Principles of an Indie Game Bottom Feeder

By Jeff Vogel

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.

Piracy is a Thing - Give Up

Once upon a time, there were three basic ways to make money: Selling raw materials. (Steel. Wood. Tungsten. Bacon.) Selling crafted goods. (Computers. Chairs. Socks. Hi2u, China!) And selling your time providing services. ("Welcome to Walmart. Welcome to Walmart. Welcome to Walmart.")

In our brilliant modern age, we have also invented a new way to making money: Selling information. Music. Books. Computer games. And all of these new, information-based ways of making money have one thing in common: Everyone can rip you off easily all the time, and you can't do anything about it. Start hating it now. Punch a pillow. Get primal scream therapy. Be angry.

Then get over it.

You want to pirate the PC version of my newest game, Avadon: The Black Fortress? Search for it on The Pirate Bay. You can get a free copy in less than the time it takes to read th... Oh, you got a serial number already? Told you so.

Do you think I'm dumb for revealing this secret? Well, it wasn't a secret. Everybody who isn't really old knows how to get all the free music, games, books, and movies they want. Every year, the percentage of consumers who know the arcane workings of BitTorrent increases. It'll get worse before it gets better.

Oh. Wait. It won't get better. Ever.

(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.)

Big companies are determined to go down fighting piracy, using increasingly draconic methods of customer punishment. It's kind of fascinating to watch, seeing the titans of industry squeeze out a few more dollars with the minor incidental cost of pooping on the reputation of an entire industry.

But this can't be your way. Blizzard can afford to require a constant online connection for single-player Diablo III, no matter how much of a gratuitous irritation that is. They're Blizzard, and everything they make will do great. (Until it doesn't.) Your resources, on the other hand, are limited. Unless you write a purely online game (a very costly and difficult proposition for a small team), you will have to face the fact that whatever DRM you scrape up will be blown away like tissue paper.

Then the first step is to accept that piracy happens. Take a long, deep breath. Cast your eyes to the heavens. Sigh. And then focus on the sliver of customers who will actually pay you for your work. The goal is to make a game with the bare minimum of DRM necessary to nudge honest people to register, and then, after they do, leave them alone.

This is because you need to bear in mind the business you are really in...

I Don't Sell Games; I Sell Self-Satisfaction

I don't really make a living selling games. I sell an ethical life.

How could I make a living selling games? Anyone who wants to pay me for my games doesn't have to. It's not like buying a chair, where they'll chase you down and taser you if you grab it and run out of the store. Nobody who wants my game on Windows or Mac has to pay for it to get it. Frankly, most of them don't.

So why do people pay for it? Because they understand a fundamental fact: For these games to exist, someone has to pay. If everyone just takes it, I'll have to get a real job and the supply will shut off. I don't want to get into one of the eternal tedious arguments about "software piracy". I will instead focus on one single, incontrovertible fact: I have a family to feed. If nobody pays for my games, I can't make them.

So what does someone get when they pay for my game? They get the knowledge that they are Part of the Solution and not Part of the Problem. They know that, in this case, they are one of the Good Guys. It is well-earned self-satisfaction, and it is valuable. To know they are doing the right thing, some people will happily pay 20 bucks. This is how I stay in business.

This means that I am very, very careful to maintain a good public image. I try very hard to be likable and engaging and generally not a jerk. I don't always succeed, but I try. The goal for an indie developer is to get people to like you. If they don't want to help you stay around, they will help someone else.

This is one reason, of many, why the move toward super-strict DRM in PC games is fundamentally wrong-headed. If you get people to like you, they will pay money to support you. If you get people to hate you, however, they will make it a point of pride to rip you off, even if they don't want or have to. If you are a jerk, you will make it feel better to rip you off than to pay you. When The Pirate Bay exists, this is a very bad strategy.

So be nice. Be friendly. Offer attentive, individual support. Write quality products, and maintain them properly. There is only one way in which you can't afford to be a nice, lovable guy. If you sell niche games, you have to charge an actual price.

You Can't Always Charge a Dollar

If you are writing a very casual game aimed at a very wide audience, you will have to charge a low price -- so low that it'll probably make you uncomfortable. Like, a dollar, tops. (Or you can do what all the cool kids are doing and release your game for free and make money selling little add-ons. This involves far more courage than I possess.)

However, if you are writing for a niche, you can't just charge a dollar. To make money selling games for a buck, you need a huge potential audience. For my games, a huge audience just doesn't exist. In general, the smaller your niche, the more you need to charge. Highly detailed tactical wargames tend to have pretty high prices.

Your customers will browbeat you for daring to charge money for your work. Don't let them get to you. Remember: The key difference between an amateur and a pro is that a pro knows how to price his or her work.

You will be told that you should lower your prices because it will increase sales. This is true. However, your sales might not increase enough to make up for the loss of income. You need to pick the point at which your price times your number of sales is at its highest. This tends to be covered in like the first eight seconds of any economics class, but it's still news to a lot of people.

I'll give you an example from my business. Pleasingly, I have actual figures to prove what I am saying is true.

Last year, we released Avadon: The Black Fortress HD, our first game for the iPad. Old school, Western-style turn-based RPGs are almost unknown on the platform, so we were serving a classic underserved niche. However, the audience for such games on the iPad was, we guessed, not huge. We decided to sell our game for the princely sum of $9.99. That's a lot on the iPad. We then made what, for our tiny company, was a lot of money.

When the game had been out for a few months, it settled down to a very reliable average sale rate of 25 copies a day. These are pure Long Tail sales, from people just stumbling upon it in the store. Then we had a two-week half-off sale. This got a bunch of PR and attention, and sales shot up for a few days. Then they quickly settled back down to a constant rate: About 37 copies a day. Here is a screenshot of the sales chart:

So, at $9.99, Avadon HD was averaging about $250 in sales a day. At $4.99, Avadon HD averaged about $185 a day. When I was preparing the game for release, I strongly considered giving in to peer pressure and selling it at $4.99. I'm desperately glad I didn't.

This is what is important to remember: If you are serving an underserved niche, the neglected gamers who want that sort of game will be thrilled to find you. They will be excited enough to pay a premium price. On the other hand, if you're selling a game in a genre that isn't hugely popular (like turn-based old school RPGs), a low price won't tempt many customers into a purchase, not when there are a million games with a broader appeal for sale on the same page at a lower price.

We Are The Proud Bottom Feeders. Join Us!

There has been a revolution in indie game development in the last few years. In terms of prestige, attention, and, yes, sales, indie games are succeeding far beyond my wildest dreams of sixteen years ago. Skilled developers all over the place are leaving big companies to try their hand at doing what I do, and that is awesome.

I feel truly lucky to be writing games now. It's an exciting time. Don't take it for granted.

And yet, despite the explosion in the field, there is room for more. Game development is the next great art form, and we're still on the ground floor. Let the big boys write the same games in the same handful of genres year after year. There are so many sorts of games out there, waiting to be picked up, dusted off, improved, and sent back out into the world. Find your niche and own it. Accept what you can't change, be as awesome as you can, charge what you're worth, and stand proud on the ocean floor.


Photo by Doug Wertman, used under Creative Commons license.

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