Derek asked me if I'd write something up for the business forum when he started it, but I've been pretty busy recently and it took far longer than I expected.
This is pretty much some collated notes that I've told other new developers when they've spoken to me. I recently had some of it quoted back to me by a game marketing guy - so it must get around! I should note that this is pretty funny, because I don't consider myself an indie games business guru. Although maybe anyone who has been around for more than a few years without winding up in the gutter covered in their own vomit actually is
considered a guru in the shareware games business
Anyway, since it's been pulled together from various emails, it does meander a bit and possibly some of it doesn't make sense - so I apologise for the rough state it's in. Let me know if I need to clarify anything.
So, here's where I'm
I work at Moonpod, which is one programmer and one artist (me) and a dog called Sunny. We've just finished our second game (Mr. Robot), and we've been up and running since November 2002.
The reason I mention this regards my first tip:Take all advice in context.
When we started, I used to hang out on the Dexterity forums (now the indiegamer forums), which was the
place to learn about building up a shareware games business. I was very much in awe of all the senior members - they always had something to say, and some of them had post counts in the thousands - so surely they knew what they are talking about? Well, not quite. There are a lot of people who want
to be indie developers, and have been trying to finish their first game for years. That doesn't stop them posting on forums. Within a few months of releasing our first game, most of what I had thought to be true turned out to be complete bollocks. If I'd have been posting before we had a game out, I'd have been talking a lot of rubbish. On top of that, everyone has their own agenda and circumstances. Some people are making puzzle games and chasing portals, some people direct sell, some people are running portals. They probably have the best intentions (you'll find most indie developers are incredibly helpful and very friendly), but you have to remember what works for them might not work for you. Lastly, some developers will shout loudly that they have made loads of sales, but with a bit of research you might discover that they live in a very poor country and getting 10 sales a month means they live like a king and can have their pick of girls in the village.
Essentially, what you need to do, is take all advice in context. Any developer worth their salt will have a weblink under their name - so check them out. Are they making the same kind of games you are? Do you think their games are any good? If they haven't finished a game then don't take their advice on anything business related. If they don't have a web link, then you should take any advice with a pinch of salt.
For the same reason - check out what we've done at www.moonpod.com
before you listen to what I have to say. I'm no expert, I'm still learning, and there's vast areas of this business I still have no experience in, but hopefully, some of what I have to say will stop others from making the same financially disastrous mistakes we have made!Casual or Indie?
I hate pigeon holes (and pigeons for that matter, although the little bastards seem to love my car) but for the sake of discussion, I'm calling the kind of games you (generally) see on portals "casual"
and anything else "indie"
. A lot of people who think they're cool like to take pot-shots at the casual industry because of rampant cloning, and because many of the games are pretty shallow but well presented. My colleague Mark likes to call this 'polishing turds'
, and likes to point out that the result of polishing turds all day is that you smell of shit. I am middle-aged and white and thus by definition not cool so I won't take pot-shots at the casual industry. I will however say that there is a lot for everyone
to learn from casual development. Many of the most professional developers work in the casual sector. Casual games are usually playtested much better, and have more ergonomically sound user interfaces. It also seems to be where the real money is if
you can get it right. New indies really need to understand these two shards of the downloadable games space, as they require different approaches.
Developing for the casual games space has it's pros and cons - you don't have to worry about doing your own marketing (hurrah!) which leaves you plenty of time to just concentrate on making games. However, you are at the whim of portals - and whilst there's no one out there trying to deliberately screw you, their business goals inherently aren't going to be in your favour. Portals have lately started to concentrate on advertising revenue. The result of this is that they aren't too concerned about pushing any particular game for any length of time. They are more interested in having lots of games out regularly. Many portals now release one game a day - does that sound good for developers?
Indies on the other hand have more freedom and potentially more security long term, but it's a far more difficult path to take, and let's face it, it's hard enough just developing games without worrying about payment processing, customer support and marketing.
If you want to work as a part time indie, or you are a solitary developer (and so won't have much time on your hands) then letting portals take care of all the payments is probably the way to go. Casual games are much harder to sell from your own site in any case.
If you are developing a non-casual game, then you probably need to think about setting yourself up for direct sales so that you'll have that income in addition to anything else that might happen.
As for me, I'm ashamedly an indie developer and so a lot of what I say may not apply to the casual game business model. Everything you read below is targeted at fellow indie developers.Your income =.
So, you've finished your game, and it's pretty good. Good games sell themselves right? Wrong! When we were making Starscape, we thought we'd hopefully get a few publishing deals on budget labels, mention the game in a couple of places, and everything would be all right. As it turned out, budget publishing is a quagmire of medallion wearing fly-by-night operations (more on that later), and it doesn't matter how great your game is if nobody knows about it. The basic formula is this:
Income = Game Quality * Exposure
It's pretty rough, but I reckon it's true. Mainstream gaming companies spend millions on marketing so they must think it's true. Our second game Mr. Robot got 87% in PC Format. Infogrames's Driv3r got 18% in PC Format, but they spent 30 million euros on marketing one game. I'm sure nobody reading this is dumb enough to think Mr. Robot has made more money than Driv3r. Nope, not even close to a percentage. Still, quality does matter, if only because it's one of the few things indies actually have the opportunity to work on. Try to make sure everything about the game is polished - by that I mean, try and cut out anything that looks a bit too functional or placeholder. Sometimes it's better to miss features out if you can't do them well. As a comparison, I'd say Starscape is only 60% of the way to where it should be, and we've a big list of things even now that we want to update at some point.Making advertising work
To be frank, it's almost impossible. Advertising is sold as CPC or CPM.CPC
is cost-per-click. Google adwords work like this for instance. You only pay for the clicks on your banner. If you need a hundred clicks to make a sale, and the CPC is $0.15, then it costs you $15 to make a sale.CPM
stands for cost-per-mil. Essentially the cost for 1000 impressions (views) of your banner advert. This is how most advertising is sold.
The problem for indies, is that we are competing for ad space with people selling much more expensive products. That person with the jiggly banner might only be able to fleece one person in ten thousand into buying timeshare apartments, but when they do it pays off big. Indies on the other hand are selling a low volume, low cost product. Essentially, we are in the worst situation ever for running advertising. I can't honestly say that advertising will have a chance of working. Most of the time, you'll be lucky to break even. All I can tell you is what I know:
- You'll be lucky to break even with a $0.5 cpm, so you need lower than that.
- Nobody advertises a CPM lower than $0.5. So you'll need to contact them and ask if they'll do a deal. Begging and bartering is the way to go.
- If the site you want to advertise with uses an intermediary marketing company to handle their adverts, it will double the cost, so you are probably best off not bothering.
- If anyone ever wants to contact you by phone, don't bother. They just want to convince you that visitors to their web site click banner ads ten times more than any other web site and they think the power of their phone voice will have you under their spell.
- Track your adverts to sales!!! I can't stress this enough. At the minimum: write a cookie out if the user comes from an advert link and then pass that through on a sale. Can all be done quite easily with php or asp. We burned about $5000 on adverts that didn't work before we put tracking in place.
- Update adverts regularly. From the moment you start showing them, adverts slowly lose their impact on people who see them. Updating your advert draws their attention again, and keeps things fresh.
- Don't stand still. For the same reason, if you stay on a site for too long, you'll eventually mine all that sites readers dry.
"By the way, if anyone here is advertising or marketing; kill yourself"Keep something back
-the late Bill Hicks.
Make sure you keep something big back from the demo for the full version. A lot of people seem scared to offer anything as low as 20 minutes of demo time, and limit what can be played in the demo. The casual industry has settled on 1 hour of free play as a rule, but remember - many portals are getting money from advertising now, so they just want to keep people playing. An hour is probably right too for casual games - in the end what they pay for is not to have their zen-like experience of playing the game interrupted. It's a bit like watching a soap opera - you want to switch off and relax when playing a casual game. This doesn't work for more advanced games though - players are usually more active. Your demo needs to wow people, and then you need to show them something even more amazing, and tell them they can have that if they buy the game. Remember, it's a demo
not a freebie. Incidentally, download.com staff will mark you down for this, but don't worry, that's just because they are all cunts and only want free stuff to promote their shit website. (I'm not bitter you download.com bastards!!!)Retail Publishing
The deal here is that every budget publisher under the sun will try to contact you on release, but you will be lucky to find one publisher who's worth doing business with. Most will waste a lot of your time asking for things (We've probably wasted 4-5 man months on this kind of thing). Basically, under no circumstances let retail publishers talk to you if they aren't talking about up front cash - we know too many people who just don't get paid, or get their game bundled with 500 others on one CD (so the publisher gets his cut, but everyone else gets 1/500th of what's left!). Things have improved over the years, and there's a few more publishers out there willing to offer up front payments or royalty advances, just don't expect it retail publishing to save the day. Make sure you get a no-bundle clause in there too. We aren't talking a lot of cash here mind, anything between $5000 and $50,000 depending on the size of territory and the type of game (e.g. tycoon games always can get a bit extra because they sell well at retail).Because you're worth it
Don't be afraid to sell your game at $20-30. It's not worth selling at less than that anyway, because if you do then you can't advertise - you won't even make your costs back on a sale. Some people worry that they are charging too much for what essentially is a home-made game, but it seems if you lower the price down to $14.95 or even $9.95 then sales actually drop. We suspect people may just think the game isn't any good if it's only worth $9.95 and pass on it. If you've made something that people can't get anywhere else, then it doesn't matter if your game costs more than the latest title from EA does (when it hits Woolworth's bargain bin) - most people won't care.So, can I make a living off indie games?
Definitely the question I get asked the most - but it's obviously difficult to answer. It all depends on your situation, and what your expectations are. Do you have a day job, and do you want to keep it and make money on the side? or are you hoping to do this full time? Many of us just want to get on with making games and just have the financial breathing room to do what we love but the truth of the matter is the initial years are really tough and you need to make sure you have finances set aside to get through it. The key with non-casual games is exposure. Casual games work best on portals which have tons of exposure, but then the portals rip off the developer. Non-casual games appeal to niche audiences - but you will be lucky to find them. It's a constant marketing battle to let the people who should be interested in your game know about you. Starscape has been more of a success than we had hoped, but then all we wanted it to do was keep paying the bills and build up a big customer base. We've managed to support 3 developers full time, but only due to a continual marketing effort that drained a lot of our time.Portals
I can't say I'm massively experienced with portals as we've generally managed without their support, but it makes sense to get money from wherever you can. This past year has seen portals open up somewhat to different audiences, so there's a chance they'll take on a non-casual title. I would say don't necessarily be swayed too much by better royalty rates - remember, exposure is still paramount, and you'll make a number of zeros more money from a bad deal with a big portal, than a good deal with a smaller portal. I won't say much more on this subject though, because I don't feel overly qualified. We really need to look into more portal deals with Mr. Robot and Starscape and it's only really lack of time that has stopped us - contrary to what some people may think - I'm not anti-portal! I just believe that relying on them is not a guaranteed way to build up your business. Remember that every sale from your own web site is another person you can e-mail when you have another game out.Aggregators
Some portals are so big that they won't even talk to you and you'll have to go through another company called an 'aggregator'. Aggregators save big portals the hassle of dealing with lots of people, and take a further cut of your profits. Whilst this sounds terrible, it's sometimes the only way you can get on the really big money earners like Yahoo. They can also save you the time of chasing payments and chasing up portals - acting essentially like an agent.
Worth insisting on in any contract with an aggregator however is a clause which states your name must always be listed as developer alongside anywhere theirs is listed. Otherwise they will quite happily list themselves only. Seeing your game listed as 'by random person' is a bit annoying and doesn't help your profile as a developer.Multiple Titles
The basic conclusion we have come to in the past 3 years, is that the shareware games sector is a loss leader market - it is incredibly difficult to cover your costs with only one game - it takes so much money to acquire new customers that you lose the cost of one game. You then need to sell other games to them of the same level of quality. You can see how to be really profitable could take many years to build up that customer base. I'd say this might take 3-7 years depending on how much time you spend doing marketing. To put that in context, we pretty much have one man marketing full time (It's actually myself, and my colleague Mark spending half our time each on marketing. It's important to realise that whilst some people do manage to get rich from the proceeds of one game, it's far more likely that you will need multiple games out there before you can start thinking about getting that nice car. It's worth remembering that if you want to get into this business, then you are in it for the long haul.
So, my recommendation for indies, is a 3 pronged approach - portals, direct sales, and retail. The hardest of these and the most time consuming, is direct sales, but it's the only thing that grows your business - in the form of community, and customers that will be interested in your future games. I think that's why many people neglect it, but do so at your peril; I certainly wouldn't still be making indie games if it weren't for direct sales.
Best of luck to all of you, I can't wait to play your games!