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Opinion: Learning From Indie Studio Successes

Opinion: Learning From Indie Studio Successes

August 25, 2011 | By Martin Pichlmair




[In this reprinted #altdevblogaday-opinion piece, Broken Rules' Martin Pichlmair points out the similarities between indie game studios that have gone on to become huge successes, like Angry Birds creator Rovio and Minecraft maker Mojang.]

There has been a disturbing number of success stories in independent gaming in the last years. First there was 2D Boy with World of Goo, then Jonathan Blow's Braid came along, then Rovio introduced the whole world to Angry Birds,and at last, Mojang made Minecraft - or the other way around.

What do all these success stories have in common? They all (except Minecraft, where it's a bit more complicated) had about the same budgets. Each of them uses a custom engine. All of these games came to many platforms, or are in the process of doing so, extending their shelf lives infinitely as they hop from marketplace to marketplace.

Plus there's one more thing they have in common: The studios that made those games still own the IP's of the games.

Be A Fighter

If you want to go down the Rovio route, there are a couple of things you can learn from the studio. One of the most important ones is: Make tons of games. The company was in the business for six years when itreleased Angry Birds, having released more than 50 - mostly mobile - titles. It dared to launch its own IP when the time was right for new IPs, i.e. when the App Store was still young. Also, the developer kept its IP and just sold the distribution rights for the first Angry Birds game to Chillingo.

Rovio had its tool chain and in-house tech in place. Once the studio struck gold, it immediately started building a community around its game, creating a loyal customer base. The firm was quick in switching the product to a service - and a brand, drip-feeding its newly created community with fresh content and monetizing the brand by launching spin-offs and selling merchandise.

The studio wisely used its money to bring Angry Birds to each and any platform that pops up, lest an impostor grabs a marketplace with a clone. I'm also quite sure that it was quick in setting up a legal department, but I don't know that for sure.

In short, these are the lessons you can learn from Rovio, or 2D Boy, or Mojang, for that matter:
  • Keep control over your IP*
  • Build your own tech (based on open platforms)
  • Create your own community
  • Get agile and hop from platform to platform
  • Have a lawyer
Don't take this list as a recipe for success, though. There've been tons of studios that ticked all the boxes and failed. It's more a list that tells what most successful indie studios have in common.

Be A Publisher

Mojang is another interesting case. The studio built its fortune on something that started off as a clone but quickly got into its own and grew far beyond any inspiration. Mojang shares a lot of properties with Rovio. The indie outfit own its IP, uses its own tech, and is an expert in creating a community.

Mojang recently announced the first third-party game its going to publish, Cobalt, which is an interesting road to go down once you've outgrown the single-IP stage of a new company. Turning into a publisher might not be the right direction for every independent game producer out there, but if you've got the community, the marketing power, and the understanding of the production process for a game, you might as well publish other indies.

Build A World

What Mojang and Rovio have in common is that they have a deep understanding of what constitutes their brands. I'd love to see them as not regarding their brands as "brands" but as "worlds" they are building for their players. They know what constitutes the unique style of their game worlds, from the graphical language to the gameplay. And they quickly and convincingly translate that knowledge into new products, be they marketing give-aways or spin-offs.

While Rovio walks the Disney road without too much controversy, Mojang has certainly built a strong studio identity. Mojang proves every day that growth does not mean that you've got to compromise your values. And that's also part of the world they're building.

Kellee Santiago of thatgamescompany keeps reminding me that it is not about who owns an IP, but about who has control over an IP.
Or strike an excellent deal with a big platform holder and grow from there. Depends on your IP, your studio, and your connections.

[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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