My name is Hugo Cardoso, I'm the developer behind the one man indie studio Endless Loop Studios and you've probably never heard of me.
My story isn't sexy, I didn't quit my job and work on a masterpiece for 5 years while living on ramen. I'm not an auteur making a game that will change the world and make people tatoo the name on their forehead.
My car is 12 years old, my phone is 4 years old, my apartment is boringly normal on a 2nd(?) world country.
My games don't get hype previews on Kotaku or Polygon, they don't have a metacritic score, they don't get reviewed on IGN or Rock Paper Shotgun, they don't get covered by TotalBiscuit or GiantBomb.
But despite all that I've been running a sustainable business since 2013.
My role models are more the likes of Cliff Harris (Positech Games) and Jeff Vogel (Spiderweb Software) rather than Eric Barone (Stardew Valley) or Toby Fox (Undertale).
If you're looking to be an Indie developer long term I fully believe the trick is "quantity of sufficient quality".
As with any business, there will be ups and downs. I expected my second game to do as well as the first and as a result I invested too much time and money and when sales were way way below the first one I panicked a bit and became quite concerned about the viability of indie game development as a sustainable long term career. As a result I did the best, safest, thing I could do, I spent 3 months remaking my most successful flash game and made a tiny, cheap, highly focused, highly polished game which found quite a bit of success which then helped develop my fourth game and so on.
Here are some tips that have helped me along the way.
Keep your burn rate as low as possible
I'll start with the most obvious one, although also the most difficult one to use since it is very much based on where you live.
If I was living in San Francisco spending $4000 a month just to stay afloat then I wouldn't be able to do this. You can make a decent tight small polished game in 6 months, if your burn rate is $4000 then it will cost you $24k, if your burn rate is $1000 it will cost you $6000.
If you can live on $1000 a month you can make a really tight polished 2h game for $6000! Assuming the game is of sufficient quality that is an achievable amount.
Survivor Squad took 10 months to make, I was living with my parents and didn't really go out much or do anything so my burn rate was essentially $0. I did the programming, art and design myself, I spent $350 on hosting, royalty free sound effects and the Greenlight fee. Do you think that game was profitable?
Don't gamble your life on the expectation that your game will sell 100k copies
You might think "Well Steam has 140 million users, how hard can it be to sell to just 0.1% of that?" The answer: Very Hard
Always be hyper aware of survivorship bias, everyone knows Stardew Valley sold millions but nobody knows 200 other games that released that month and made either nothing or a reasonable amount. Look at Steamspy, look at games in a similar genre and price point to yours.
Could you survive to make another game if you sold 5000 copies? What about 3000? Would the trickle of 3 copies a day combined with your savings be enough to make another game?
Start as small as you can, focus on a tiny scope and make a tiny product of good quality
Players much prefer to have a small 2h interesting quality experience than a 40h messy game with many bugs, no polish and dozens of meaningless shallow features. Your goal should be to design a game that when a player finishes they want more rather than something huge that no one will play because they get bored/frustrated in the first hour.
Use Early Access for feedback not for funding
Early Access is awesome, I've used it for all except my first game. Getting people to play your game ahead of an official launch is extremely important especially if you're keeping your costs as low as possible and don't want to hire professional testers.
Unless you already have built and audience or press/Valve contacts, Early Access is NOT for funding. You will likely not be featured on the Popular New Releases list and will likely only sell a few hundred or maybe one thousand copies depending on the price.
However make sure your Early Access release is in a decent state. As an unkown indie developer the Steam review score is the most important thing that will help you sell copies and you must defend it at all costs. If you release into Early Access with many nasty bugs under the guise of "It's just an Alpha, it says so right on the Steam page!", you will get negative reviews and even if you fix the issues within 24h those reviews will likely stay there and keep your score down forever.
Ask for feedback, be very active in responding to comments and put out updates consistently.
Value the long tail
Since I look at my business as a long term venture I value the long tail tremendously. Even my first game, Survivor Squad, which has a Mixed review score still sells a handfull of copies a month, certainly not enough to live on but it adds up. What that really means is that as long as I keep my burn rate low, I don't need a game to break even quickly. As long as my costs were low enough that breaking even is achievable, it's only a matter of time.
Take it easy on the discounts, they are a useful tool to find new players at different pricepoints but don't go overboard and bundle your game for $1 within 3 months of release just to make a quick buck. Stay strong and keep your eye on the long term.
Also means that in theory, as long as you survive and keep improving with every game, it should get easier.
Always keep learning and growing
The indie game development scene moves at a very fast pace, it seems the game changes every 6 months so you have to adapt. Are you making a platformer with nice art? It was easier to stand out 5 years ago. Making a zombie crafting survival game? Easier 3 years ago. A King of the Hill game? Easier 1 year ago.
You should stay up to date with the business side of things but also your own skills, are you growing as a programmer/artist/designer? Are you becoming faster at producing good content in your engine of choice? Do you have reusable code so your next game will be up and running faster than before? Do you have some extra sprites lying around that could be used to very quickly prototype an interesting idea? Remember time is money.
Gather a following
This is my biggest weakness since I'm not a very social person so I'll just write about the generally accepted advice. Be active in all types of social media, ideally you should spend almost as much time marketing as you do actually developing.
One thing I've done is set up a newsletter sign-up link in my games and their websites, through it I've gathered about 4000 emails. Now that obviously doesn't mean every time I announce a new game I'll suddenly sell that many copies but I does mean I'm not always completely starting from scratch.
And again, focusing on the long term, every game I release and every day that goes by that list increases little by little. Maybe one day I'll get to the point where cliffski is and be able to sell 9000 copies of a game before even hitting Steam.
When in doubt, follow the TF2 Sniper
As the wise man once said: "Professionals have standards: Be polite, be efficient, have a plan to kill everyone you meet."
Now I would advise replacing that last part with "Be prepared and have a plan to survive to fight another day if the worst possible scenario comes to pass" but hey whatever works for you.
Indie game development is a very tough overcrowded business but I believe if you face reality instead of burying your head in the sand and focus on taking calculated risks you can find success, just don't define success as selling 100k units.
My next game, Hyper Knights, is leaving Early Access this Friday. I've invested more in this game than ever before but not so much that it will never be profitable. Feedback has been extremely positive so I'm confident it will reach my modest goals.
However I also know that if it sells 0 copies I will not be out of a job and starving on the street, I will analyze what went wrong and make an educated decision on what to work on next, how long to work on it and how much to spend.
Hope this article helps provide some perspective on the less exciting but more reasonable and sustainable type of indie development.
Thanks for reading!