Back when I started Prime Games, I had to carefully consider my chances of survival as a game developer. Not as a contractor though, but creating and releasing my own games. Despite my software developer background there wasn’t much I could do with physics/graphic engines, nor I was skillful at performance programming for various end-user hardware. Although I have a good taste for web-design, I can’t create my own UI from scratch, and last time when I checked I was definitely not good at drawing. So... skimming through my checklist must have looked like:
Alright, got one! I used to be the Director of Engineering of a 100-people R&D department for 4 years, so I will be managing the hell out of me, that’s for sure…
Gaming is huge. Bigger than Hollywood. In this Wild West indie game developers are jumping on the hype train and with the technology barrier getting lower and lower each year, creating a game becomes accessible to virtually anyone. Actually, the amount of indie games out there is flabbergasting. Valve hosts more than 19 000 indie games on its Steam store, but how many of those offer quality, playable content? That’s right, not much. This inevitably leads to poor financial results for the average indie game developer with a first-year revenue of $30 000 and only if they get noticed.
Of course, there are success stories with many, many sales (Stardew Valley, Celeste, Crypt of the Necrodancer, Graveyard Keeper, etc.) and the thrive for creativity is what keeps hope alive for the majority of Indies without potential hits in their pockets.
No, seriously. If you are committing to do this fulltime (kudos if you manage to do it while sustaining yourself and your family with a fulltime job), you’ll have to start practicing the ‘company first’ mentality. Pure capitalism and survival of the fittest. Unlike Doctor Strange, you are in no position to bargain.
Remember the $30 000 USD referenced earlier? Now, one might say ‘alright, that ain’t too bad for sustaining myself until I begin to grow’. Isn't it though? Did you do the math for your specific case? 30% Steam cut. Add VAT (approximately 20%) for the various gamers and their countries, Steam sells your game to. You are now down to 60%. What about your local laws? In my case, that’s another 10% flat rate, getting you down to at most 54%. And that, my friend, is just the tip of the iceberg.
So how do we make it work?
As a mathematician I had to sit down and think of how to crack this problem. Seeking the truth begins with analysis and data. If you are going to pour full-time hours into this endeavor alongside fellow contractors or partners, it’s time to sit down and develop a business plan.
Familiarize yourself with some financial terms (e.g. in order to evaluate if a company is doing good over the years you should look up ROI, Budget P&L, expected profit margin, EBIDTA) and try to make a financial forecast 5 years from now. Markdown your trends. Learn from your competitors. They are out there, and they’ve shared plenty of useful data over interviews, social media, blogs, and whatnot.
Try to list down your expenses and expected revenue as accurately as possible. Lower your expectations. Try again. Gather data from fellow indie game developers that are sharing openly with the community.
Think of all of this as a real-time strategy game, a game of economics that you must beat. Creating and releasing is only one side of the coin.
Let’s say that you conclude that 5000 copies sold would make up for your budget’s very first milestone.
Here is my line of thought. I love Gamebooks, I’ve grown up with them, here is an article I’ve written on that matter. Naturally, with nostalgia kicking in, gamebooks or choose your own adventure books are having a small renaissance with successful Kickstarters and reprints of old classics (Scholastic’s Fighting Fantasy). Even more successful are their digital adaptations with the remarkable Sorcery! Series done by Inkle and Tin Man Games' The Warlock of Firetop Moutain. Also, aside from that, they are predominantly text games and text is cheap. As in cheaper to develop, edit, update, etc. A picture can say more than a thousand words, but a thousand words are cheaper than even a lower-range artist’s paycheck.
In short, do your homework and get some data! I’ve boldly laid out four statements without providing you with any fidelity nor facts. Where one succeeds hundreds fail. Also, what was valid 5 years ago is no longer valid. Heck, I can say the same for last year is no longer valid! Takeaway - your business plan is your guide in the process.
Making progress by taking baby steps. Great! Develop a strategy. How many wishlists you have to collect over a year to convert them to 5000 copies? How much exposure does your Steam page and/or landing pages need to have to achieve this? Assume realistic conversion rates. 1% at each step would leave you with the need of 20 000 000 - 50 000 000 impressions across the field. Achieving such big numbers is no easy task but it’s a foundation to work on. Also, even if you don’t hit them, it’s important to aim for them. A base for your marketing strategy to kick-in (product, price, promotion, place). Getting there means publishing content consistently, content that has the potential to go viral. Whatever you do outside of Steam’s algorithm, will add up to its effectiveness. There are many topics on what your actual list of tasks could end up looking. Just remember, spamming without strategy is not marketing. Branding and PR are just hollow words if they don’t serve a general purpose that will help increase your sales.
Scope a product with just enough features to satisfy early customers, who will provide feedback for future product development. Do not overscope! I repeat, do not do it! Release something in 6-9 months. Gather data. Repeat. Your dreamlike game idea is far on the horizon and it better stay there for a good amount of time and a decent share of completed projects until you tackle it!
I am using Unity as my game engine. This is my long-term investment. I am getting better at it with each title I put out the door. Refining my skills in the process until I become good enough. Buy assets! Unity has a wonderful asset store where you can save yourself time and buy some great stuff. Yes, your game won’t be the most original of the year. But remember your goal is to survive and get there eventually. Also, you’d be amazed at what incredible tools are out there, flexible and full of features that can produce unique content.
Nowadays, creating a game and releasing it is nowhere near enough. You are automatically buried under 30-40 other titles that are being released in the same day. Counting weekdays only, it’s roughly 800 a month.
For me personally, preparation and consistency are key.
Now, before I finish this rant of how hard it is dealing with a market that saturated, let me tell you… I am not complaining. I felt welcomed by the community and have received wonderful advice and shout outs from fellow indie devs. I couldn’t even imagine the possibility of creating a small business around making games 10 years ago. And here I am walking the path, living the dream, 2.5 years down the road of my 5-year plan.
Well, let’s see where that gets me.