launching Pad Games on hiatus.

Good and Bad

To me, the story of Launching Pad Games is one of pursuing enjoyment over sensible decisions -- and of often never even knowing what a sensible decision was.

We started this company with very little knowledge of finishing and releasing high quality games, and were sometimes too slow to recognize our own limitations or knowledge gaps and seek to overcome them. When that was combined with a huge amount of idealism, it resulted in a large number of missteps and often painful lessons learned.

It's all too easy to list those lessons: Don't jump into full time positions before the numbers add up. Be more pragmatic and analytical about the markets you target, even if you're unwilling to compromise much with the game itself. Reach out to fellow developers at every opportunity instead of repeating mistakes they could have helped you avoid. Consolidate your skills instead of forever starting afresh in completely new genres or markets. Seriously consider alternate monetization schemes like free-to-play even when you have a natural aversion to them. And for God's sake, acquire better marketing skills.

As developers, you'll be able to easily look through our titles and pick out the flaws, whether in the games themselves or in the genres/platforms we chose to target, and see why the numbers never added up. I find it all too easy to do that myself.

But despite all the setbacks and hardships, this has also been the single most enjoyable time of my life.

The Viking, the Hipster Nerd, and the Emo: playing dress-up at the Mighty Fin launch party,

We've all learned so much about game development over the last few years -- these are skills that will help us out for the rest of our careers. The lessons were both retrospectively obvious and excruciating, but they're learned now.

These years also helped focus us and crystalize what was important to us in this industry. I now have a very clear idea of what I want to contribute to the medium throughout the rest of my life, which is a surprisingly big comfort.

And most important of all: I got to work with two really amazing guys and enjoy the support of so many fantastic friends and contractors. Together, we had so much fun, even in the face of a mountain of stress caused by money worries and short deadlines. That stuff can wear you down until you're nothing but a husk, but having the other two around me never stopped being anything but great.

I feel extremely lucky to have been part of a good team. I've known people who've never managed to find decent collaborators, who have been burned so many times by people they've worked with. Tim, James, and I managed to instantly click, and keep clicking all the way through the darkest times. There wasn't a single day -- not one -- where I didn't want to get up and go to work.

I personally emerge from my time at Launching Pad Games a hell of a lot wiser (I hope), with a clear idea of what I want to achieve with video games. We're a cautionary story, perhaps, of what happens when you combine beginner's ignorance with a desire to follow your heart instead of your head. But for all that, I am so, so glad I did it, and always will be. So keep an eye out for the three of us in the future, because wherever we are, we'll be striving to do great things in this young, exciting, confusing, frustrating, diverse industry.

Article Start Previous Page 5 of 5

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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?