My name is Stas, and I am a full-time indie developer for a two and half years by now (one could count this as a success already, with some reservations) from Ukraine.
I’ll try to describe shortly (well, you can see I lie to myself pretty often), what it’s like to be a self-taught indie developer without a hit (and chances to make one in nearest future). It is not that kind of story you can see in Indie Game: The Movie or Noclip documentaries or from the GDC scene (but if you are going to make games by yourself without experience in this industry, you should be prepared for a story like this). There is no happy end or any outcome at all, just my retrospective on the last years and two releases.
Before the jump into indie gamedev, I was a freelance programmer and worked on social and casino games, but on September 2015 I quit my job (or to be more specific, one project has been ended, and I didn’t look for another, I’m not sure if I brave enough to just quit), and decided to spend my savings to finish my own game started on gamesjam while ago.
With a team of 3 enthusiasts (artist, sound-designer and narrative designer), who liked my gamejam entry, we started to work to make a real game from it. The mistakes you can make during your first project is a separate big topic, so here is my summary for a first indie year:
I spent half the year and money on making solo prototypes before I finally returned to the game we started with team;
I spent the rest of the money, while we were trying to make the game on enthusiasm - others worked at their free time for the future revenue share. They worked hard, but I learned the hard way, in the most cases that’s not enough to finish even so small game as ours;
More than 20 publishers said no to Tribal Pass;
I almost signed with an investor on a $5k, but then just borrowed that money to keep all the revenue (I was too optimistic, but this decision saved me enough money to survive the year after release). I spent that money to pay my teammates, so they concentrated on our game at least at 20 hours per week, in exchange for that I kept the part of revenue we could share with investor;
We went to the Early Access on Steam in July 2016, and it was a disaster. At that time our game was the mix of tactical runner and text quests, and we faced a lot of problems with that. Players didn’t get the texts, localisations were way too expensive, and every new quest took more time and money than new core gameplay features. We ran out of money, and I made the hardest decision - instead of struggling with further development without budget, I just cut all the mechanics which didn’t work (so I spent about $3k on quests and stuff which didn’t make it to the final game);
What happened next is a story of this text. So, at the moment I am the author of two games:
Tactical runner Tribal Pass (it called The Tribe for six months after release, but then I was forced to change the title) - http://store.steampowered.com/app/470270/ ;
Crazy twin-stick shooter JASEM: Just Another Shooter with Electronic Music - https://store.steampowered.com/app/610840/ .
Now you see why I am at the bottom of gamedev and not at the top seller’s list. But just like a year ago, I’m sure my next game should be good for real.
I was thinking about text structure for some time (not very long) and decided to divide my story about the life after the first release into a few all-known periods. Let’s begin.
So, I have my first game released, but I’m in debt for $5k. As you know (if you don’t - you should review your business plan), you can get payment from steam for each month only at the end of the next one. To keep going, I sold my car and closed my debts without waiting for the results. Tribal Pass earned this amount of money during the first 1.5 months (a month in Early Access not included), and after that point, I could get only 33% of further income, as we settled this with our team of four people. At that period, the tail of sales almost reached the bottom, but I refused to give up. We added a bunch of localisations (thanks to volunteers, you are fantastic people!), made a Halloween update to take part in the sale, and sent the keys to almost 3k Youtubers through https://www.keymailer.co/ and direct emails.
At this point, I’ll go ahead a little bit and show you the sales of Tribal Pass during the whole year after release. You can see the daily amount of sold copies from July 2016 until August 2017:
A: Early Access release (10% discount). With almost no PR and marketing work, just posts at our social accounts and our confidence in the game we’re making. Some people bought it because of our friendship, some heard about it at DevGAMM and supported us, but still, it was a complete disaster and just ruined our expectations. We were so disappointed (and I was so broke), so I decided to cut expensive content and mechanics instead of adding more, and fix my loss at that level. After a few weeks in EA, I was sure Tribal Pass is doomed no matter what we do (because Sergey Galyonkin, owner of SteamSpy said the game has only one release, and I thought we already had our).
B: The game got out from the EA with 20% release discount. Thanks to positive reviews (or some other reasons I don’t know) it was featured on the main page and made its way to Popular releases section. I chose Friday as our release date, so there were no new games till Monday, and Tribal Pass was on the first page of popular releases till Wednesday, when it’s been pushed out by other games. This first week gave us about 50% of the whole year profits. A few weeks later Valve removed worldwide visibility round on start and destroyed reviews from non-steam buyers. I think there are reasonable steps for the industry, but without this help, we could never make our way to popular releases.
B1: 2 weeks after release, Tribal Pass has been pushed out from Popular New Releases, and our sales dropped to the bottom. And then we added Chinese localisation. After that China is among the three best countries by monthly revenue. About 10% of our profits this year comes from China - even with the fact they passed our first and most profitable weeks. So, try to make Chinese localisation before your release date.
C: Halloween sale. To get on the list, you game must be horror-themed or get some thematic update. It was the first and the last time we added content for some event. 50% discount, week of work - and low sales boost.
D: Autumn sale - 66% discount, and a pleasant result, consider the fact we did nothing for it.
E: Christmas - 66% again (Valve recommended to keep the same discount for those two sales). Excellent results, for some reasons without the drop at the end of the event.
F: Weeklong deal (75%). You can make discounts every two months, and February was recommended by other indies as a good month without big releases, and sales were really good. As you can see, after a Christmas sale our numbers dropped at zero, and just before this peak, they rose a little bit. That was an incident when we’d been forced to change our title from “The Tribe” to “Tribal Pass’, I wrote articles for several resources about that. So, the news about your game raise the sales, PR and marketing guys didn’t lie about that.
G: Another weeklong deal - 85% and expected result. Sales peak bigger than previous discounts, but with a lower price, it gave us just about the same revenue.
H: Summer sale - 90%. We reached the minimal possible price in almost all regions. Another expected result and zero sold copies for a few weeks after discount.
Between the peaks: It seems, 20-30 copies daily are pretty much okay for the $5 game. And that’s true if anyone would be interested in Tribal Pass for the full price. In our case, the most of those sales are with 75-90% discounts through Steam coupons program. In September 2017 I lowered the price to $2 to make it equal with Android port (which gave me almost nothing). Amount of sales and positive reviews increased, but revenue went down. So at the end of October, I returned its initial price of $5.
Anyway, just after release I didn't know those numbers and thought we still can make Tribal Pass more successful despise slow start.
At some point, I understood that even the possibility to pay off my debts with the revenue of the first release was lucky enough, and profits are not going to support me during the development of next relatively big game. I did some math and decided I need to ship few small games during next two years, so regardless of their success, together they could make some passive income enough to live and create something significant and meaningful.
First two months after Tribal Pass release, I was making different prototypes to pick some concept good for quick solo development. I tried arcade flying shooter, horror-strategy about the little girl trying to escape from the continually morphing planet with the help of drones army, but all of that was too big. In the end, I came to a top-down shooter, because I made something juicy and fun from the first steps in this genre. Extra Credits has a good episode about that ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UvCri1tqIxQ ):
The idea of doing myself as much work as possible became my general point for this game - to keep all the future income. I already did programming, game design and PR for Tribal Pass, so I decided to add a visual part to this list (moving ahead, I failed it and hired a freelancer). My girlfriend took musical part, and it killed two birds with one stone - she tried game industry after traditional musician field, and I got music cheaper than the average market price from someone I can trust. Problem with texts and localisation I solved radically - I challenged myself not to use a single word in a whole game.
At the same time with prototyping, I took a few courses of Blender modelling, but later it turned out (all of a sudden) that the ability to make a model does not means I can come up with an exciting design. So I met freelance 3D-artist - https://twitter.com/AleksandrPalmov. My part in creative process narrowed down to making sketches with mechanics functionality and corrections - he did all the work.
Work on JASEM started pretty optimistically - I decided to keep the development process open and tweet some work gifs few times per week. And even the first gifs with explosions and shooting got more attention than any tweet about Tribal Pass. With every tweet, I learned how to operate with hashtags and timing, and got more than 500 followers in a few months without dirty tricks like follow back and other ways to get a non-target audience. So, what I learned about twitter over this year:
Even if you have no stunning visual style, you can attract people with entertaining action. In that case, there is no point to share static pictures, but action-packed gifs and videos are your friends;
http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/BundyKim/20160707/276365/Marketing_in_Motion_A_Year_of_Making_Gifs.php this is an excellent article about making proper gifs;
You can always use hashtags #gamedev, #indiedev, #indiegame - you’ll be retweeted by many bots, almost no one actually read them, but someone can accidentally see your tweet thanks to them.
#screenshotsaturday - I use it only (surprise) on Saturdays. Some people use it no matter what day it is, but I think it’s not very good. Some people and websites are picking the best stuff of Saturday tweets, and I don’t want to overwhelm them with extra work of reviewing all week.
And the real treasures (if you use unity, but I believe other engines have their analogues as well). Retweet from official Unity account gives you at least 20k impressions. One can argue about promoting your game for other developers, but aren’t we gamers as well? I buy indie games, so I’m also can be a target audience for fellow developers.
#madewithunity - you can use it at any day, but every Friday, real folks from Unity pick the stuff they like and retweet it
#unitytips - every Tuesday Unity retweets the best tips and lifehacks about their engine
Besides working on JASEM, I published the article about the development of my first game, and that gave me a lot of new contacts and opportunities. I was flattered with an invitation to be a speaker at the game conference in Moldova (for me it was the first time of not only being a speaker but the first game conference of my life at all). I shared with other developers my first release experience and all mistakes I made to prevent someone from repeating them. Also, I met a lot of awesome people (including the artist who remotely worked with me on Tribal Pass for two years)
With all that I thought I already got my place and reputation in the game industry and all is going to be fine.
But then I left gamedev for almost half a year for personal reasons. Without details, I can say one thing: if you have money for a year, you should be able to ship the game in six months. And if you are really lucky maybe you’ll finish it before the money is gone.
After this long pause I returned to the development and felt how much I changed: Humor I wanted to use became silly and irrelevant, a visual style I made became disgusting, and gameplay was no more fun. Even idea of working on shooter made me sick, but there were no chances to make something else with money left. That was the time I decided to outsource 3D-models, changing visuals inspired me to get over it and continue work.
If you still trying to count my share from Tribal Pass revenue and understand how could I hire someone - please don’t. In spring 2017 I was bankrupt and was able to finish my second game only because of financial help from a good friend.
I released JASEM in October 2017, and it was a complete disaster, even in comparison with Tribal Pass. But two disasters together are almost enough to live and work on the third game.
Maybe you think I’m sitting in the corner in depression, regretting my whole indie-experiment and dreaming about work at a big company. That’s not true - despite the fact my hourly rate was bigger than I get from two games for an average day, big salary doesn’t compare to me with my growth and challenges I got being indie. I made a countless amount of mistakes, but each one of them was my own decision, and I am ready for any consequences while I’m in charge of those decisions. Last few months I’m living in harmony with myself, making my third game and trying to return all the help I got from other people.
A few months ago Rami Ismail and Mike Bithell urged the game industry to see the stories of losers like me. I wasn’t sure I have something to say back then, and until now didn’t know is there any sense in my article. But now I know - I wrote it not to complain about my life (well, maybe a little bit), but for other developers, who face the same results of their first release, they could not go through the same steps of internal struggle as I did. So, all this text should have been squeezed to next points:
Your first game will not be a hit;
And the second one;
And perhaps the third one too;
And that’s okay, you found out who Jonathan Blow and Edmund McMillen are not in the first year of their life in the game industry;
Some people made a hit on the first attempt, but if you are not one of them - that doesn’t mean there is no place for you in gamedev;
The reasons for our failures are not our colleagues, not new Valve politics, not press ignoring you or people with negative reviews. Every failure is a consequence of our decisions, and you are the only one responsible for that;
Our successes often consists of work of people who helped us and sometimes luck;
Even recoupment (and I’m not talking about profit) could take months or years, and only you can decide is it worth the risks;
Always finish things if you put a lot of work in them already. If you are tired from a long development, you can adjust your plans and release the game with minimal additional work, and it could bring few hours of fun for players (or maybe it can’t, but it still worth trying);
Fix your losses - if you already spent few months/thousand dollars on the game and players/testers didn’t love it, you probably can’t make it better just throwing more money and time in it. Just cut unfinished things, set the minimum you can release, do it and make the next game better.
Don’t sacrifice your sleeping time, food or relationships for your game - it’s easier to make a new better game than fix gastric ulcer or find a new partner.
That’s all I have to say for now. I hope I didn’t motivate you to drop gamedev (if so, read some success story until it’s too late). Make good games(or at least try to make them good), be nice with your players and other developers and don’t give up!
If you are interested how my indie gamedev adventures continue, you can follow me somewhere: