Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Making Money Making Games – Part 4 – How the indies have always done it

Posted by Rampant Coyote on December 12, 2014

So in parts 1 and part 2 of the series, I discussed how the games biz has changed over the decades. In part 3, I talked about how many different ways there were to make money from games if you are willing to step outside of the box. That’s a lot of changes and variation.

Is there anything that stays the same? Any consistency? I think so, yes.  While everything else changes, a few things stay the same.

For this last article, I want to focus on the indies, and how the indies have been making it work from the get-go. Here’s the thing: The games biz started out pretty indie. Almost by definition – there were no big publishers to rule the landscape to begin with. So it began, and so it continues. Even during the 90s, which was they heyday of the giant publishers (well, mid-90s to mid-2000s, probably), indies were taking it to the streets and doing a painful but sometimes profitable end-run around the establishment.

In each era, the indies had to adopt different technologies, distribution methods, and so forth to get their games out to their potential audience. But here’s the cool part – in spite of different times, different technologies, there were some really consistent patterns.

Let’s start¬† with one of my favorites, the creator of the original Ultima series, Richard Garriott. He made 28 role-playing games prior to his (moderate) success, Akalabeth: World of Doom, sometimes called “Ultima 0.” These games were called DND1 through DND28. They weren’t big games, and they were for technology that few had access to – the PDP 11 at his school. Akalabeth sold somewhere between 10,000 and 30,000 copies – not a stellar success even at the time, but it was enough. It made Garriott about $150k. Ultima 1 did better, selling around 20,000 copies in the first month, eventually selling around 50,000 copies at $39.95 retail. After the second game, he “went indie” and Origin went into self-publishing titles.

Many members of id Software started out making games for SoftDisk – a subscription-based, monthly software service. They made tons of games on a regular schedule with steep deadlines. They made their first three games as a company – the Commander Keen trilogy – in 3 months on a $2000 advance. Eventually, Doom would go on to sell over a million copies via “shareware,” which made the founders millions, and also paved the way for more traditional releases of Doom and other games.

The story continues. Terry Cavanaugh? He made a crapload of games before the success of VVVVVV. Popcap? Before Bejeweled, founder Jason Kapalka had been making & designing games for YEARS with TEN / Pogo. Rovio had 51 previous games, published by themselves and by third-parties. They weren’t all hits, but they weren’t all “failures” as the press likes to call them – before hitting the motherlode with Angry Birds.And then you’ve got Notch, who labored for years making dozens of games – mainly web-based titles and even one MMO – before becoming an “overnight success” with Minecraft.

Do you see something interesting here? I do. There’s almost a pattern to their success. Or a formula, if you decide that the formula is making lots of games and sticking with it. Being prolific and persistent. Of course, there’s no guarantees there, either, but if I were to suggest what indies should do to be successful, my list would look something like this:

  • Start Small. Small is bigger than you think. In other words, what may seem ridiculously small in scope will actually be a much bigger project than you expect.
  • Make Games – start at the beginning and make games. Small games, probably.
  • Keep making games. Because it’s easy to give up after 1 or 2.
  • Finish Games. Don’t just call it done when it gets hard. It’s good to learn what needs to go into a game to make it ready to sell.
  • Release / Sell Games – by “sell” that includes any means available (from yesterday’s list… or not). You learn a ton unleashing your game into the public. Including the paying public. It may not be perfect feedback, but it’s something.
  • Keep making games – Because the first games’ sales are almost guaranteed to disappoint.
  • Play & Study Games – Don’t be in a vacuum. Learn what’s come before.
  • Play Retro & Indie Games – There are a lot of brilliant ideas to be mined, here.
  • Don’t stop making games. Some of the biggest successes came from the guys who were on the verge of giving up.
  • Love Games – It’s apparently possible to make games and not actually like them. I don’t understand this. But if you love games, you aren’t going to be making the kind of crap that some of these companies crank out that clearly don’t love games but do love exploiting their customers.

It’s a pretty consistent path, and not just in games. Again: be prolific. Be persistent. “Make games a lot.” (Which isn’t exactly the same as “make a lot of games.”)


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