The 10 Secrets to Indie Game Success (and Why They Do Not Exist)
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
We’re about to release Frozen Synapse 2. In some ways, it’s the culmination of 17 years of involvement with indie games in one form or another. This would seem like a good time to look back and write some kind of inspirational blog post in order to get 20 minutes of social media attention to leverage for marketing purposes…
I’m not really that jaded and cynical, but it’s certainly a challenge to find valid tactical advice to give to indie dev newcomers these days. There are no glittering secrets to success, only a dull brick comprised of luck and effort.
As the inevitable Rami put it recently, “Indie is bigger than ever and also it is dead”. Various talking heads (myself included probably) spent a lot of time since 2005 or so saying how indie games were going to be “just like music” eventually, meaning that we’d enter a super-saturated, super-stratified state where a few big players would get a lot of mindshare and everyone else would be left swirling around in the bowl of corporate-mediated distribution networks.
Well, we’ve basically reached that point now, so advice specific to indie games is now effectively germane to any creative endeavour. Things are demonstrably more challenging than they were when we started, but also there’s now a whole world of experience to draw from.
Since we started out, indie game development has ascended from being the preserve of back-room tinkerers to the lofty heights of an aspirational career path. This kind of cultural shift can lead to the rise of a meta-industry of advice-peddlers who do not have directly relevant experience of developing and releasing successful games. Watch out for this, and be wary of overly simplistic hacks and tricks: I never want to read another Gamasutra postmortem which laments the failure of a single press release to generate a raft of launch day reviews. Everything is a process: if anyone promises you success as a direct consequence of employing their advice then they are lying to you.
Another problem with very specific guidance is a short use-by date. For example, I could spend some time here expounding on the efficacy of Steam Wishlists — focussing on them pre-launch has worked well for us and for some other indies who have adapted to this aspect of Valve’s infrastructure — but that could well change shortly after I publish this. My pre-2014 marketing articles have already dated horribly, so I’d rather attempt to write something which is going to be relevant over the next five years.
One thing that’s important to bear in mind is that the pace of the games industry is not a unified force: things change at different rates. For example, retail distribution is still clinging to life many years after analysts pronounced its imminent demise, whereas the “indie boom” on Switch lasted for just a few months. Unless you’re absolutely primed to take advantage of a situation on a specific platform, developing long-term strategies is the only shot you have at consistent success.
So, instead of secrets, I’m going to offer up some principles which might help you to think about your indie game dev trajectory. These will largely be aimed at newer devs but, if my own experience is anything to go by, those who have been around the block several times could still do with a reminder of some fundamentals.
Also, please feel free to disagree with me: I have my own built-in biases and misconceptions; you’re better qualified to spot them than I am.
I’d like to recommend two books before I get started:
Perennial Seller — Ryan Holiday
The Hit Makers — Derek Thompson
These are both thoughtful investigations into the nature of creative work and how that work can find an audience — they go into far more detail than I’m going to attempt here.
One final note: I’m not going to be prescriptive about the definition of indie games. I’ll be talking about success in commercial terms at times but I don’t want to preclude purely creative work which has zero commercial aspirations. Free games, art games, non-games, anti-games, trash games, interactive experiences…this whole exciting spectrum of work is valid, important and serves to bolster the contribution of gaming to culture as a whole. “What is indie?” and “What is a game?” are worthless questions for our purposes. Just take what you need and ignore my tone if it bothers you.
Familiarity and Novelty
This is a concept which Derek Thomson develops well in The Hit Makers, but I’ll run with it a little here.
One of the common traits of popular media is that it contains a healthy dose of familiarity or nostalgia. The audience associates the work with pre-existing positive memories, and is drawn to it.
However, for a work to truly break out, it also requires a novel element: something that puts an exciting spin on the formula; something that differentiates it from the masses.
If your game is too familiar, it’ll be boring and obvious. If it’s too novel, it’ll be weird and difficult to parse.
I’d add an adjunct to the “novelty” component here: “solving a problem”. Blizzard are masters at taking existing gaming paradigms and making them more accessible and rewarding: look at Diablo as a reaction against classic RPG’s; Hearthstone as a distillation of Magic the Gathering and Overwatch as a response to Team Fortress 2. If you can genuinely identify and solve a problem with a popular existing genre, then you could be on to a winner.
Two notes of caution: the problem has to be significant, and your game has to stand up against other players in the genre on its own terms. Blizzard are positioned well to do this because they are a huge organisation capable of deploying immense resources, a small team really has to pick its battles.
Our 2011 game Frozen Synapse was a refinement of other tactical strategy games: its nearest neighbour was Laser Squad Nemesis. LSN is a classic game, but matches took a long time to play, it was multiplayer only and had a dated UI which was cumbersome by contemporary standards. When we released FS, there really wasn’t much other competition in terms of simultaneous-turn-based tactical games, so we were able to own this tiny niche for a while.
Familiarity and novelty can be difficult masters. Our 2015 title Frozen Cortex reminded people too much of a football game; it wasn’t familiar enough for sports fans and it was, in some ways, too novel for a particular group of gamers who disdained any sporting associations. It reviewed well, and people who check it out tend to get a lot out of it, but it didn’t get this combination precisely right.
Coffee’s for Closers
There is one thing that every successful indie game has in common: it was released in some form.
Finishing projects is a discipline — it takes time to cultivate and it should not be neglected. If you’ve never finished a serious project before, I strongly recommend doing so before attempting to make any kind of significant game. It can be a small thing, but it must be a finished thing.
I am a perfectionist and a procrastinator: my natural tendency is to tweak small aspects of something, worry about it, and then stop working on it because I think it’s inadequate. Over the years, I’ve had to battle these tendencies by recognising them in myself and listening to others who have different traits. Getting over this is an essential part of your personal development if you want to do creative work, so find a strategy that chimes with you and stick to it.
If you don’t, Alec Baldwin will show up in your office and berate you in a decidedly non-PC manner.
Start with Art
Video games are, at the commercial level at least, a visual medium. Your first impression of a game is predicated on a screenshot, GIF or the opening seconds of a trailer.
One thing which astonishes me from younger teams in particular is the lack of impactful art, particularly in competitive genres. Players come for the visuals and stay for the gameplay, so every time you are pitching a game or showing it off, you need to front-load art, and that art has to be world-beating.
I’m not talking about realism or whizzy shaders here: there are other ways to compete. Here are some games that I think are beautiful:
Caves of Qud
Untitled Goose Game
The art for all of these games is fascinating: it directly implies systemic depth, or a unique kind of fun, and it makes me want to dive in.
Too many new indie teams set out trying to replicate glossy game art from big ticket games and overcomplicate things in the process. We definitely got this wrong originally: compare our first game Determinance and our second Frozen Synapse…
Determinance, with its "gimp-voiced characters" (PC Gamer)
Frozen Synapse, a game which Americans cannot pronounce (PC Gamer Strategy Game of the Year 2012)
We threw everything at Determinance but the result was a disjointed art style. To keep things coherent, we had to aim for something much more straightforward, so with Frozen Synapse I took my art direction cues from games like DEFCON and the motion graphics work of designer Mark Coleran.
Stylish, constrained art is always a thousand times more evocative than “my best stab at AAA”. If you do happen to have an insanely talented artist who is capable of gloriously photorealistic environment art, then use that to your advantage, but otherwise being tactical with art is almost always your best bet.
Make it good and shove it to the fore.
Give Yourself a Chance
If your dream project can plausibly be executed with the resources you currently have available, then go for it. In 99% of cases, a game that you care about deeply — an expression of everything you’ve always wanted to make and an evocation of your love for the form — is going to have a much greater chance of success than something you’re doing out of cynicism or pragmatism.
Outside of projects which are specifically part of a well defined learning process (maybe ‘learning to finish something’, as I discussed above), doing something “that seems sensible” is a dreadful idea. I’ve seen teams pitching for funding who clearly cobbled something together simply because money is offer, in the hope that they could pay themselves for a bit to work on something relatively interesting. Don’t do this: it’s a waste of everyone’s time.
Your sojourn on this plane of reality is incredibly short and your perception of time accelerates as you get older — you will not have the hours, or the mental space, to work on everything that matters to you in your lifetime. If you can, spend your time creating a legacy that you will be proud of.
Stay in the Game
From the first line of code ever written on one of our games, it took us about 9 years to have a significant financial success with an original game project. I know devs for whom it has taken much longer, and many others for whom it has never happened. To play the game, you have to be willing and able to stick around by any means possible.
Games are expensive and time-consuming to make, so it can be tempting to throw everything at a single project. Sometimes this is unavoidable — of course, people are able to assume variable amounts of risk based on their resources — but in all other situations it is good to have a fallback plan. Contract work, cash reserves, future collaborative projects, repurposing existing tech and IP, external funding sources…all of that boring, sensible business stuff can come in very handy when you’re going out on a limb.
You should watch Jake Birkett’s talk “How to Survive in Games for Eleven Years Without a Hit”.
There’s also the personal cost of making games, and this only mounts over time. You might well be crunching enthusiastically in your early 20’s, but when you hit your 30’s your capacity to do this will drop significantly. If you want to work in games for your entire career, you really do have to pace yourself.
Most of this article consists of somewhat nebulous advice that you can choose to ignore at your discretion, but here are some things I consider to be immutable:
- Reserve real time and energy to spend on your relationships; never compromise on this for any reason
- Aim to exercise every day without exception, even 15 minutes of walking is significantly better than nothing
- Give yourself a meaningful gap between working and trying to go to sleep
- Have interests and friendships which do not revolve around games and the games industry
- Learn to spot signs of stress, burn-out and “overwhelm”; do not hesitate to act on them
- Remember to be kind to yourself and others
Five minutes, fifty minutes, five hours, fifty hours
Here are some questions I find helpful:
What’s the first thing someone sees when they start your game?
What does the first interaction with the controls feel like?
How does the scope of the game open up within the first hour — how does it demonstrate its depth to the player?
When does the game start to get boring — why would I keep playing once I’ve learned the basics?
Can I imagine someone playing my game for fifty hours? What would it take to help them get there — what is the value going to be for them?
A lot of indie games from new teams punch hard in the first five minutes — maybe they’re designed for shows or just generally predicated on arcade action — but unless someone can realistically play for a substantial session and have a good time, you’re just not going to get anywhere. Conversely, some very deep games have a brutal on-ramp which makes the first hour a fiddly tutorialised nightmare.
It’s essential to think across different time-frames and empathise with the experience of players. Fight for the users. Don’t reinvent the wheel — give players something to grab onto initially.
You need to make a game that deserves attention, then you have to get it the attention that it deserves.
I’m not going to go in-depth on marketing here — for recent great stuff on that I recommend you check out Hayley Uyrus’ column on PC Games Insider, as well as taking a look at some of the work Mike Rose has been doing with his No More Robots label. If you want to see how a big hitter handles it, Paradox do great work with their community and advertising.
You must have the continual drive and desire to connect with your audience, and this drive must flow from the work itself through into your daily activities. This is tough and requires a lot of stamina — it’s very hard to be consistent. I’m bad at it, which is why I do things like write over-long blog posts once every seven months, instead of smaller bite-sized ones every week.
People want to tell (or show) the story of what is happening to them when they play a game. This story, which the game and player create in tandem, is the thing you need to focus on when you think about marketing.
Your marketing channels are essentially:
- Community (Discord, forums, Steam community etc)
- Paid advertising
- Store placement
Think about how each of those can be used to tell, and encourage people to imagine, these stories.
Also, don’t forget that your process is interesting to people. Honest documentation of your work can help your community to invest in your story and follow along with development. If you want a reference point, Tom Francis does this really well.
If you want the “turned-up-to-11-beyond-all-comprehension-bizarro-world” version of this concept, look at this stuff that the marketing guru Gary Vaynerchuck pumps out on a daily basis. He literally has a man whose entire job it is to follow him around and film him, then another team of people who edit and chop up his day into neatly packaged soundbites. I’m not suggesting you go this far (or become this annoying) but the extent to which people want documentary, commentary and comment in a field which interests them is virtually limitless.
I did some work for UK Games Fund at an event in York recently. A large number of teams looking for funding got to practise their pitches in advance of a more formal event later in the year.
Many of the games were high quality but the overwhelming feedback from myself and the other industry observers present was that the teams weren’t confident enough in their games, or in their approach. There was even a discussion about British cultural norms when it comes to self-confidence and sales practises.
Confidence, rather than arrogance, comes from being able to see the true value in yourself and in your work. You can be polite and humble but still have high self-confidence: in fact, these traits often go hand in hand. You do not have to become an all-singing all-dancing extrovert, but if you have issues in this area then you do owe it to yourself and others to work on them: the rewards will extend well beyond game development.
Polish is the accumulation of small abrasions
I firmly believe that the best games are created by a combination of generalised grand-scale systems-oriented thinking, and microscopic nit-picking pedantic perfectionism.
Some incredible people are capable of both, but most of the time you’re going to need to bring those different perspectives to bear via the input of different individuals.
Too much macro and you get games which end up alienating players. Too much micro and you can wind up with projects that lack a spine. Also, any imbalance here can lead to very long development times.
Knowing when an issue needs to be solved with a single systemic change, or a series of very small iterative alterations is probably the toughest skill in game design. The important thing is to respect each approach and try to learn when it’s applicable.
One of the hardest parts of development is polishing: you have to keep working on annoying knotty problems that get in the way of the player’s enjoyment. Just when you think you’re done, someone will point something out and your inclination will be to throw a heavy object at them. Instead, keep polishing, then use your closing skills to call time and finish the thing off.
Be honest with yourself
Game development is very challenging. It is often exhausting, frustrating, repetitive, boring, unrewarding and excessively demanding. You can do a lot of things right and still hit the rocks — I recommend that every developer watch Hugh Monahan talk about his experience with Brigador.
A very large proportion of any success you have will be entirely down to luck. You need to be conscious of this, embrace it and take it to heart.
You have to believe in what you’re doing in order to stick at it, and you have to seek external verification that you’re producing something worthwhile. The outcome needs to make the process worth it, not only financially but also in terms of its personal impact.
If things aren’t working out, you need to make changes: find new collaborators, new types of project, new challenges, new methods, maybe even a new role entirely. The skills you learn from indie game development are relevant to a whole range of different applications — you don’t have to make games in exactly the same way forever in order to get the most out of your career and your life.
No More Secrets
I hope I’ve made it clear that no advice in the world will give you the keys to producing a successful indie game. Everyone makes mistakes, everyone needs to catch that wave of good fortune.
Think of Mojang’s Scrolls or Boss Key’s LawBreakers — companies and individuals who have had enormous success can’t get it right every time. Any consistency whatsoever in games is something to be immensely proud of, that’s why I’m delighted to see veteran indie developers like Dave Gilbert from Wadjet Eye or Cliff Harris return with hit titles recently. I fully believe in sticking around, trying your best and staying alive. To do that, you’ve got to develop a strong value system as well as a support network to keep you going.
Games provide a unique conduit to reach an audience. It’s a big, diverse audience and sometimes things can get quite rowdy, but it’s also by nature a collection of people who are willing to seek out new experiences and allow themselves to be taken to new places. I still have faith in the audience for games as a whole, despite some elements of it behaving in an absolutely dreadful way over the last few years.
The industry itself is also packed with people who genuinely care about others and want nothing more than to see everyone succeed together. This is radically different from some other places you could chose to work — anyone coming to games from the outside remarks on how friendly it is. I’ve been lucky enough to have some amazing experiences and meet some legendary people.
I’ve now worked on four original games, two published titles and a bunch of ports and contract things. I turned 35 a month ago and I certainly feel pretty different from when my co-founder (and our Lead Designer / Programmer) Ian Hardingham and I first started collaborating when I was 19.
I don’t know where indie game development is going to take me next. I still strongly believe in the collaboration between myself and Ian at the heart of Mode 7’s games — his design and the frilly nonsense that I drape over it seem to mesh together on a fundamental level. I do know that I need to write some more music, and that I want to collaborate more so that I can focus more effectively on the things that really matter to me, but who knows what will happen.
If you’re thinking of embarking on this path, or perhaps you’re just starting out, I’m here to tell you that it’s hard but that it can absolutely be worth it.
Don’t try to find shortcuts, don’t get jealous of those who have more attention or money than you, and don’t do anything just because you read it in some idiot’s blog post. Apart from the exercise thing — you really should do that.
Thank you for reading! Please check out our forthcoming games and give them a Wishlist on Steam if they take your fancy…