Friday, July 30, 2010

The Secrets Of My Success As An Indie Developer

So, in my last post I talked about how I botched the PR for Tidalis, and mentioned that I'd started out with very poor PR when AI War first came out, too.  In the case of AI War, the game was utterly invisible until it actually came out, and then for the first two weeks after it was out, it had literally zero sales.  How did AI War get from that dismal spot to now having sold around 30,000 copies (including copies of the expansion) and still counting?

And, for that matter, how is it I'm planning to rectify the botched PR with Tidalis?  Read on...

Step 1: Make A Good Game
Perhaps this goes without saying, but this only works if the game in question is good.  However, I put this step in here because some folks will inevitably assume that the following steps are some sort of "marketing magic" that can make a bad game sell like hotcakes.  Nothing can do that, at least not on a shoestring budget.

The other reason I bring up this step is because a lot of folks think that this is the only step that is needed in order to achieve success.  "Build it and they will come," and all that.  I'm here to tell you that only works in that one movie!  When you build it, almost no one will come, because no one will know you built it.  That's why these other steps exist.

Step 2: Tell People About Your Game
Maybe this seems self-evident, but more indies seem to skip this step than you might expect.  If you build an awesome game and then just post it on your brand-new website, how many people have you told?  Probably almost no-one.  If you get posted about on one of the many indie-related blogs, how many people have you then told?  Even if they have a readership in the thousands, that's still not many people.  A lot of those thousands of people won't like the genre of your game, or just won't be grabbed by it, or whatever.

Or, put another way: however many copies you want to sell, you probably need five hundred times that many people to hear about your game.  I just made that number up, but that's probably undershooting it.  Average "conversion" rate for people who download a demo is something like 2% or 3% who will buy it.  That means that for every 1 sale you make, you need 33 to 50 people to actually download your demo.  I have no idea how many people it takes reading about a game to get one to download the demo, but I wouldn't be surprised if the conversion rate there was 1% or less.

So: if you've only told a few thousand people about your game, and your game is awesome, expect a couple of dozen sales unless you're really lucky.  Most sites have lower daily readerships than you might expect, and even on really high-volume sites in terms of traffic, not nearly every post or article gets read by all visitors.

Step 3: Keep Telling People About Your Game
When you're a new indie, you'll get the cold shoulder.  A lot.  Press won't be interested in posting about your game, by and large, and most digital distribution sites won't be interested in you, either.  It takes time to look at your stuff, and there are a thousand other hopeful indies out there also vying for attention.

You want to cast a wide net because you never know who it is that your game will particularly strike a chord with.  As soon as you get some positive press, you can often translate that into more positive press, but until you have any you're going to really not get much attention at all until you find just those right early people to take a look at your work.  That also goes for digital distribution sites, incidentally.

Step 4: Make Sure There Is Something New To Tell People About Your Game
So, what happens if you send out a bunch of emails to press and distribution sites, and you get no response?  Do you:

A. Quietly give up?
B. Keep sending them the same message over and over again every so often?

Answer: neither, if you really want to be an indie developer.  If you start spamming press and distribution sites with the same message, how long do you think it will be before they actually flag your address as a spam address so that they don't have to see your stupid identical messages over and over again?  Even if you mildly (or heavily) reword your message, odds are you'll receive a chilly response.  You need something new to tell them, and you can bet they're expert at recognizing content-less emails, which they received a lot of.

So, the real answer to the above question is actually secret option C, which is to make sure that if you re-contact press or distributors, you have something genuinely and significantly new and interesting to tell them every time.  How do you do this?  By continually updating and improving your game.  Add in some fun new content.  Make it something significant and interesting, something that you could picture reading about from some other developer on Blue's News or ModDB.  Anything less is just going to be spam to a lot of folks.

Step 5: Keep Updating Your Game
I know I just said this in #4, but this is important enough to warrant its own step.  You need to keep adding to and updating your game, improving it based on player feedback, that sort of thing.  Every so often, do a big release with all your little changes summarized, and the most exciting ones highlighted.  Send that to the distributors, and to the press that would be interested in that sort of thing.  If you've had some positive reviews lately, you can also mention those (especially to distributors), but they aren't news in their own right.

This fifth step is also important in that:
  •  It actually makes your game better, and your players happier.
  •  It's legitimately news-worthy.
  •  It keeps your existing players playing the game longer, and talking about it.
  •  Best of all, if you like your game (hopefully you do), this is fun and rewarding.  You wanted to make games, right?  Rather than rushing off to the next title, why not spend some time making your current title the best it can absolutely be?
Granted, if your game is not already solid, this won't work.  If everyone thinks your game is terrible, and no-one will talk about your game or play it much, then the advice a lot of other successful indies give is correct: it's time to treat that game as a learning experience and move on to the next one.  Don't try to salvage it, you're just as likely to make it worse as anything else.

This whole process is assuming your game is already good or great, right?  But I've yet to see a game that couldn't be made better at least in small ways with a few tweaks and additions.  It might be some little side quest.  It might be more settings options or some improvements to the controls based on player feedback.  It might be a new enemy or a new item or weapon.  It might be some improvements to art, or a new music track, or improved sound effects.

Step 6: Be Hyper-Critical With Your Own Work
This is really a corollary to step 5.  I have never met a professional game developer, a professional novelist, or a professional creative of any sort, who thought their work was perfect.  Perfection is the delusion of amateurs.  Professionals are always look at their work in a critical way, seeing all the seams a cracks that almost no-one else will see. 

Since you're trying to sell and distribute digital games, you are in the unique and fortunate position that you can revise and extend your work at will.  You should never have an initial release that is full of known bugs, but it's inevitable that players will find some that slipped past you.  Fix them.  If you're at all like me, you were probably also boiling over with other ideas that didn't actually make it into your initial release of the game.   Release some of those ideas in patches, as "free DLC" that just comes right with the standard patches of the game.

Step 7: Take Suggestions From Players
Even better than step #6 above: solicit suggestions from players.  You might have to swallow your auteristic pride a bit at first, but once you get used to it you'll find that players are absolutely full of cool ideas you would never have thought of.  Every person views the world a bit differently, and that's really something useful in your case.  Players love to make suggestions, and if you implement those, they'll be really thrilled.  And your game will be better for it, if it was a good suggestion.

You want a way to build player investment and word of mouth?  Make them a part of the process.  Show them you value their opinions and their ideas.  These are exactly the sorts of things big companies never do.  Doesn't it drive you nuts?  Isn't that feeling of powerlessness with the major AAA games part of the reason you started making your own games in the first place?  Well, many of your players will have that same sort of feeling with your work unless you actually let them have a voice.  It's a good thing to do, for you and for them, and you'll be surprised at the positive community that can form around this.

Step 8: Give Away Free Stuff
You notice I said "free DLC" in step 6?  Yeah, all of this stuff only works for promotional purposes if you're giving it away for free.  If you try to nickel and dime the players for every little addition (or worse, ever charge them for any bugfixes), they'll quickly leave in disgust

The best part of giving away free updates to an existing game is that it's only free for players who actually buy your stuff.  This gives existing players a reason to stick around and continue to give you suggestions and talk to their friends and such.  But it also gives people who have yet to try your game a strong incentive to check it out.

Think about it this way: if I tell you a game is a year old, how do you think of it?  Is it mildly crusty and not a newsworthy sort of game?  Maybe you'll play it anyway, or you might be the sort that thinks there is enough new stuff that you'd rather see the latest and greatest games, instead.  But what if I tell you a game came out a year ago, and has had free monthly or bimonthly updates for the entire last year?  How does this affect your perception of both the game and the developer of that game?  See what I'm driving at here?

Granted, this doesn't mean you can't do paid expansions and DLC.  But those should be really meaty and worthwhile, in addition to all the significant stuff you're already giving away.  Players know when you're not giving them a good value, so strive to always do so.  And hey, it's just the right thing to do in general.

Step 9: Have Patience, Have Persistence
Don't go spamming any press or distribution sites, and for goodness sake don't make a marketing-y bother out of yourself.  Don't be sending messages to the same nonresponsive press/distributors any more frequently than monthly, and make sure you have noteworthy new news every time you do contact them.

But goodness, don't give up after one failed contact, either.  For AI War, it took us 3 months after initial release to reach 1,000 sales, or to get our first really big reviews.  It took 5 months after initial release to get on Steam.  It took 6 months after initial release before we had a MetaScore.  It took us 7 months after initial release to hit 10,000 sales.

During that timespan I added literally thousands of features to AI War (over 46,000 words of release notes just to version 2.0, no joke), and I sent hundreds of emails and inquiries, over 90% of which never received a direct response. 

But press eventually did respond, and once there was a certain amount of momentum some of them even contacted me directly.  Impulse wound up being interested in AI War early, and then GamersGate was, and then finally Steam and Direct2Drive came around to it.  For other developers the order is different, or all the distributors might not even be interested.  There are definitely still a few distributors that won't give me the time of day or answer my emails, and AI War was a massive success as far as non-contest-winning indie games go.

I perhaps went a bit overboard with how many features I added to AI War, but I was having a fun time doing it, and the player response was really great.  If I hadn't had all that encouragement from players, the press, and ultimately from the distributors, I wouldn't have done that much.  Put another way, if you're not gaining any traction, then the advice of the other indie developers is right and you should just move on to another game.  But assuming you are making progress with the players, press, and sales, you should keep at it: persistence wins the day, just not always very fast.

Step 10: Discounts Never Hurt
Another way you can get a lot of "free" publicity?  Discount your game for a brief period.  I put free in quotation marks because you pay for that publicity in the form of all those discounts you're giving.  But it's vastly more effective than advertising, I've found, so it's quite a good investment.  And having a big rush of new players is great for the ongoing publicity and word of mouth of your game, too.

If you can time your discount promotion with or near the release of some new free additions to the game, so much the better.

There are many, many ways to build a successful indie company.  I only know the way that I did it, and that this worked very well for me.  It's been a solid business model for Arcen, and it's made our players really, really happy in the main.  Want to have a dedicated fanbase?  Show them that you're willing to go above and beyond what you'd have to do.  Also?  That, again, is just generally the right thing to do, anyway.

On the PC side, I can't think of many other developers using this same strategy as us, but there definitely are some doing it.  Dwarf Fortress essentially does this, BOH seems to do this, and so on.

On the iPhone, though, this sort of thing is incredibly common.  All the most popular iPhone games (and even many of the less-popular ones) are getting updated all the timeDoodle Jump, Defender Chronicles, and Angry Birds are just three examples of many I could name.

This sort of thing really works.  And doing right by your customers is always a good idea.  Good luck!

Wearing Multiple Hats Is Tough, And PR Is Important

This has been a productive week for me, in terms of me getting a lot of things done, but it wasn't the work I'd intended to get done, or the type of work I am normally accustomed to -- so I've been feeling guilty and stressed.  Ever have that happen to you?  It's been something I've faced my entire life, but I never figured out what was going on until now.

Background Tangent: This can happen with any job
Back when I was in high school, I was a cashier for a local hardware store.  I really liked doing the sales and troubleshooting type work (helping people find the right solution for their problem, or at least finding a product in the store), but most of the time I was just on register.  I worked there for a year, and by the end it was clear I was good at the troubleshooting stuff, so I was let out onto the sales floor more and more.  And I was frequently nervous, guilty, or stressed.  I did the job fine, and customers seemed happy, and management seemed happy, and I was certainly happier with that work, but I felt guilty for not being on register.

Right after high school I got my first job in the software industry.  It started out as data entry for a few weeks, then I quickly became a system admin, then after two years I officially joined the programming team and shortly after became the head of the programming team during a big layoff (long story there).  And you know what?  Every time I changed positions, I had guilt and discomfort.  Sitting at my desk doing data entry, I felt idle.  Doing the system admin work I felt guilty because the work was something I enjoyed and was not that mentally taxing.  Switching over to programming more, I felt guilty because I wasn't working with my hands or using specialized knowledge that nobody else in the office had.

And so on.  I think that a lot of stay-at-home parents have the same sort of trouble, honestly.  They're used to doing whatever job, and now that they're doing the massively important job of taking care of their children, they feel "idle" despite the fact that they're doing something immensely of value.  It's often the case, so I've heard, that new moms feel guilty for not cooking as much, or doing outside work, or keeping a clean house, while they're busy taking care of the baby.  Obviously, that guilt is incredibly misplaced (without even getting into gender roles: it's clear they've got a demanding job with the baby alone).

So what's the problem specific to indie developers?
This week, my guilt and anxiety is because I haven't been programming as much.  Keith has been, and certainly I've spent maybe 10 hours programming myself, but the rest has been more "soft" skills:
  • Talking to the press.
  • Talking to and negotiating with potential vendors.
  • Catching up on some financials, including doing more projections and assessments so that I can make decisions about potential hires during the autumn
  • Talking with a potential PR firm.
  • Dealing with a partner that went into insolvency without paying us.
  • Getting everything ready for the next full project, Alden Ridge, so that the staff not working on Tidalis or AI War can get started.
  • Getting a head start on the design of Alden Ridge itself, so that folks on the team have a better idea of where we are already heading
  • Redoing the entire blog and coding that into the main page of the arcen site, then transferring close to two hundred older posts and articles by hand so that they'd be categorized.
  • Coordinating with both Valve and Unity 3D on some various internal things.
  • Oh yeah, and I did a fair bit of technical support and had a number of discussions with players.
This happens to most new business owners (which many indies are)
Gosh, it's been a freaking busy week.  I was working 10 hour days, which is admittedly low for me if you look at the past few months, but still.  I would never demand of staff what I have gotten into the habit of demanding of myself.  It would, frankly, be inhumane.

This is a common trap that new business owners fall into, and that "one man shops" often fall into when the team grows.  The owner feels guilty for taking any time off, feels like he/she should be working every waking moment, and so on.  That's a trap to avoid, as it's not healthy and leads to spectacular flame-outs and ultimately failure of the business.  It's something I'm working on, most of all because I'm going to be a new father sometime in the next 1-6 weeks, and I sure as heck don't want any of this interfering with family life.

But that's not the real crux of what I realized, even.  The point of this post is to discuss that guilt-thing that I've noticed in my own life going all the way back to the hardware store.  What is that thing?

Here's the problem: what exactly is it I do?  What's my job?
Personally, I think it's just an inherent difficulty with wearing multiple hats.  People ask me what I do for a living, and I rarely know what to say.  I stumble through something along the lines of "I make games" or "I have a video game company" or similar (because the followup to my first response is inevitably "where do you work?" with a hoped response of Blizzard or Nintendo or something).

What am I supposed to say?  I founded a games company, but now I act as producer there, as well as the lead designer on most projects but assistant designer on Tidalis, and yeah I do all the finances except taxes, and most of the contract negotiation except when we really need our lawyer to do it, and most of the marketing and PR stuff, and I do all the HR stuff like managing health benefits and such, and I do a huge chunk of the programming though not all of it anymore thanks to having Keith now (thank God), and I keep up the website and deal with lost license keys and the occasional customer who wants a refund and and and...

It's freaking crazy that anyone could work fulltime doing all that, and then still feel guilty for not spending 40 hours programming in any given week, but that's how I feel.  With all the rest of the stuff I do, there is a good 20-30 hours of work per week just in that.  So to do 40 hours of programming means I'm working a 60-70 hour week.  If it's crunch time and I'm trying to spend 60 hours programming, and if it's tax time or time to do payroll or time to bring a new staff member up to speed or something, then the problem is only compounded even more.  I also like to answer questions for other indies (I get a few emails a month, usually), and I try to keep up with this blog when I can.

I went to school for computer science, and then changed to a business degree with a focus on management, so I do like doing most of this stuff, especially the finances and the HR stuff.  Call me weird.  But what I like doing best is game design, followed extremely closely by programming.  When I think of "what is my job," the simple, incredibly misleading answer I like to think is "I design and program games."  All the rest of that stuff isn't something I think of as my core job, it's just something I do so that I can do my real job.  It's like chores: you have to mow the lawn and take out the garbage, but when someone asks you what your job is, you probably don't think of those things.

Why this is such a problem
Okay, so we've established that the above is a problem.  For obvious reasons, mainly: it leads to unhappiness and burnout, it's probably not healthy, it destroys any semblance of a balanced life if you let it (social life? what?), and it can lead to the ruin of your company if you're not careful.

But there is an even more insidious problem, which I have seen with so incredibly many indies that it's practically an epidemic: it can lead to a skewed sense of valuation of activities.  In other words, many indies often focus on the wrong things.  They (hopefully) focus on making the absolute best game they can, pouring all their time and energy into the current project.  That's great, to a point, but the problem is that having an obsession with the game itself can lead to tunnel vision.

And then the project is -- hooray -- done!  So what does the prototypical indie developer do?  They send out a couple of emails, make a few forum posts, and wait for success to find them.  And then it usually doesn't.

I've been around long enough to know that you need a lot of marketing and PR work done after a game is finished.  So I spent practically all last week on that, and sent out several hundred emails.  Since Arcen is already something of a known quantity, we had a lot more success with that this time around compared to when AI War came out; I think the tally of press members who have opted to review the game is up to about 48 now, and that includes something like three or four print magazines.

That's a big improvement over AI War!  AI War was really well reviewed, but only in about 20 places, and that over the span of a six month period after the game came out.  With Tidalis, everything was indeed easier this second time around, and I had 20+ reviewers asking for the game within the first 24 hours of contacting any of them.

So where in this process did I severely drop the ball?  If you were reading carefully, you've already seen it: I waited until we'd completely finished the game, and were two days away from the game coming out, before I did any serious PR or marketing work.  Sure, I did a number of videos during development of the game, and I sent out several impersonal press releases to all my press contacts, but that resulted only in a brief writeup on Co-Optimus, an early review by a small blog, a preview on Gamezebo, and a mild bit of exposure on ModDB.

That is so much less than it could have been if I'd been on the ball with the press.  If I'd put in half the effort with the press during production that I did after production, the release of Tidalis could have been so much larger of an event.

The press response to the game has been overall exceedingly crazy positive thus far, so we definitely did our duty in making the game, but I dropped the ball with publicizing it.  Those people who have heard of the game seem to really adore it in the main, but most gamers have never even heard of it.  Consequently, our sales volume so far has been about 10x lower than I had expected the minimum sales volume to be.  That is excruciatingly sobering, no?  Tidalis is well into the quadruple digits of sales after being out only two weeks (a feat it took AI War four months to reach, despite the fact that game has now sold around 30k units if you count the expansion), so from that angle it's still already vastly more successful than all but a handful of indie games.

But here's the thing: if you look at the reviews and player comments that the game is getting, it's clear that it's being undersold at the moment.  Thank goodness with digital distribution this is a problem I can correct over time.  I suspect that by the end of September things will be back on track with where I'd expected the game to be, but we're not there yet and that's where the game should have been at launch if I'd done things correctly.  I'm not worried about the fate of Tidalis specifically, Arcen is in a position where thankfully we're able to compensate for my earlier mistake and the game is good enough that it should get back on track.

What concerns me, in a larger sense, is this: I don't feel much remorse for having screwed that up.  My gut feeling is instead that, while the release was not the way we wanted, that was largely outside my control -- I sent out press releases and such, after all, but nobody responded.  The basic belief being that I could have done more, but we had limited time and I put my efforts in where it was more needed, on coding and producing and such.  And in a lot of senses that is true, it's not like I had a lot of spare time to be able to spend a full week on PR stuff in the middle of that project.  In retrospect, I should have pushed the project's deadline back a week in order to make time, but it was an honest mistake on my part due to the fact that I am not, at core, a marketer or PR rep.  So as much as I do wish I'd handled that better, I it's hard to feel particularly remorseful.

Okay... yet when I take a week largely off from programming so that I can take care of the other critical business needs that I've been putting off in order to get Tidalis out the door, I do feel guilty.  I feel stressed and guilty like crazy.  This is so incredibly backwards!  And talking to other indies and reading posts by other indies, I know I'm not the only one with this sort of screwed up sense of valuation of my activities.

This is toxic.  And it can happen to you without your even realizing it's happening at all.

So what's the lesson here?
The lesson is that if you're going to be a successful indie, you have to either get lucky or you have to sometimes act against your instincts.  My instincts are to cling to designing and programming games, not because that's the part I enjoy most (though that is true), but because that's the part that seems most core to our business.  The people that love our games love them because they are designed and programmed well (and for reasons of the art and music as the case may be, obviously, but I'm not involved as directly in those).

So if all potential players were omniscient, and knew exactly what every game on the market was, where to find it, and which ones they would like, I'd have no problem.  I'd be absolutely correct in just focusing on the design and programming, since that would be the only thing that would directly affect both sales and player enjoyment.

Since we live in a world without omniscient players, unfortunately, there is the sticky business that you can make a game that someone would love, and they'll never ever hear about it.  Or they hear just the wrong sort of information, or not enough information, for them to realize how much they'll love it.  That sort of thing happens all the time, and not just with smaller games.  How many people have you heard gush about Portal or Silent Hill 2 years after the fact, after having finally trying the game to see "what all the hype was about?"  It's just that the problem is more severe with smaller games, indie or not.

For a multitude of reasons, when it comes to publicity and PR and marketing, with Arcen it's my responsibility.  If you've founded an indie company, or are thinking of founding one, odds are that the same responsibility belongs to you.  The lesson is that most of us need to do a better job of remembering this, from the start of the development process on forward

Speaking personally, I need to get over my guilt when I'm tending to the business side of things, and I need to remember to allocate time in each project for that sort of work, because it's just that important.  As the project manager, if I'm scheduling projects in such a way that the project has no time for publicity and marketing type work, then I'm not doing my job correctly there, either.

Every successful indie talks about how important publicity and marketing is.  And they all have their own method of going about that sort of thing.  A lot of them talk about how important their self-posted previews were, or their development diaries, or early previews by the press.  Even just having reviews in-hand at launch can make a big difference.  Not doing all those things is a recoverable situation, AI War is proof enough of that, but not doing those things makes the road oh-so-much-harder, and occasionally impossible.  I remember reading all those sorts of articles, but I should have actually taken that advice.  If you're a new or an aspiring indie developer, so should you.