Category Archives: business

This is something I give a lot of thought to. Partly because I see other people talking, sometimes worrying about it quite a lot. I should put my own position and experience into perspective here, for anyone who is new to the blog. I started making indie games in 1997. Since then I worked for about 5 years in total in AAA dev, the rest of the time I’ve been part or full time indie, and I’ve been full time for a good nine years. I made Kudos Democracy and Gratuitous Space Battles.

The market for indie games has changed beyond all recognition since I started. When I started, the site you aimed to get on was not steam, but download.com. The other big site was Tucows, and later came Yahoo Games and Real Games (remember the real player?). Buying online was treated with suspicion. Online sales services paid you by a mailed check. Everyone bought direct from the developer, and normally got a code to unlock the game, which came packaged as a zip file.

a simpler time...

a simpler time…

How times have changed!

The market for games in general, but indie games in particular, has snowballed since then. The general short-term lazy answer to this is ‘because of steam’. Sure, steam helped, but selling indie games online paid off my mortgage before I even got a game on steam. Sites like Yahoo Games and Big Fish Games did very well indeed for the developer. I remember getting a $20k check for ONE MONTH from yahoo games. happy times… The reason I’m, saying this is not to boast, but to point out that the existence of online portals that market and sell indie games and make good money for developers isn’t that new. The thing that is new is the scale. Those $20k checks are no longer a big deal. You know whats cooler than $20k? $200k! or maybe even more!!!!1111.

The problem is, we have a LOT of indie developers who have joined the story in the third act, when the $200k is the norm, and $20k is nothing to write home about. Not for them the idea of coding from your spare bedroom with expectations only of meeting the bills. Now the indies expect to get that $200k a month. They cut their clothes accordingly, with rented offices, new PC’s, appearances at all the trade shows at around $10k a time after travel & marketing stuff is taken into account. The minimum team size now seems to be about 4 full time devs, plus contractors, voiceover talent etc. Budgets start at $50k and go up and up and up. But it’s fine, I hear indie games make $200k a month…

A small indie team circa 2014

A small indie team circa 2014

And the thing is…. some do, or they have done for quite a while. There are plenty of stories about the money indie devs are making. I’m not doing bad myself, and the only reason I keep quiet about the money my games make is I think it’s VERY misleading data for people starting out. I read a great article recently about devs who worry when they ‘inspire’ people to quit their job. This is indeed worrying. People suffer from enormous confirmation bias. They want to hear that they can get rich making games they love, who wouldn’t want that? I did my bit by giving two really downbeat and depressing ‘de-motivational’ talks at world of love and its follow-up where I point out the harsh business realities of selling an indie game and making a living. Generally, people don’t want to hear that.

indie attitude

indie attitude

The stories about steam and humble-generated millions, plus notches sales stats have persuaded a huge number of people to go full-time making indie games. Good luck to them, I wish them all well. I love indie games, I’d rather the next Call of Duty game was cancelled and the money spent making 200 small indie games instead. That would be great from my POV as a gamer. But…. I worry that the current setup is not sustainable, because so many people have entered the business during boom time.

Bluntly put, Boom time is where the middlemen get rich selling services to the suckers who just joined in before the crash. Do I think there is a crash coming? Yes. Why? Well it’s got nothing to do with steam ‘opening the floodgates’, which is firstly just exposing the reality of the market (and hopefully calming the boom) but secondly going to be fixed by them soon anyway…

The guys selling shovels got rich...

The guys selling shovels got rich…

The simple problem is a lot of indies are running at a huge loss and they don’t even realise it. Their expectations are sky high and their experience of the business is zero. Your first game will probably LOSE money. Mine did, and my second, third, fourth and fifth. The good news is, I made them all part time and had no kids to support anyway,m and the budgets were tiny. I used coder art for them all. Once I finally worked out how to do things I did my first full-time games, then my first with non-coder art, and so on. At each stage, I spent another 25% or more than the last game, and expected maybe 25% or more sales. I NEVER assumed the next game would make the same as the last, let alone more, and I certainly never required it to in order to pay my bills. I was slow-and-steady, and cautious.

And I’m still here.

But I strongly suspect a lot of indie devs won’t be in 2017. The ratio of developers who will earn $100,000 next year to the percentage who think they will is…probably quite scary. If you are new to the business, and are making your first game, and expect it to make money, don’t forget that many of those devs you read about are like me, with 17 years experience selling indie games (and in my case 34 years of programming). Keep your confirmation bias in check and look out for developers with the same experience and background as you to draw real conclusions about expected sales.

the average indie biz plan

the average indie biz plan

I encourage people to reach for the stars and follow your dreams. I do, but I also make damn sure I’m prepared. I always like to be assured of victory and guard against any possible failure.  You *can* be ambitious AND cautious. I think there *is* a crash coming, when all those ‘first indie projects’ finally ship….to not *that* much in sales, and a whole swathe of developers realise that they need to go work for a bank programming stuff they hate for a while as they build up the experience.

I don’t like to be the prophet of Doom, but I do see a lot of business plans and projections from indies that are frankly terrifying. Do your homework.

Behold, it is announcement time! You know I’ve been blogging a bit about my indie game site at www.showmethegames.com, maybe mentioning all the new articles on there written by the talented Dan? Well that was just part of the SMTG world domination plan. Behold phase II!

It’s time for the SMTG Dirty Dozen Discount week:

ddd

So what’s all this about then? It’s a dozen high quality indie games you should know about, that all have the option to buy direct from the developer, and all of which are on sale for the next week. Some of them have huge stonking great discounts, like a political strategy game I’ve read *great* things about. You should go check out the page right now. And of course, you all know this, but it is extremely helpful if you can share the news on social media, twitter, reddit, facebook and so on. I feel a bit stupid asking people to do that, but then most people complain about paid advertising, and most people complain about self-promotion on social media, and it just ends up as an arms race to see whose readers are the most likely to retweet things, which I guess is inevitable but seems a bit weird. Anyway…. all such promotional help is hugely appreciated. Now… why should you care?

  • This isn’t a bundle. you can buy 1 game or all dozen, which makes a change
  • This is another place offering game discounts and offers, and variety is always good for the consumer in a free market.
  • 100% of the money goes to the developers. I run SMTG out of my own pocket. the site doesn’t take a single penny.
  • Did I mention 100% of the money goes to the developers?

So there you go…hopefully it gets noticed, generates some sales for the developers involved (including me, I’m one of the 12), and it justifies doing it again some time.

 

Show me the long term

August 17, 2014 | Filed under: business | showmethegames

It was a long time ago that I set up www.showmethegames. It was done out of exasperation with a conversation I’d seen 100 times in private lists and forums and email conversations that goes like this:

indie #1: we should set up a site that encourages people to visit each others indie websites
indie#2: thats a cool idea. It should have forums and a blog
indie3: ...yeah! and it should have regularly updated content...
indie4:..not only that, there should be embedded video, and also devlogs, and listings for all our games
indie1: Excellent, who is going to set up the site?
....sound of tumbleweed....

So I thought ‘fuck it’ and set one up myself. I got a lot of indie games listed on there, paid a web designer to do a logo and initial site design, and spent some time talking to other indies, even recording video from conferences to post content…

And it did ok. We ran a sale once, and that got very good traffic. But then I got busy. VERY busy, and getting anyone to write content for it was like pulling teeth. I should know better, because I was fighting against…

THE TRAGEDY OF THE COMMONS

Which is basically why nobody had ever done this before. So about three months ago I changed my strategy. I’d left the site neglected for a while, but now I had a new outlook, and it was this…

“I am going to invest in building up SMTG as a decent traffic generator for indie game developers. It doesn’t matter that I do it alone, or that others are benefiting from my work and financial investment. In the long term I’m building up an asset. It’s not worth much yet, but it will be, and in two years time I’ll be glad I did it.”

So I hired a proper game journalist to write cool articles each week for the site which are now online. I also re-engineered the back-end a little bit to support me updating it more often without a lot of legwork by me. I also have other plans, to be revealed soon. I’m spending a few thousand dollars here and there. Not a lot, but not totally insignificant. Many indie games sites die through lack of traffic and interest. I’m prepared to do what it takes to keep this site running.

To that end…it needs more games. It needs recent games. HIGH QUALITY indie games that sell direct (through humble widget is fine), and that are finished (not early access). Do you know any? If so email em at cliff AT positech…. etc.

Fuck yeah D00ds!!!!!!!!! Welcome back to another FUCKing BLOG post. YEE-HAW!!!! and it’s me Cliffski! Your Gaming commentator who TELLS IT LIKE IT IS! Lets see what KRAAAAAAAAZZZZY things are happening in the world of games!!!111oneoneone.

Every now and then gamers take part in incredibly self-righteous debates about how games are ‘art’ and a mature art form, and are being unfairly discriminated against compared with more ‘established forms of media such as books, films, TV and the theater. Why is gaming treated as some ‘lesser’ art form or media when other areas of the media are held in comparatively high respect?

I think it’s pretty clear why. or to put it in gamer-coverage terms, DUDE, it’s like FUCKING obvious you Noob!

I’m 45 years old. I have a bald spot, own slippers and have a pension. I play games, and so do a LOT of people my age, and a bit younger. Pretty much everywhere, everyone treats me like an adult. When I read a book or magazine, it treats me like an adult, ditto for most websites I visit, or events I go to. Except when any of those involve games. When it’s games related, suddenly I am targeted as though I’m a horny and stupid 13 year old boy who wants to shout a lot and say ‘fuck’ because mom isn’t watching. This hasn’t been something that appeals to me for about THIRTY YEARS.

As a quite committed, serious gamer, I can ignore a lot of that and still enjoy what is my hobby as well as my job, but it *must* turn away a lot of people my age and in their thirties. I am EMBARRASSED at a lot of gaming coverage, whether it’s in a magazine, or online, and especially in video. Lets not even mention TV. I would have assumed that the situation would have got better over the years, as more people into gaming like me grew up, but if anything, the youtube obsession has made it much, much worse.

Lets face facts, gaming will NEVER be taken seriously until it sheds this infantile image. Tax-breaks for the gaming industry? how do you make that argument to a politician my age (or older) when a quick search online for interviews with game developers shows them being quizzed by embarrassing kidults in bandanas holding skateboards saying DUDE and FUCK at every opportunity? You think that appeals to anyone who is in their forties? It’s not just journalists. even the head people at gaming divisions for Microsoft and Sony have the tendency to start saying stupid dumb things and doing high fives on stage the minute they talk about games.

Some games are deliberately immature and silly and aimed at kids. Some aren’t. All of them get reviewed by people who think they are making adverts for nerf guns. Please grow up, it is acutely EMBARRASSING to see 30+, or 40+ men pretending to be ‘down with tha kidz’. The next time you are posting a video review of a game, see if you can manage it without adopting a stupid voice, and without swearing. If people can review books and movies in a normal voice without screaming and making knob jokes, I theorize the same can be done for games.

There is some twitter discussion about this:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-28363729

With controversy about this:

The Commission said: “These include not using the word “free” at all when games contain in-app purchases,”

I fully support this. I think we have an absolute basteridsation of the word free, and that governments should regulate the hell out of it. There are various books on the topic of how the word ‘free’ sets off all kinds of triggers in our brains that ‘very very very cheap’ is nowhere close to. It seems we respond overwhelmingly positive to ‘free’ and ignore all the caveats and disclaimers around it. Basically a ‘free to play’ game is BETTER to our subconscious than a game that is not ‘free’.

But come on, you and I both know F2P games are anything BUT free. They are designed to get as many people as possible (but realistically not all) to pay for ‘upgrades’ and ‘customisations’ and ‘conveniences’ within the game. The business model depends on the game experience being dissatisfying to the extent that you pay to skip bits you don’t like, or improve things you are unhappy with. Why give the player 100 unlock points per battle when you can give them just 5, and charge $1 for 100 unlock ‘gems’ instead? Cynical, cynical bullshit…

The trouble is, this WORKS. it works well. It works in the way cunning modern advertising works, it plays to tricks in our brain, and the way we are easily fooled, lured, confused and misdirected. We are not vulcans, but massively irrational animals who are at the mercy of our primitive subconscious desires and pattern matching. The idea that any of our purchasing decisions are rational is a joke, and the idea that we are not being manipulated by cynical F2P business models is a joke too. It’s perfectly understandable that so many of these F2p companies employ pyschologists. They aren’t there to make the game fun, they are there to make you spend money. Lots of it.

This isn’t new. There were scandals many years ago about subliminal techniques in advertising, and advertys are regulated to prevent the blatant techniques that some ad agencies would like to use. The trouble is, it’s difficult to ‘rule’ on these topics, because it’s all open to interpretation. For example, is this an advert for a sandwich…

a-suggestive-burger-king-ad

Or is it a pretty obvious, and crude and blatant comparison to oral sex? Now prove that in court…

The difference between ‘fuzzy’ issues like that, and F2P games using dodgy practices is that it’s pretty easy to regulate F2P to curb it’s worst excesses. For example, if a game actively prompts the player to purchase add-ons within the game, than I don’t think it’s fair to call the game ‘free’. No game should allow you to purchase more than ten times in a day, or more than some limit per week, and above a certain amount, they absolutely should ask you to re-enter your password, or confirm that you know you have spent $1,000 on gems this week.

Some people are addicted to alcohol, even though most of us aren’t, so we as a society tolerate warnings on advertising and branding pointing out the dangers, and in the UK we ban drinks ads in many environments. The same is true of Gambling. Most people who drink, or bet are not addicts, but we place curbs and restrictions on those activities because we know to some people they are VERY addictive.

Alcohol makers and Betting shops got lucky, they happened to create a product that was already addictive to us. People who employ psychologists for their F2P game are Actively and KNOWINGLY working to generate addiction in their customers so as to milk them as much as possible. Profiting from selling games is fine. Knowingly creating a marketplace full of addict by using psychological tricks is not an entertainment industry I want to be associated with. Legislate the crap out of them.