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Opinion: Indie devs, the odds are against you
Opinion: Indie devs, the odds are against you
March 13, 2012 | By Kyle Kulyk

March 13, 2012 | By Kyle Kulyk
More: Smartphone/Tablet, Business/Marketing

[In this reprinted #altdevblogaday opinion piece, Itzy Interactive's Kyle Kulyk explains why the odds are against independent developers trying to launch and market their games on mobile app stores.]

So you've done it. You've worked for 4-9 months without pay with the rest of your team, and you finally completed your app and are ready to unleash your indie game upon the mobile world. It's soon after this point you'll likely come to the same conclusion that I did. The game is rigged. The deck is stacked. The odds are against you.

If things weren't made complicated enough by your own inexperience, the realities of the app markets surely weed out more than their share of bright-eyed, indie developers. This isn't meant to discourage indies because you can do it, but you need to be aware of the nature of the game you're about to start playing.

You now have a completed game, but that's really only half the battle, and here are some of the challenges that you'll face. These are the realities that indies need to be aware of.

Failure to Launch

Launch is vital for indie developers, and here you can be your own worst enemy. If you're trying to make as big a splash as possible on the Apple marketplace, you need to hit the ground running, and that means making sure your game is ready. Test, test, and test some more.

Making a minor change? Play through the game again. If you fail to build momentum off your launch, expect your app to become invisible shortly after. It's possible to pick it up from that point, but it puts you at a serious disadvantage. You need to have all your ducks in a row and hit your launch with everything you have. You can't do that if your game isn't ready.

In January, when we launched Itzy3D, our game was running fine. We launched on the Android Marketplace while waiting for approval on the App Store. While we waited, we received useful feedback from our Android users and, as the Apple binary was pending, we made a few modifications (this will also set you back in Apple's queue. Beware).

When our game finally launched on the App store, we noticed that a seemingly minor change had borked gameplay in every level but the tutorial. So, no problem, right? Just fix, update and move on. Not so fast. By the time our updated version was approved by Apple, three weeks had passed with a broken version of our game sitting on the App Store.

When the game was fixed, our visibility on the App Store was next to zero. With no momentum from the initial launch, there was no chance for our game to rank in any of Apple's charts. Test, test, test. Make sure you're ready.

Then, there's the icon. Your first chance to make an impression is with your icon. That's the first thing people see. You can have the best game in the world, but if no one feels compelled to click on it in the first place, you're not going to make any money. In Feb, 148apps estimates that 823 apps are being added into the Apple marketplace every day. Will you stand out?

Marketing, reviews and money

So what can you do to get noticed? Well, you can spend money. Want to run some ads? That'll cost you. Want to get reviewed? Reviewers are buried under a ton of games all wanting the same exposure that you want. So they'll either ignore you, get to you in a few months or you can always pay them for expedited reviews, and it can cost you.

Want to issue a press release? Oh, there's free ways to go about this too, but if you want to get noticed, if you want pictures, if you want to hit more media outlets? That'll cost you.

If you don't have the money for all these things you're already at a disadvantage because you can bet the established companies have no issue with spending money on marketing their products. They'll be noticed with their established advertising networks and partnerships. Most likely, you won't.

Make sure you have a plan. $1000 to start your marketing at launch couldn't hurt, and expect to reinvest a percentage to keep the ball rolling after that.

The Apple Fix is In

I had a chat with a successful mobile game developer awhile back, and he told me something that made my stomach knot. "If your game doesn't take off on its own, you can always pay the Russians. That's about the only hope you have. And if your game doesn't stick after that, pull the plug."

That's right. If your game doesn't go viral, his recommendation was to spend between $30-50k for one of these chart-manipulating services to artificially elevate your game to the top of the Apple charts. Once it gets there, see if it stays and if not, move on.

Those with the money can pay others to manipulate their way to the top slots. Can indies compete in an environment where the top slots are bought and paid for? It's possible, but not probable.

This rigging of the Apple charts came to light recently in the Touch Arcade, forums where a developer explained that he was approached by a company offering these services. The company pointed to 8 of the top 25 games that were at the top due to their machinations.

Apple issued a statement that these types of services were frowned upon and could, potentially result in your developer account being closed; forcing some to potentially pay new Apple fees to open a new account.

Forgive me if I sound a bit cynical, but I'm sure if these companies don't mind paying tens of thousands on chart manipulation, the fees associated with setting up a new account aren't much of a concern.

Android hide and seek

I've touched on this a bit in the past, but the Android Marketplace certainly isn't the answer either. Developers I've talked to have all tried to crack the Android market, but even when they have a measure of success, it usually pales compared to what they're able to achieve on the Apple App store. Many I've spoken to have simply given up on the Android platform or weren't interested in the first place.

For indies, it's even harder. On the Apple App Store, you can at least expect a small window of visibility at launch due to the "What's New" section. The Android marketplace no longer has even a basic "What's New" section. This means that if your app, god forbid, doesn't instantly sell enough to be featured in a Top category, no one will ever find you unless they're specifically looking for you.

Of course, you could always win the "Staff Pick" lottery just as you could win the App Store's "Featured" lottery. Someone has to win, but for an indie looking to seriously start a small business revolving around making mobile games, hoping for a lottery win isn't usually considered a sound business plan.

You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake

There are tens of thousands of indie developers out there just like you and me. When the new, digital frontier opened up and suddenly developers were striking gold in the App Store, it opened the floodgates for every would-be developer out there to take a crack at the mobile market.

Now, publications that would like to take us seriously are swarmed by indies looking for exposure. Reviewers have to simply ignore the large majority of requests due to time and resource constraints. And worse, our customers are overwhelmed by the sheer amount of new applications being added to the application marketplaces daily. So what can indies do to survive when the odds are clearly against us?

We can support each other and persevere. Our first game, Itzy3D exists due to the support we've received from others. Gamers and developers offering their feedback, indie developers raising awareness of our product via social media, indie Facebook groups and forums who were always there to offer support and advice based on their own hard learned lessons, and talented folks like Reuben Cornell who reached out to us via Twitter to offer his musical talents to help get us off the ground.

The worst thing an indie developer can do is isolate themselves. United, we have a better chance at improving our products and learning from the experiences of others. Maybe your first game doesn't take off, but you learn. Then your second does a bit better. Then your third does better still.

Talk to people, talk to other developers, talk to publishers. Engage your peers and you'll find that you don't have to do this alone. The odds might be against you, it can be discouraging, and you need to be aware of the realities indie developers face, but don't discount the support of the indie community nor their willingness to help. Use them and let them help you make better products.

In the end, this makes all indie titles look better, and together we can change the game.

[This piece was reprinted from #AltDevBlogADay, a shared blog initiative started by @mike_acton devoted to giving game developers of all disciplines a place to motivate each other to write regularly about their personal game development passions.]

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Logan Foster
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Looking past the rant that Kyle has done here, and a lack of any real resolution suggestions, I guess it is up to the community to provide its own...

1. Games, even "indie" games, still require you to act and think like a business. This means that you need to throw away the "if we build it they will come" attitude and start to think about properly building a fan base and hype for what you are doing.
2. Talk to your local developer community more. I am calling out Kyle a bit here since he is local to me and didn't do this enough, but generally speaking gamedev communities in your local area are one of the best places to start to look for mentorship and information. Most developers are more than willing to talk about this sort of stuff in a general high level and some might even give you a lot of low level secrets. Get their feedback on everything and take it to heart.
3. Never overlook QA. Always test, always refine your product. Get fresh eyes to look at the program as much as possible to ensure that familiarity does not breed problems.
4. Being "indie" means that have a different set of rules, you can pivot on a dime. You are not an out of control freight train like AAA studios, you are a small nimble offroad buggy and this means that you can change direction and play by a total different set of rules to adjust your products, target multiple platforms with unique (but integrated) releases, do more with less. Failure to understand this and how to be nimble will result in problems for you and your product
5. Fail fast. Learn from your mistakes. Never be afraid to kill a product or make a hard decision. If your product isn't working out early, its highly imporobable that that "one last fix" is going to suddenly make it into that kill product.

Steven An
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No one ever starts as a beautiful unique snowflake, but clearly some games are beautiful unique snowflakes. Braid was a beautiful unique snowflake. So is Fez, apparently (still haven't played it, but from reading about it and looking at it, it's got beautiful unique snowflake written all over it). LIMBO was also such a game.

I think if you make a beautiful unique snowflake, which take years of hard work and experience and persistence, people will buy it. How many truly great games don't get the attention they deserve (which for indies just means, enough attention to support the developer)?

james sadler
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You've basically stated all the reasons that we've avoided the mobile market like the plague. iOS was a great thing that allowed a lot of people to start bringing in money for their apps, but it also opened things up for those that create shovelware. Sadly there is more shovelware than good product out there, and with so many apps coming out every day it really just isn't worth trying to achieve anything there unless you are certain that you're game/app is far above what else is out there, but even then you need to have a decent following from the start before other people will take a chance. Its a supply and demand thing. The supply is more than abundant and demand isn't really all that high. More clearly, demand is high for good product, but with so little of it in the marketplace demand for a product has gone down. If a company already as a following it makes the whole thing a lot easier since people have more experience with their other products, but as a new company is really isn't worth the time and struggle.

Martin Pichlmair
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What a misleading headline. While the critique of the mobile market is valid, all pitfalls you sadly stumbled upon are well known and documented. A lot of indie games do extremely well on Steam, Apple's Mac App Store, PSN and XBLA. Some even did - and still do - fine on iOS, e.g. Canabalt, Tiny Towers, Sword and Sworcery.

May I offer some advice to the aspiring indie developer:
- iOS is the hardest marketplace to target. Avoid it. If you manage to get your game on Steam, you're far better off since the average revenue is much higher. The entry barriers to Steam mean that you have to make a good game. Chances are, if your game is good enough for Steam, it can also survive the App Store.
- Visibility is key on the App Store. If you target the App Store, be sure to have an army of fans or a trunk full of reviews on the most popular iOS gaming websites. That, and having a direct line to Apple, is the only method of getting Apple's attention.
- Why does indie mean no salaries? I'm co-owner of an indie company that pays their cheques. There is an indie business, believe it or not, and the best examples of indie games - LIMBO, Sword and Sworcery, Braid, World of Goo, Fez, Frozen Synapse - all had a budget and a company behind them. We can't pay much and sometimes, as it happened with Fez, we might run out of money. Indies might be able to finish their game based on dedication and perseverance, but it is rarely necessary to rely on those virtues alone.
- 4-9 months is an industry norm for iOS games. That's not indie per se. Most successful indie games took way longer to develop. See the examples above.

Logan Foster's advices are also gold.

James Hofmann
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I'm with the optimists here. Of course there is no market for just making a conventional "n+1" game as an indie, dumping it on the App Store, and hoping. It has to be run with a more focused motivation. Fortunately, there's a general solution that most serious devs can manage:

Finish a lot of projects; accumulate fans and contacts as you go along. Start with free games: free builds social capital really quickly, and it's easier to mix free games with pay-the-bills work, using one to bootstrap the other(freelancing is a popular choice for this). Going through this process naturally repositions yourself over time and gives experience you can't have any other way; you'll learn to design marketable hits by process of elimination, get a niche audience coming to your doorstep, or have an opportunity to work on a star-studded team or a larger-budget project. Monetizing on those opportunities is the follow-through.

The problems with this plan, of course, are the same ones that hurt most careers - dependents, illness, disability, debt. It's hard to escape those! But the overall risk is considerably lower than if you immediately shoot for the moon: A few years with a low profile, and then "overnight success" is the common story of the indies who have succeeded in this way. And while I haven't tried to create hard numbers, I am pretty confident that the vast majority of successes fit within this model, when examining the whole career and not the single breakout hit.

Steven An
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I agree. People who have succeeded only did so after years and years of hard work.

Ed McMillen has a great interview on where he says that you shouldn't expect to make any money during your first few years as a game developer. Your first goal should just be to make lots of people play your free game. You have to do it your spare time.

Mathieu Rouleau
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I think its cute that you still think that the "featured" or "staff picks" are lotteries and not revenue slots sold by the platform.

Steven An
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They're not pure lotteries. You have to make a good game first.

Anton Beloborodov
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It could be true if game is good but has no attention. This game is bad. It has bad visual, bad gameplay. I had tried to play for 5 minutes and got nothing. Aslo it has no help or tutorial.

Kyle Kulyk
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Are you sure you played the correct game? Our game starts with the tutorial and no other levels are unlocked until at least you've made an attempt at the tutorial. A recent review actually praised us on how useful they found our tutorial. As well, there is also a video tutorial that teaches the game basics in case you're one of the few that prefers a gameplay demo before trying yourself.
Although I'm not sure what your personal opinion regarding our title has to do with the points I raised above. Obviously if a game is bad it will work against a games sales, but ask yourself this. Have you ever seen a mediocre or flat out bad title rank on the app store? I certainly have, just as I've seen great games be completely ignored. That just goes to illustrate the points I raised above. Money spent on a marketing campaign, or flat out hiring a chart manipulating service can propel a bad game up into the top of the charts, and into the public eye. Certainly having a great game, and not saying our first game is great by any stretch of the imagination, doesn't automatically mean you'll succeed when your competition can simply outspend you to the top of the charts where visibility becomes everything. Chart boosting services, for example, wouldn't exist if this didn't work. That's simply a reality of the app marketplaces that developers starting off may not be aware of.

Greg Bala
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Unlike some of the the 'optimists', I agree with Kyle - I think the article is meant for new indie developers who are just getting into the business. Its a good summary of the pitfalls.

To some of you : Stop pointing out TinyTowers and a few other successes. THAT is misleading. pointing out a handful of games out of 500,000 claiming that "you can make it too" is not that far off as claiming you can win the lottery - ok, ok, mathematically its much different but I think you get my point.

New devs should read this article and be aware of this.

Well said Kyle, well written!

Steven An
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It's more like climbing Mt. Everest. You can do it, it's just really hard, it takes lots of patience, and you should start small.

Greg Bala
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@Steven - Unless I misunderstood you, indie game development is nothing like climbing Mr. Everest. With Mr. Everest, you pay some money, and you make it. Small chance of death, but likely you will make it.

As an indie, you run out of money and you are gone amigo. you don't get too many shots. Indie is a lone mt everest climber with a store of food and oxygen at the top, perhaps at some crazy intervals - if you don't make it, you are dead :)

Unless you are wealthy, have a rich crazy uncle, or learn how to hypnotize investors, you don't get many second chances.

Hook Mobile
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