Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Love or Money?

Posted by Rampant Coyote on April 29, 2013

Get-Rich-Playing-Games-CoverI was going to say that indie gaming has changed a lot in the years I’ve been involved. But after I thought about it a while, it really hasn’t. Ratios have changed, many of the players have changed, a few definitions have changed, but fundamentally it’s stayed the same.

Here’s my gripe. I don’t really like to gripe, especially not about indies. I’m an optimist that way, I guess. But here’s the thing: It seems that lately, in a lot of forums, the focus of many wannabe-pro (or pro) indies is skewed pretty heavily on thoughts of maximizing revenue generation, monetization, customer retention, payment processing, and “going viral.” Especially on the forums that cater to mobile devices, but it’s true all over.

Not that there’s anything wrong with these discussions. I wish I knew more about all of the above, and I like learning more about how to turn my love of game-making into a successful business. It just seems like this sort of talk is drowning out the discussions of things like game design, good player experiences, etc.   Just like the big boys, the discussion sometimes feel like it’s more on extracting maximum dollar value out of a player than providing maximum gaming value.

Maybe that’s why I’m still doing the part-time indie thing instead of rolling in cash like Notch.

But then, Notch ignored pretty much *all* of the principles on how to make the most money out of a game, didn’t he?  Just about everything he did – from the language / platform to develop his game (JAVA? Seriously?), to his release methodology, to his style of game, to a frustratingly opaque new user experience, to failure to plan for DLC or in-app purchases or anything like that which is supposed to be critical for creating a successful game these days. Instead, he just made a wildly entertaining little game.

But then, Minecraft is an aberration. An exception that proves the rule, or something.

Or maybe it’s just a damn good game that managed to get lucky. I think both the “good game” and “getting lucky” parts are pretty significant.  Game Excellence x Luck = Success, something like that.

The first part is what I worry might be getting lost.  All this other stuff – marketing, monetization, player retention strategies… all that is really just there to minimize the role of “luck” in the equation. At least, that’s my opinion. My concern is that it’s also being employed to replace the “game excellence” side as well. It’s like game developers aren’t out to make a better game anymore, just a more attractive and compelling slot machine than the rest of the pack so they can get more quarters out of the crowd per day…

Okay. You know what that sounds like? Yeah. Arcade machines. That’s old-school.

And it sounds like many indie game devs, eight years ago. Tools, strategies, portals, and platforms have changed, but that discussion is a very old one.  There were all kinds of arguments about how to get picked up by Big Fish Games and the like, how to better cash in on your match-three or hidden-object casual game, etc.   And many game devs (including quite successful ones) mocked those guys.

Many of the guys most focused on cashing in back then aren’t around today.  Most didn’t succeed very well in “cashing in,” possibly because they were late to the party. Others did quite good for a while, but as things matured, they couldn’t adapt to the changes. They were, after all, adhering to a different formula. Sometimes they adapted and survived after much pain; other times they simply rolled up the tent and moved on.

So, um, how’s Zynga doing these days, anyway?

So yeah. When people start sniffing Real Money, things get weird. And with success stories like Minecraft, Angry Birds, FTL, etc., there’s Real Money happening and lots of people – including people who really love games – get a little bit of gold fever. I totally understand. But when that focus is clogging up discussions, I get concerned.

There’s nothing at all wrong with trying to make a living – or even trying to make a very generous living – doing what you love and making games. I think that’s awesome.  And yeah, being indie isn’t quite the ideal I once imagined of purely making the games you personally want to make. Sure, there’s a part of that, but a lot of it is making games for others. That’s the point. The biz side is a means to an end, but the end is – as always – making games. And I’d say there’s a core group of indies for whom that is still the focus. I still don’t know many indies who are doing it purely for the cash – it remains a ridiculously tough way to make money.

The important thing, to me, is to not lose one’s soul in the more mercenary aspects of running a business. It means maintaining your love for the medium. It means focusing on providing better value to your players rather than trying to extract monetary value out of them. It means having integrity – to yourself, to the medium, and to your audience. Make games out of love, not just a desire for a paycheck. Do cool stuff just because it’s cool, cool enough to share, not just because it will get you attention and provide a new way to charge for an in-app purchase.

I know that as an indie who has not yet “made it” I am not exactly the source of expert advice.  But I’ll just express that as a philosophical principle, and a caution to the indies who continue to make awesome games: As things become more competitive, channels become more clogged, etc., do not lose sight of why you are making games in the first place.

Filed Under: Biz, Indie Evangelism - Comments: 6 Comments to Read

  • Joshua Smyth said,

    I couldn’t have put it better myself. My local meetup seems to be filled with more people talking about money and business than game design, which is a little unfortunate…

  • DGM said,

    Step #1 – have a product that’s actually worth buying. Not sufficient, but necessary.

  • DGM said,

    Heh. Speaking of making money in the game dev business… Jay, I just found this via Ace of Spades and thought you might find it amusing: http://www.macrumors.com/2013/04/29/independent-game-developer-pranks-pirates-with-game-dev-tycoon/

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    That one’s been making the rounds today. Pretty amusing, though I expect the lessons learned by gamers will be somewhere close to zero…

    I saw my rate of sales drop in half the day Frayed Knights got pirated (it was easy enough to do, it just took a week for the pirates to notice it). It was a pretty steep cliff. Very noticeable. But I keep hearing how piracy doesn’t REALLY hurt anybody. Sure, it could have been a mere coincidence, but there’s enough evidence out there to demonstrate that it’s a pretty steep hit. Suckage.

    I still think the answer is more along the lines of developers treating their customers with respect and making the kinds of games they WANT to support – as you said. But then, I’m not exactly an indie success story, so take anything I say with a small Siberian salt mine…

  • GhanBuriGhan said,

    You have “made it” in the sense that a lot of people respect you and your work, and your opinion about the business. That is one measure of success, even if it doesn’t pay the bills.

  • Brian 'Psychochild' Green said,

    Day(s) late and dollar(s) short, but given my background I can’t let this pass without comment.

    I think it’s important to understand what your goals are. If you just want to make cool games in the nights and weekends, then go for it. Make cool games. But, if you want to make a living from it, then you need to know the business side.

    Unfortunately, you don’t need a great game to be a financial success; there’s been plenty of examples of this, and for all the mud we can sling at Zynga, many people have still made piles of money from the company. Not that this is a good way to build something lasting; I’d rather see more interesting games than people making cash grabs. And, if all you’re interested in is fat sacks of cash, there are plenty of things you could be doing that have much better return on investment than gaming.

    The reality is that there’s no magical formula for success. I’ve seen great games languished unnoticed, I’ve seen crap games hit huge success, and all variations in between. It takes a bit of luck to get a hit. The only thing I’ve noticed that helps you succeed is success. Consider how any game Notch makes will get attention because he’s already had a success. Or, look how Rovio exploited the hell out of their one success, after a reported 50-some failed games. The only real trick is to keep at it until you have a success, then keep at it for all you’re worth.