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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!