Your Indie Game Will Fail

The title of this post is true for most indie game developers out there, at least if you measure success in terms of profit. There are other ways an indie game can be a success but I’ll get to them in a bit.

In today’s video game marketplace competition is tough. It’s easier than ever to make, publish and distribute new games, but with that, it gets increasingly difficult to get noticed, attract an audience and make money. This is true for all games, but small indies typically invest their own money in everything from buying assets in the Unity marketplace to renting booth space at PAX, making them more vulnerable to the impact of financial failure.

If you’re making games as a hobby and income is just pocket money – read no further. Go make games, and have fun! But if you’re hoping to go full time, or build a small studio, be prepared to work your ass off, doing a lot of things that have nothing to do with designing features or levels for your title. There will be spreadsheets.

Research is crucial, of course. You’ve looked at similar titles on Steamspy, to get a feel for how they sold on Steam, right? You’ve tracked down any postmortems or shared sales numbers from teams and projects similar to yours, correct? If you want to take your indie games past hobby level, you can’t ignore the existing market.

As an initial reality check, answer these three questions to the best of your ability:

  1. What are the projected sales numbers in the first year?
  2. What’s the price point you have in mind?
  3. How much time (unpaid hours) and money will you put into making the game?

With this information, you can figure out whether your expectations are realistic. When you realize that they’re not, you can start to think of ways to tweak the numbers.

The Price and Profit Calculator

To help my fellow indies, I made a tool that lets you experiment with different projections. I call it the Indie Game Price and Profit Calculator.

Being realistic about your expectations helps you make informed business decisions about marketing, partnerships and thinking outside the box to boost your numbers (or lower your cost).

Don’t let competition and volume take the wind out of your sails. As mentioned, even if you fail to profit from your release, there are other ways an indie game can benefit you. For one, it’s a great way to learn more about all aspects making games, from audio design to publishing. It’s also a great way to network with other indies, many of whom are in the industry. Networking may lead to jobs or partnerships, and so on. Having finished and published something does open doors. Making an indie game is just as much an investment in the careers of everyone on the team, as an opportunity to make a profit. If not more so.

Regardless of your motivation for making games, I hope the calculator tool is useful, and best of luck with your project!

Top 3 Tips for Better Management + Bonus Tip

I was a manager long before I started working professionally, going back to when I first started organizing after school clubs for gamers in my neighborhood, as a young teenager.

I am not intimidated by the idea of taking charge of a situation or team of people. In fact, I enjoy trying to balance all those things! It can be stressful at times, sure, but it’s also fulfilling to bring people and pieces together to create something bigger than myself.

Over the years, I have worked in many different setups and with projects of every size and budget. In the following, I will share three things that I’ve come across, which made a difference to me and (I hope) made me a better manager.

Transparency in Good

Working at Valve taught me that transparency can work very well across product teams, departments and professions. Valve has a flat structure, and short of HR personnel files, pretty much all information is readily available to any employee who cares to look it up. This is in stark contrast to most other bigger companies I’ve come across, where everything is on a strict need to know basis.

Transparency is inspiring and motivating. If you are curious about any aspect of the company, you can do the research. If you have an idea, you can check what’s already in the works and see if and where it might fit in. You can find the decision makers and talk to them directly – just be sure you’re not wasting people’s time. With great power comes great responsibility, after all. Coincidentally, no one considers it a waste of your own time, to seek knowledge about what/how the company is doing.

Transparency helps to break down walls and creates a culture where employees are encouraged to talk to each other outside their day-to-day groups. It breaks traditional corporate hierarchies and lets ideas flow according to interest. It also helps to bring everyone up to speed on new developments, company vision, and can even quell harmful rumors.

Delegate with Trust

Many managers find it hard to let go and trust others to do something, they themselves may have to answer for at some status meeting down the line. While understandable from a human perspective, it is also terrible leadership. If you have qualified people on your team (which I assume you do), the best thing you can do is trust them to do the thing they were hired for – which includes making as many decisions as the project allows on their own.

No one likes micro management, and most managers who do it, are really just overly worried and need to let go. Micro managers aren’t helping anyone with their meddling. I am not saying you should ignore people, or not train them before letting them loose, just that you give them direction at first and let them ask questions on their own, once those directions are given.

Delegate responsibility and then trust that it is taken seriously. That doesn’t mean that you shed responsibility. It means you include others fully, to the degree they are comfortable and qualified, in getting the job done. If you really can’t trust your team enough to fully delegate tasks to them, then there are bigger issues at play – and I’d start with a close look inwards (if everyone else seems to be wrong all the time, you’re likely the wrong one).

Though it can be hard to let go, the results speak for themselves. Sure, there will be the occasional mistake but those happen anyway. What you get once you learn to delegate, is a team with stronger engagement and motivation, and with a sense of purpose you just can’t buy (well, maybe you can, but it’s much more cost efficient to invest in trust – trust me). Quality and productivity go up!

Fight for Your Team

There will be situations, where you’ll be delivering bad news. Projects end, budgets are slashed, deadlines are pushed – there are many variations. One thing they all have in common? If you’re in charge of a team, and bad news is coming, you better fight with everything you got to either avoid it or minimize the impact on your team mates. As team lead, their interests are yours as well, and from their perspective, standing up for the team is your greatest responsibility.

At the mid-management level, you have the added pressure of having to push back against people who are technically your superiors. This is where most managers crumble and end up throwing their teams under the bus (whether they mean to or not). You cannot be afraid to push back, if that is what makes sense in the situation. Sometimes there is nothing to be done, but if you didn’t try, you have failed.

It’s important to keep in mind, that in a healthy work environment, no one is your adversary. Everyone wants to create/ship/sell something awesome and make a lot of money, maybe even get some repeat business.

In my experience, solutions can often be found or compromises can be made, that can lessen the impact of a delay or project setback. It’s almost always a matter of decision makers failing to think the extra step out, and consider the immediate impact on those “on the floor”. Having been on both sides, I can easily see how that happens – no system is perfect, which is why human connection is key.

Bonus Tip: Meet Your Coworkers!

As I said, human connection is key. Get to know those you answer to, and those who answer to you. Once that happens and there is a basic human connection (you don’t have to be BFFs here), it becomes more natural to communicate. Pushing back ends up just being seen as constructive discussion, internal secrecy becomes plainly ridiculous, and trusting people to do their jobs becomes the default.

Have lunch with your coworkers every now and then – not just your team mates! If you have team meetings, invite someone from another team to sit in. Sit in on one of their meetings too. You’ll be amazed at how much easier it becomes to understand each other, and to share relevant knowledge and information, once you put the phone/laptop down for half an hour and meet each other in real life.

What Comes After the AI Revolution

What does a technological utopia look like? What effect will AI have on work and how we perceive it?

Going back to the industrial revolution, and especially following the invention of the assembly line, machines have taken over more and more human jobs. This is not a bad thing in itself, as there are many jobs better left to machines, because they are too dangerous, disgusting, or repetitive for humans. And of course, machines work faster, increasing profit for businesses adopting them.

Through evolving technology, fewer people have had to do low level work due to increased efficiency and automation and – in theory – have been freed up from the burden of repetitive, awful jobs. Presumably, they also learned more advanced skills for other careers, or they are now simply unemployed. A term, and an assumption, I shall return to later.

The Arrival of Artificial Intelligence

Fast forward several decades from Henry Ford’s assembly lines, and we now face the next step; Industrial Revolution 2.0 – The Era of AI. This next step involves deeper automation through artificial intelligence, and it is already underway. AI is everywhere, and it’s getting smarter every day.

Recently, OpenAI was able to teach itself Dota 2 to the point of beating professional players consistently. This included using feints and other psychological tricks to manipulate its opponent. This is much more advanced than when Deep Blue became the first computer to beat a human chess champion, and it doesn’t require a super computer to run (a Mac or PC running Linux will do).

Through machine learning technology, AIs can not only learn from trial and error, but learn context, find patterns and predict outcomes. This enables it to better sort through all the possible decisions and pick the best one, which it will also learn from, and so on.

I predict that many jobs we now think of as strictly human, will be taken over by AI technology in the next decades. It has already begun in some industries, like software quality assurance, translation, data analysis, even marketing. Pretty much any job that can be reduced to a set of parameters to indicate success, could eventually be handled by AI.

There are obvious industries like logistics – self driving trucks never need sleep, and why not use robots to load and offload said trucks at the warehouse, which is also managed by AI. How about self driving garbage trucks with robots to handle and empty the bins. No humans needed.

Let’s use Board Game Design as a less obvious example – an AI could analyze and play hundreds of games to learn how the systems work. Then compare that data to other data points (sales, reviews, common complaints about games, etc.) to learn good from bad. Finally, based on this data, the AI can design new game systems at a rate no human could ever keep up with, including preliminary playtests. A human editor can adjust the AI parameters if none of the games are that great, and the next day a whole new slew of iterations are ready to test. Add a 3D printer, and it might even make a prototype for you to try.

With this approach, you will get a myriad of products and very little innovation (the AI might accidentally innovate game mechanics, for example, but it would be a side product). Innovation then comes from how humans teach/train the machine.

Bartenders could be replaced by AIs who remembers your name, favorite jokes, drinks and songs on the jukebox – it can even suggest people to talk to, who share your interests, all in a tone of voice that is custom generated to your taste. It will also measure any loss of balance you might display, and cut you off when you’re too drunk. Once we can design them to look cute enough, you won’t care that it’s not a person – you’re not there to see the bartender after all.

Another example of what AI might do in a few years is Movie Editing – an AI can analyze the editing of countless movies and compare cutting techniques with how well different scenes were received. It can learn to adapt to genres and themes, follow the soundtrack, etc. and within a few hours create multiple rough cuts of an entire movie.

Again, you are not likely to see a lot of innovation, and the final cut would likely still need to be tweaked by a human. But the number of hours saved equals considerable cash savings, and we all know that given enough time, even the final edit by a human would be removed in low budget productions. Animated movie? A team of AIs could do the whole thing, from script to edit, even computer generated voice over!

In other words, there are thousands of jobs and career paths that will be changed forever by artificial intelligence and machine learning, exactly like manual labor was changed by early automation and robotics. One major difference is, that the AI revolution will happen at a much faster pace. This leaves us with some questions to consider, and we should consider them sooner rather than later.

Did I mention that Google designed an AI to help them build better neural networks, and now it’s better at it than their own engineers? AIs building AIs better than humans can – it’s a thing.

The Grander Vision

I am a proponent of AI and machine learning; I’ve even played around with it a little for fun. I find myself seeking some deeper answers to where technology could take us as a species. No doubt, there are problems associated with it, but by thinking about long term goals, it becomes easier to fit technology’s place into the bigger picture and hopefully find solutions to those problems.

If technology were to replace 50% of all jobs within 50 years, what do we do with all the unemployed people?

It’s time to rethink what unemployment means. By that, I mean that if the goal of technology is to free humans from doing work they don’t want to do, that in turn must come from wanting to free up our time. In other words, a society where most people are technically unemployed because of successful technological advances is actually the goal!

The problem is, that this goal is in conflict with many building blocks of society, where unemployment is typically associated with failure of some sort (you lack skills, education, experience, have health issues, etc.), and there is a lot of status associated with job titles. But if freedom through automation is achieved, unemployment becomes an expression of that freedom (to pursue your interests).

It also does not mean that people stop working. Most of us like to make things and to feel productive, and this will never change. This is where innovation comes into the picture again. And sure, some people are content to watch movies all day, but if we don’t need to work, why shouldn’t they?

Well, how would they get paid? How would they pay their bills?

This is another realm, where technological advances are in conflict with traditional capitalist thinking, namely that you have to work to earn an honest wage. I challenge that notion. If there is no need to work, no one should have to – but those that want to, should be encouraged and rewarded. And if we can lower production cost of living through technology, money becomes less important.

I am a firm believer in rewarding those that go the extra mile, and even in my imagined tech utopia, that is still a necessary and good component. If you do want to work, you should get rewarded for it – and I think it’s necessary to scale that reward with the contribution made, to keep talented people interested. Note that rewards can come in many forms, not just monetary.

I propose that we use technology to work towards a society where traditional work is voluntary but rewarded, and those who can’t or don’t want to contribute in that way, are able to choose that without poverty or shame. A passion-driven society, where we hand over the boring stuff to machines and use the gains to raise living standards of all, starting with those whose jobs we are eliminating in the process.

Is it just around the corner? No. The day may never come at all. We could continue to drive towards faster, more profitable ways to work without considering the human (or planetary) implications, as we have in the past, but I don’t think that will end well. I prefer the alternative, where we embrace the future but seek to shape it in a way that benefits everyone.