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Indie development doesn't need to be like this

Indie development doesn’t need to be like this

So here I am; 6 weeks into being ‘Mr Evil 27 Games Limited’.

I have to confess; being a one-person indie games development studio is almost as unnerving as it is exciting but then I do have “Wisdom Comes To Those That Stray” on my arm and I know from experience that trying something unconventional in your professional life doesn’t always end in ‘success’ but it does always end in useful experience and learning.

I’ve founded/co-founded three previous games/digital start-ups over the last 15 years and in a way they were all ‘indies’ in that we were largely in control of our own destiny (within fiscal limits of course) and developed our own games/tech/services which we then choose how we would commercialize. This time it is different though. This time I am (currently) alone, adopting my own commercial strategy, working on my own game concepts, designing 100% of the game mechanics and UI, defining the business model and IAP items/prices, cutting my own code, doing my own concept art and at the same time doing the bulk of the business admin, networking and social media marketing.

All of that take some hours! I’ve always worked long hours (typically 50 or so hours a week with SoshiGames and PIXELearning) but I’ve found myself largely in my office from just after 8am to gone midnight most days now. The interesting thing is that this doesn’t in anyway feel onerous, in fact I feel more energized and upbeat than at pretty much anytime in the last decade. I don’t think that is unique and in fact I think this is the very reason that so many games professionals opt for and embrace the indie route as an alternative to taking a ‘sensible’ role at an established studio. ‘Indie’ = creative/professional freedom. It shares much with the punk ethic; I’m sticking to what I believe in, my values and ideal irrespective of what ‘the system’ or convention may dictate.

That ‘freedom’ comes with costs; the aforementioned hours, lower/sporadic income, uncertain outcomes/risk etc, and it does not  (read: ‘should not’!) equate to “I’m doing this so I can sit in my bedroom pretending to work making games that only I want to play”. Going indie needs to be approached in a considered, researched and professional manner. You may want to focus on bringing your ideas to reality but nonetheless you need to put time and effort into the commercial aspects of your business. You need to be prepared to do (or find someone who can do) the accounts and other business admin (deal with Companies House, HMRC etc), craft and execute a commercial strategy (what are you selling to who for how much and how?) and you need to force yourself out of your ‘pit’ to go network often.

I come into contact with a lot of young/small games, digital media and technology start-ups, many of whom are founded/staffed by raw graduates. Many mistakes will be made (I’m sure I’ve made them all and will make many more myself) but you can reduce the number of and impact of these mistakes if you are sensible. Here’s a few I would recommend for indie games start-ups:

Have a clear focus: Here’s mine; EVIL27 Games will develop it’s own games for a casual-core audience that are optimized for  tablet devices and which (ultimately) enable players to create, share and recommend user-generated content through social networks. Having a focus doesn’t mean you have to plan to do one thing and one thing only. It’s about knowing what your end goal is, how you plan to reach it and also knowing what you won’t be doing.

Get the balance right: I’m not talking about ‘work-life balance’ (not that this isn’t important!) but rather the balance between the competing draws on your time by the needs of the business and the product (e.g. your game). You may be thinking “we’re nothing without a game”, and in a sense you are right of course, but you won’t get to finish that game and achieve your commercial goals, whatever they may be, without creating a sound foundation for the business. That means managing the cash (and acquiring it), it means filing all the regulatory information on time and it means making sure that there is indeed a ‘business’ at all, not just you and a bunch of friends having fun making games. It’s hard to stay on track with the game development if you are constantly distracted by other things so I personally have adopted a ‘week on/week off’ approach where I spend one week doing all the business admin, sales, finance, marketing, networking etc in order to earn the right to spend a week doing nothing but making the game. If you are professional, organised and manage your time well you may find that the business side only needs maybe 2-3 days – you just earned a few days bonus! Level up!

Set achievable goals: don’t go into this expecting or even hoping that you will create the next App Store or STEAM sensation. If that does happen then you were most probably very lucky (as well as very good!). If you plan for that ultra-big success outcome, you will almost certainly fail. Instead make sure that you have achievable goals on a practical timescale and that you have the financial resources/income to control that. To illustrate this here’s my 2013 goals:

  • Build & release game 1 (a 2D iOS/Android puzzle game ). Commercial goals: get company known, master app development and submission process plus learn how to get the best out of 3rd party advertising and promotion services. Hopefully: start building a player community. Will it have ways to derive revenue? Of course. Do I plan for any revenue? No.
  • Build & release game #2 (a point & click adventure game with a novel approach to freemium). Commercial goals: get to meaningful revenue generation e.g. it pays some of the (still carefully managed) bills, further enhances the company’s reputation/awareness and increases the contactable player base/community.
  • Have commenced development on game#3 (a RTS game with a mobile-friendly approach to ‘modding’ as a central feature): Commercial goals: Position the company with a clear USP (‘mobile modding) and market positioning (mid-core/tablet devices), be on course to hit cashflow and revenue forecasts for year 2.

Network often: I’m not a natural networker. I’m not shy as such but I’m not at my most comfortable in crowds with strangers at professional/commercial events. Does that sound like you? Time to get over it! Force yourself to find and go to industry and related events on a frequent basis. I recommend seeing what events TIGA/UKIE are doing, looking ahead to games conferences (see www.games.confs.com), checking out local university/science park events and general digital, technology exhibitions. Birmingham Science Park Aston, for example, regularly run games and technology events. They are usually free or very cheap. Also, do regular searches on Eventbrite.com and Meetup.com – search for ‘games’ etc and see what comes up. Go along able to say clearly what you are doing, what your company/game is about and why you are doing it. Maybe think about things you may need (concept art, audio, help with QA etc?). I personally aim to go to at least one event per week. If there aren’t any formal events scheduled, then maybe try to arrange to get out and meet another company or game developer. Share ideas. See what they think about what you are doing. See if you can help each other. What goes around comes around, especially in the insular games industry!

Frequent sense-checks: take (regular) time to sit back and examine what you have done and what you are planning to do. A good game needs constant re-visiting, testing, optimizing and, most likely, 90% of the ideas thrown out. So does a business. It’s about refinement; finding what works on perfecting that essence. A game that is packed with every feature you can think of is most likely a bad game. A new/young business that tries to do everything for all people is most likely doomed to failure. You may be one person at home with a PC but if you say you are an indie game developer then you are also a business and you need to accept and embrace that. A business doesn’t make a product or service that there isn’t a decent chance that someone will pay money for. You may not be able to guarantee that but you had better be bloody sure that you have done everything you can to maximize the likelihood of that happening.

Your motivation to ‘go Indie’ may be to make the games you want to make because, ultimately, that is what you enjoy but that doesn’t release you from the reality that you need to do the ‘business stuff’ as well. Being professional is not about ‘selling out’. Look at it this way, even if you hate that aspect, doing it (well) earns you the right to make your game….and the one after that!

Kevin Corti
‘Chief Evil Officer
@kevcorti / @evil27games

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Leamington Spa (aka ‘Silicon Spa’) plays host to TIGA’s Game Dev Night next week (20th February).  Featured speakers include David Fullick & Dan Griffiths from Monster & Monster, creators of Autumn Walk and Winter Walk on iOS/Android.

The event is free to members and non-member developers…..and there is FREE food and drinks!

Event details at: http://www.tiga.org/events/tiga-gamedev-night-leamington-spa

If you work in the games industry (or are a student hoping to do so) and live in the vicinity of Leamington then make sure you follow Silicon Spa Games on Twitter – @siliconspagames

 

A lack of work experience is a major challenge to anyone wanting to get into the games industry right now. Most employers want people with a few years prior experience and, quite often, a number of published titles to their credit.

That is a big problem for a raw graduate or college finisher. The cream of the crop (the top 5%) will always land roles on the strength of their grades, the quality of their portfolio and their ability sell themselves but what about the other 95%? I know people that sent out over a hundred CVs/enquiries but hardly got any responses back. I have to ask, however, to what extent does a lack of experience hinder someone from fulfilling a productive role within the games industry? Should we not attempt to bring more of these passionate and committed young people into our industry rather then turning them away?

I have, over the last decade or so, probably employed 50+ people in various technical and creative roles in the five games and digital media businesses I’ve been involved in. Those roles were a mix of full-time, part-time, temporary, freelance and lengthy paid placements.

The vast majority of these people had little or no prior paid employment history in the industry. This was mainly a result of me being a start-up addict and nearly always attempting to get stuff done with little or no resources. I’d be lying if I claimed that better things couldn’t have been achieved and in a more timely manner with more experienced team members, but nonetheless, as a four times company founder, I am quite satisfied and in some cases very proud with what was achieved.

In an age when every start-up is being told to ‘bootstrap’, to get minimum viable product (MVP) to market and customer/market validation before taking in any funding, the supply of inexperienced, yet highly motivated, talent is, I believe, being wrongly over-looked. More than this, from an industry-level and societal standpoint, we’re being grossly unfair to a large number of people who we’re enticing to undertake expensive degree courses, then failing to provide them a chance to show what they can do.

The paradox is this; if one looks at the output that student and graduate teams are achieving through initiatives such as GamerCamp, DareToBeDigital, Digipen, the many degree courses and numerous game jams, it is clear that these inexperienced individuals are actually quite capable of achieving some  pretty impressive things. I attended a mobile games ‘meet em up’ at Birmingham Science Park Aston last year and was, quite frankly, blown away by a series of presentations from students and recent graduates. I’m certain that this is happening all ten time up and down the country.

Yet still, when it comes to building up internal teams, established studios usually take a conscious decision to filter out these people. This is, to a certain extent, a product of it being an employers’ market right now when it comes to graduate and junior roles. Yet almost every games studio has open positions for mid-level and senior roles and the industry is growing – albeit painfully – very quickly. Those more senior roles won’t find candidates if the conveyor belt of talent is restricted because no studios hire raw graduates. Those dejected graduates that get turned away from the games sector will find roles in marketing, web and other creative or technical roles. That is our loss.

I know how hard it is for a small/young games studio to carry inexperienced team members or to find resources (people, cash or time) to develop them, but I believe if the willingness is there from employers (it is from employees!) then it can be both practical and beneficial to bring raw graduates into a team.

When we needed to build a MVP of MusicFestivals Game at SoshiGames in 2011 without any meaningful cash, we turned to ‘free-sourcing’ the game. The proposition was this; if graduates were willing to commit some time, we would commit to providing them with an environment in which they can learn and gain useful industry experience. We had, I would estimate, something like forty people involved in the project over the course of 18months. Some gave one day a week. Some gave 40 hours a week for six months or more. I won’t pretend it was easy and that there were not challenges, however SoshiGames got it’s MVP and the volunteers got their much needed experience. Several of the volunteers were given full time employment once funding was secured and many others got jobs within a short time of leaving us.

Recruiting the ‘free-sourced’ team was done in an extremely ad-hoc manner. There was no single route to finding potential candidates. We approached colleges, universities, alumni groups, placed adverts, plastered info all over the internet and social networks, put up posters and mentioned it in conference sessions and TV/radio adverts. It was hard work but it proved worthwhile for everyone concerned.

I’d like to see an attitudinal change amongst games studios with regards to hiring more juniors. I’d also like to see some services designed to better connect graduates with studios. If this happened it would only be a good thing for the UK games industry.

Quick..code the ATOMISER!

Quick..code the ATOMISER!

Well this is strange….a blog post. How very 2006!

The world has changed a lot since I last used this blog in earnest. Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, FourSquare, Instagram and a whole variety of other social networks have invaded the territory once occupied by the blog site. Twitter and various social mobile applications have reduced the typical ‘post’ to  a much shorter form than used to be the case with blog ‘articles’. As I sit here and type as a proprietor of a one-person games consultancy from my self-built office, in my garage, in my garden at home…I find myself, however, wanting to create a more weighty dialogue with the outside world…and this blog site feels all of a sudden more relevant.

I’ve got a wealth of commercial, creative and general technical experience gleaned from 15 years of games, eLearning and web projects but I’ve often found it frustrating that I cannot bring about ideas/desires myself and have always been reliant on other people to attempt to do so. I aim to change that and so I’ve chosen to make a change of direction in my professional life, for the time being at least; one that involves throwing myself into learning how to program and to actually making games/apps myself.

This is quite a challenge for a soon to be 43-year old who has been a project manager, product manager, product evangelist,  game designer, development director, studio head, entrepreneur and CEO….but with very little hands on proper coding experience (save for a short period of ActionScript in 2002 and a couple of years of BASIC in the early/mid 1980s). I did make a living as a web developer in the mid 1990’s but I don’t really count writing HTML and cutting and pasting other people’s ASP/JavaScript as ‘proper’ coding.

As well as undertaking games/digital media consulting (as SpiderShed Media – email me here ) I recently founded EVIL27 Games Ltd which has a focus on mobile (and more specifically, tablet games).  The mobile games space has been exploding in size and is – along with the growth of the freemium business model and digital distribution –  massively re-shaping the entertainment games market. I have some ideas around enabling user-generated content in mobile gaming and am working on a grant-funded project to explore this (click here for more info).

Along side this research project I am planning a number of tablet games that will hopefully be published under the EVIL27 Games banner. I am personally developing the first of these using Lua and the Corona SDK. This is quite a challenge given my limited prior programming experience and it is about this journey of discovery that I feel most compelled to blog about. And so I shall.

Hopefully you will find these interesting, thought-provoking and maybe a little amusing. Please feel free to comment or otherwise engage with me.

Updates to follow.

The impending curse of the sequel in social games

The social games sector, although extremely fast-growing is still relatively nascent; a fact that promises much in the way of innovation in terms of technical functionality and creativity. That’s great for users…almost every week they will be able to access several new, increasingly high-budget, incrementally more ambitious and expansive games. There is one issue on the horizon however; how will social games publishers handle ‘the sequel’?

At first prompt this doesn’t seem like a particularly radical problem. We’ve all grown up on sequels to all the major videogame franchises from Sim City, to Tomb Raider, from Grand Theft Auto to Call of Duty. Why would sequels in social games be a source of problems? What are you going on about Corti?

Well, think about it for a second. Bringing out a sequel to a massively successful console or PC game is a non-issue. You, the gamer, either get excited about the technically better, graphically more impressive latest incarnation of your favourite game IP or you don’t. You can choose to buy the game for circa £50 or choose not to. If you don’t purchase it then it isn’t as if someone turns up at your home, removes your old discs, deletes your game saves and your gamer stats. It’s an investment you can choose to make or not and there are no negative downside.

Now consider what happens when the likes of Zynga decide that the MAUs or ARPPU’s they are seeing from Farmville V1.0 no longer justify the ongoing hosting and support costs. Most likely the numbers will naturally fall to a small percentage of the peak usage numbers but I’d expect a still not insignificant number of people to play from time to time. If that was just 2% of the peak of circa 80 million, then that’s still 1.6million people. I’d venture that after a certain amount of playing, that users that did pay will no longer be paying and those that didn’t pay before are very unlikely to become paying users having already reached level 127. That means that Zynga would now be supporting a whole bunch of people’s play time; consuming bandwidth and cloud server resources that Zynga would be paying for. The freemium model may work when 3% of users are paying but it is far less attractive when only 0.3% are. That doesn’t, by the way, necessarily mean the game is no longer profitable. It just means that the resources required to support it would be much more profitably employed on a newer, fresher game.

Now imagine the reaction Zynga can expect when it announces, via an in-game pop up message that Farmville will be turned off in 5 days. Think how p*ssed off those 1,600,000 people will be when they realise that their sacred creations, upon which they have invested, quite possibly, many hundreds of hours and on which a proportion of these users (somewhere between 3 and 5%) have paid money to personalise or develop. Their farms are sprawling masses decorated with hundreds of multicoloured hay bales (carefully arranged in an assortment of personal homages to videogame and cartoon characters), carefully laid out fruit tree forests, ornate homesteads and vast collections of seasonal virtual goods. The people have spent a significant fraction of their awake time over the last year or so creating THEIR farms. They have a time, emotional and, quite probably, a financial investment tied up in that collection of on-screen pixels…..and now it is going to be taken away from them because Zynga is about to release Farmville 2.0 (beta)…the supped up 3D version that is, unfortunately, not compatible with v1.0.

If you’d spent £50 on Battlefield 2 and played it for online with your buddies for 800 hours, attained a whole bunch of Xbox Achievements and personalised gamer stats (“812 head shots, way to go Kev”) you are going to get pretty freaking narked if the publisher arbitrarily comes and confiscates your game disc and wipes your Xbox360 hard drive….but then this obviously won’t happen. This is, however, the coming eventuality for many dozens of social games that are currently played by tens of millions of devoted players….and those players are going to be seriously upset. If you doubt this then look up what happened when Zynga decided to shut down Street Racing, thousands of fans were up in arms, so much so that Zynga actually shut down their own support forum and deleted the complaints that their own fans had posted. Someone needs better PR representation there methinks!

Don’t think that this is some personal attack on Zynga. I merely hold them up as an example because they are by far the biggest publisher of social games and because of the Street Racing game example. Playdom shut down Lil Green Patch in May because it “only had around 364,000 players”. There are social games developers that would kill for those levels of MAU by the way!

Then, on 31st July this year,  Playdom also shut down Youtopia a city-building game they acquired when they bought the developer Hive7 for $33million in June this year. Youtopia’s demise didn’t quite bring about the fierce reaction that Zynga’s shutting down of Street Racing did but it still prompted hundreds of fan forum posts such as these below:

“Loved the game. Pity that the new owner are too dumb to realise what a gem they have killed. RIP Youtopia. you will be sadly missed. Xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx”
“i loved this? why did you guys delete it? that is sadd. R.I.P. Youtopia.. :(“

The way that most of these users found out about this was through the pop-up message shown below. It hardly reads as a respectful and apologetic message to the fans of the game that Playdom presumably hopes to retain (and thus avoid significant CPA costs in replacing them with new users).

RIP Youtopia

RIP Youtopia

So that brings me back to THE SEQUEL…

In the first few years of the social gaming revolution there were an abundance of very similar games and brand-recognition was pretty poor. That is changing. Zynga is, for example, developing the Farmville brand as their merchandising tie-up with 7-Eleven and other deals illustrate.

Farmville cap

It is easy to imagine Zynga bringing out Farmville v2.0 ‘Beta’ in the next year or so to continue to leverage this internationally recognised game brand and who can blame them? Certainly not the collection of investors who have pumped over $500million into the company as it has grown.  Social games are iteratively and extensively enhanced over time to an almost unparalleled degree, but there comes a point where a software application cannot evolve further. Fundamental changes to form and function require ground-up, ‘root and branch’ rebuilds and when that happens v1.0 gets shut down and v2.0 goes live. Sure, the publisher can do it’s best to placate the last remaining users (1.6million?) with free FVnotes or Facebook Credits but there is little that they can do to recompense the true loss that these users will feel…and vociferously express across the internet. Such a situation brings the potential for an enormous amount of damaging publicity. Given certain publishers’ propensity to create and/or court controversy I’d say this is very likely.

The question then is how do developers and publishers handle the sequel situation in a way that avoids mass damage to the whole industry? How do we wean users off their favourite apps that we gave them for free then encouraged them to make optional payments for? How do we painlessly persuade them to discard their heavily personalised pride and joys?

One thing is for sure; that however we do it, we need to put aside the fact that 97% (or so) of our users are not paying customers and offer them all an equally higher degree of respect and transparency. We need to recognise that the psychological techniques we used to hook them on our games have consequences and that these can be a positive (direct, respectful and open discourse with our users) or a bad thing ( an army of irate users clogging support forums and attracting unwanted media coverage).

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