A couple of weeks ago, IGN published a look at the renaissance in game development that’s happening in Australia right now. It’s very much being driven by a burgeoning independent scene, and the general mood in development communities in Australia is one of positivity. Even so, there are significant challenges in being an indie, not just in Australia, but anywhere in the world. Based on our discussions with developers and industry figures, this feature explores some of those challenges – focused mainly on iOS/Android development – and looks at the questions that independent developers are asking themselves in their quest to be successful.
“Creating a game has never been easier,” says Shane Brouwer of Initials Games, the creator of Super Lemonade Factory. “I can’t imagine the pain that went into setting bytes in assembly language or manually juggling memory on older systems like an Atari 2600 or ColecoVision. Now, you’ve still got technical hurdles, but for every problem, there is a tool or a forum post that’s going to get you through it.
“Distributing a game is, again easier than it’s ever been. If you choose digital distribution, everything is set up for you to just drop your game into. There is no longer a huge risk duplicating thousands of physical copies. I’m not the only one to figure this all out, judging by the current state of the App Store. It’s a crowded market, and to really stand out you’ve got to do something special, embrace social media, and be in the right place at the right time.”
As Brouwer notes, one of the biggest challenges is discovery. Let’s say you have an indie studio, which has made a quality game for iOS. You’re able to self-publish it, but how the hell do you get it in front of people? The App Store is an incredibly competitive place and games can easily be swallowed whole.
“Discovery is easily the number one problem we have,” confirms Tom Killen of The Voxel Agents, the team behind the Train Conductor games. “Distribution is of course entirely easy now with the App Store because you’re immediately out there, but solving that discovery issue is huge.”
The landscape for promoting mobile games is completely different to that of more established platforms. “We’ve discovered that traditional marketing, like PR and advertising and so on, really doesn’t drive games in the mobile space, in particular,” says Chris Wright, founder of Surprise Attack, an Australian marketing agency focused largely on the indie scene. “It fundamentally comes down to the product first and foremost. That’s where a lot of the work has to be, and keeping in touch with what the business models are. They’re now heavily free-to-play in terms of where all the money is, so we’re spending a lot of time trying to help indie developers use the business model without betraying their indie values.
“The straight-up 99 cents model is really hard to make money from for independent developers,” he continues. “It’s just so flooded with content, and good content, that even if your game is good, even if you get good coverage, you’re making so little per unit that it’s really hard to make a business out of that.” On the subject of free-to-play, Wright says, “People only pay in free-to-play games if the game is fun and they’re interested and getting a lot of value out of it. So it actually puts more focus back on the design.” Instead of success boiling down to whether the game gets noticed or not, it comes down to how good it is.
“Free-to-play gets your games out to the widest possible audience,” comments Morgan Jaffit of Defiant, the studio behind iOS hit Ski Safari, “but it’s definitely something we’re still learning our way around. The real appeal with F2P is that a game can provide an ongoing revenue stream over a longer period of time, so you get the chance to keep working on it and putting out content regularly, which is nice.”
Not only is there no barrier to entry within the free-to-play model, but it opens up other opportunities that don’t work as well within titles that have an initial price point. “There’s a lot of cross-marketing that works,” Wright explains, “so you put an ad in your game for someone else’s game and then they do the same. There’s a whole bunch of networks that do that. It costs you nothing and you start getting traffic from other games, and then it sort of cycles through. There’s a lot of techniques like that that you can do that aren’t necessarily intrusive to the player, but generates more people coming into the game.”
This also applies to studios with an established audience. The Voxel Agents, for instance, has been working in the mobile space for longer than most, with a number of very successful titles under its belt. “Having got on early, we’re at a bit of an advantage,” notes Tom Killen. “We’ve already got an established player base of a few million people, who – although we can’t email or direct market or anything like that – we can still put things in our games to cross-promote, or communicate with other developers and use that to cross-promote our products. So I think talking to established player bases is really important, and if you look at – I hate to admire Zynga – but the way Zynga cross-promote their games is quite effective, because they get a user base and really use that existing user base as one of their primary marketing avenues.”
The Voxel Agents uses cross-promotion to make the most of its player base.
Outside of cross-promotion, many titles live or die based on how visible they are within their marketplace, whether that’s the App Store, Steam, XBL or the Android Marketplace. “Talking to the media and putting up blog posts and that sort of thing does have some impact in getting our name out there, but really what it comes down to is whether or not you’re featured on the Apple Store,” Tom Killen confirms, in reference to iOS releases. “And that’s a little bit of a black box, you can’t really control that, but if you look at what Apple are looking to deliver to their consumers, then you can kind of help that process along. We’re always conscious of aligning what we’re doing with where we believe the iOS brand is headed, or what kind of features they’re bringing in.
“One of the major things people can do is to support features that are new on iOS,” Killen continues. “iCloud just came out fairly recently, for example, and so a whole bunch of games added iCloud support, and because of that Apple were likely to pick them up. It’s about embracing those features that Apple want to push. But then, what Apple want to do is give people a really nice experience, so making a really awesome, polished game that will get noticed by Apple, that’s always going to be the crux of it.”
“Something like a Ski Safari,” says Surprise Attack’s Chris Wright, “got a lot of support from Apple, and that kickstarted it into the charts, and now it’s stayed there. And that’s because that game is incredibly addictive and really polished… not because they did a hell of a lot of advertising or PR activity around it.”
Morgan Jaffit, whose studio created the game, agrees. “Ski was super, super polished which helped a great deal. Brendan [Watts, Defiant game designer] really understands gameplay, and is probably the best gameplay programmer I’ve ever met. The game was finished for months with him just focusing on polishing it up and improving the user experience until it was great. I think people understand that when they play, even if they can’t articulate why they’re enjoying it. It’s also got a lot of character and is a really forgiving experience. All told, the package is something that has really worked for people.”
In 2012, however, even a super-polished and playable title isn’t always enough to be noticed by the digital marketplace gatekeepers. The quality bar is incredibly high now. “In the early days of the App Store you could make a game in two months and put it up,” says Chris Wright. “Now the production values are getting so much higher, that people are spending more like four, five, six months to a year making a game, so the strategy of – get a game out, see if it works, if it doesn’t, make another one – is becoming increasingly hard for people to do. I mean, if you have a look at some of the games that are coming through now, these are [AUD] $200,000 or [AUD] $300,000 games that are being made, whereas in the early days you’re talking about [AUD] $10,000 or [AUD] $15,000 games being made. So it’s tough.
“It’s really hard to be certain about the market you’re operating in,” Wright continues, “because it is so crowded and there are so few things you can do to really push your game up, so it becomes about the product and taking that shot. A lot of the work we’re trying to do is for the studios that are trying to build a sustainable business, is trying to help them work out – okay, how do I make a game that’s going to work in that market? If it’s not free-to-play it at least has to have some good in-app purchase, so when we get somebody into the game there’s a chance that they might give us a bit more money.”
The latter approach has certainly worked for Uppercut Games‘ Epoch, even if it was a late addition. “We actually shipped without in-app purchase,” says Uppercut’s Andrew James. “We put it in about three months after we released, and found that that generates a significant amount of our revenue, even though it’s still a paid title. There are people who want to get the stuff without playing it for as long as you might need to, or just want to buy their way straight to the top tier of items. Even on a paid title it’s a significant revenue boost.”
Uppercut is still largely focused on Epoch, ten months on from launch.
Epona Schweer, the head of the Sydney chapter of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA), believes the key to indie success is founded in identifying gaps in the market paired with strong community activity. “If I know the niche market that I’m making a game for,” Schweer tells us, “I’m going to find them online, join those forums, join those groups, go to those meet-up groups, connect with my customers directly, and just start creating content for them directly, because they’re the people who are going to value it. That’s the blogging model and that’s the Etsy model, and that’s the online, start-up creative business model for everyone outside the games industry, and that works really well.”
This approach, Schweer believes, helps indies avoid competing within a completely saturated market. “Think of it in terms of evolution,” she says. “You’ve got a finite resource, and our finite resource right now is players’ time. You’ve got these huge, incredibly well-evolved predators who currently have most communities covered… If you were a new entrant into this particular ecosystem, the only way to go after what they’re going after is to do it better than them, and they’ve got more time, more money and more people than you.”
Instead of competing, Schweer says, find the players who are being ignored by the big predators servicing the existing genres/communities. “There’s still a lot of player time out there that’s not being satisfied,” she says. “Start with the players who don’t have the games they want to play. Start satisfying them… don’t start doing what other folks with more money and time are already doing really well. Start by taking care of players. Because you can take care of a player out there who’s being ignored by other developers, just because of the weird bundle of skills, interests and things that you’ve picked up over your life.
“An example of this is Tin Man Games,” Schweer continues. “They’re doing Gamebook Adventures. They started with sort of a classic iOS game and it flopped a bit, like most indie studios. And then they sat down and said, well, what kind of games do we actually want to have exist that don’t exist yet? Choose Your Own Adventure! They loved that… and they’re like – we reckon there’s people out there who also want that old school Choose Your Own Adventure thing, and they’re now grown up and they’re making some cash, and they’re sitting on trains, and they have iPads, but they don’t have games to play. And sure enough, they found them. They found these guys on forums, and they found these guys online and at PAX, and they started making books… for them. And they’re growing! The success was really small at first, but now they’re getting more writers and more folks and becoming a publishing house for Choose Your Own Adventure games! They found that group of players that were being totally underserved.”
“The commonalities amongst all the successful indie stories,” Schweer tells us, “is they all had a business model that didn’t exist yet. Notch didn’t go out and say – alpha funding’s really popular, I’m going to do that. The business model sort of grew… if you’re hooked in with your fans from really early days like that, they’re going to help you… the business models will grow out of that seed that is the new experiences that you’re going to create, which I think is really interesting.”
Notch didn’t go out and say ‘I need to give people a way to build enormous shrines to Pokemon.’ Or did he? (Image from bluecarseat on Deviant Art.)
Of course, for indies hoping to make games full time, there’s also the question of seed funding. Even for the smallest teams, there are expenses that need to be managed. How do indie studios bankroll their business? What should the role of governments be in supporting and fostering this scene? Can the likes of Kickstarter provide a source of funding for unknown studios? Do we need more indie incubator programs?
In the case of the Australian scene, there are a number of avenues for indies to get financial support, either small, one-off contributions to help defray the expense of attending conferences like GDC or PAX, or a stipend to pay for bare essentials as a team gets up and running. This is by no means something that can be relied upon, however, and in fact, Film Victoria, which had hitherto been instrumental in supporting independent development, has recently had its funding cut.
So what other options are there? One of the biggest success stories of 2012 has been Kickstarter funding, and a number of high profile projects have raised a great deal of capital. One has to wonder, however, just how hard it is for teams that aren’t pitching a revolutionary idea or involved with well-known games or developers to make an impact via Kickstarter. Is it viable for everyone? In many ways, it comes back to the issue of discovery.
“Kickstarter, just like the App Store, Steam etc – is going to be predisposed to benefiting those that are already established, like Double Fine etc,” Surprise Attack’s Chris Wright tells us. “This is just because they already have a reputation and resources. So their existing fan base can be mobilised and media are happy to write about the projects.
“However, these more open platforms also have the ability to lift people out of obscurity and into the spotlight if they have amazing ideas. The Pebble Watch is a good example. I think Kickstarter is an amazing platform for indie devs,” he continues. “They can raise significant amounts of funding – certainly the same size or greater than the government grants available to them – and also build an engaged fan base along the way to launch.
“But just like the App Store, it’s not as simple as you put a project up and it gets funded. Access to the funding market doesn’t mean you get funding, just like access to a distribution channel doesn’t mean people will buy your game.”
There are other factors to consider when going with Kickstarter too. “When you create a campaign on Kickstarter you need to have solved many elements of your concept already,” says Simon Joslin of The Voxel Agents. “It’s almost like selling the game as if it already exists, which is akin to the publisher model where you have already determined the unique selling points of your gameplay, theme and marketing. I imagine that… you have less room to move with your ideas as your funding community is expecting what you initially sold them. If you want to change it drastically you may accidentally remove what your community was initially sold on.
“The way we’re built at the moment doesn’t work with Kickstarter or publishers because our ethos is built around discovering ideas in the process of game development itself,” he continues. “We discover what we’re making as we make it. It’s a highly adaptive process, with many iterations around a single idea. Another factor for us is that certain types of games are best kept secret until launch day. I don’t think the early concepts of Train Conductor, Fruit Ninja or Draw Something should have been made public until they were finished games. We’re working on two games at the moment I wouldn’t share openly. They are brilliant in their simplicity, and therefore easy to replicate.
“While it might not be for us, many studios are currently making excellent use of Kickstarter funding and if you’re configured in the right way, it could be absolutely perfect for you. Highly visual games, narrative driven games, or anything crowd sourced are well suited for Kickstarter. Of course being famous would also make you a good fit for it too.”
Timing is key too. “When we’ve been working on Kickstarter projects for studios we’ve really struggled to get much coverage,” says Chris Wright. “We actually advise clients to announce their games first and start building some momentum before they try to raise money via Kickstarter.”
Nothing, then, is simple when it comes to the indie scene. But the fact that there are more questions than answers, that this a bold new frontier, and that – while not everyone will make it – those that do have the potential to find not only success, but to change the fabric of the industry as a whole, well, that’s pretty damn exciting, right?
Source : feeds[dot]ign[dot]com