Friday, July 30, 2010

The Secrets Of My Success As An Indie Developer

So, in my last post I talked about how I botched the PR for Tidalis, and mentioned that I'd started out with very poor PR when AI War first came out, too.  In the case of AI War, the game was utterly invisible until it actually came out, and then for the first two weeks after it was out, it had literally zero sales.  How did AI War get from that dismal spot to now having sold around 30,000 copies (including copies of the expansion) and still counting?

And, for that matter, how is it I'm planning to rectify the botched PR with Tidalis?  Read on...

Step 1: Make A Good Game
Perhaps this goes without saying, but this only works if the game in question is good.  However, I put this step in here because some folks will inevitably assume that the following steps are some sort of "marketing magic" that can make a bad game sell like hotcakes.  Nothing can do that, at least not on a shoestring budget.

The other reason I bring up this step is because a lot of folks think that this is the only step that is needed in order to achieve success.  "Build it and they will come," and all that.  I'm here to tell you that only works in that one movie!  When you build it, almost no one will come, because no one will know you built it.  That's why these other steps exist.

Step 2: Tell People About Your Game
Maybe this seems self-evident, but more indies seem to skip this step than you might expect.  If you build an awesome game and then just post it on your brand-new website, how many people have you told?  Probably almost no-one.  If you get posted about on one of the many indie-related blogs, how many people have you then told?  Even if they have a readership in the thousands, that's still not many people.  A lot of those thousands of people won't like the genre of your game, or just won't be grabbed by it, or whatever.

Or, put another way: however many copies you want to sell, you probably need five hundred times that many people to hear about your game.  I just made that number up, but that's probably undershooting it.  Average "conversion" rate for people who download a demo is something like 2% or 3% who will buy it.  That means that for every 1 sale you make, you need 33 to 50 people to actually download your demo.  I have no idea how many people it takes reading about a game to get one to download the demo, but I wouldn't be surprised if the conversion rate there was 1% or less.

So: if you've only told a few thousand people about your game, and your game is awesome, expect a couple of dozen sales unless you're really lucky.  Most sites have lower daily readerships than you might expect, and even on really high-volume sites in terms of traffic, not nearly every post or article gets read by all visitors.

Step 3: Keep Telling People About Your Game
When you're a new indie, you'll get the cold shoulder.  A lot.  Press won't be interested in posting about your game, by and large, and most digital distribution sites won't be interested in you, either.  It takes time to look at your stuff, and there are a thousand other hopeful indies out there also vying for attention.

You want to cast a wide net because you never know who it is that your game will particularly strike a chord with.  As soon as you get some positive press, you can often translate that into more positive press, but until you have any you're going to really not get much attention at all until you find just those right early people to take a look at your work.  That also goes for digital distribution sites, incidentally.

Step 4: Make Sure There Is Something New To Tell People About Your Game
So, what happens if you send out a bunch of emails to press and distribution sites, and you get no response?  Do you:

A. Quietly give up?
B. Keep sending them the same message over and over again every so often?

Answer: neither, if you really want to be an indie developer.  If you start spamming press and distribution sites with the same message, how long do you think it will be before they actually flag your address as a spam address so that they don't have to see your stupid identical messages over and over again?  Even if you mildly (or heavily) reword your message, odds are you'll receive a chilly response.  You need something new to tell them, and you can bet they're expert at recognizing content-less emails, which they received a lot of.

So, the real answer to the above question is actually secret option C, which is to make sure that if you re-contact press or distributors, you have something genuinely and significantly new and interesting to tell them every time.  How do you do this?  By continually updating and improving your game.  Add in some fun new content.  Make it something significant and interesting, something that you could picture reading about from some other developer on Blue's News or ModDB.  Anything less is just going to be spam to a lot of folks.

Step 5: Keep Updating Your Game
I know I just said this in #4, but this is important enough to warrant its own step.  You need to keep adding to and updating your game, improving it based on player feedback, that sort of thing.  Every so often, do a big release with all your little changes summarized, and the most exciting ones highlighted.  Send that to the distributors, and to the press that would be interested in that sort of thing.  If you've had some positive reviews lately, you can also mention those (especially to distributors), but they aren't news in their own right.

This fifth step is also important in that:
  •  It actually makes your game better, and your players happier.
  •  It's legitimately news-worthy.
  •  It keeps your existing players playing the game longer, and talking about it.
  •  Best of all, if you like your game (hopefully you do), this is fun and rewarding.  You wanted to make games, right?  Rather than rushing off to the next title, why not spend some time making your current title the best it can absolutely be?
Granted, if your game is not already solid, this won't work.  If everyone thinks your game is terrible, and no-one will talk about your game or play it much, then the advice a lot of other successful indies give is correct: it's time to treat that game as a learning experience and move on to the next one.  Don't try to salvage it, you're just as likely to make it worse as anything else.

This whole process is assuming your game is already good or great, right?  But I've yet to see a game that couldn't be made better at least in small ways with a few tweaks and additions.  It might be some little side quest.  It might be more settings options or some improvements to the controls based on player feedback.  It might be a new enemy or a new item or weapon.  It might be some improvements to art, or a new music track, or improved sound effects.

Step 6: Be Hyper-Critical With Your Own Work
This is really a corollary to step 5.  I have never met a professional game developer, a professional novelist, or a professional creative of any sort, who thought their work was perfect.  Perfection is the delusion of amateurs.  Professionals are always look at their work in a critical way, seeing all the seams a cracks that almost no-one else will see. 

Since you're trying to sell and distribute digital games, you are in the unique and fortunate position that you can revise and extend your work at will.  You should never have an initial release that is full of known bugs, but it's inevitable that players will find some that slipped past you.  Fix them.  If you're at all like me, you were probably also boiling over with other ideas that didn't actually make it into your initial release of the game.   Release some of those ideas in patches, as "free DLC" that just comes right with the standard patches of the game.

Step 7: Take Suggestions From Players
Even better than step #6 above: solicit suggestions from players.  You might have to swallow your auteristic pride a bit at first, but once you get used to it you'll find that players are absolutely full of cool ideas you would never have thought of.  Every person views the world a bit differently, and that's really something useful in your case.  Players love to make suggestions, and if you implement those, they'll be really thrilled.  And your game will be better for it, if it was a good suggestion.

You want a way to build player investment and word of mouth?  Make them a part of the process.  Show them you value their opinions and their ideas.  These are exactly the sorts of things big companies never do.  Doesn't it drive you nuts?  Isn't that feeling of powerlessness with the major AAA games part of the reason you started making your own games in the first place?  Well, many of your players will have that same sort of feeling with your work unless you actually let them have a voice.  It's a good thing to do, for you and for them, and you'll be surprised at the positive community that can form around this.

Step 8: Give Away Free Stuff
You notice I said "free DLC" in step 6?  Yeah, all of this stuff only works for promotional purposes if you're giving it away for free.  If you try to nickel and dime the players for every little addition (or worse, ever charge them for any bugfixes), they'll quickly leave in disgust

The best part of giving away free updates to an existing game is that it's only free for players who actually buy your stuff.  This gives existing players a reason to stick around and continue to give you suggestions and talk to their friends and such.  But it also gives people who have yet to try your game a strong incentive to check it out.

Think about it this way: if I tell you a game is a year old, how do you think of it?  Is it mildly crusty and not a newsworthy sort of game?  Maybe you'll play it anyway, or you might be the sort that thinks there is enough new stuff that you'd rather see the latest and greatest games, instead.  But what if I tell you a game came out a year ago, and has had free monthly or bimonthly updates for the entire last year?  How does this affect your perception of both the game and the developer of that game?  See what I'm driving at here?

Granted, this doesn't mean you can't do paid expansions and DLC.  But those should be really meaty and worthwhile, in addition to all the significant stuff you're already giving away.  Players know when you're not giving them a good value, so strive to always do so.  And hey, it's just the right thing to do in general.

Step 9: Have Patience, Have Persistence
Don't go spamming any press or distribution sites, and for goodness sake don't make a marketing-y bother out of yourself.  Don't be sending messages to the same nonresponsive press/distributors any more frequently than monthly, and make sure you have noteworthy new news every time you do contact them.

But goodness, don't give up after one failed contact, either.  For AI War, it took us 3 months after initial release to reach 1,000 sales, or to get our first really big reviews.  It took 5 months after initial release to get on Steam.  It took 6 months after initial release before we had a MetaScore.  It took us 7 months after initial release to hit 10,000 sales.

During that timespan I added literally thousands of features to AI War (over 46,000 words of release notes just to version 2.0, no joke), and I sent hundreds of emails and inquiries, over 90% of which never received a direct response. 

But press eventually did respond, and once there was a certain amount of momentum some of them even contacted me directly.  Impulse wound up being interested in AI War early, and then GamersGate was, and then finally Steam and Direct2Drive came around to it.  For other developers the order is different, or all the distributors might not even be interested.  There are definitely still a few distributors that won't give me the time of day or answer my emails, and AI War was a massive success as far as non-contest-winning indie games go.

I perhaps went a bit overboard with how many features I added to AI War, but I was having a fun time doing it, and the player response was really great.  If I hadn't had all that encouragement from players, the press, and ultimately from the distributors, I wouldn't have done that much.  Put another way, if you're not gaining any traction, then the advice of the other indie developers is right and you should just move on to another game.  But assuming you are making progress with the players, press, and sales, you should keep at it: persistence wins the day, just not always very fast.

Step 10: Discounts Never Hurt
Another way you can get a lot of "free" publicity?  Discount your game for a brief period.  I put free in quotation marks because you pay for that publicity in the form of all those discounts you're giving.  But it's vastly more effective than advertising, I've found, so it's quite a good investment.  And having a big rush of new players is great for the ongoing publicity and word of mouth of your game, too.

If you can time your discount promotion with or near the release of some new free additions to the game, so much the better.

There are many, many ways to build a successful indie company.  I only know the way that I did it, and that this worked very well for me.  It's been a solid business model for Arcen, and it's made our players really, really happy in the main.  Want to have a dedicated fanbase?  Show them that you're willing to go above and beyond what you'd have to do.  Also?  That, again, is just generally the right thing to do, anyway.

On the PC side, I can't think of many other developers using this same strategy as us, but there definitely are some doing it.  Dwarf Fortress essentially does this, BOH seems to do this, and so on.

On the iPhone, though, this sort of thing is incredibly common.  All the most popular iPhone games (and even many of the less-popular ones) are getting updated all the timeDoodle Jump, Defender Chronicles, and Angry Birds are just three examples of many I could name.

This sort of thing really works.  And doing right by your customers is always a good idea.  Good luck!


Fox said...

This is exactly what we're doing with our game. Incognito. I'd love if you checked it out!

Rick said...

Thanks for the great post. I look forward to reading more from your blog.

Big question for me - How early can/should you start?

Here are our rough development phases, with each phase having a feedback loop:
- Early concept, concept art and story-line
- Alpha level with some game mechanics (where we are now)
- Polished single level for Alpha
- Alpha all levels
- Solid Beta
- Launch

When should you start showing your stuff off? How early should you be getting external players involved? Right now we have friends and family involvement, but we should be getting external involvement, but I don't want to get slammed with that before we are ready.

Also, do you have a recommended list of press, or should I just start googling?

Finally, have you done any shows like E3? When would you feel like we are ready for that?

-- Rick

Christopher M. Park said...


It really varies based on what your team has time to do, and what sort of a following you want to try and create in advance.

Things to bear in mind:

- Nobody will care at first, especially if you're just talking about your future plans. BUT, that doesn't mean that people won't find this back information interesting via google and your own archives later on.

- As soon as you have something playable that people can mess with, they'll be FAR more interested. However, anything labeled "Beta" automatically gets vastly less attention. We saw this with Tidalis, even, and we already had a following of thousands.

- It also depends on how thick your skin is. People. Are. Mean. Get to the point in your project where you're confident of it on your own. That way when people start telling you what crap it is, that will still hurt, but it won't cause you to hang it up completely. But as soon as you can stomach all the criticism, both deserved and undeserved, you want that sort of feedback because it will make your stuff so much better. Try to take emotion out of the equation as much as you can, and also don't try to please everyone -- take only the feedback that will help you make your game into a better, more polished version of what you actually are trying to make. Anyone who tries to convert your project into something completely else can safely be ignored. Work on that iron skin -- even "universally acclaimed" works, like Chris Nolan's movie Inception, get a lot of criticism that is extraordinarily harsh and not always justified. This is something I still struggle with accepting for myself.

(continued in a sec)

Christopher M. Park said...

When it comes to the press, here's a handy trick: look at who is reviewing other games that are at all similar to your own. Many indie games in particular keep a press page with a list of who reviewed their game favorably or at all; with some skillful googling, you can get the contact information for those reviewers to email them.

You can also look on places like the MetaCritic list of publications that it includes for games. That doesn't include specific reviewers, but you can find likely candidates on the staff pages of most sites that large.

Lastly, go with reviewers you actually like to read. Chances are, other gamers with sensibilities close to your own also like to read them. Out of Eight is a good example of that in my case. In other cases, once you start getting some exposure to your game and some external non-friends/family feedback, those other players will recommend sites and blogs they like. That's how I found Bill Harris for example, and he's really something as a reviewer.

Still other reviewers will eventually find you, if you're lucky. At first those reviewers will be smaller bloggers. Once you're on a few distribution services, though, they start coming at you from bigger places. But even the smaller bloggers can lead to new players and to larger reviews.

Remember to support indie reviewers, just like reviewers (indie and otherwise) support you. Maybe "support" is too strong a word if they wind up not liking your work, which will inevitably happen from time to time, but they still took the time to play the game and write about it, even if what they wrote is scathing. That's something, I guess. ;)

(more in a sec)

Christopher M. Park said...

Regarding shows like E3, I haven't had a chance to do anything like that, so I couldn't tell you. A few years back I had to do a fair bit of travel for my last job, and one of the perks of my current situation is that I don't HAVE to travel, heh. Last year I didn't really have the money to spend, and this year my wife has been pregnant and I've not wanted to leave her alone (nor did she want me to go).

A lot of these conferences, like GDC and such, can be great for networking with publishers and distributors, I've heard. And certainly there are many other opportunities, though to get an exhibitor booth is very expensive. You're looking at multiple thousands of dollars minimum with most trade shows when you factor equipment, travel, living, cost of the conference itself, etc.

I really wouldn't think that sort of expense would be worthwhile for the bulk of indie games, which mostly don't make that much money to begin with. But it really depends on the circumstances, how confident you really are with your game, what sort of audience you're looking at, if you've got a unique enough "hook" to pull people in quickly (which you have to do at a trade show), and so on.

For the sort of games I create, where I tend to have more depth rather than an immediate hook, I'd have a hard time showing those effectively at a conference, so that's another reason I've avoided it. Sometimes it just depends on the specific game you're making at the time.

I imagine other indies can give you much better advice on conferences, though, all told. My experience with conferences is all from outside the games industry, working with either general technology or affordable housing conferences, and the rules of both of those are similar yet likely very different, I'm sure.

Good luck! And, Fox, good luck to you as well!