Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Indie Game Development: Words of Discouragement?

Posted by Rampant Coyote on August 17, 2012

This is a sad story indeed.

There are a few lessons that could be drawn from this story.

One might be that nice guys finish last. These guys tried to take a different path from how they saw “predatory” in-app purchases work. And as a result, they are now broke. So one could say that those nasty “predatory” tricks that fill customers with hate are a necessary evil.

One could simply observe that the market is quite simply overwhelmed with content. It’s basic supply-and-demand economics – supply has exceeded demand, so those on the supply side of the equation are facing struggle-for-survival times. More than ever, now.  That means a lot of good developers – and good games – are going to fail.

Another possible (probable) lesson is that you cannot simply develop a game and put it out there with zero thought to the business side of things and expect it to succeed. Maybe it will – happy accidents do happen – but that’s not a foundation for a sustainable business. Even professional gamblers approach gambling with a very scientific, disciplined, business-like attitude. They don’t just jump out there on a wing and a prayer and hope that luck will be a lady tonight. They leave that to the amateurs.

I think there are elements of truth in all three lessons, particularly the third.

I’m drawing all kinds of discouraging lessons from recent developments in the gaming space. The Kickstarter revolution – as cool as it is – tells me that people are willing to pay far more for hopes and dreams than they are for reality. In spite of their waning success, the Zynga story tells me that what could be termed “predatory” practices exercised against customers really does work – at least in the short term. The number of long-term indies who have now become dependent on Steam for their continued success is worrying me a lot. The numbers that have been revealed to me in private for some indies who have done relatively poorly on Steam reminds me that getting on Steam is no guarantee to “making it.”

But what are the most important lessons to be learned, here?

1. Change is constant. The marketplace for games is constantly in turmoil. Adapt.

2. If you are adapting by “following the crowd,” you’d better be dang fast, because latecomers to “the crowd” usually get lost in it. This is closely related to #3, which is:

3. Standing out is critical – whether it’s by being niche, being awesome, being innovative, being controversial, just being weird, or a combination of these. Whatever the case, getting noticed is critical. But most importantly:

4. The game has to serve your business. Yeah, that sounds bass-ackwards, and handled improperly, it is.  But ultimately, survival takes precedence over game-making, because you can’t make games after you’ve starved to death, or if you are spending your time doing other things to survive. (Ahem, which I guess is what we part-timers do…)  If you want to make a living making games, your games have to make you a living, is what I guess what I want to say. We have hang-ups in our western culture about asking for money – and I’ve got the same problem as many about this.  Your game has to sell itself and pay for itself somehow. Don’t be stupid about it. There are so many sub-rules here that change from audience to audience and game to game, but it really comes down to “don’t be stupid about it.”

The “indie games” arena has changed dramatically since I’ve been working in it and writing about it. And I have as much of a problem learning these lessons as anyone.  There’s lots more to be learned, I’m sure.

But I guess what I’m saying here is that while the above story is certainly disappointing, and a bunch of armchair quarterbacking won’t change the fact that it’s a rough market out there for game development. But I don’t think that it is a fundamentally different story from how it was five, ten, fifteen, even twenty years ago. The details and strategies change like crazy, but five years ago it was the big casual portals and casual games, and twenty years ago it was trying to get wide enough distribution for your shareware. It’s always been rough. The competition has always been fierce relative to the customer base, with those rare windows of opportunity when supply hasn’t quite caught up to demand on a new platform or genre.

Do it ‘cuz you love it.

Filed Under: Biz, Game Development, Indie Evangelism - Comments: 8 Comments to Read

  • Califer said,

    I dunno. It seems like the main issue there is that people had a hard time figuring out HOW to pay for it after finding out that there was even something to buy in the first place. Maybe things are better now that they’ve made the option to purchase much more visible.

  • GhanBuriGhan said,

    “This was fascinating to me. I had downloaded the game based on the positive word of mouth, and had already enjoyed what felt like a wide amount of content without paying anything. I wasn’t even aware there was anything to pay for to unlock, and when I learned I could buy the game to support the developer I went looking for that option in the game’s menus. It took me a few minutes to figure out how to pay for the game, and I was specifically looking for the menu. There’s nothing shocking about the low amount of paid sales; the value proposition is never made explicit. There was an update available for the game, and after applying it, an “unlock the full game” message was added under the main logo. ”

    If someone LOOKING to pay needs minutes to do so, that was FUBAR if they wanted to make money.

  • Xian said,

    A 0.67% rate seems pretty low, but as others have said the option to pay was buried too. I wonder what is a normal conversion rate for something like that. Years ago back when I dabbled in programming in the shareware days, I wrote a program for the Atari ST that did page flip animation. One magazine in the UK rated it in the top 10 shareware graphics programs for the ST, yet I did not receive one single registration. There were quite a few downloads of it on GEnie and Compuserve.

    I was just recently reading a debate on another forum. Should there be a demo released or not? If people are not interested in the game after playing the demo, then you may have lost a potential sale. I would rather not get a sale in that manner – if someone is not interested in my program after playing it then I have a disappointed customer, where if they don’t like the demo, then nothing is lost. Another pitfall could be if the demo lets you go too far, people may be satisfied with only the demo. It sounds like that might apply to the game in the article.

  • Albert1 said,

    This confirms that the path indie wannabe should follow is always the same: find a small and (hopefully) profitable niche, work as hard as you can on something you really like yet has some chances to actually sell, do not neglect that lil bit of marketing that every entrepreneur (yes, even indies) should take into account, then… cross your fingers!
    Of course, the aforementioned strategy is not applicable on all platform: it turs out that the ye olde PC is still the best habitat for hunting the 4000 true fans (copyright(c) Jeff Vogel) happy to pay 20+ bucks for your game.
    Ridicously cheap apps for mobile platform are just what casual PC games were in early-to-mid 2000s: maybe a gold mine for first liners and companies able to churn out dozens of titles per year, nothing profitable for all the others! I also find ridiculous to put so much efforts and thoughts in a product that is for games what movie theather pop corns are for food: empty calories you chomp once in a while, nothing more.

  • Xenovore said,

    The red flags I’m seeing:
    1) 2 years to develop a iOS game, (supposedly) working full-time on the game…really? Seems at least 12-16 months too long.

    2) It’s an iOS game; there are so many issues related to just that.

    3) The “Purchase” button was hidden in some obscure menu? Duh.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    I was thinking of saying something harsher in that paragraph about not putting any thought into the business side of things, but I left it at that. There’s a whole lot that can go into it – taking too long in development (boy, I’m a poster child for that problem), not making it easy to buy the full version, not making a clear distinction about the benefits of the “full” version, etc.

    What’s funny is that as much as the marketplace has changed, these are BASICS that have been preached about since at least the late 90s in the “shareware” space.

  • Foreigner said,

    In addition to the points raised above in the blog and the following posts, I just have to say the App Store, at least as accessed through the iPad is absolutely useless for finding games unless you know the title or the developer. The categories mean nothing, most of the games are ‘free’ microtransaction crap, no way even to filter out all the Chinese-language stuff from searches. No way to wishlist a gem you might like to buy later that I could see. It’s a totally horrible marketplace in which to get noticed without a ton of luck and word-of-mouth, or prior Jeff Vogel-type reputation.

    As people have mentioned, if you want to prospect for business amidst all the dreck on the App Store, you better have a strategy in place get noticed outside your 5 microseconds of fame as the newest app.

  • GhanBuriGhan said,

    The crappiness of itunes and the App store is the one big opening I currently see for a serious Competitor to challenge Apples hold on the industry.