CategoryIndie Game Philosophy

Performance is not always important


Articles like this annoy me. I think the comments by Cliff Harris about how indies are not trying to push the envelope from a technical stand point are misguided.

Cliff Harris - Performance

Cliff Harris on indie games and performance

If you read this article and then read the comments below, you’ll notice that most people disagree with Mr. Harris, just like I do. They say that performance doesn’t matter. It’s the quality of the game itself, through narrative and good game play; not graphics or other technical aspects that make a game interesting. I wholly agree with these comments, but I would like to add an extra aspect to the discussion: history.

The good old performance days

When you look at the history of game development, technology has always been an integral part of gaming culture. Engineers (computer or otherwise) were the ones building the first games. And as technology evolved, game developers have always been on its bleeding edge, trying to squeeze out performance out of our gaming machines. I remember the race for the best 3D video card features of the late 1990s and early 2000s. I remember blast processing and other fantastical claims by first party console manufacturers. It truly was a grand age. So when some people miss the days where pursuing performance was a mission, I get it. And, it’s probably this relentless pursuit of hardware and software performance that led us to the production of high-quality graphics we have today.

The other side of that medal is that it’s this significant increase that has led us to the (relative) creative stalemate that is the AAA gaming industry. The reason for this is simple. With the improvement of technology came the obligation of creating lots of high-quality content to showcase this technology. And in order to create this content, companies needed to hire more people. And people cost lots of money.

So, as technology evolved, the number of people required to make a high quality AAA game increased tenfold, while the market for AAA games has not expanded as much throughout the years. Because of this reality, AAA companies slowly shifted towards making blockbuster titles that sell high numbers, which meant doing fewer projects but with lots more features (and people). And in order to compensate for the high risks that these mega-projects represent, large companies would take less creative risks. From a financial point of view, it makes total sense. If you invest a lot of money in a crowded market, you need to make sure that you are going to have the sales to compensate for your high costs. So, to do that, you need to reduce the risk on the creative side, which usually means reusing known intellectual property or doing the Nth sequel of a known game franchise.

The aforementioned situation we find ourselves in today is a direct consequence of this technological arms race for performance!

And let’s not forget the pressure that the first parties put on developers to deliver games that highlight their console’s performance. The oft acclaimed Castlevania: Symphony of the Night was almost refused by Sony on the first Playstation because it was a 2D game and Sony was pushing for 3D games at the time!

Now, I’ll agree there are good things that come with this increase in cost. The first obvious good point is more jobs. This is usually a good thing, though some may argue that those jobs become too highly specialized. The second is that the existence of the indie scene is partly due to the risk-reducing decisions of the AAA game industry. By making games that appeal to a larger number of people, the large companies have cast aside certain genres and styles, which left some holes in the market. Some of today’s indies survive thanks to these holes.

While both these points are generally positive, I still think that indie game developers should not care about performance. Sure, a few of them might get noticed in the market through performance prowess. However, I don’t believe this is a path we indies should take lest we end up taking the same path the AAA industry took a few years back.

It is through originality and non-technological innovation that we should make our mark.


Free-to-play as an indie?


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 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.


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.


Are you an artist or an entrepreneur?


Recently, I was reading a couple of articles in in which two companies discussed certain aspects of their business. While two articles had different subjects, these was one aspect that was similar to both interviewed companies. Both Glitchsoft and Game Theory had to stop working on purely in-house projects and turn to external contracts in order to survive.

Most of us who jump into indie game development would perceive turning to contract work as failure. This initial reaction made me reflect on the objectives and identities we give ourselves as independent game developers.

The question is basically this: are you an artist or an entrepreneur?


Artist-type indie developers tend to be more interested in the game they are making, rather than by how they are going to sell it. They are more focused on crafting an excellent product and want to make the best game possible. Some may even build games simply to use the medium as a form of expression, like traditional artists do.

If you find yourself putting most of your work in the game and doing very little on the marketing and business side, then you probably fall in this category. If you write your own engine because it’s fun, knowing full well that the game is not moving forward, then you’re probably also an artist-type.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that your project won’t make money or that it’s doomed to fail. It’s just that the product is more important than the business. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that, but it might be a problem if your objective is to live off your indie game revenues.


As an entrepreneur, what you are trying to do is start a business. If you find yourself thinking about which game is more likely to sell and what are the market trends, then you probably are more of the entrepreneur type.

This may actually be surprising, but pure entrepreneur types (not working in games) often don’t care directly about the product they are making. They are typically focused on building and growing a business. This doesn’t mean that entrepreneur types cannot make a good game, or that they are not indie. It just means that they see their endeavor as a business.

Artist or entrepreneur?

Artist or entrepreneur?

Can I be both?

Yes, you can be both! The truth is that most us are part-time indies looking for a success in order to live off the fruits of our loved labor. In fact, I believe that if you want to succeed as an indie game developer you need to be both an artist and an entrepreneur. It is a good balance between crafting a great product as an artist, but also thinking about business as an entrepreneur that will increase the chances of success.

The artist part of you may want to do something unique and interesting that you, as a player, will enjoy. This is a good way to think. If you like the game you are making, there are probably other people about that will like it too, and they will be willing to pay for such a product. However, your reasoning must not stop there. Here are a few questions that you should ask yourself.

– What can I do to get people to know about my game my game? How do I increase its visibility?
– What is the best way to make money off my game?
– If my game is premium, what price should it be?
– Should it be early access pays less and I increase the price as I add features? Should I sell episodic content? Etc.
– Can my game be easily deployed to other platforms (PC, sure, but what about Mac, Linux, iOS, etc.) on which I can also make money?
– Can I use an engine that will do the job without having to write my own stuff, thus increasing the chances of finishing my game?

Out of all these questions, the one about visibility, a.k.a. the marketing of your game, is probably the most important one.
It is often the entrepreneur stuff like marketing that is most difficult to think about as indies, because most of us aren’t interested in that stuff.
We often have a “romantic” perception of the indie developer making millions off a project they hand-crafted to success. The truth is that most people who do succeed did something right on the entrepreneur side of things, either through marketing or market approach.

In the end, while each success story is different, I believe it’s important to stay in touch with your artist side for the quality of game, but also to try to think like an entrepreneur to increase your chances of success.


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