Monday, November 20, 2006

so you want to be indie developer

So you want to be an indie developer huh?

Well, it’s not all sun and fun in the indie developer realm. In fact, it’s hard. Damn hard. In fact, it’s so hard, that I think you need convincing how hard it is.

So let’s get down to some science*

Actually, let’s get down to some probability theory!

So before we can start analyzing probabilities, we have to give ourselves a goal. So what should that goal be? Well, why not make it an interesting one. Our goal as set out, is to make one million US dollars (because that’s the currency most of our games will eventually be sold in).

A million bucks worth of sales of our game. Can’t really be that hard can it?

So let’s start off by defining the factors that affect our game and its ability to get us to our first million (after all, once you’ve made one million, the next one will be a cakewalk right?).

Factor 1 – Concept (Choosing the game)

This is the first important factor. It determines for instance, how we sell the game. It also determines WHO we sell the game to. That is a really important factor, because this part actually determines our target audience and hence we can guesstimate from that the potential size of the market.

So we need to choose a game, where the target audience is vast. It has to be as big as possible if we are going to hit out target. So let’s start off by deciding that our target audience is PC. This is rational, given the number of PC sales worldwide and the estimated 140 million* already out there. Plus we know that making games for consoles is hard.

So seeing as we are trying to maximize our potential audience, let’s go one step further and let’s make a game that targets as many of those as possible. Which means low end 2D only and using a software renderer, none of that 3D hardware requirement madness.

What else do we need to think about here? Oh yeah, the GAME! Well, that’s easy. Let’s take a mix of whatever is selling right now and outdo it. Basically, we will trawl through the most popular games of this type and make a game that fits in nicely with them.

So what’s the million selling game idea?

Well, after performing extensive focus tests* and extensive research* we came up with:


Yes, taking the large audience for tycoon games and mixing them up with the huge audience for “diner dash” style games. We are going to revolutionize the industry by melding two top selling themes together. Maid Tycoon (MT for short from now on), will blend the management aspect of tycoon games, throw in the micro-management of diner dash style games. Mix it up with a female friendly theme (maid service) and we’re all set!

I think we hit that one out of the ballpark! But we’re not done yet. The next important factor is:

Factor 2 – Production (Actually finishing the game)

So the next important part is actually making the game work. Of course, everyone knows this is the easy part. Basically, take whatever idea it is, write it out in fully descriptive text (it has to be ONLY text for this to work) and make sure each and every detail is laid out, as everyone knows “failing to plan is like planning to fail”. Of course, we should use the latest production processes. So lets expect that we need pair-programming, extreme scrumming. I think basically we can take this factor as a given.

Factor 3 – Marketing (making sure everyone knows about it)

Ah, now we get to the fun part! Of course you knocked the ball out of the park again with the production, so we know we have an AMAZING game. In fact, lets make sure that whenever we talk to anyone about the game, we remember that word AMAZING. I think it sums the game up quite nicely.

So, with marketing, we need to basically get everyone buzzing about our game. So of course we schedule some advertising. Maybe do a few interviews. This should actually be really easy!

We can factor the costs in later, but for now, we can assume that the marketing will be AMAZING-ly easy.

Factor 4 – Sales (convincing them to buy it)

Wow. It get’s even easier. Of course everyone knows about our AMAZING product. We knocked the ball out of the park with our marketing efforts. Sales are the easiest part, because they are just a function of how AMAZING our marketing was.

Running the numbers

Ok, so here is the scientific bit. Here we will analyze the type of numbers we need to look at in order to secure our first million.

Let’s start with some initial “guesses” at values.

Ok, the target audience if we count the number of PC’s is approximately 140 million. Let’s be a little conservative and say that maybe only half of those can actually play games at all. So we have around 70 million capable PC’s. Ok, so lets say that roughly speaking, around half of those are English speaking and have a connection to the internet (our game is download only, so we max out our profits, don’t want to waste time on the middle man).

So we end up at around 35 million PC’s that can play our game. Not bad. So we can use that as our target audience.

Input 1 – Target Audience 35 million.

Ok, we now have to look at the game itself. If we made a “perfect” game, we might hit our target audience just right, but we don’t want to be foolish. Let’s go with the idea that our game is about an 8/10, 80% of 0.8 of what it could be if it were perfect. This might lose us some sales, but we can live with that.

Input 2 – Game Quality 80%

So we now have to look at marketing. It’s a well known rule of thumb that you generally are going to hit 1% of any market with marketing. So lets mark that marketing down with a figure we know.

Input 3 – Marketing 1%

And now we have to think about what has happened. We’ve marketed our game, so now we have to convert the sales. We might as well apply the 1% rule; everyone knows that it works for sales too!

Input 4 – Sales 1%

Then the final part, profit!!! Yay! Ok, so let’s assume an average profit of $15 per sale. Seems reasonable from a $20 sale right?

Input 5 – Average profit from a sale. Let’s assume $15 per sale.

Ok, so let’s try and map out some “what if” figures for what we know so far.

So the estimated sales for our game are:

35 million * 80% (0.8) Game quality * 1% (0.01) Marketing * 1% (0.01) Sales * $15 (how much we are going to make from a sale) = 42,000 dollars.

Erm, hold on a minute? How is that going to get us anywhere near our million? Surely I must have made a mistake.

So ok, let’s start doing some “toying” with these figures.

First up, I must have made a mistake with the marketing. We have an AMAZING game remember; surely people will want to know more about it. So let’s tweak that value a little.

Hmm, let’s say that we can actually hit 5% of our target market. Let’s see how that looks.

35,000,000 * 0.8 * 0.05 * 0.01 * $15 = $210,000

That’s starting to look healthy, but it’s still not exactly getting us near our target value. Maybe I should just assume we actually made the perfect game. How does that do?

35,000,000 * 1 * 0.05 * 0.01 * $15 = $265,000

Nope, something is still definitely wrong. So wrong in fact, that somehow the logic must be flawed right? I mean, it takes up to 20% conversion for marketing to actually hit my target profit!

So what’s wrong with the model?

Nothing is wrong. Yes that’s right, absolutely nothing. Ok, the figures might be out, but essentially the problem is that fundamentally, well, let’s just say that you shouldn’t be looking at indie development if you want to do it to become a millionaire.

Getting serious

Ok, so my scenario is pretty stupid, but honestly, it’s not like we haven’t seen plenty of people saying “how much can I make” often enough. What this proves is that essentially developing games as an indie you would be well advised to consider your motivations. I’m not suggesting you can’t make a reasonable living. I’m not even saying it’s impossible to become a millionaire doing it. I’m simply saying that the chances are highly against that happening.

What this exercise should tell you, is that you had better get your head straight about why it is you want to get into indie game dev. Financial aspirations seem to be a very BAD idea if that is what’s driving you.

For myself, I do it because I like to be creative. With less than zero skill at art and relatively minor skill in music, game development is my best shot. Plus it happens that the medium is one I really love, having spent a good part of my life playing and making games.

I read a great article about one of the guys from Capcom about doing Steel Batallions. To paraphrase him, he went to his bosses and said “Look, I know we wont make any money with this thing, but think about it, this is the ONLY time we will ever get the chance to make a game like this”.

Thinking of it that way is brave, but it also is inspiring. Doing it because you only ever get one chance, one chance ever, to really make your mark. I applaud the sentiment.

So, fellow would-be indie, may I suggest humbly that if you are thinking of becoming an indie, forget the monetary aspect of it. It really is peripheral to the joy of creation. It is the creation of something that stands for who you are and what you believe that should be your driving force. Please consider this when you get locked into the debate over sales and marketing.

* Well, when I say “science” I mean in the shampoo or cosmetic ad kind of way.
* Focus test involved asking the woman next door.
* Reading Zzap! Magazine issue 14

This post was part of the ‘So you want to be an Indie Developer?’ blog project. You can find the other entries via these links:

Cliffski's blog
Lemmy and Binky
Reality Fakers
Bone Broke
Game Producer
They Came From Hollywood