Five golden rules (for newbie indies)

Discussion in 'Indie Basics' started by Jack Norton, Jul 28, 2010.

  1. Jack Norton

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    I thought to make a post on my blog trying to summarize the 5 best tips which I hope can be useful to newbies.
    Since I don't have adsense or links to sell, I can post the whole content here, diffferently from what some people usually do ;)

    1. keep your IP / retain control - seriously, everyone agrees on this. Cliff posted about it a while back on his blog, and I want to reiterate this concept. There are SO many examples of people carelessly giving up their IP (Intellectual Properties) to find out a big company XYZ had made a fortune from what they just sold. So, if you think you have a good IP, think twice before selling it. Or ask for some big money upfront :)
      Also: whatever tool you use, be sure that you have FULL CONTROL over it. Some examples: you can let a portal carry your downloadable game, but be sure that you agree with their terms. If they’re going to sell it at $6.99, you won’t have much success trying to sell it directly at $19.99.
      Another example: someone just published a new platform to build games online easily. Awesome! But does that platform let you publish the games ON YOUR SITE? No? Then, it’s not that great. Remember that promoting YOUR site, building up YOUR mailing list, YOUR fans, will let you survive even through really tough periods (like this year of crisis). See Jeff Vogel posts about getting “1000 true fans”. Also, don’t forget that if you build up your site, you can later resell the domain if has enough traffic / relevance.
    2. marketing – this is a very controversial point. I see to many people wanting to burn thousands dollars investing in a marketing firm or simply Google Adwords. It’s a wrong choice and I tell you why: marketing/advertising works but ONLY in certain situation you’ll get a decent ROI (return of investment). Example: a MMO. The nature of MMO, with his increased revenues per user, makes advertising much more viable than trying to promote a single-player-downloadable game. I get decent ROI from ads because over the year I built a catalog of SEVERAL games. So people that come to my site from a Spirited Heart banner, might end up buying also Flower Shop and/or Vera Blanc. It is not uncommon to see same person buy 3-4 games at once. Now what would happen instead if I had just ONE game for sale? Probably wouldn’t recover the costs. In the beginning, the best thing you can do is either release several games or partner with some affiliates.
    3. partnership & affiliates – Affiliates can be PURE GOLD: find someone that has a similar user-base (sells similar games to yours) and ask if he is interested in selling your game. Or, look if he is affiliating his games. I regularly promote other people’s games in my newsletter and I get a nice chunk of cash from affilite sales, plus I remind people of my site and sometimes they even end up buying games of mine (it’s really like if they forgot about them, and sendind a newsletter about other games reminded them!). Also, build up relationships with fellow indies. Over the years I got to know some people and now I have several business relationships with many of them. I did games together with Phelios, with Hanako, with Sakevisual. We didn’t even need a contract, because everyone had a reputation to keep (of course, be careful about people you just met). We exchange tricks and tips, and we keep updated about the latest news. What you learn through those relationship is often priceless. It’s a pity that not many people see the enormous potential in doing partnership and affiliate other developer games, especially niche games!
    4. differentiate / experiment – I started making sports games, then RPG, then simulations, then wargames, and now visual novels, dating sim… unless you have a fixation for one specific genre, and unless that genre gives you good sales (in this case would be pretty stupid to try another!) you should really try to differentiate. In my example I’m talking about game genre: another way is to change platforms (iphone, android, flash) or system (microtransaction, social games). I’ve heard so many stories of people that changed completely field and made a fortune…
    5. no epic projects – this is true especially when doing the first games. Doing an awesome 3d space battle should be done ONLY AFTER you built up a good catalog of games and lots of experience in doing indie games. I’m not saying that they should be avoided: only that if you go for the “big hit”, it can work but can also be a “big miss”, so you could end up with a unfinished game (because you’re burned) or run out of funds, or simply have to get back to daily work and then not have time to market it properly, and so on.

    You agree/disagree? What are your 5 golden rules?
     
  2. Applewood

    Moderator Original Member Indie Author

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    I agree on number 5)

    Strongly disagree on the IP thing. If you're not making any money from it, it really doesn't matter if EA could make a million out of it - either way you get no cash in your own pocket. If you do make lots of money from it, the whole thing is moot, or should be!

    In fact, if you develop a strong IP then this is probably you're only real asset, so don't give it away but for sure try to sell it for big cash to fund something else done better next time. Unless you can make more yourself of course, cover this when there's an option.

    Also sort of disagree with the differentiation thing. It does make sense as a long term goal, but I think in all likelihood you'd do better by spending that long time developing a really strong brand in some genre or other and keep on servicing that.

    I'm not really a true indie yet, so take this with a pinch of salt. But my only golden rule is don't make a PC game. If your definition of success is selling a handful of games per month then PC makes sense as it's easy to do. However, if you're trying to make a proper working wage, comparable with an employed position doing similar things, then you have almost no chance of that. (Especially if you're one of the people who is unsure about direction and reading stuff like this.)

    We've had a couple of what I consider to be epic fails making indie games for non-pc platforms, but they've still covered "proper wages" for their dev time and netted a few orders of magnitude beyond the figures I regularly see people trotting out here, for PC titles that actually look pretty good!

    This thread could get interesting, I promise to behave... :)
     
    #2 Applewood, Jul 28, 2010
    Last edited: Jul 28, 2010
  3. Maupin

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    #5 should be #1.

    It catches up every newcomer to indie game development. After all, who wants to start on anything less than their dream game?

    And a bunch of game devs who are already making games and worked their way up from successively smaller projects only to advise you to follow the same path just don't understand that you are different, driven, a genius among beginning programmers and can make your Alligators vs. Haunted Houses MMORPG as a first project.
     
  4. Jack Norton

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    Maupin: they're not in importance order, forgot to say that :)
    Applewood: well I wrote, that for the right offer, you can sell it. If the game isn't doing well, I believe nobody would be interested in buying IPs :)
    Also your example about same game doing different on other platform is actually an example of "differentiation" IMHO.
    I never tried other platforms beside Pc/Mac/Linux: you did and make good money. That is differentiation/experimenting.
    Nexic was doing singleplayer offline downloadables and now went to flash MMO. Etc etc :)
     
  5. luggage

    Moderator Original Member Indie Author

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    I agree with Applewood on the IP thing. If you sell your IP you have to presume the other company is going to make decent cash off it - it's why they're buying it after all.

    That's not to say give your IP away, but you have to sit back and consider if the deal is a good one. Because it involves your IP it doesn't automatically make it a bad one.
     
  6. tentons

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    On IP, if you don't have a plan for it, then there's nothing lost in selling it. It's only valuable if you know how to exploit it commercially, and that means having some long term plans other than the one game you just made. IP means "franchise" which is what people with the money want. You have to think of it that way.

    This is really just saying that you need to have a business model and a plan to execute it. I think that's among the top things new indie's trip on and break their faces. If you don't like business and you don't like marketing, don't try to make a living doing those things. Indie games as a full-time endeavor is at least half business and marketing.

    Many pitch it, but no publisher will "take care of sales and marketing while you focus on the game." It doesn't work like that because nobody but YOU has your best interests in mind. They will do the business side of it and then take all the profits for the trouble. The fact that you know nothing about business just helps them get you in those nefarious claws. So, either study really hard and learn (and practice!) or keep your day job.

    I've learned a ton about business and marketing through non-game related ventures, and I think it will make all the difference in the long run.
     
  7. GolfHacker

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    When I read #1, the first thing I thought of was Diner Dash and how its creators sold the IP and PlayFirst made a fortune off it. I think that's a good example of what Jack is getting at with #1.

    I agree with most of Jack's points. I can think of a few exceptions to #5 (like "Eschalon: Book 1" by Basilisk Games), but in general it probably is the bane of most would-be indies. I know in my own experience, I started a dozen epic projects and never finished any of them. It wasn't until I finished a couple of smaller games (Fashion Cents and Word Play) and published them that I was able to work on something bigger (Dirk Dashing) and actually finish it. One thing I would add to #5 is that the experience you get with actually finishing a small game and selling it is invaluable and will help make your bigger game more successful.

    One thing that's missing from the list is customer service. This comes after you've finished your first game, of course, but it is still a valuable tip. Cliffski has wrote about it a lot, and it's been discussed off and on here in the forums. But this is one of the best opportunities you have to stand out from the AAA companies, and one of the best tools you have to build a loyal customer base. I can't tell you how many times I've had players over the years who have had technical issues and written me angry e-mails, and I've been able to turn them into some of my best customers by going out of my way to help them out.

    Oh yeah, another thing that is missing is this: when you're ready to sell your game, get yourself a proper web site. I see too many newbies trying to sell their game from their blog. It looks very unprofessional, and doesn't inspire people to buy from you. Spend a little time and money to set up a proper web site, with a professional-looking layout, company logo, and graphics.
     
  8. Chris Evans

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    I just wanted to also co-sign on #5.

    If you already have decades worth of experience developing AAA games, then you might be able to pull off an "Epic" for your first indie title. But even then it's probably not wise. Fresh faced designers/programmers may not understand how to create a quality/poished game initially, but many of the veterans tend to get hung up developing their own engine or getting too obsessed with the technology instead of focusing on the actual game with their first indie titles.

    So I would like to add a Golden Rule

    Be Open to Middleware/RAD Tool

    We all have our favorite tools and engines and we tend to be prejudice against the other ones we aren't using. But you need to be careful not to become overly loyal to your tool or programming language when it's really about the games and the end-product.

    Most of us here are 1-3 man shops, so being able to develop games quickly is imperative. Developing games quickly is crucial because it increases your ROI, allows you to adjust quicker to the market, reduces burnout, and it helps awareness by keeping your name out there if you can release games regularly.

    Yet time and time again you'll see some people have such contempt for middleware or RAD tools. If it can't do XYZ then it's rubbish. Obviously you should use a tool or programming language you're comfortable with, but always be open to other options, which could dramatically expand your distribution points or open up new markets to you. Also most end-users won't know and won't care about the tech behind the game. They just want it to work.

    This is an addendum to Jack's #2....

    Have an actual marketing budget/plan

    Most Hollywood movies always include a marketing budget within their overall budget of the movie. They know it's not enough just to make a movie. Even if it's starring Tom Cruise, they do all kinds of publicity to get the word. Whereas indie game devs will spend thousands on art assets and programming tools, but they'll hesitant to spend even $50 on marketing.

    Yes, advertising is a tough cookie to crack but there's more to marketing than advertising. Within your marketing budget, you could produce some very nice press kits and brochures that you could send out to journalist. It's easy for them to ignore some random e-mail from an unknown company. It's harder for them to ignore a physical notebook binder with game information, nice screen shots, and media files.

    The Marketing budget could include paying a good company or contractor to redesign your website.

    The Marketing budget could include sponsoring a wide variety of contests or competitions just to get your name out there. Or you could sponsor flash games to generate traffic to your site.

    The point is you should give yourself enough of a marketing budget where you can experiment. What works for others might not work for you, but you might find something else, which has great results.

    Which leads me to....

    Copying someone else's Formula of success rarely works

    I could make a HOG, an iPhone game, Zombie flash MMO, or a Social FB game and all of them could flop even if I copy verbatim the surface details. I know many of us look at a game and think, "I could make that! If I make a better looking version, I'll make 2x the money!"

    But there are a lot of little intangibles that go into successful games, which make it very hard to repeat their success (or even get a fraction of it). Market conditions being the biggest. Timing is EVERYTHING. You may be able to improve upon an existing successful game, but you can't replicate the timing in which they entered the market. Market conditions may be drastically different when you finally finish your game.

    Also some successful people don't necessarily fully understand why they're successful. Sometimes we just get lucky. :) So always be careful what advice you listen to. Even successful people may tell you things that may be wrong for your business. Just try to get as much info as possible from a wide variety of sources and piece it together yourself.
     
  9. vjvj

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    Great list! I'd definitely like to see a little more expansion on the marketing point; a lot of discussions seem to turn into binary "advertise vs. don't advertise" arguments that can make a newbie feel like they have to make a choice. There are lots of gray areas that don't fit the traditional definition of advertising that, IMHO, still qualify as "marketing" (like the aforementioned "1000 fans" concept). They're really useful lessons for new guys (myself included), especially those who aren't interested in working with portals.

    EDIT: Chris, you read my mind :)

    Right, but I think what people are getting at is that holding on to the IP doesn't necessarily translate to equivalent success. Like if Playfirst had held on to the IP and chosen to grow the franchise themselves, it obviously wouldn't have done as well without all that big $$$ backing it. Of course, Betty's Beer Bar is a great example of what could have been possible for them if they had made different decisions. So it's really like anything else; weigh your options and understand why you're making your decision.

    I know you know this already, just clarifying for the future newbies reading this thread :)
     
  10. Reactor

    Moderator Original Member Indie Author

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    You don't need decades of experience, but yes, for the vast majority there's certainly wisdom is testing the waters first before dive-bombing right on in.

    Oops :)
     
  11. Jack Norton

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    Hah, this is really a good one! Since I tried myself with USM1/2, thinking like a fool "if I copy Championship Manager, I only need 1% of their sales to be successful!
    Looks like I was wrong :D
     
  12. cyodine

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    So many games in my head.. so little time. I want to differentiate if nothing else to avoid burn out, but it's also good having a brand. Decisions, decisions. I guess the middleware route can help with differentiating via different platforms at least.
     
  13. tentons

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    That's a good one, especially for one-man-shops who are very "engineering" oriented and want to make all their own tools from scratch. For them, that's the fun part of the process. Being one person, it's more important than ever to cut as many corners as possible (without compromising too much quality) because you have so many things to get done.

    Others prefer a specific tool or language and won't change despite the fact that they could have more success if they did. I know a lot of people like this.

    Mr. Norton, Flash has its weaknesses and Python kicks ass (I love it, too), but you're gonna make things a lot easier on yourself if you just get over it. :) Being hung up on technology is a bad reason to limit your potential, because it's so easy to fix.
     
  14. electronicStar

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    I see there is a thread with a list of devellopers looking for affiliate vendors, but is there a list of affiliate portals with their niche genre? if not that should exist.
     
  15. Bad Sector

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    Hey, all we have left from this process is the fun. How could you even think recommending that we stop having fun? :)
     
  16. Jack Norton

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    Lol I know, but to be honest isn't just AS3, but basically any other language except Python seems so poor, verbose and complex :)
    I am actually waiting to see what happens next for webgames, I think in the next few years there might be some revolution (webGL, HTML5, or something new).
    If I was making a webgame right now I would probably use JS as language...
     
  17. CasualInsider

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    I agree with this thread. I have a few thoughts.

    Don't sell IP. Don't work for other people or companies on games you don't own. Expect to work a year + on your game. Expect to have to pay people for them to actually get work done, and expect to need at least 20k minimum to make a barely exceptional game with a very tight budget (it's possible to make a game with just your time but you will have to learn a lot of extra skills to get the job done). Don't hire anyone until you have guaranteed cash flow. Do everything you possibly can on your own which you are good at doing. Delegate work to others which you are not good at (via commissioned). Learn about Internet marketing! (If the price of your game doesn't end in 7 then you're doing it wrong.) Don't partner with anyone even if it's someone you trust (sometimes you will get lucky like I did, but I know too many others who were not) - it's better to own the company and decide your own future. Build direct customer base (1000 true fans). Don't be hasty to jump on portals, but when and if you decide to from my experience it's best to get your game on every portal out there no matter how many contracts you have to sign. Don't ever consider getting married. Don't ever publish a release date for your game until it is already finished, but always keep pushing yourself to finalizing it. Read Rework. You will go through dark times, but always remember that life isn't too serious and that more likely than not the future will be brighter. Keep learning, work hard and never give up.
     
  18. papillon

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    ... How would I possibly manage to get all this coding done and stay alive without a husband to wash the dishes, clean the house, handle the mail, and yell at people over the phone for me?

    Spouses are USEFUL! They're employees you don't have to pay! I wish I had more of them!
     
  19. Applewood

    Moderator Original Member Indie Author

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    You could do that easily, though you might have to wait a few years before putting them up the chimneys! :)
     
  20. DaveGilbert

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    I'm with papillon. My wife is a programmer and she's helping me full time now!
     

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