CategoryIndie Game Dev Marketing

Thoughts on the indiepocalypse

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One of the current “trending” subjects that has been talked about in the last year/month/days or so is the infamous “indiepocalypse”, or the possible popping of an indie “bubble”. So today, I thought I would share a few interesting reads that I’ve recently stumbled upon.

The first one is a (sad?) tale about a developer having trouble getting sales and all the work he did to develop and market his game. You can find the article here. I also really recommend reading the comments at the bottom of the article. A lot of people seem to critique his musings and conclusions and the whole page makes for a good read.

The second article I’m linking was written by Ryan Clark, maker of the Crypt of the NecroDancer. His opinion is basically that we should not worry about the “Indiepocalypse”. You can find this article on Gamasutra again.

The next set of articles is by Jeff Vogel, an old-school indie (1994!), who originally wrote an interesting article on the indie bubble last year. One of this latest articles is basically a follow-up to that article and actually links the other two articles that I’ve mentioned above. I recommend reading both.

Another really good article is this one here. It looks back at the history of video games and compares past events to the one we are currently witnessing. It also makes an interesting parallel between indie game development and photography.

My opinion on the indiepocalypse

Really, there is no apocalypse. It’s all really just another market that is quickly, and chaotically, transforming as more players enter to fray, trying to get a part of the money in the “market”. Let me give you a similar example.

Back in 2005, Nintendo released Brain Age, a casual brain training game for the DS. It  quickly sold millions of copies, while also moving many of Nintendo’s handheld system along with it. And the people buying these “gaming” products were basically people that didn’t usually buy this type of product. Seeing this opportunity, many of the big names in game publishing also tried their hand at the market. While a few companies made some money in the process, a lot of them didn’t, and one of the reasons why this happened is easy to understand.

Competition, with different levels of product quality.

When Nintendo released Brain Age, no one was doing products like this on this market. They basically (sort of) invented a new market. Being the only ones in that market, along with a strong marketing machine and some inexpensive hardware, they took the industry by storm. But when other companies tried to do the same, they quickly hit a wall as dozens of similar products, varying wildly in quality, entered this new market.

If you feel like you’ve heard this story before, it’s because you have. The same story can more of less be told with the release of the Nintendo Wii console, and with the iOS/App Store (and everything mobile that followed). New markets in which new developers have struggled as the competition became more fierce.

Now, each of the three stories I briefly explained are similar, but existed in different times and social context, so they all evolved differently. And I believe the same can be said about the “indie market”.

The biggest difference with the indie situation is that instead of large companies butting heads in the cutthroat market of making and selling games, you now have “ordinary people”.  And because of the high number of people who have decided to take the indie plunge, we tend to hear a lot stories of people failing. Not only that, but we also tend to identify to those people more easily than a large company.

With this in mind I think that what we are seeing is simply the following: people are realizing that developing games is a business, just like any other. You need to build your company from the ground up, think of everything to make it run. You need to get the word out about what you do and find some clients (players).

The romantic ideal of making a game you like and then thousands of people saying “Look! It’s an indie game” is over. It may have lasted a few years, months even maybe, but now that more players are in the game, just like any other market, playtime is over. It’s time to get down to business.

I don’t want to end on such a dire note. Making games is still fun and it doesn’t have to be a chore, nor does it have to be your life, professional or otherwise. But if you want it to be, you’ll still need to work hard, just like any entrepreneur.

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A Problem with Crowdfunding for Indie Games

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Before I start this post about crowdfunding, I want to make certain points clear.

First of all, I think Kickstarter and all other othercrowdfunding platforms are one of the best things to happen to the creative industry in general. It lets anybody with a project in mind show their idea to the world and maybe get the chance to realize it.

A Crowdfunding PLatform

Kickstarter – One of the popular indie crowfunding platforms

Of course, crowdfunding is not easy, especially for games. You need to work hard to come up with a great game idea and make a decent prototype. You work hard to setup the crowd funding project. You work really hard to get your project noticed for the duration of your funding. And then, maybe, just maybe, you might succeed and get a better shot at making your project real. Backed by people who want to see you succeed and play your game.

It’s true that I never put a lot of money in crowdfunding projects (max 15-20$), but I will never be angry if a project doesn’t work out as planned, gets pushed back or even cancelled. With over 10 years of experience working in game development, I know that a lot of things can go wrong, even when you are paid full-time to work for a big company.

Finally, I do not encourage anyone to bring Kickstarter projects to court because of failure to deliver. I think it’s ridiculous. You’re giving someone, usually a nobody, the chance to do something they think is cool and that you think is cool too. Class actions to get your 10$-50$ back? If we want to see different and interesting things, and we don’t want millionaires to decide what products should or shouldn’t exist, then we need to keep encouraging these people, not hang a judicial sword of Damocles over their heads.

Now, that being said, here is what I have to say about the potential problems of crowdfunding.

My crowdfunding list

Out of the 8 projects that I’ve backed on crowdfunding sites, five have passed their due dates, including one that is almost 2 years late! I’ve yet to receive a completed game out of all the these projects. (The three remaining are still ongoing and I’m wishing them the best!) Is this a problem? Not necessarily. Like I said before, game development and software project management is hard, so it’s not surprising to see some projects having trouble finishing one time, especially if some of these people are part time. But what got me interested in this subject was that one of these projects recently announced that they were suspending the development of their game indefinitely. (A few days later, they decided to resume development, which is strange, but I still get to make my point!). This got me to looking into how this project in particular was setup.

A problem with crowdfunding: the people

Don’t get me wrong, I think it takes a certain amount of courage and determination to start and run a crowdfunding campaign. I respect both those who try and those who succeed. I also believe that anybody can try their hand at game development. However, sometimes the people behind these projects may not be the experts we make them to be.

Some of the people working on these indie game projects have no experience at all in game design, game programming and project management. I don’t want to say that this guarantees failure, but it definitely reduces the chances of success. When I decided the look deeper into the demise of the aforementioned project, I found that the project creator was a young individual who never worked in the game industry and had never completed a project before. I don’t know if the developers had been upfront about this, but I think they should have.

The problem this creates is that people who do support crowdfunding project might stop doing so because of the repeated failures of those who had little chance of succeeding in the first place. And in the end, this is bad for everyone.

Even if you are a game development veteran, sometimes you may not be an excellent business man. A few projects have failed after succeeding their crowdfunding project because they had not calculated the cost of their physical rewards. In one specific case, some people I know of ended with only 6000$ of a 30 000$ successfully funded project because of the cost of these physical goods.

Again, this is proof of lack of experience and foresight, which contributes to the potential mistrust that users could develop towards crowdfunding.

A problem with crowdfunding: the competition

Another problem with crowdfunding is competition. As I mentioned in another post, the possibility of self-publishing has created lots of competition on the market of indie and (especially) mobile games. In general, this competition made the pricing point of games go down and the quality of quality games go up. (I say quality of quality games, because there are plenty of games that are not meant to be quality titles!). These elements are good for consumers, but make game development less sustainable for the developers. And I believe the appearance of crowdfunding has created another pressure point for competition of quality.

When I look at the features that crowdfunding indie projects have listed for their projects, I freak out. There are some programming features and quantity/quality of content in those games that imply a lot more work then what people think. As great as the Unity game engine claims to be, just because it’s advertised that you can deploy to PC, Mac, Linux, WiiU, PS3, PS4 and XboxOne AND can have networked games over the internet doesn’t mean it’s going to work by simply pressing a button. When a project offers 4 player internet competition or coop a feature in their crowdfunding tier if the next tier is attained, and that tier is only an extra 20k$, it is not reasonable nor sound from a project management point of view. (Granted, if you have a network expert, maybe you can pull it off, but that’s usually not the case.)

The reason why these people are adding these features is simple. They want to show their project is going to be impressive, and they want to reach the widest possible audience. In other words, they are in competition with all the other crowdfunding projects out there. And when they fail to deliver, again, this reduces the overall credibility of the indie game projects on crowdfunding platforms.

What can we do

The solution is not easy. Indie (or would-be indie) game developers need to understand that finishing a game is hard. If your team and budget is limited, then the scope of your project should be limited, with less features and reasonable rewards in your crowdfunding packages. And evaluating the work needed to complete a project requires a good analysis and experience. If you need help doing this, then ask around.

It’s also not easy because the people developing these games want to be the best thing out there during their crowdfunding campaign. Aspiring indie developers need to understand that their games will never be perfect and they cannot have all the cool features that all the AAA games have. There is a reason why there is a slump in the creativity of AAA games, and that is cost. It costs so much to add all those bells and whistles that it’s simpler to reduce the risk by making the same game over and over again.

It’s this state of high competition in the market that makes (indie) game development unsustainable, given the business decisions that we (non-business) indie developers take. In the end, we need to understand that lowering our prices and increasing the promised features in our games increase the likelihood of failure and lower our credibility when we do fail.

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1000 True Fans theory applicable for Indies?

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A while back, I talked about the idea of 1000 fans. Basically, the concept is that if you work in a creative field, you only need about 1000 true fans in order to continue making a living in that field. To fully understand this, we need to define what a true fan is. A true fan is someone that will follow you and will pay for any and all products that you release. To work with a music industry analogy, a true fan of a music band will buy all their albums, go to their shows and buy the t-shirt, the mug, the poster and register in the fan group. The example given in the above link states that if you have 1000 true fans and they each pay 100$/year, you should have a revenue of 100 000$/year, which is good for most people. Of course, if you’re a music band with 5 members, this is not enough. But let’s leave the music industry and get back to our indie situation. How many true fans do we need?

1000 true fans

Long tail of 1000 True Fans

Is 1000 true fans enough for indies?

I’m going to give numbers that apply to my situation as a baseline. Feel free to change them around to fit your situation.

Pretend I’m able to release one (medium-sized) game per year. Since I’m a programmer, I need artists to do the work that I can’t do. I’m going to assume 40k$ for the price of all the art I need for a game. Assuming I want to make 75k$ a year, that I want to sell my game for a 15$ price tag and that the selling authorities take 30% of my sales (i.e Apple, Steam). I would need to sell roughly 11 000 copies to make a living each year.

A little over 10 thousand copies seems like not much, but it’s actually pretty hard to accomplish in the current competitive market. On top of that, I said I would pay 40k$ for outsourced art work. This is a huge investment and risk (for an individual), because this is something I pay regardless of the game’s success. Of course, if I have 11 000 true fans, then this isn’t a problem; but would I take that risk…? And, if the game doesn’t work at all, the losses become enormous!

Of course, there are ways to reduce risk on this situation. If I have true fans, I can leverage them in a crowd funding campaign (Kickstarter, etc.) and reduce the initial risk. Or, I can try to find an artist with whom I can propose a revenue split. Neither situation is perfect, because crowd funding takes a lot of work and often requires that you already something to show. As for revenue split, well, you’re basically asking for someone to take a risk with you; it better be someone you’ve already work with or someone you know well. Another solution is to try to do games that don’t require someone’s help, but that is not always appropriate for all types of games.

So, it seem that the 1000 true fans would not work on a yearly basis for indies. In my case, I would need over 10 times more fans to systematically make enough money to continue living. Like I said before, the numbers I use in this calculation apply to me, but I feel that 10 000 would be a good number of true fans for an indie developer.

The importance of fans

While we may not have true fans waiting patiently for our next work of art, true fans are still an interesting concept to keep in mind. And, they are not only important for your direct sales. One of the major benefits of having true fans today is the impact they may have in communities or in social media. True fans will spread the good word about your company and games to other “normal” people too. And the people that they reach have the potential to become true fans also, but more realistically, they can just become buyers of your games, which means extra income for you.

Of course, the real problem most of us have is not having more than 1000 fans, or even just 1000 fans. It’s having any fans at all! So, how does one acquire true fans? I don’t have the answer to this, but I think it begins with just talking about what you do on a regular basis. Post on the company blog, on twitter. Make screenshots and videos. And of course, release games! On top of these things, I also think another great way to cultivate true fans is trying to interact with the public when possible. This means continuing the PR machine once a game is out, answering questions on Reddit or in your forums and even going to trade shows with your game.

So, when working on your game, make sure you plan some time for marketing to get some true fans!

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Free-to-play as an indie?

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As an indie game developer, I will probably never build a free-to-play game again.

Before I get into the details on why I’m saying this, let me add a little context. As it is often the case, I got the idea for this post while reading an article on GamesIndustry.biz about the free-to-play marketing trends for 2015. I’ve had the chance to develop a free-to-play game during my time at Execution Labs and got to understand the lingo and market specifics for this type of game. If you check out the article, you’ll have a glimpse of how complex making, or at least marketing, a free-to-play game has become. Between the load of knowledge and acronyms you need to know and the sheer complexity of building and maintaining a free-to-play game, I think it’s just not worth it.

Free-to-play data

The type of data you need to look at when doing free-to-play

Free-to-play is hard(er) to design (well)

Traditional/premium games are hard to design. Developing an original concept, refining the gameplay into something fun, maybe develop an interesting story and possibly adding some selling features such as multiplayer, while dealing with technological difficulties is no easy task.

I found free-to-play design to be way harder.

This is because you’re no longer designing a game that will simply be fun. Proper free-to-play design needs to integrate the business elements that govern this type of game directly into the design. This means your user acquisition, retention and monetization need to be thought out, from the start, in your game design. It’s not just about making a game that is fun and interesting. It’s about building an experience in which a player, who did not pay for the initial game, will want to come back every day, tell his friends (or complete strangers) about to game to invite them in and will want to eventually pay. This is excessively difficult to do, because as soon as one of those three elements are off, it will be difficult for your game to succeed. From the player’s point of view, the game also has a lot less value that a traditional premium game. Unless the player becomes hooked and pays, the game essentially becomes a throwaway product. This puts a lot of pressure on the developer to make a game so compelling (or with a really efficient hook) that the player does not simply abandon the game or uninstall it immediately.

These elements constitute something that is difficult to deal with as a developer, even more so as an indie. If getting players to stay and eventually pay is hard, it means you need a lot of players. Which brings me to my next point.

Marketing for Free-to-play is as expensive as marketing for AAA games

You may be tempted to think that by making a game free, a whole bunch of people will download it. The truth is there are loads of other free-to-play titles out there and unless yours stands out in any way, it will drown in the torrent of small free-to-play games that are released every day. So, how do you get players in your game? The answer to this, at least for companies that have money, is to use ads. This is usually in the form of publicity in other games, Facebook and other reliable sources of players that incite players to install another game. These types of ads are driven by Cost per Install (CPI) in which the company that shows an ad pays when a player actually installs the game presented in the ad. As you may have read in the aforementioned article, it can cost between (on average) 1$ to 2$ to acquire a player in an ad network. This can add up pretty quickly. The article also mentions that if a payed-for user ends up paying 10$, then it totally worth it. That would be true, but another common statistic is that a very small number of players actually end up paying. In order to get those 2% of paying players, you need to pay for a lot of other users. These users will, at best, keep playing your game for free until they convert, or at worst, uninstall your game after playing for a few minutes. This can cost over tens, hundreds of thousand dollars, even millions.

The original problem that indies met was that using traditional means for marketing (TV publicity, etc.) was unattainable because of the steep price of media publicity. At first, free-to-play seemed like a genuine answer to this, and it was for a while. As more players entered the free-to-play game and understood the market needs, the competition and cost to get noticed also went up. At this point, the current market is that you need money to get people to download your game (unless you get lucky with viral propagation). Even if you have the money to get some downloads, you’re then confronted with the problem of the previous section, which is get people to stay, play often and eventually pay. This means that you need to really understand what players do when they are in your game. How do you accomplish this?

Free-to-play is Big Data

So, you have a certain number of players that are coming into your game, but only 10% of them stay on the first and only 0.1% end up paying. What’s going on? Heck, how do you even get this information? When you have a free-to-play game, you need to understand how players are behaving. To do this, companies log player’s actions in a large databases, usually using third party tools, such as Flurry who are specialized in doing such things. Once you are effectively logging all these players actions, you can start analyzing the thousands of data entries that are obtained through the logs. This means that part of your job as a developer of a free-to-play game is to analyze data on a daily basis.

Unless you are really interested in statistics, you won’t be working on your game, you’ll be crunching numbers. And before you have statistics that are significant, you need to have enough players that have played over a certain period of time. The results are not necessarily instantaneous. So, what do you need to do in the mean time?

Free-to-play is continuous (and more complicated) development

I mentioned before that user retention is an important factor in the success of a free-to-play game. User retention means that players come back regularly to play you game, hopefully over a long period of time. In order to keep people interested (and acquire enough data), you need to continually add new features or content so that they can keep playing, so that players might pay (or pay more). This means that you can’t simply start working on another project easily; you need to keep developing for your other free-to-play project. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but as a developer, I know I like to move on to new projects sometimes.

On top of continuous development, you need to have a more diverse set of competencies in order to develop a good free-to-play game. It’s not just about UI, AI and rendering and other traditional stuff, it’s also dealing with servers and databases, which makes for more complex development. It also means that you need your game to be online at all times (in most cases) for people around the world. This can be hard to do for a small group of independent developers.

And on top of that, all the big players are continually making for more elaborate games, with more complex features. Again, it’s hard to stand out in such a market.

I’m still doing free-to-play

As an indie, doing all this is possible, but very difficult. Even if you forgo the money part, you’ll still have difficulty keeping up with all the other aspects.

Despite all these arguments, I’m still currently working on a game that is free.

Why?

Because free-to-play as a business paradigm has opened up opportunities for games that diverge from the original market. There are different ways to make money (such as ads). It’s also a good way to get some visibility. You don’t have emulate the big companies and make really complex games; you can aim for smaller projects.

It’s true, there are lots of games that already aim small and hope for some money. It works for some, but not for others. But, in the end, I still believe that if you do something that stands out, you may have a chance at fortune.

Or at least a free coffee everyday.

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The style of your games VS your fans

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I was recently talking to an ex-Execution Lab colleague (from Dijiko) about marketing and other business-y subjects. Specifically, we were talking about building and keeping a fan base for our studios.

He talked about a friend of his who had gone indie and made a pinball game. This game had a very specific style: steel gray colors, men in tuxedos, women in cocktail dresses and fast cars. Very sleek, very James Bond. The release of the game was pretty successful and he managed to create a certain fan base for his game.

He then teamed up with a friend and decided to make another pinball game. This pinball game had a completely different style, one that was cute and cartoony.
When this game was released, the developer realized that the customer base of the first pinball game did not buy his second pinball game. After thinking this through, he realized that the reasons why this happened may have been the change in style.

Fans of your style

As artists and creators, we usually have a distinct style, expressed through our game and art design choices. Through our game and art design choices, we are actually catering to a certain type of audience. This audience, that we could call fans, may come to expect similar games from us.

Fans of your game style?

Fans of your game style?

A fan can be a fan of a lot of things: your studio, your game, your style and even you as a creator. Chances are they are fan of a combination of all those things. So when we change any of those aspects, we risk disappointing our fan base.

And here lies the conundrum. One of the reasons you probably became indie is to have control over the game that you make. To break the cycle of sequels of the AAA industry and to do something different. So when you do build a fan base, do you stick with them, possibly dooming yourself to creating similar projects, or do you take a chance at doing something different once in a while, maybe in an attempt to grow said fan base?

Ultimately, there is no right or wrong answer to this question, it’s a question you have to answer yourself. For most developers, this won’t be a problem, as they tend to stick with a certain type of game and art style. But if you ever want to try something new, or have the opportunity to work with another indie on a different-style project, this is something to keep in mind.

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Fireproof Games – Comments on marketing

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According to an article on GamesIndustry.biz, Fireproof Games’ Barry Meade mentioned that “focus on business and marketing can be detrimental to a game developer”.

I’ve mentioned before that marketing is as important as finishing your game in a previous post. Could Fireproof Games’ multi-million dollar success counter my arguments?

I don’t think so.
I think Fireproof did something smart with their marketing.
But I don’t think you should be doing the same thing.

The Room by Fireproof Games

The Room by Fireproof Games

Fireproof’s marketing strategy (maybe)

Fireproof was able to leverage one of the most powerful tools in mobile game marketing, Apple itself. By having the opportunity to meet with Apple, they effectively were on the fast track to getting a feature on the iOS app store. The featuring, combined with a very high quality product and the general lack of quality premium games on mobile, contributed to the word-of-mouth popularity which made The Room such a huge success.

And now that they have this success, they can continue their marketing campaign with a whole new twist: playing the rebel role. Most high revenue titles on mobile are free-to-play. In another article of the same source, Fireproof clearly has taken a stance against this form of revenue/game design. They are essentially going against the market trend and flow. I think they are essentially catering to the group of players that have have high spending habits, the core gamers. This demographic responds very well to anti-F2P and the high-quality game company value.

You might say there is also a boasting strategy in play. The same kind of boasting that Rovio did when they said they wanted to be bigger than Disney. But that’s OK, because it’s a very smart business move to make. By making strong allegations like this, they are stepping up in the industry and becoming a beacon of value, which is good for business and credibility.

Why you shouldn’t do like Fireproof

Fireproof broke through the mobile game market as a premium title. Most of you are probably working on traditional core indie games that are on PC (and are aiming for Steam). While The Room is now on Steam, it is clear to me that it would not have had the same success had it been an original PC-only title. The danger of following in Fireproof’s footstep is to think that just making a quality game is the main success factor. On the PC market, there is a lot of competition in the traditional high-quality premium game market. It’s much more difficult to stand out in that crowd. We indie game developers need to keep marketing in mind during the development of our projects.
We do need to see it as a business because we may not have contacts with Apple (or with Steam), and we may not be attacking a market abnormally. Even if you are working on a mobile title, would you be able to assemble the same conditions as Fireproof did?

In closing, I really believe Fireproof when they say that their focus in on making high-quality games. It seems to be part of their core values. Of course, it will be interesting to see what game they are working on next. Will it be another high quality premium title, or will they be tempted by the siren calling of the F2P market?

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