How To Create Successful Independent Games

It might be iPhone 5 release day, but not every game developer wants to build for Apple's small screens and restrictive rules. If you're a budding game mogul, how can you choose the right platform, and how can you ensure your game actually gets noticed?

Picture by Juergen Schwarz/Getty Images

That issue was the topic of a panel discussion at the Freeplay independent games festival in Melbourne today. Most of the principles it raised are relevant no matter what platform you might want to build for, and despite the theme, iOS wasn't totally excluded from the discussion. Indeed, Steam came in for just as much criticism as Apple when it comes to arbitrary rules and the challenge of making yourself visible above the fray. We've picked out the highlights from the discussion (a lot more than this got said over the course of the session!).

On the panel were Nicholas Watt, creative director for Nnooo, which has built titles for Wii, PS Vita and 3DS including escapeVector; Andrew Goulding, whose one-man studio Brawsome is perhaps best known for MacGuffin's Curse and Jolly Rover; Scott Riesmanis, managing director of games distribution platform Desura; and Thuyen Nguyen, personalisation and apps manager for Telstra Digital Media retail face and a former games designer.

What are the challenges when developing for a curated platform (like Steam or a console) rather than an open platform (like Android or iOS)?

Andrew Goulding: It's really important to look at the audience that's on that platform. You have to make a game for the audience. If you were going to target Steam, you wouldn't make a game like Angry Birds because it's not big enough for that audience You can make whatever you like on PC. Actually, iOS is kind of a curated platform, because while they take everything, they really focus on certain titles. You have to look at the strengths of the platform and the particular audience, and if you can get those two things right you've got a chance.

Nicholas Watt: Obviously iOS is easier to get on. Curated platforms are harder to get on. Even Steam which has a lot of indie games has a bigger procedure. You need to bear that in mind and set your expectations. It's not going to be easy.

Scott Riesmanis: I think more relevant than a curated platform is building a game that suits the platform. If youre building a game for the PC, you want it to feel like a PC game. We get tons of people submitting iOS games [for Desura] and we always reject them. PC gamers expect a different experience. Whether it's curated or not is irrelevant really. Build a game for the platform and you'll have a better chance of being curated.

Nicholas Watt: Quality is really important. The popular titles on any platform are the ones that have had a lot of time and love. Even if you're a small company or an individual, you should still be trying to build for the best experience. Don't just make something you can get out there as quickly as possible.

Andrew Goulding: If you've got a strong brand that helps you get on any curated platform. If you've got a big game on iOS, then the platform holders of something like Android will approach you to get your content on there. In the case of Steam, if you've gone to the IGF and won an award and have 50,000 followers, then you've got a strong brand and that will help.

Thuyen Nguyen: You have to think about the curators themselves. They're the ones who choose what's going to be on the system. For app stores, which are constantly getting new product, if you think about what they're choosing to get onto the front page, something as simple as 'it's Christmas time and you're game is about Christmas' matters. Promotions and marketing are always trying to leverage stuff that's already happening. Sometimes it's hard to figure out. Apple has not been as transparent as they should be, and sometimes they reject things they shouldn't have, but you have to try and think of them.

Nicholas Watt: Don't expect to have your first project go out and be amazing. You're probably going to make some mistakes in the beginning, so make those as quickly as you can. If you make a game you thin k's amazing and it doesn't go anywhere, it's going to be quite devastating for you.

How can you stand out on a curated platform?

Thuyen Nguyen: If you can create some kind of personal rapport, the people behind the platform are more likely to remember you. Get into peopkle's faces. Not too much. You don't want to be the guy who is annoying. But you've got to make a good impression and facilitate what the platform-holder needs.

Scott Riesmanis: It's amazing: developers will spend two years on their game and toil away in silence, and then they'll spend four days emailing sites and press to get it up. Make it as easy as possible for the person that you're contacting to see your game. Send the best screenshots you can. Try to provide all the detail without making a really long email. You've got to find that happy medium. Developing is what you like and what you enjoy doing, but it's only 20 per cent of the battle.

Thuyen Nguyen: Remember you're dealing with businesses, not fellow gamers. You have to bring a certain degree of professionalism to it. Spell check! It's not hard, but the mistakes you make have a bigger impact. You have to treat it a little bit like a job interview. You are dealing with money.

Andrew Goulding: Be careful about trying to get on more platforms than you can support. If I fix a spelling mistake in MacGuffin's Curse, it takes me a whole day to get it out on all the platforms. Even just uploading takes a long time in Australia . . . Supporting a platform is a relationship, and how many relationships can you actively support?

Steam's Greenlight scheme costs $100 merely for consideration. Is that worthwhile for developers?

Scott Riesmanis: Greenlight's interesting because a lot of indie developers thought it was going to be great, but Steam still hasn't changed how many indie games they release in a period . . . It looks like they're just going to authorise a handful of games every month. They're picking five games a month from a pool of 1000 or more. You've got very little chance or guarantee of it being green-lit. It's no longer in the hands of how well you can schmooze the Valve people.

I think it's a worthwhile investment [though]. If you can't afford $100 to give your game a crack at getting on Steam, you need to revisit your priorities. A question of $100 shouldn't be the issue; it's more how you can properly organise your strategy to get on Greenlight . Games on Greenlight do get a lot more traffic due to the sheer size of the discussion.

Is it better to target new platforms or existing successful ones?

Nicholas Watt: That depends what you've done to date so far. Console manufacturers aren't easy to get licensed to. Finding console contacts is quite difficult for starters. They're quite closed and they're used to dealing with really big publishers. It's the same as Greenlight really. The reason they have $100 is they want the same sort of attitude behind your game. They need to make sure they're not just wasting time and effort.

Andrew Goulding: I think targeting any new platform that is just coming out is a risk, but when you take a risk there's a potential there's going to be a big reward.

Nicholas Watt: If you could be a launch title on Ouya, that could be great if you do something relatively low risk. If you look at launch titles, it's not like they do something really risky and innovative. People buy this machine and they want new content. On day 1 they're like 'I just want to buy things.

Is selling through bundles a good strategy?

Scott Riesmanis: Bundles do help you build that player base pretty quickly, especially for good multi-player games. It's a good way to drum up sales in a small period of time. It's a good way to get critical mass and a little bit of sales and attention, and it's a good way to raise a little bit of funds, but it shouldn't be your only strategy.

Andrew Goulding: Bundles are all about getting your game out to people. The hit that you take financially is, I think, justifiable. I make more money out of bundles than regular sales. 80 per cent of my revenue comes from bundles. Getting the game out there is really important. I don't think bundles devalue your game so much as putting it on sale.

Should you hire a marketing company and focus on the development?

Scott Riesmanis: You get a much more authentic voice as an indie developer when it's coming from the person creating the game. Don't worry about people stealing it. You probably can't afford the marketing anyway, and you get a pretty generic message if you use a marketer.

Nicholas Watt: It can work. iPhone is a pretty good place to do that, because there's so much competition there. But our fans respond well to the fact they feel engaged with us.

Andrew Goulding: What you're buying is their relationships and their contacts and their time. But for your first title, you probably don't have that relationship. Your best way of doing marketing is a blog.

Republished with permission from Lifehacker Australia.


Comments

    Heh, what does the picture of Nerchio up at the top have anything to do with this post?

      Gaming ... duh! lol

    It's someone playing a game...?

      It's someone playing Starcraft 2. A pro player playing Starcraft 2. I'm not sure what that's got to do with indie games and selling games on Steam.

        No clue, maybe they picked that image to represent what the end result of a successful indie game should look like: Someone playing it. At a Starcraft convention.

        Maybe they have a deal with that guy where they have to show his photo every so often.

    How To Create Successful Independent Games is like the Idiot's Guide to Successful Indie Movies. Before you know it, every film student would be making gritty crime movies with tonnes of F-bombs. There's no formula to getting lightning to hit twice so stop pretending there is.

    What? Freeplay? How did I miss it this year? Can't believe I didn't even know it was on.

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