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!

Inspiration and Game Prototyping

TL;DR: Get feedback on your projects, right from the prototype stage, and listen to inspiration when it presents itself.

I was watching The Walking Dead, when I had the idea for a game, where you are surrounded by increasingly large mobs of zombies, and you have to move around them, and take them out as they come at you. I imagined it as a top down game with a square level, kind of like Pac Manm, but in an industrial lot, or something along those lines. The idea flashed as a brief image in my mind, so not exactly a fully fleshed out game.

Sudden inspiration like this is something that should not be ignored. Even if the idea is simple. It might grow, after you plant it. So, the next day I made a prototype.

It’s simple enough. You use a mouse. Left click to move, right click to fire your gun (hold it down for continuous firing). You will die in the end, so it’s really just a matter of how big of a score you can get before you do. Explosive barrels can be used for extra points. There are occasional power-ups that spawn in, that may also help.

I call it “Don’t Touch”, because even a single bit of damage will immediately end the game. So stay alert!

The game made the rounds at the day job office, where a few coworkers “tested it” and gave me the best feedback ever: they went back for more, all on their own.

When people like something you make to the point where they want to keep playing it, and voluntarily offer up ideas of their own, that will feed even more inspiration.

When an inspirational feedback loop is created, and as a creative person, your job is to listen and take away all you can. Because most of the time, creative work is not done based on inspiration alone. In fact, the inspiration part has very little to do with writing a novel, recording an album, or creating a video game. It’s hard work, and if you want to finish your project, you can’t just sit around and wait for inspiration to strike.

So when it does strike, pay attention. I am sure you are busy, I certainly am, and I really don’t have time to work on another game. Unless I carve a little extra time, I’d otherwise spend on playing Fallout 4.

Yesterday, fueled by the reactions I’d gotten, I added a new power-up mode that gives you a temporary boost in rate of fire. Like equipping a machine gun with limited ammo. Shred those zombies hard, 10 seconds at a time! I also added something I’d not yet tried implementing in a game – a killing spree bonus based on a timer. If you kill 3+ zombies in a row, you get bonus points. If you take too long, it resets.

I like adding things and tweaking other things, based on the feedback I get, plus throwing in a challenge for myself, like adding the killing spree.

I am not sure where this particular prototype will go. I’m fine with it entertaining myself and a few friends for a few minutes here and there. You can play it too, of course. Maybe when Torgar’s Quest is done and launced, I will turn it into something more.

Story in Game Design (2/2)

This is part 2. Part 1 is about story in video games in general. I have split this post in two, but could have just as easily filled the pages of a book. Incidentally, there are already many excellent books about storytelling out there. Part 2 focuses on the story in Torgar’s Quest.

Story in Torgar’s Quest

Basically, Torgar’s Quest is about a dwarf running through a dungeon, killing and destroying things along the way, while looking for treasure. That is where I started, and while the game mechanics were fun, the game needed story to better tie the elements together.

Some background and motivation for the game’s main character seemed like a good place to start. In this case, a reason for Torgar Splitbeard to be in the dungeon, and a goal the player can help him achieve.

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Early on, I had decided that to win the game, you would need to find and collect 7 crystals. It was an easy jump from there, to say that these were actually shards that together form a powerful artifact – The Mastery Crystal, which Torgar of course is seeking to find. Brainstorming is your friend when developing story, and much of what came next was a product of exploring this initial idea.

Seeking to boost Torgar’s motivation, I decided that he was the underdog of his clan, a younger prince with no hope of inheriting power, and everyone in his family saw him as weak, and incapable of achieving greatness. Here I had my first glimpse of Torgar’s personality: clearly upset, with a strong need to prove himself to his clan, and more so, to become powerful in his own right.

Whenever I am stuck in developing a story, I start asking questions. Why is this character interested in X? How did Y learn about Z? What if something unexpected happened? By asking questions, I soon had a tie-in between the crystal artifact and Torgar’s own story.

Why was the artifact split into shards? What if the Mastery Crystal was too powerful, and hunting for it could corrupt Torgar’s very soul? I liked that, so in the game, the longer you take to find the seven shards, the more twisted Torgar becomes.

I also started wondering about the dungeon itself, and decided it had once been the home of Torgar’s clan, but that the dwarves had been driven out during an invasion of monsters many years ago. This adds to Torgar’s resolve: he is not only seeking a magical crystal, he is also taking back his clan’s old home. Tying story strings together is never a bad thing.

I included bits of lore to spice up the Deepgold Mines, which can be found in hidden tomes around the dungeon. These books of lore serve no other purpose than to add flavor, a dash of humor and to make the game more fun. But if you’re the kind of person who tends to skip the flavor text, you can simply ignore it and play the game with no penalty – an important detail, because I definitely did not want to force players to stop and read, if all they want is to bash monsters (Diablo handles this by using a voice over that plays in the background, but that was a little out of my budget).

No matter the size and budget of your game, carefully consider its story and how you can get the most out of it. I strongly recommend reading up on story structure and narrative methods. Coming from a game-perspective, also read about how stories are told and characters are developed in film and novels, which will help you find and develop your own universes full of exciting stories. You may also enjoy reading about storytelling in marketing, and learn more about stirring emotion and excitement in the people who play your game.