Four Years

Four years ago today I started out as a one-man-band indie game developer. Here are some of the things I’ve learned in that time which I don’t see discussed much or I think are worth highlighting:

Production

I’ve yet to find my ideal process for making games, despite having tried a bunch of different production methods. Some things I would recommend considering though:

- Pay for art. Best results have usually come when I’ve hunted down a professional artist with the style and quality I want and straight up paid them.

- If it takes longer than a week to implement a feature, drop it. It’s probably too complex, fragile or conceptually flawed.

- Don’t chase opportunities (e.g. new platform or device). You are highly unlikely to see one far enough in advance or have the resources to effectively hit it.

- It’s never too late to drop a project (so long as it’s for the right reasons). My first game I worked on for 18 months before realising it had such a ridiculously huge scope, it would probably take me another 18 months to finish if I continued.

Feedback

Just repeating the mantra of test early and often doesn’t really help with the details:

- Always have a build on your phone to show people, and any time you have the chance, get people to play, no matter who they are. Or failing that, have a video of your game saved on your phone (not just on youtube, in case there is no internet).

- Consider context. Who is the person playing / giving feedback? Other Game devs for example are good for working out why something doesn’t work and suggesting solutions, but can sometimes give poor feedback because they are thinking through the lens of their own game. Non-gamers won’t be so good at articulating what is wrong with a game, but you can tell by their body language if they’re finding the game’s controls unintuitive say.

- Don’t take feedback at face value. Often people think they are being helpful by trying to diagnose a problem for you, when actually there might be a different underlying problem.

- Look for patterns. As in, if more than one person says roughly the same thing, seriously consider the issue.

Finance

I’m incredibly lucky in that when I was younger, my parents bought me a house in Nottingham where I went to Uni, which I rent out to cover my own rent in London where I now live, as well as pay for food and bills. That allows me to do game development full time.

Very few indies make enough money to live on purely from sales their own games. Most have another source of income. A day job, work-for-hire / making other people’s games, or support from a partner or family seem to be the most common.

However, I have seen other indies successfully get investment for making games. Insofar as I know from talking to those indies and going to investor-focused events, this is what I’ve learned:

- Investors look at people as much as product. A team with the right mix of skills, experience and complimentary personalities. And also just do they get on with you personally, since you’re going to be working together.

- Venture Capitalists (VC’s) in particular aren’t interested in “lifestyle businesses”. Don’t waste yours and their time chasing this type of investment if all you want to do is generate enough money to make your next game / work full time making games independently.

Marketing

Most indies understand that they need to “do marketing” and that their games won’t just sell themselves. However, the industry is constantly changing, and there are no business models or plans that indies can just pull off the shelf and easily use. From my own (largely unsuccessful) attempts at marketing, and from observing the efforts of others, I do have a few observations:

- The channels available to indies, such as twitter, youtube, or a feature on Rock-Paper-Shotgun are unlikely to let developers reach beyond the traditional “gamer” audience.

- Particular game types/genres tend to work much better than others on those channels. For example, Minecraft works great on youtube because each playthrough is personal and unique, versus say a playthrough of a linear narrative FPS.

- Content marketing and/or community building is incredibly time consuming. Writing blogs and doing dev diaries every day is essentially a full time job, and in my opinion, not cost effective for most games. It can also lead to burn-out.

I’ve learned a huge amount in the last four years. My hope is that 2015 is the year I can apply those lessons to actually finish my games and hopefully have a modicum of business success with them.

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