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November 22, 2017
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There Has to be Another Way to Make Indie Games

by Chris Zukowski on 10/31/17 09:48:00 am   Featured Blogs

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The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutras community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

There has to be another way to do this

I have been thinking a lot about this article about Aztez and the troubles the indie devs who created it had post launch. There was too much Twitter ink that has been shed discussing what the game’s creators should have done or should not have done. This post is not that. I have so much sympathy for them and wish them the best and have 0 advice. They did everything right for the indie dev biz-model that has been in place for the last 5 or so years. Basically it goes like this: hunker down, make the most perfect game you can no matter how long it takes, email the press, get featured, make enough money to have made the last 5 years of living worth it. If any of this fails, do contract work for someone else. 

The film “Indie Game The Movie” crystallized a lot of this methodology. It also brought forth the perception and behavior of what it means to be and indie game developer. You must sacrifice your life and your sanity. Your life is completely and utterly consumed by your masterwork. Your game’s release must also cause some sort of existential crisis. 

However, the recent changes in the marketplace, fan tastes, and just the indie life have made this model seem very very difficult. While this model can be extremely profitable for some lucky people (see Cuphead and Stardew Valley) I just don’t have the stomach for it.

I am a pretty risk averse person. I have a wife and kid now, am pushing 40, and am not prone to existential crises. I still think I can eventually make a living making games but cannot engage in that type of development. I have been thinking and researching about a new way of creating games that is hopefully not as risky and a bit more conducive to having a lifestyle business so I can raise a couple kids and still retire in comfort.

The following is my plan. I am not giving advice. You do what you want. 

Release more games faster

My biggest fear with the current system of releasing indie games is that too much is put on a single game. Years and years go into making the game perfect and because you spent so much time on it, the game must be better than all previous and all other games in the same genre. When you do finish the game, the release must go flawlessly. The right day must be selected so it does not get drowned out by another major release (impossible considering something like 127 games release every day on Steam.) All enthusiast review websites must release their reviews at the same time. Popular Twitch and Youtube streamers must also release their videos. Two to three (or even five years) of work rests on this one week where you are hopefully featured by the various stores. Daniel Cook describes this process as “firing a solid gold cannonball at a moving target while wearing a blind fold” If this doesn’t go well, your efforts for the last half decade have been a tiny, worthless splash in the deep deep ocean. 

To complicate things, when development cycles are long, team members who were once energetic start dropping out due to the endless slog. Life happens and people quit.

To fix this highly risky process. I am distributing risk by making smaller games and releasing them more quickly. At most, release a game every 12 months. Or, ideally, release every 6 months. If this seems to slow, shrink each game’s size and release one every quarter. 

The more releases I have, the higher the chances for one of those “viral” releases where everything aligns and everyone is talking about your game.  

It might seem obvious, but I get the most press, and the most attention the month my game is released. If that is the case, more frequent releases means more press. This attention will also cause new players to find my back catalog of games. My fans will also remember me more because I am giving them games more regularly instead of going dark for years at a time.

Additional Reading
How I Won The Lottery - Gist: How to get noticed and make your side projects succeed. TL;DR: you need to release a lot of stuff. 
Minimum Sustainable Success - Gist: You can only expect 10% of your games to make money. And when you do have a hit, it must make enough money to pay for the other 90% of failed games. Better start making more games. 

Make genre games with well known game mechanics

I know this is going to sound like sacrilege to indie devs... but I plan to make less original games. It is incredibly difficult and costly to invent a new genre or mechanic. Breaking entirely new ground requires unknown number of iterations and throwing things out and going back to the drawing board. Games are easier to build within existing constraints so I don’t have to experiment as much. I just don’t have the time nor the money to be the tip of the spear when designing games.

It is important to note I am not talking about cloning another game. Instead, I am using a well established game mechanic as the core to my game and building around it. Traditional advice says to “find the fun.” It is really hard to do this. I can shortcut a lot of this experiment by starting with something that I already know is fun. When I built Return of the Zombie King I started with an existing gameplay mechanic that I knew was fun and was pioneered by mobile runners such as Canabalt, and Jetpack Joyride. Because I knew the base of the game was fun I could experiment with the smaller aspects of the game. The twist with Return of the Zombie King was that you start with zero abilities (you can't even jump) and must unlock all of your abilities. In the end, many reviewers commented that they wondered how such an original idea came out of a well-worn genre.  

Other genres that are good to build innovation upon: platformers, FPS mods, tower defense games. 

Additional Reading
Design is Why 2048 Sucks and Why Threes Is a Masterpiece - Gist: Designing a breakthrough mechanic like the game Threes takes a long long time and then someone can clone it.
Secrets of the developer who sold half a million copies - Work hard, work fast, and know the ins and outs of platform you are making games for. Oh and people don’t buy games because they are unique.

Stick to a genre and make sequels

Similarly by sticking to an existing mechanic, I am going to make several games within the same genre. This will speed development time because I can reuse engine code from my previous games. I can also dive deeper into the genre exciting the diehard fans who will be willing to pay more for more specific experiences. 

Furthermore, by making sequels I can leverage my existing fans who already know that my games are quality and are willing to take more of a chance on my next one. 

Additional Viewing
Why not more Sequels in Indie Games - Gist: You can make a lot of money from past games. Less feature creep. More comes out. 

Make games that have a personal touch

Yes I said in the previous tip to make games based on well-worn genres, but I still need to make games that showcase my unique personality. My fans must be able to distinguish my games from the hundreds of other games out there. 

My fanbase is the bedrock that I am building my game community around. If I don’t have something with my personality, why would they keep following me? Which brings me to the next facet of this plan...

Build up a die hard fan base using a mailing list

The best way to ensure future success is to build a great community who will follow me to each game I make. I must win their respect by being approachable and responsive to requests. Don’t be the hermit creative who lives in a shroud of mystery. I must be engaged with the community I am building. 

And what is the most important thing to any tribe? A central meeting place. Whether it is a camp fire, a town hall, or a grand forum, there must be a place where we all gatherand share stories. That campfire is an email mailing list. 

Email marketing is the single best way to continuously reach people. Therefore, I must ensure that my most hard-core fans join my mailing list. To get them to join and to keep them there I need to provide them with exclusive content that they can’t get anywhere else. For instance, give out my game’s sound-track and concept art. Give them cheat codes and secret tips. When my games go on sale, the mailing list is the first place I will make that known. I will still be available on forums, Discord, and social media, but those are the top of my funnel to advertise my mailing list. See 5 Reasons you Need to Build an Email List This Year as to why mailing lists are so important while social media is nearly worthless.

Additional Reading
1,000 True Fans - Gist: If you find 1,000 people who will buy whatever you put out, you can make a comfortable living for yourself. 
Why You Should Grow AND Trim Your Tribe - Gist: This was written for self-published books but the same goes for games. 

The size of my game must be relative to the size of my audience 

I am not going to spend 3 years building a multiplayer game if my tribe is only 10 diehard fans. I also will not make an MMO if the number of people who know me couldn’t fill a bus. In the early days while my mailing list is still small, I am going to make sure that my games are lower risk and easier to make. With regular releases my tribe will grow and so can the scale of my games. 

Don’t invent a new camera

I don’t know who said it, but there is a phrase that goes something like this… “If films were like video games, you would have to reinvent the camera for each movie you made.” Every new game basically needs to be recoded all over again from the ground up and it is largely why video games are so hard to make.

Well, I am not going to reinvent the camera any more (or at least as much as I can get away with). I am going to use premade engines, create sequels, and reuse code from previous games. 

Don’t worry I am not making an asset flip game. By reusing the code for the core gameplay, I have more time to focus on adding things to my game unique.

This approach is similar to Genre fiction in books and movies. Romance novels fit within specific rules. Slasher films have similar tropes. I am not afraid to ride the rails of the genre I are working on. My fans actually love it when they are playing something familiar.

Additional Reading
Genre rules for books - Gist: If you don’t follow the rules of the genre you will lose customers.
There are really only 6 plots - Gist: Nothing is truly original and things are better when you lean into those similarities.  

Be my own publisher

I will be making more games than most other studios. And when I make more games, each one will generate profit slowly over time. It is like a 1,000 little drops that eventually become a river. If I share my profits with a publisher, I do not get to reap the same percentage and they are less forgiving of a very long time horizon.

Additional Reading
Long Tail - Gist. There are unexpected results when you play the long game
Avernum 3, Remasters, and The Joy of Owning Your Own Work - Best Quote: "But suppose you release a new game and nobody ever even hears of it. Wait five years, remaster it and it really will be, as far an anyone is concerned, a new game. You can try selling it again!"

Summary

Basically my approach is to release more frequently by making less risky and smaller games. Then, by encouraging any player of one game to join my tribe, they are exposed to all my past and future games. This slow accumulation of a tribe will ensure that all subsequent games have a larger built-in fan base. Together we will roll forward like a giant Katamari and over time be able to make larger and more ambitious games.

In the coming weeks I will be writing more posts that will go deeper into each one of these tactics. I will also be documenting the results of games I have released and how my strategies performed and were adjusted. If you would like to be notified and to get more detailed numbers (that I don’t make public) you should....Join my video game marketing email list

Thank you
 


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