One advantage of working so long in the games industry is that I’ve met and worked with a bunch of talented people who have gone on to do amazing things. On Tuesday I was lucky enough to get Matthew Wiggins (ex-CEO of Wonderland Software, makers of Godfinger) to meet me for lunch and talk through his experiences of founding a start-up and making his own games. Here’s his advice as best I can remember it, mutated and possibly badly paraphrased (damn me for not taking a tape recorder).
“Never start a company with anyone you wouldn’t want to go to war with.” – For now this doesn’t hugely apply to me, as I’m currently a one man band, but in the future there’s a good chance I’ll want and need help making the sort of games I want to make and asking myself this question about any potential co-conspirator will save a lot of pain in the future. Are they someone who would have your back without question? They have to be as you are going to literally rely on them for your livelihood.
“Know your competition” – Your game doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It exists in a (potentially over-saturated) marketplace where you will be competing for the consumers’ time. If you don’t know what else is out there, what they’re doing right, what they’re doing wrong, how your game is different from the herd and how you’ll persuade your customers to play and pay for your game and not someone else’s, then you’re taking a huge leap of faith. If someone is making a game better than yours for cheaper (or free) then why would they ever part with their cash for what you’re making. Not only will you learn about the marketplace ecology, but someone might have fixed a problem you’re having with some aspect of your game (maybe in a significantly different gaming space) that will save you time and effort. Unless you directly copy the art or the line-for-line code of a game it is horrendously difficult to break their copyright. Zynga have proved this over and over again, though I am not a lawyer, so it’s worth speaking to one if you’re suffering any confusion about potential legal issues.
“Publishers won’t be interested in funding a one man start-up” – I’ve been considering various options for financing myself and any potential games I make. I’ve thought a lot about my costs and outgoings on a monthly basis and figure I can carry on for around 2 years without any sort of financial input (though I’ll be continually re-assessing my situation and only continue long-term if things are on a generally upward vector…ending up penniless without releasing a game or two that I expect to do well is not an option). However, there are more costs to making games than simply keeping myself in tea and biscuits (and paying for my rent, car, insurance, tv license, internet, electricity and so on and painfully so forth). Where do I get art and how much will it cost me? Who will test my game, on which platforms and what will that cost me? Will I need a second programmer (or a third or fourth) to get my game design implemented and what will that cost me? Where do I get sound effects? Do I pay someone to make game music? Do I need to use middleware or SDKs or buy in libraries to save myself time? All of this could cost money or a percentage of the final game profits, so figuring out how to pay for it is a core consideration and knowing that getting a publisher involved is not a solution, might well affect the game design to ensure I can minimize those costs.
“Decide on the platform you’re passionate about and focus on that” – So far I’m aiming for my game to be as cross platform as possible. I’ll detail technical considerations in a separate post but the route I’ve taken so far is C++ and OpenGL. These technologies (with the appropriate glue code for each platform) will allow me to target almost any platform apart from Windows 7/8 phones and Microsoft Surfaces. I’m tempted by the Marmalade SDK as it should allow me to continue with this line of development with pretty much zero glue code, but that’s something I’m going to have to delve into in a more serious way before I can make that decision. Up to now, though, I’ve only implemented the glue code for iPhone. OpenGL ES 2.0 works for anything from 3GS and onwards, which opens up a large enough audience for myself, although testing to date is limited to my iPhone 4. Matthew’s advice was to pick a precise format and make that my focus. Multi-platform support considerations are all well and good, but trying to do everything from the off defocuses development and exchanges time for future potential. With a dev team of one I can’t afford to do that. I shouldn’t even initially be putting effort into supporting iPad, which essentially requires no changes to iPhone code, until the iPhone version is complete. I think that’s pretty wise. To not dilute effort until I first have something worth pushing onto the primary platform means I’ll stay focused and get to that goal sooner rather than later. I think I’ll need that morale boost of finishing something, further down the line when things are tough and I’ll be glad to not have to seriously consider the multi-platform knock-ons for each and every technical choice I make. However this will almost certainly make it harder to move to another platform when the time comes.
“The app store is an honest marketplace” – Essentially what Matthew meant by this was that he thought it was difficult to game the app store by buying reviews or artificially inflating your game rank. I pressed him on the best way to get my game noticed by the general public. As I keep saying, the app store is a very saturated marketplace. Getting your game noticed, however good it is, will be a struggle. He thought that the best people to court were journalists and early adopters who will get your game on the front pages of gaming portals and across to their friends by word of mouth (or tweet of twitter). Buying good reviews from a handful of large outlets would be quickly swept aside by real opinions from other journalists and early adopters, whose reviews and social media output would be legion. I questioned him more about how best to do this and his opinion was that keeping a blog is good for journalists but not the general public (only a small handful of people would be really interested in reading a blog), his blog is generally linked to from twitter, where he follows many journalists and builds interest and respect by talking about games and gaming developments with those journalists, as they arise. It’s their links back to his twitter feed, blog and games, as well as their news articles about all three, that gets him onto those websites to be seen by the early adopters who tend to be more interested in gaming developments, but push that information out to the general public by word of mouth. This is definitely an ecology I’m going to need to interact with and understand more, as gaining media traction and gamer interest is the most significant known unknown I have.
“Have a website, but keep it simple and mobile friendly” – When you manage to get journalists interested enough to post about you, your company or your game, then it’s a shame to let that publicity go to waste by not having somewhere people can find out more about you and maybe even buy your product. Having a website is a great start, but many people make the mistake of making it monitor friendly, with 1600 by 1200 resolution for that high definition background wallpaper, when your customers are iPhone users who will be looking at it on a relatively tiny screen. Having a link that takes them directly to the app store on their device is also a must, presuming your game is ready. There’s limited point to having lots of publicity long before they can actually buy your game. The chances of them remembering to come back without a future reason to are limited, so don’t waste publicity by making announcements long before your game is out. You might want to build excitement, but this should be in terms of days or, at most, weeks before the launch.
“Videos should be short and sweet” – If you get a video on your website or otherwise out there for public dissemination, then don’t fail to get people to watch it through by ruining their viewing experience after you’ve persuaded them to click. You’re advertising to the 10 second attention span generation, so starting a video with a black screen and fading up the music before showing your company logo 10 seconds in, means they’ve already clicked onto the side panel showing skateboarder kids bouncing their faces off the pavement whilst failing at stunts. You want to be into the action straight away, with minimal build-up, engaging the viewer with a new game feature every few seconds to get as much salivation-worthy material in front of their eyes before presenting a button to take them to the app store to buy your game. Sure, get your logo in there somewhere. Put it in the corner out of the way or display it at the end of the video. You can even make it clickable, but don’t let it get in the way of making a sale, because almost no-one will care about you or your company. They will only care about your game.
“Get analytics for your game and release into a smaller territory to get feedback before general release” – Knowing how your game is played, where players got to before giving up, what interactions led from a free game being converted into a paid for game or what caused in-app purchases to be made is hugely important to your business model. Being able to release into a relatively small territory to test the waters and make general improvements to increase customer spend could be the difference between failure and success for your game and your ability to continue with indie development. Matthew mentioned Flurry Analytics as a good option for this purpose and it’s something I’ll be checking out, along with a few of its competitors, as my game progresses into full production (as opposed to the prototyping stage I’m at now).
So those are the nuggets of wisdom I managed to remember. I’m sure there were more and will add anything that springs to mind. If you have any similar suggestions or links to other people’s top-10-things-to-remember-when-making-an-indie-game, please post them below.