This is a question I'm getting asked with increasing regularity: what advice do I have for other indie developers, or aspiring indie developers? Here are some observations I've had from developing, releasing, updating, and promoting AI War. In many cases I'll leave you to draw your own conclusions based on these observations, but at the very least it will provide first-hand data you did not have before.
Bear in mind that the landscape has changed dramatically since I originally developed many of these ideas; the rise of the indie was only just starting in 2009, and I randomly happened to be traveling right along with that wave without realizing it. Lucky timing on my part. Most of this advice still stands however, which is why I chose to share it.
Not only has the market changed, but my position as an indie developer has, too. AI War has gone on to make over a million dollars in gross sales (and still steadily growing each year), which in 2009 would have made it a clear and unmitigated indie darling. Instead it's what I would call a "cult classic," and there are now tons of such games that you've never heard of. The market has grown substantially, and the Primacy of the Niche cannot be understated for most indies. You still get the standouts like Minecraft or Monaco or Limbo or Journey that larger-than-average audiences have heard of, naturally.
But I'd say that the old "indie darling" field of about 1-5 per year has grown to 10-40 per year, and then there is this huge "very profitable niche game" market that likely sees as many as 1,000 games per year at this point (counting mobile). Remember, the mobile "app store" revolution hadn't even begun yet at that point in 2009, and that changed everything for a whole lot of indies, too. It's hard even to quantify the size (in terms of number of games, or total earnings, or average earning for game in any given category) for indie games at this point. Apple and Steam have the lion's share of that data, but even their data is very incomplete. There's no sort of global way to categorize sales rankings at the moment.
The One Ultra-Secret Surefire Path to Indie Success
I don't think there's any one path to success -- now more than ever. There are indies doing all sorts of crazy things all over the place, and the market actually supports that! It's amazing. There is no better time to be an indie, in terms of the opportunities out there. Most people have at least heard of the indie movement, and there's a huge following of it in general that is hungry for the new and the interesting. And even those who are not interested in the concept of "indie games" for its own sake are often interested in specific genre niches: wargamers, for instance, want good wargames whatever the source. Simulation game fans are hungry for more simulation games, and the AAA studios are not forthcoming. So where do they go? Indies, naturally.
The main advice I have is for people to follow their own passions and to find the communities that share those passions. If you're passionate about something, odds are that a lot of other people are too -- the world, and the Internet, is a big place. You may never meet another person in casual real life who shares your passion, but that doesn't mean there aren't hundreds of thousands of people in the world who share your passion. If you can find those people, there's your market. Build something that you delight in and that they will also delight in. Then let them know it exists, in a way that isn't scummy or cloying. Then see if there might be an even wider market, and if you might be able to get on some of the bigger distributors.
Or check out something like Kickstarter if you need funding in advance for art or whatever. But have a great prototype before that point, and be prepared for the repercussions of suddenly having lots of backers with very specific expectations that you will likely not be able to fully meet. When something does not yet exist, people form very different ideas of what will come to exist in the future based on what is described. Words are imprecise, and visions shift subtly (or not so subtly) anyhow.
You don’t need funding to have a great idea. Nor do you need funding to develop something in your off-hours as a hobby. If it’s not worth it to a potential indie as a hobby, then probably game development isn’t for them; game development is a lot of work, and if they don’t love the process then the industry will chew them up pretty hard.
There are plenty of examples of games with terrible or mediocre graphics that have gone on to sell really well anyhow because of the strength of their ideas. And with Kickstarter now being a thing, the graphics don’t even have to be bad if you can convince enough people that your idea is awesome before you finish making it.
It doesn’t take a ten million dollar budget to make a game that is attractive -- whether or not you think my games are attractive, that’s beside the point. There will always be people who disagree with a given aesthetic, and who are turned off by it. But with the right idea, it doesn’t matter. There are innumerable Minecraft videos that start out with the sentiment “The graphics are effing horrible, but check this out!” Personally I think Minecraft has a great aesthetic and is really pleasing to look at, but obviously that’s a matter of taste and not everyone agrees. Part of being an indie is accepting that universal appreciation is never coming your way.
My other main takeaway remains the same: people are too quick to give up and concede defeat. I said that in August 2009 when I had managed a mere $30,000 or so in sales and was feeling pretty good about that after a very slow start. That was not bad at all for indie developers, and on Impulse (back when it was a bigger force), that was enough to net us the #4 to #2 slot on their top-sellers chart from time to time. This was pre-Steam for us. Then we hit Steam later that year, and it's just been growth ever since. I would never have predicted in 2009 that we'd ever reach a million dollars gross. But through ongoing updates and support and persistence, that's what happened. If I just threw my hands up in the first two weeks after release, when I literally had zero sales, that would have been not just my future career thrown away, but also the careers of everyone who works at Arcen now. The things you learn, eh?
My Advice to Indie Developers
Make what you want to make. You are your own first audience. If you don’t think a game is fun, nobody else will either. If you don’t want to play your own game, ask yourself why. Often that will spark ideas on how to fix some underlying problems you didn’t even consciously realize you had.
Prototype! Almost no game is fun at first, despite sounding great on paper. Prototyping lets you figure out what the sticking points are and address them, rather than just rushing something out the door that has all those original flaws.
Make something original! If you’re just making a clone of some other game, or a clear homage with some minor twists, expect to fail. Bigger studios will have better production values, and typically more polished execution, than a new indie studio. Where most of the top indies shine is in their creativity, if you think about it.
Don’t ignore PR and marketing. Those are “bad words” to a lot of people, but they don’t have to be. All it means is telling people about your game, and sharing your passion for it. It does not mean spamming or astroturfing or doing other unethical things. But if you don’t tell people about what you’re doing, you will be ignored.
When it comes to the press, often if your pitch for your game does not immediately grab them, it goes in the rubbish bin -- they get too many pitches as it is. So make sure you have a clear, concise, strong explanation for why your game is worth their time. If other review sites are saying awesome things about your game, feel free to mention that to the other outlets along with other news about things you are doing to make your game even better. Aka, “here’s our latest post-release patch with all sorts of awesome new stuff for free for players, and also look what site X had to say about us!” Persistence pays off, but keep to the limits of being polite and respectful.
Note: The following observations were written back when AI War was publicly available for only a few months but the advice still holds
Observation: Getting Started Is Slow
I've had a publicly-released game for only around three months now. That might sound like a long time, but if you're an indie developer with no prior connections and no "easy ins," you're still just warming up. I think that a lot of indies think that their game will either live or die in that first month (I know I did), and I'm finding that this is patently untrue. If I had given up after that first month, I would literally have had around 50 sales total.
That's still not bad for an indie game -- unfortunately, most sell extremely, extremely, poorly. However, if I had given up after that limited amount of time, or if I had stopped trying to get more publicity for the game, I'd have missed out on month two, which had around 8x as many sales as the first month. And each month since then has had even more sales than the last.
So I guess there are a few takeaways from this. First, don't give up too quickly or let yourself get discouraged by early indifference to your product. Secondly, don't quit the day job unless you can afford to go months or more without pay, even after your game is released. Expect to put in some serious time even after your game is out.
Observation: Every Indie Game Is Different
There is no "common path" for successful indie games. There are perhaps a very few things they all have in common, but generally speaking they all entered the market differently, made a name for themselves in a different niche, and then got noticed by the wider gaming press. Some of them had an easier time of it than others.
My Three Major Classes Of Indie Game
Or, at least, this is how I think of it. Here they are:
1. Indie Darlings: These sell tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, of copies. You've read about these in gaming magazines and on mainstream gaming sites. Everyone who follows gaming news has heard of the biggest of these, but even the smallest of these have quite a huge footprint. There are very few of these as compared to the other two categories. You know the big boys from this category: World of Goo, Braid, etc. A lot of these are also winners of the various major indie gaming contests, but not all of them are.
1.a. Indies With Publishers: This is a corollary to the indie darlings category, really. Some indie companies actually do form relationships with publishers and this leads to a massive amount more sales and a fair bit more press. Since the indie developer did not receive money up front from the publisher, and since the developer still has full creative control more or less, they are still considered indie, although it is borderline to some people. Examples: Locke's Quest, Supreme Commander.
2. Undiscovered Gems: This is a much larger category of indie games. Basically, these games are not failures, but neither are they remotely near the darling category. Most of these games sell a few hundred to a few thousand copies -- in a few cases maybe a couple of tens of thousands. They might get some spotty mainstream gaming press coverage, but not much (if any). They might have contest wins, but none of the really big ones. They do tend to have some coverage from the various indie-focused websites. Often these games have a really passionate, if small, fanbase. These are quality games, so if they are able to find any publicity at all they will find something of a fanbase, but without serious effort on publicity they will never be very successful (and depending on the game, it might be so niche or hardcore that it never finds a sustainable audience at all).
3. Hobbyist/Nonprofessional: This group is the largest by far, basically comprising anything that a person just slaps together in however much time. Generally there is not much discipline in creating these, nor a great sense of design. Some are really fun and worth playing, most are not. But! Most real game designers start out like this -- I created a large number of games I would consider in this category, although I never publicly released most of them. They were an invaluable learning experience, but if I had expected to make a business out of them that would have been laughable -- selling 100 or even 10 copies would be pretty ambitious and would mostly depend on how many friends you have.
Why The Categories Matter
Objectively determining what category you fall into out of the above is very important. If you're reading this blog looking for advice, you probably fall in or near the undiscovered gems category. If you're an indie darling, you know it, of course (I'm not, for the record). If you're in the hobbyist category you may not know it. But if you just can't get any sales no matter what you do, then you might have to realize that you are in that category. That's okay! Most of us started there.
The realization is important because you need to realize that there is something your game is lacking. You need to either make your game better, or you need to make a new game based on what you now know after having created the first (the code architecture of first-games is often so bad that it's better to just start fresh... I know I did). Similarly, if you are in the undiscovered gems category you are also missing something -- either that "indefinable something extra" that makes the big games really stand out, or else publicity. Or both. Figuring out what you are missing and addressing it is the key to moving up, near as I can tell.
So where is AI War right now? We're an undiscovered gem at present, but we're getting a lot more coverage recently, and that's been helping sales trend ever upwards. We've also got a potential publication deal in the works, which could really boost things even more. We'll see.
Observation: You Need Distribution Partners
To hear 2D Boy (the creators of indie darling World of Goo) tell it, all you need to do is put up a website, make a great game, and people will flock to your site. I have not observed anyone else who has seen this as a workable strategy. For AI War, in our first two weeks of doing exactly that, we had precisely zero sales. It wasn't until we got picked up for Stardock's Impulse platform that things really started kicking off. 2D Boy had an awful lot of publicity before putting up their website.
So, instead, my advice is to pursue as many distribution partners as possible. Only the ones that give you a fair royalty rate (most of the time I get 70%), and those which are non-exclusive so that you can cast a wide net, but otherwise just go ahead and keep casting as wide a net as possible. The specific sites you will submit to also vary by genre. But having a website and an ecommerce partner there is also a good idea.
Observation: Art Is Not As Important As Indie Developers Think
Aspiring indie developers get really hung up on the art in their games. So much so, that many of them never really finish anything substantial. You can't expect an artist to work for you for free -- they're wise to the fact that most of the time the programmer/designer is going to flake out if this is their first project. So do what you can with the art that is freely available out there (there isn't much, but there is some), and otherwise just use placeholder art. If your game is awesome and fun, then you can better attract an artist or you will be better justified in investing in art yourself.
Observation: Art Is Really Important
It's just not as important as new indie developers think it is. You can't expect to have great art from the start unless you are lucky and know a great artist, or have large stacks of cash just sitting around. But you can still make a fun game that will attract something of an audience. Just be ready to either make a bigger, better, prettier sequel after that, or to upgrade the art on your first game. Depends on how big your first game is, and what the potential market for it is, and how bad your initial art really is. Art clearly matters in moving copies of indie games, but it's not the only deciding factor. You can sell pretty well with fairly poor art, you'll just sell better with better art (all else being equal).
Observation: No One Cares About Your Game. Until They Do.
Getting that first sale is brutal hard. You need a good demo, good marketing materials, a good sales pitch in general. You have to get someone pretty excited about your game to shell out for something they have never heard of before. If you can get some positive early reviews, that will also really help. Having a distribution partner will also help, if you can get one. You basically need a way to show potential customers that you are for real, that you build something worth paying for, and that they can trust you with their credit card or other personal information (this can be simply offering paypal as an option, or whatever other reputable ecommerce platform).
Until you start getting some notice, no one is going to want to notice you. It's a very chicken-and-egg sort of situation. There are too many indie games out there, most in the hobbyist category, and especially if your art is not great people will usually assume that's the category you are in if they have never heard of you and their first contact is from you soliciting them. Eventually you will find some people who will take a chance on your game; if you impress them, then you can move up a few notches in exposure and find more people who will take a chance on it.
If no one is impressed after taking a chance on it, then you're probably in the hobbyist category without knowing it. That's not the end of the world -- either make a new, better game and try again, or solicit feedback from your early chance-takers and then improve your offering before you find some more chance-takers. One blown chance is not the end of the line, although you can't afford to blow too many of them with one game.
Observation: Publicity Comes In Waves
Whether you like it or not, the entire gaming community is unlikely to suddenly sit up and notice your game. There are millions upon millions of gamers out there, and they don't all do anything as a group. When you're starting from scratch, with no reputation or contacts, you basically have to scrounge for anything. Each bit of publicity you gain makes the next just a bit easier. You have a bit better story to tell to potential reviewers (e.g., "Reviewer X loved it and I was wondering if you also want to do a review since you like the same genre.").
You will also have players who may be willing to do some publicity of their own, such as talking about the game on other forums, to their friends, etc. I can't stress enough how vital word of mouth is to the startup indie developer. People like seeing positive reviews, but have a mild distrust of that since they don't know if the reviewer's criteria are the same of their own. People also really mistrust anything that the developer says unless the developer has a really sterling reputation (which is why you must never exaggerate or say anything false about your games, incidentally). But people greatly trust the opinions of friends and acquaintances, whether online or off, so personal recommendations like that are the absolutely best sort of publicity you can get if it's on a large enough scale.
If you're lucky, persistent, and patient, you'll see your publicity gradually snowballing into bigger and bigger waves of coverage. That's assuming you have a game in the undiscovered gem category or above. Every so often you should send out more press releases or review requests -- the sites won't ever talk about your stuff if they don't even know it exists.
Observation: Uniqueness Counts
When you are telling people about your game, what do you say? Do you hem and haw and say, "well, it's hard to explain but it's fun?" If so, you're digging your own grave. If you say "it's a clone," you're also shooting yourself in the foot. When people think of indie games, they aren't looking for "like that other game but not quite as good." They're looking for something they've never seen before, that the AAA publishers would never dare give them.
If your game is just a clone of some other game, maybe you can find something of an audience, but I wouldn't know anything about that. I can't imagine it would be a sustainable business. It's okay if your game has some similarities to other games -- every game does -- but you also need to offer something genuinely new and startling. Look at all the biggest darlings, and all of the best undiscovered gems, and you'll see this trait with all of them. There is something very defining and unique about each one.
Tip: Refine Your Story
When you are trying to explain your game to reviewers, to potential customers, and to people you meet on the street, you need to have both an elevator pitch ("AI War is a space-based RTS game with incredible AI and huge unit counts."), and you also need to be able to succinctly explain what is going on with your game at the time. Why is this game exciting? Why should the person take time out of their day to take a closer look at it? This is an evolving process, and takes a lot of work on your part. I highly recommend learning how to write a good query letter, and the best source of information I know about that (although related to book publishing) is literary agent Nathan Bransford's blog.
Just so that you can see what I mean, here are some evolving emails I've used over the past few months (with extra personalization as needed for given sites or individuals):
A Very Weak Query, Circa early May 2009
I'm the CEO of Arcen Games, a small indie developer. We're nearing
release of our first game, an RTS called AI War. The game has incredible AI
and the largest number of units (30,000+ in most games) of any game we know
of. It's also cooperative-focused, which is quite unique.
Through a Gamasutra article I found your site, and was hoping to get more
information about who you are and what sort of opportunities there might be
to work together.
Indie developer Arcen Games has just made public an advance release of the RTS game AI War: Fleet Command. This is a pretty unique game, with several firsts for the genre.
- Cooperative RTS game (1-8 players) with numerous unique ship types.
- Challenging AI (some of the best in the genre) in 26 styles, many with unique superweapons.
- Insanely high unit counts: 30,000+ ships in most games.
- Lengthy campaigns featuring 80+ simultaneous planetary battlefields.
- Different Every Time: 16 billion procedural maps, each with specific units.
- A focus on deep strategy that you don't get in most RTS games.
This is a game created by genre veterans for genre veterans, but that doesn't mean it's inaccessible for players new to RTS games: robust tutorials, a simulated campaign, and a free online mini strategy guide make it easy to get into the game, but hard to master it!
I'm the developer of AI War: Fleet Command, an indie RTS game for the PC. We're fairly little known so far, but are one of the more popular titles on Stardock's Impulse, and are getting a pretty excellent player community in our forums. The game is a cooperative space-based affair, with some of the best AI in the genre (I did a recent podcast on that on techZing! in addition to a series of articles on the topic at my blog: http://christophermpark.blogspot.com).
You can see screenshots and videos of the game, as well as download the demo, from our company website: http://www.arcengames.com/ If you'd like to do a review, please let me know and I'd be happy to provide a license key to unlock the full game from the demo. Additionally, if you're interested in doing an interview about any topic relating to the game, I'm always game for that (the AI has been the biggest point of discussion so far, but some players have been suggesting that it would be interesting to hear more about the decisions behind the unique and effective "AI Progress" mechanic in the game, or other similar game design topics).
Arcen Games, LLC
Beyond The Basics
In other, later missives I was also a lot more personalized, mentioned various specific positive reviews, and talked about how this was not a traditional RTS but something of a novel blend of grand strategy, tower defense, RTS, and even with a few TBS influcenes even though it is 100% realtime.
I have sent several hundred emails out to various parties about AI War, and my response rate overall has been pretty positive -- maybe 10% aggregate at this stage. These days my response rate is much higher, approach 80-90% because more people have heard whisperings of the game and I have a much better story (having had some really posive reviews from bigger sites), but early on in the response rate was more like 3-5%. This is why you have to submit to so many places! You don't know who will respond, and until you do you need to cast a wide net.
If I had just made a good game, and then gotten on a distributor or two, most of the publicity for AI War would never have happened. It's just a fact. Similarly, if I had not had a number of players out there evangelising for the game, a lot of sales would never have happened. Properly promoting, supporting, and updating a post-release game is a fulltime job in itself. Be prepared. You can do a halfway job with it if you are lucky, but if you are not lucky you are once again setting yourself up to fail where you might otherwise have succeeded.
If you thought this article was going to be advice about making a good game, then I bet you came away surprised. Making a good game is just the beginning, just as writing a good novel is only the beginning for novelists. If you read much advice for aspiring novelists, almost all of it also applies to indie developers. You need to begin by doing something awesome and startlingly new, and then you need to follow that up with lots of elbow grease, long hours, and promotion efforts (which can often be frustrating and/or distasteful depending on your personality).
Anyone who thinks that being an indie developer is easy, or a path to quick money, is sorely mistaken. There is a high chance of failure, the rewards are not great unless you do above-average or better for the market into which you are entering, and it involves a heck of a lot more than just programming/designing a game. You have to be your own marketing department, sales force, PR firm, accountant, and support staff. And you have to do a stellar job at all of those different jobs, or you're only reducing your already poor chances.
Granted, making a great game is what counts the most. All the PR in the world won't save a poor game, and will only make people mistrust what you say in the future -- did I mention to never exaggerate about your work? So none of this applies if your game isn't already up to snuff. But what most people fail to realize is just how much work is still involved once you have a great game in hand... and how many chances you have to still fail and languish in obscurity.
There isn't a great deal of organized information about this sort of thing out there for indie developers, but you only have to look to book publishing to see where all of this is headed. The steep slope ahead of an aspiring novelist is even taller than the slope in front of the indie developer, but they are very similar slopes all the same. The indie games industry is too new to have much advice around for you to peruse, but if you look at the advice for novelists, you'll have a wealth of mostly-relevant advice.
A surprising fact you might not know: most novelists, in fact almost all of them except the bestsellers, aren't making a living out of being a novelist. I kid you not, google it and see. That's pretty sobering. The rewards of indie games development are potentially much greater than the possible rewards you would see for your average aspiring novelist, but you also have a whole team of people to support rather than just a single writer. Most indie game developers aren't making a living at this either, from what I can tell, although the best certainly do. And to be the best, you've got to have the whole package.
In the end, "the whole package" can be summarized rather neatly: you have to have a game worth playing, and people have to hear good things about about it and be able to buy it at a price they find fair. That's surprisingly harder than it sounds. You can do it, but you'll go a lot further if you consider the pitfalls and prepare for the post-release work before you actually do release. Indie game development is very much a profession, not a hobby, and it comes with all the rigors you would expect from a profession.
About the Author(s)
Christopher Park is the owner of Arcen Games, maker of the AI War series. You can also read more thoughts about Indie game development on his blog.