There is a problem in the independent gaming industry that has been present for years but is gaining attention: there is no solid business plan to follow. For other industries there seems to be some rues, guides, or other ‘rules of thumb’ that startups can use. Not so in the gaming industry.
The gaming industry for independent (small) studios is an uphill battle. It takes more than just a good game and good talent.
This week TechCrunch posted about this problem in the mobile market space: Mobile’s “One Game Wonder” Problem. The notion that all a company needs to do is keep making games until they create the next Flappy Bird to make it successful. There is a problem with that insofar that all these peaks in sales lead to treacherous valleys. From TechCrunch:
It’s barely a year since King unseated Zynga as the number one game maker on Facebook. A long-time purveyor of casual web games to a relatively small audience (30m according to Wikipedia), King had its one game wonder moment with Candy Crush Saga, a match-3 game not dissimilar to Bejeweled but innovative on its own terms. Beautifully produced and highly addictive, it transformed the company’s fortunes and led to a couple of other “Saga” games that rode its coattails. King floated an IPO at $22.50 and seemed unstoppable to some.
But then, not unlike Zynga, suddenly the news has turned sour. Despite generally-increased metrics across the board, revenue expectations have been missed, leading to a confirmation of the suspicion that the company isn’t able to grow. The fear is that the motherlode game has peaked, and with no obvious contended to replace it that means the party could well be over. And so the stock price fell (at time of writing it’s at $13.53).
Here’s more info on the present downfall of King in chart form.
Sure, that’s an extreme example of very successful companies, but the peaks and valleys happen at all levels. It’s true for mobile and beyond. There are studios that had a great game but are barely heard from again. There are tons of examples of games that fail right from the get-go (here,here,and here).
Flippfly has tips for making a living by making indie games but it boils down to have a plan by researching more:
The takeaway here is: There are a lot of options for publishing your game, and the sands are shifting quickly. Don’t blindly jump into a plan without knowing what your potential audience size is there – talk with others who’ve tried it, read “numbers posts” and be realistic about your expectations. Get to know your distribution partners – their support is crucial to your success.
This leads me to think the only plan one can have is to try to make games!
The problem with that is not everyone can afford to put the time into game development given the low return. Its hard to pay rent and all that jazz when the annual take-home is so low for an independent designer.
Non-salaried solo independent game developers made an average of $11,812 (down 49 percent year-on-year) last year, #indiedev
— Michael O’Connor (@_PipeDreamer_) July 23, 2014
In this context it’s easy to think that modern indie game development is akin to playing the lottery: you just need that one successful game.
In order to have a successful game you need to get it in front of people, something that indie game developers need to learn. I’ve looked at this issue before in regards to social media promotion and more recently how hard marketing can be for indies.
There are some good guides for marketing your indie game. It was only a few years ago that marketing was frowned upon by indie developers and that good games will get the attention they deserve. That’s not the case anymore. This could be a sign that the indie game studios are learning and growing.
Indeed, Radiangames just posted the sales data on the games they released at Gamasutra. The impact of good marketing is evident (it also shows that having a plethora of games is an advantage). I have no idea how one gets featured on the any app store, I’d like to as it means a greater chance of success:
I feel very fortunate to have my games featured as often as they have, as it means thousands more in sales. At the same time, getting an Apple Editor’s Choice or top banner is worth far more than being in the middle or latter part of the New & Noteworthy list.
Over at the New Statesman (of all places) they look into how the very notion of the one game wonder is bad for both the longevity of the industry and games as a culturally expressive medium. This raises the issue of what we’re sacrificing as a gaming culture to ensure good profits.
The dominant story of this video game-making generation is the one about the struggling artist who made a breakout hit and never needed to work again. As a result, the industry’s conferences obsess over how to make effective moneymaking games or, at very least how to make a sustainable business.
This focus on financial gain rather than artistic gain is, arguably, at risk of turning video games into a cultural backwater. The big business side of the industry is characterised by creative conservatism, sure-fire bets based on bankable precedents.
So what to do?
After writing the above I feel that it paints a gloomy picture of getting into indie game development. As someone who makes independent games for a living I assure you it’s tons of fun and very rewarding (plug for my company Wero Creative). It is possible to make a living off of games even if you don’t make a Flappy Bird. Don’t worry things are good will always be able to cheer you up.
Personally, I know that the lack of a clear business plan is a problem but I also love it. With no clear set way of doing things it means that anything is possible. Who knows, maybe you’ll be the person to shake up the industry with a radical new approach!
Most game projects fail due to scope and ambition, so start small if you’re just starting out. Remember even AAA level games suffer from scope and sometimes stop development because of it.
To encourage a note of optimism here are some ideas to help change the business world of indie games:
- Don’t make a business plan, just wing it.
- Make games in your spare time as a hobby and hope that one day the revenue will add up.
- Don’t just learn how to make games, learn to market them.
- Get a publisher.
- Check your scope.
- Start small and build.
Lastly, here’s the tally of revenue of that Radiangames posted on the sales data.
- $24K – Inferno+ (twin-stick shooter/action-RPG-lite)
- $17K – Slydris (block puzzler)
- $12K – Ballistic SE (arcade twin-stick shooter)
- $11K – JoyJoy (arcade twin-stick shooter)
- $10K – Fireball SE (arcade dodger)
- $10K – CRUSH (arcade block puzzler)
- $6K – Fluid SE (arcade overhead racer)
- $3K* – Bombcats SE (physics puzzler)
- $3K – SideSwype (block puzzler)
*Does not include iOS sales
That’s a total of $96k, even with the costs associated with developing a game that’s a good chunk of cash money.