How to survive indie developer. Part 1

Note Perev .: Hello, dear habrovchane!

I want to share with you the story of indie developer Jake Birkett, told at the Independent Games conference in 2016. Jake's speech is a deeply personal, full of details story about a long and difficult path in the gaming industry. The translation was made from the video recording of the speech For all errors and inaccuracies, please write in a personal. Thank!

Part one

You are not elected, your game is not hit and you will never make it

Unfortunately, this is a frightening reality for most of us. And the sooner you recognize this fact, the sooner you begin to think about how to survive as an Indie developer. And the longer you are on the market, the more likely you are to make a worthwhile game and maybe, someday, release a hit.

Hi, I'm Jake Birkett and I'm an indie developer. I love making games. I came to development in India in 2005 and over the past time I made about a dozen commercially successful games, and recently released Regency Solitaire .

I love to make game jams for one game per month and release a dozen free mini games. I also founded the company Full Indie in Vancouver, this is an indie developer community of 3000 people. And we have a branch in the UK.

In search of a hit
  • Still with you after 11 years in indie
  • Released 10+ commercially successful games
  • Collected a lot of data
  • I also have a cat

There is a lot of talk about how to make a hit and what mistakes you can make along the way. There are many stories about people who have survived in the gaming industry for a long time and I am one of them.

I have released more than a dozen games, they are all made solo, with a yield from very poor to normal and good. During this time, I realized a couple of tricks that I want to share with you. I sincerely believe that the developer should concentrate on his game, and not work for others, and then I will explain why.

What I believe:

  • You have to concentrate on your game.
  • A long tail of sales is vital to success.
  • Adaptation and socialization are key to survival.

I believe that targeting long sales (Sales Distribution Curve) will help you better allocate resources and thereby achieve success.

Also, skills such as adaptation and specialization and their development are key abilities to build a business. My goal is to change your way of thinking: from “I want to make a hit,” to “I want to build a sustainable business.” Of course, this doesn’t sound as beautiful as we would like, but in reality it is much more realistic.

“No one can know absolutely everything” - Jeff Vogel

Legendary Jeff Vogel ( Jeff Vogel ) once said: “No one can know absolutely everything.” This once again proves the idea that there are no big secrets and silver bullets.

We all love to listen to beautiful stories of success, but no one wants to hear stories of failure, and this creates a not at all believable picture of reality. One example is the movie Independent Game: Cinema (Indie Game: The Movie) . Personally, I liked it. But I can hardly believe that several years of development and release of the game on the X-Box can guarantee success. Like it's a magic recipe for a hit.

The magic formula for game development success:

  • Make a good game
  • Add PR
  • Add contacts
  • Plus some magic

For years, I searched for a secret formula for success and often asked people who had achieved results, what, in their opinion, lies at its core. Some were honest and answered that they were just lucky and that they did not know what the reasons for success were. Others talked about PR, presentations and marketing, Youtube reviews and Twitch broadcasts.

But as you understand, the only correct answer does not exist. Of course, you can dream to be like John Romero ( the John Romero ). But the problem is that you are not. You did not grow in the same place where he did, did not attend the same school, did not develop the same skills. And of course, they didn’t release all those games that John released.

To be original you need to connect with a spark of inspiration, which is inside each of us. But you cannot do this if you try to become someone else.

So how do you determine success? I asked a lot about this community of developers and got completely different answers. Someone considers the very fact of the release of the game to be a success, and by the way, this is a really good start.

For some, success is the introduction of new techniques and features. Someone needs the game to be liked by them. And for some, with bloated ambitions, success is an opportunity to retire early, and only on Tesla. With me, by the way, this has not happened yet.

The most frequent answer I received: success is the ability to continue making games further. And our whole conversation is about that.

We all know what the fantasies of Indie developers are, but the reality is completely different. This is a very, very difficult job.

Reality Indie Development

Reality vs. Fantasy Indie Developers

Have you ever met a young and successful developer while you could barely make ends meet? I had to. And to maintain motivation in such difficult times is quite difficult.

There are much simpler things that we all could do. So why do we continue to do this? Because we love making games. This is what gives you the strength to do your favorite work for a very long time. And maintain courage even in the face of calamities such as the Indie Apocalypse.

You probably ask: Is there even such a beast as the Indy Apocalypse? I think yes. Look, the Indie Apocalypse has already happened in the past on different platforms. And of course it will happen in the future.

The market is changing very quickly. And if you adapt as quickly and continue to the goal of creating a sustainable business, you will surely succeed.

Let's take a little bit of the past. In 1984, I had my first computer; it came along with instructions on the basics of programming. So I began to make my first games.

Then I had an Amiga, I played a lot of games and it was the best time at the computer. In that era, the games were delivered in huge cardboard boxes, and I'm so glad that now you can just download the games.

At 20, I was in business software development. We did programs for the financial and accounting sector, which was quite a boring exercise.

In my free time I worked on my game - Iron Fist, Kung Fu Platformer. He worked every evening until four in the morning and all weekends. After a while, I realized that I could not go on like this. I began to turn into a zombie.

The Iron Fist Game

And when I had an early middle age crisis, I decided to quit my job and devote all my time to the game. At that time I did not have special savings, and we moved to a new home, and we had a second child.

My wife worked as a full-time mom. When I said that I was going to start developing games, she, thank God, supported me. But despite all her faith in me, I felt that in her eyes even a juggler profession would be a more reasonable choice in terms of earnings.

So I started working on my game all day and really enjoyed the process. But I soon realized that the amount of work was too great and would take an eternity to complete the game.

Also, I realized that there was no market for this game yet. Steam and X-Box live have not yet been invented, the cohesive community of indie players has not yet been played. And the portal for downloading games, was popular among casual players. Now I can make a game of this genre, but not then.

So I decided to freeze the game and start with a small project. The idea was to release the game, gain experience and take a new step based on the analysis of the data.

Bejeweled 2001

Acquainted with the game Bejeweled, I thought: aha, I can make a similar game, but with a different theme and differences in game mechanics. Probably, for you the genre “Three in a row” sounds completely uninteresting, but I really like it.

Xmas Bonus

So I released the Christmas version of the game "Three in a row" called Xmas Bonus. To save money, I used stock photos, sounds and music, as well as the font Comic Sans. This game was quite interesting to play, but it looked just awful.

As a result, earned 1,800 dollars. This is what I got in my hands minus all expenses and taxes. The most interesting thing about this is that the game is being sold even today.

Xmas Bonus sales schedule for 10 years

Having counted the entire economy, I received a figure: $ 6, 50 cents per hour for every hour of development. I can surely call it a failure. But the fact that I sold more than one copy of the game gave me the strength to continue working.

And I knew what I would do next.

Economy game Xmas Bonus. Sold 591 copies of the game. Costs $ 170. It took about 250 hours or $ 6.50 per hour (wig !!).

I used all my practices again and made an Easter version of the game. This time I didn’t take stock photos, but I paid for a pixel artist for pixel art. I think that many people like casual games for pixel art. Looking back, I understand how many mistakes I made. This game did not bring great results. Income amounted to almost $ 3,000 in 10 years. Another failure.

Economy game Easter bonus. Sold 558 copies. Costs $ 558. 185 hours spent. Earnings $ 12.75 per hour.

After such a “success” with the next two games, I did not earn any money at all. 18 months without income from game development.

In order to earn money on canned food, I was engaged in consulting. My wife was engaged in scientific copywriting and moonlighted at the university. And we juggled with an interest-free period on a credit card. They cashed out money from the card, and at the end of the grace period they extinguished the debt in order to start everything on a new one the next day.

We led a very economical life, did not go anywhere and did not have fun. It was still time. I would not recommend anyone to go the same way. This is my personal example of how the brain is looking for any opportunity to survive in difficult times.

To start any business you need time and resources. Even if you already have a dozen games, resources are still needed. You must be sure that you reach the finish line without selling your kidney along the way. To postpone a strong step, too, should not, many are engaged in this. Starting a business, you will go forward and your brain will work on solving the problems that arise.

After the release of the Easter bonus, I was contacted by one guy whom I, by the way, never met in person. He proposed to release the game “Three in a row” based on the book The Wizard of the Emerald City. Which, by that moment, has passed into the public domain. He was ready to pay for all the art, but I took upon myself the entire software part, we agreed to divide the profit in half.

Of course it was not the limit of my dreams, but it seemed he knew what he was talking about and I agreed. The game really shot very well. I switched to a new technology and made a new version of the engine. I then sold this engine on the developers forum for $ 50 and sold over 200 copies. People paid me money for the opportunity to help, correct mistakes and suggest how else can I improve my engine. It really surprised and pleased me.

The lesson I learned from this project is definitely worth spending money on graphics and audio. If you made a good game with good music and art, it will be sold much better. This of course does not always work at 100%. But I see confirmation of this in most cases. Interesting games with poor graphics and audio are not sold at all, players do not see value in them.

The sales schedule of the game The Wizard of the Emerald City for 9 years. The

second lesson was that during the life of the game, anything can happen to it. After 7 years since the publication, I made a mobile version of the game for the publisher and received a solid advance of $ 20,000, which surpassed all past profits. And the last five years, brought a completely new even greater income.

Economy game Wizard of the Emerald City. Sold 26.940 copies. Profit $ 90.000. Cost $ 0. It took 387 hours. Earn $ 100 per hour.

Overall, the game brought in $ 90000 of net profit, the cost on my part was $ 0. My income was about $ 100 per hour, but it took 9 years to make such a profit. In the first year, we earned only $ 20,000. Today it is a success, but the path to it took a lot of time.

Of course, I made a new version of the Christmas game “Three in a row” based on the new engine and this time with much better graphics. I persuaded my wife to allocate a budget of 2000 dollars, which I can spend on graphics and music.

Above the 3D objects worked as a designer who created a robot from the game Rise of Robots . He made just a chic 3D background. I had to finish the game very quickly - the Christmas holidays were about to go. This kind of deadline you can not just take and push. You cannot come to Santa Claus and ask him to postpone Christmas to February, because the development is late.

The game showed very good results. And as you might guess, sales peaks accounted for the Christmas holidays for over 9 years. And the last five years, the game was sold even better than at the beginning.

Every year I did a second promotion of the game. He wrote on the casual games forum with a request to repeat the advertisement. And I went to meet. Later, I made the localization of the game, which gave new opportunities for distribution. Doubled the number of levels and put the Gold logo on the game screensaver. After all, everyone just adore the Gold edition. So, I gave the game a new life.

Holiday Bonus marketing:

  • Repeated promotion every year
  • Publication on new portals
  • Localization
  • Logo Gold Edition

After the game, try to keep it alive in all possible ways. Of course, it makes sense to do promotion only as long as you have the strength and desire for it. It so happens that it is easier to let the game die.

Economy game Holiday Bonus. Sold 28.655 copies. Costs $ 2000. Spent on developing 464 hours. Earnings are $ 96,000 or $ 200 per hour.

The game did not take long to produce, but again, it took time to get big profits. The first year only 1000 copies were sold, and this is only 6% of the total profit. That is why it is important to think about the game in terms of long sales. I hope it will give someone the idea that you should not throw off the price of the game and include it in the bundles in the first year. Or maybe you shouldn't do it at all.

Choose only interesting contract work

Somewhere around this time, when I was desperate for money, Big Fish studio contacted me and offered me a contract job. I signed a contract, they gave me money, and I was able to pay off part of my debts. I worked on Fairway Solitaire for over a year with designer John Carter. The game became a hit of casual games and was later copied many times. A very popular game that is still played.

Playing Fairway Solitaire

Later I was invited to work on a couple more games. Including over the game Unwell Mel, where the player in the role of the doctor examines the throat of the sick Mel in search of food stuck in his throat.

Unwell Mel Game

The collaboration with Big Fish went so well that they called me to Vancouver. I discussed this with my wife and we came to the idea that the relocation would open up new opportunities for us, so we did. In Vancouver, we really liked.

The moral of this whole story is to choose a really cool job for hire. You probably know what a boring office job is. And all things being equal, it is better to choose something that not only corresponds to your skill, but will also be interesting to you personally.

In Vancouver, I continued to work on my projects: I developed games and negotiated with new publishing sites. I saw the collaboration with Big Fish as temporary. But at the same time I always understood that work in a software company, independent Game development and finally work in big fish were all important steps that gave me a lot of invaluable experience. I am sincerely glad that I agreed to move.

My father, a man who bought my first Spectrum computer back in 1984, died during my work in Vancouver. It was a big shock for me. I like to think that he would be proud of the success I achieved now. Although he would hardly have understood him.

At that moment, I began to overestimate my whole life. It was thoughts about my family, that the main thing in my life, where I spend my free time, what my long-term goals are. I began to learn to say “no” to different sentences. Well, you know, when you release a game on your mobile, you start getting all these monetization promotions. Or when the Steam game comes out, letters about the Great opportunity to give 5000 copies of the game begin to arrive.

We all want to earn more. And perhaps the idea of ​​including a game in a particular bundle will not seem so bad. But you have to see long-term goals and to proceed from the fact whether it will bring you long-term benefits. Every time, you have to ask yourself: is this in my strategic interests? If not, immediately remove this obstacle and continue to move on.

About the importance of uniting the Indy community

Full Indie

In Vancouver, I founded the company Full Indie. It happened in 2007, when I went to Birmingham, in the UK, to meet Indie developers. We met in the hotel lobby, and by four in the morning, we were already very drunk. The meeting was revolutionary for me. Finally, I could talk to the same developers who understood what I was thinking and what difficulties I went through.

The meeting gave me such a powerful charge of motivation that I decided to establish my company Full Indie in Vancouver. Today, our community holds monthly meetings for 3,000 people. We make game jams, and held 3 conferences. If you are in Vancouver be sure to go to us, we have a lot of interesting things.

Most people talk about working with social networks as a way to create a network of like-minded people. For me, this is a search for friends. Since I am the only employee in my company, I have neither HR nor PR departments. And the most effective solution for people like me is to be a member of such a community of indie developers. It really matters to me. Every time I organize gaming jams, meetings or conferences, I can pay much less attention to social networks.

One thing I understood quite clearly. It is important to share information and help people. Yes, you share your secrets, but at the same time you get secrets in return, and people turn to you more often. Over the years, I have advised both independent developers and large companies. And each time I received valuable information from them. And this is one of the reasons why I survived as an Indie developer, other successful developers helped me.

Unlike business development, where each developer keeps all information secret, we indie community does not compete, we cooperate.

The end of the first part

Note Trans.: Record of the speech came to me by chance from habrovchanina MrNixon . History hooked, and I decided to make a transcript and translation. Unfortunately, when 80% of the work was done, life circumstances distracted me from translation, almost a year. And today I am very happy, finally, to fulfill this old duty. I hope this story will be useful and inspiring for you.

By the way, my first game released was made over a year, although the real work was for a couple of three months. And while completing this article, I was once again convinced how right Jake was, speaking of resources, time and life, bringing about changes in our plans.

Thank you for reading and see you in Part Two .

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