Indie Gamedevs: You’re (Probably) Doing it Wrong

I’ve been meaning to do a post for a little while now about some of the more common mistakes I see a lot of indie devs make when they release on the App Store. I am more than guilty myself of making these and I didn’t want to really say anything until I had actually gotten a more successful release under my belt, as otherwise I’d just be all talk and no walk as they say. I’m sure I’ll keep making mistakes and I don’t claim to have all the answers, but hopefully the answers I have are somewhere in the neighborhood of the right ones.

This post is geared somewhat towards the App Store, which is what I have the most experience in, but I’m sure a lot of this advice could be applied to any game on any platform.

The biggest reason I am posting this is because I see a lot of really fantastic games coming out all the time and many of them get lost in the shuffle because of one or more reasons which I’ll hopefully address below. It hurts me to see so much blood, sweat and tears go into the development of a game only to have it thrown to the wolves and eventually fall into obscurity. That being said, not every game is going to be a success, but for the love of all that is good in the world if you care at all about your game try and give it the launch it deserves.

First of all, I just want to get it out of the way and say that I believe that the “gold rush” on the App Store, if it even existed, is long since over. That’s not to say that there aren’t any opportunities to be successful on the App Store, it’s just that it requires a lot more effort or a lot more luck to achieve that success. To continue the analogy, if what we had before was a gold rush where any crazy old prospector with a goofy hat, a straggly beard and a fart app could dip a pan in a river and come up rich now we have a gold mine where anyone with the right tools can get even more gold out of the cold, cold earth of the App Store.

The primary, and perhaps unfortunate, conclusion I’ve come to when it comes to the secret to success on the App Store I can sum up in two words, but I’ll use four for emphasis, and mild swearing:

Hard God Damned Work.

 

Sure luck still plays a big factor, but you aren’t doing yourself any favors by not taking advantage of the fact that you yourself can (and should!) do everything in your power to give your game the best possible chance at being successful. Yes people often deride the App Store as a “lottery” of sorts, usually in a somewhat dismissive tone because you know, only fools play the lottery, however it is the only lottery I know of where you can stack the odds in your favor.

So without further ado, in no particular order, are some things to help improve your chances on the App Store. But remember, it’s going to be a tough slog and your first game may not be successful but if you don’t give up and learn from your mistakes you’ll be bound to succeed.

If You Build It, Will They Come?

There seems to be an attitude that is prevalent in a lot of people that if they make something amazing it’ll automatically sell like crazy. The fact of the matter is, this is generally not going to happen and statistically speaking your chances of getting noticed at release without any marketing work are so small you might as well put your game on a USB drive and throw it in a dumpster. I don’t know if this attitude has a name or anything, but I want to be clever and scholarly and call it The Field of Dreams Fallacy, it has a nice ring to it don’t you think?

Even if your game really is so awesome that the entire world will be clamoring to get it on release day, you should still take some time and effort to try and get the word out about it beforehand. Many indie devs take advantage of the open development process to help get people interested in their game early, sharing stories about how the game is being developed, showing work in progress screenshots and generally talking about the game. There are many forums out there geared towards showing off your stuff. Take advantage of them!

While there are some who are concerned that someone may steal your game idea, just remember that it’s not necessarily the idea that’s important, but how you execute that idea. Also you may run the risk of being criticized which will hurt, or ignored which might also hurt, but if you’re not out there trying to find a potential audience for your game then it’s going to hurt even more when nobody buys it. Also if you do get feedback/criticism take all of it in and evaluate whether or not it is valid and/or worthwhile to heed. Yes it’s your baby and your creative vision, but it is for that reason very easy to ignore the flaws in something you are emotionally attached to.

Another important thing you can be doing at this stage is attempting to find people in the games journalism space who may be interested in giving you early coverage. These people are often very busy, so don’t become a broken record and annoy the hell out of them, but they do need content for their sites and that content includes news of up and coming games like yours! You may not find someone right away, but don’t worry and don’t give up, you may have to find a less busy site which is in need of new things or a big scoop, just remember these smaller sites and writers may and do go on to become bigger players in the industry so don’t ignore them, they need you as much as you need them.

Also when you do decide to pitch your game to them, just don’t parrot the usual “It’s addictive!” or “A unique twist on <genre>!” (Note: I am guilty of having done this in the past, I am not proud of it) These journos are sick of getting PR like this in their inboxes and even if they overlook your liberal use of hyperbole-filled content-free language it certainly isn’t helping your chances of them actually paying attention to your game. So here your best bet is to be succinct: Tell them why your game is awesome in plain english and make it very easy for them to see either screenshots, or even better, a video of your game in action. The key here is do not waste their time, they get dozens of new game pitches every day so you need to stand out!

At this time it would also be a good idea to start building a list of sites that you think might be a good fit for covering your game, both generic to the gaming platform you’re on or for indie games in general as well as genre specific sites. It would also be a good idea to use a site like Alexa so you can sort these sites by how much traffic they get. Don’t use it to exclude smaller sites, because you need all the coverage you can get, but it is good to know if a site is worth spending more time, effort and resources on or not.

To sum this one up, let’s just say that I spent about half my time working on what I would call marketing aspects of Red Nova during it’s approximately 7 month development period.

Failure to Amaze and Delight

Another relatively common problem a lot of indies seem to encounter is they release a game that is technically good but is either visually and/or aurally dull, an uninspired genre clone, interesting but frustrating to play, or any other combination of reasons that prevent users from becoming interested in and eventually falling in love with your game. Or at least falling in like with your game, anyway.

Basically, the more interesting your game or some aspect of your game is, the easier time you will have getting players, and more importantly, the lovely games journos mentioned previously talking about your game. You can address this in two different ways: polish and features.

As emphasized in a recent blog post by Noel Llopis, polish is a very important aspect of making a game. I won’t try and repeat everything he said here but the upshot is extra time spent polishing your game is always time well spent. Little things like the right sound effects, visual effects, extra animation, more explosions and so on can take a good game and make it truly great. It really is amazing how much more complete a very simple game can feel if you go that extra mile. It’s all about psychology, and people definitely notice these things.

Another way you can help differentiate your game from the competition is by concentrating on features that make it unique or better than most of your competition. These features don’t necessarily need to be complicated to implement but every novel or interesting thing your game does that the other games don’t increases your chances of getting noticed. Take some time to think about this and go that extra mile, trust me it will be worth it in the end.

Finally, always take time to make your game pleasant or at least not frustrating to play. If your game is annoying to play because the player is frustrated by the controls, then they are not going to enjoy the game at all. I learned this lesson well with the constantly fiddly controls for Chromodyne and hope I have managed to serve my penance with my improvement of the rather poor state of action touch controls with Red Nova. In the end, it turned out that I could promote this improvement as a feature, which ultimately helped earn the game a lot of good press.

A Launch Day is a Terrible Thing to Waste

This is probably the biggest and most common mistake indie iOS developers make, and that is the failure to recognize how important it is to take advantage of the control they have over the release date of their game. I realize the desire to put your game on sale immediately after you get the notification that your app is “Ready For Sale” is a strong one, I have felt it myself. DON’T DO IT! Keep that release date set to some point in the future and pick a day for your release date, change the release date in iTC to that date and stick to it. The idea here is to try and maximize the amount of buzz surrounding your game over a short period of time to generate a spike in sales, hopefully getting you into the charts.

If you have been doing everything right, by now you have gotten some game reviewers at least somewhat interested in your game. If not, especially if this is your first release, don’t panic too much, but you will have your work cut out for you. You see at this point you have 50 promo codes you can give out for your game even though it isn’t available for sale. The idea here is to get those codes into the hands of reviewers so they can write up a review and hopefully if things go well, have it ready for the release day. You can use the list of sites I mentioned you should make earlier to figure out who best to give promo codes to. If you have already gotten coverage earlier in the development cycle, it’s a good bet to give those sites promo codes for sure.

Use this time to create a press release as well. There are a number of press release services online that can get news of your game to a huge number of news services that cover different aspects of the games industry and you’d be wise to take advantage of them. You never know who might pick up the news. Also much like your pre-release pitches, keep the hyperbole and marketing-speak to a minimum. The easier you make it for someone who has to pour through dozens if not hundreds of press releases a day to see that your game is interesting and awesome the better.

Another thing you might want to consider, as a small and relatively unknown indie game developer, is the actual day you release your game on. For some reason it has become “common knowledge” in the iOS world that the best day to release your game is on Thursday. I’m not sure how this got started but for a number of reasons it’s actually now the worst day for a small and relatively unknown indie game developer to release their game. This is because practically everyone is now releasing their games on Thursday, from the crazy old prospector with his fart app to all of the big publishers and everyone in between. This means that it is going to be that much harder to get attention for your game seeing as it’s basically going toe-to-toe with the game release equivalent of the God King. I don’t know if any other particular day is better, but the rest of the week is quieter and you stand a better chance of getting more coverage from more sites because they need content every day of the week, not just Thursday.

One last piece of advice here, that I of course learned the hard way, is it’s probably a bad idea to launch close to the Christmas holiday if you don’t have a huge name for yourself or a lot of pre-release buzz surrounding your game. There is going to be a massive amount of noise from new releases and massive amounts of sales and even though there are going to be a lot of new device owners looking for games, chances are they probably won’t be buying yours.

Conclusion

The upshot of all this advice is that you have more control over the path to success that your game can take than you think. Yes luck is a massive factor in how successful a game is, but you should still do everything in your power to give your game the best possible environment for that success.

Most important of all: don’t give up, learn from your mistakes, learn from other people’s mistakes, and eventually you will get rewarded for your patience and hard god damn work.

27 thoughts on “Indie Gamedevs: You’re (Probably) Doing it Wrong

  1. Owen Goss

    Great post, Colin! I think your point that it’s “Hard God Damned Work” is one of the most important take-aways here. I admit, I was naive when I started indie dev that my game would kind of sell itself. I still did a lot of work to get press, etc, but learned the hard way that it still wasn’t enough. Marketing is hard work, but it’s necessary work. The sooner one can learn that as an indie, the better. 🙂

  2. Jon Lim

    I think these are all applicable to indie games in general, not just iOS games. Sure, their markets may be a lot more distributed and decentralized than the one you can find here, but the information still applies.

    Have reviewers write about it, spread the word, and work like crazy on the release date.

    Great post, thanks for writing it!

  3. Aaron

    Great article. I still believe that the magic is in the “Failure to Amaze and Delight.” If you make a quality game that it fun to play it is going to do well. Most people put out crap, myself included. For the people putting out crap, the marketing and release date strategy become much more important.

  4. Colin Post author

    @Aaron
    That’s the Field of Dreams Fallacy though. Certainly if your game is not the next Angry Birds then you’re going to have to work that much harder on doing your marketing. But there are a ton of games I’ve played and enjoyed and at least personally feel are amazing but because of a failure to properly market them they basically faded into obscurity, and that’s sad 🙁

  5. Colin Post author

    @Owen Goss
    Thanks Owen! Your own posts on your early encounters with the App Store were invaluable when I was getting started, so I’m glad you enjoyed the post 🙂

  6. kriss

    Actually, if you cared about your game rather than imaginary amounts of apple gold then you would not be making it for an ios device in the first place…

  7. Colin Post author

    @Eric Brill
    Thanks and good post. I think we are both arriving at the same point, though when I say “luck” perhaps I should be using a different word. When I say luck I generally mean “factors outside your control” which can make or break your launch. I certainly don’t mean it in the sense that a release is like rolling dice or that poor “lottery” analogy.

  8. Colin Post author

    @kriss
    I think you’ll find those two things are not mutually exclusive. Trying to make a living doing something you love is not a bad thing I don’t think, and right now with a low barrier to entry and a huge installed base the App Store is not a terrible place to try and get a start doing that.

  9. Daniel Wood

    I actually posted this in a thread on TA yesterday but it’s relevant to this discussion:

    “Don’t think it’s anything to do with your game. People on forums and games press simply don’t appear to be interested in anything that’s not a) by a big publisher b) by people they know personally c) already successful.

    My game got no attention from anyone at all before I released it despite me posting on many forums, and emailing all the review sites [multiple times]. The only response from any press I got was telling me in no uncertain terms that they weren’t going to review my game and to stop wasting my time emailing them.

    Fortunately for me Apple had to look at it and they decided to feature it in German and Austria. It’s now sat at number 17 in the overall paid chart in Germany above Angry Birds Seasons.

    Since, it’s been reviewed several times, mainly in Germany but some English speaking sites as well. So I guess this falls under option C, already successful.”

  10. Colin Post author

    @Daniel Wood
    For what it’s worth I had absolutely nothing going for me when I made Chromodyne but I did get some coverage from a few larger sites (PocketGamer and 148Apps come to mind), not that it really helped but that’s besides the point.

    I can’t specifically speak to your experience, but I’d like to think that some of what I say about doing things to make it easier to catch the attention of the press will increase your chances of getting noticed despite not being big.

    Having made some contacts already via. Chromodyne did help, but it was far from successful and a lot of the press I got for Red Nova was new and from sources that had previously ignored me. Again, not every situation is the same and the upshot of my post is about improving your chances of getting noticed, not guaranteeing notice. Make no mistake it’s not fool-proof advice, but I hope it helps.

  11. HK

    Some tiny bits of advice wrapped in verbal diarrhea.

    Bullet points, and keep it short.

    Maybe read a guide on how to write articles on how to make a guide for the app store?

  12. Tami

    Very good post, Colin. There are other mistakes that indie devs, and even big studios make – some are quite glaring, others are for the more nit-picky niche markets like myself – while others are an “oh, didn’t think of that” kind of oversight. To the Canadian devs on here, I will publicize your game
    1) if you let me know about it
    2) don’t 100% expect a review from me, because I’m only 1 person, I have an “outside of the industry job” plus I don’t like gaming on my PC, and I only have a 2gen iPod Touch, no smart phone (yet). I like my 360 and my Wii. And my DS. And I have a backlog of games that I already have to review.

  13. roger dodger

    So, where’s your best selling game, Colin? Oh, yeah … thought so.

    Nice theoretical post.

  14. Colin Post author

    @roger dodger
    I’m sorry, where exactly did I claim it was “best selling”? Red Nova has sold enough copies (>4,000) to put it into the top 7% of apps on the App Store, it charted fairly well and was picked up by Apple and a number of review sites so I figured I’d share some of what I learned between my first unsuccessful game and my second more successful game.

    Thanks for playing!

  15. Brando

    Everyone who is replying to you in anger doesn’t want to accept responsibility for their lack of success. I’m guessing it’s a facet of this evolving “everyone is a reality tv star” spotlight-syndrome culture that anyone who puts out a game is supposed to be lauded and showered with riches. These are the same angry folk who say that Minecraft was just lucky and Angry Birds is simply a ripoff.

    The irony here is if that they took your words to heart and took a hard look at themselves and their strategy they’d be better off for it. Sadly most seem to be happy to wallow in the “it’s just a lottery” theory and venture out onto forums to look for others to support their self-fulfilling misery.

    Kudos on saying what needs to be said, and for bravely exposing yourself to the rabble.

  16. Tyler

    @Brando @Colin
    Great article and I agree with Brando on the trolls. This is the same advice I give anyone interested in developing for mobile platforms. Additionally, I’d recommend that indy’s stop calling themselves that like they’re some underground rock band in the mid 90s. Make a proper business website and try to look bigger than you are. It will help you sell yourself to game reviewers and the people too. No one wants to get behind a stinker.

    @Daniel Wood
    I’m quite sure that 98% of the consumers in the mobile markets have no idea who made what. It’s about a level of sufficient polish and marketing. Games like Angry Birds and Cut The Rope are well polished and consider every aspect of the user experience. They are also aimed at an extremely wide audience. This might translate into money from a big publisher yes. But it can be done even now… look at Tiny Wings for example.

    Luck favors the prepared.

  17. Colin Post author

    @Tyler
    Thanks for the thoughtful reply Tyler!

    I don’t think “indie” is necessarily a bad label because in a lot of ways as really it has taken on a different meaning in gaming than it did with music. There are definitely a lot of independent game studios who are large, professional and make a quality product and identify themselves as indies.

    Also, while I agree that it makes sense to have a coherent strategy I would hesitate to trump yourself up too much because most people can see right through that. While it’s not always applicable to gaming I do a lot of reading in the startup space and Jason Cohen of A Smart Bear sums it up well here: http://blog.asmartbear.com/youre-a-little-company-now-act-like-one.html

    Also there are many benefits to being sincere and presenting yourself as a small developer because there are sites out there, with large audiences even, that appreciate and support the work small developers are doing. Obviously they will be looking for something interesting, but if your work speaks for itself it shouldn’t matter who’s making it and frankly it’s more compelling for a journalist to write about a small developer doing amazing things precisely because it’s newsworthy.

  18. Tyler

    @Colin
    Some of the time I agree.. but I see a lot of people using the term Indy as interchangeable with something like “Starving Artist who makes games that are too cool and difficult to play for normal people to appreciate”. I’m just saying, get over it and act like a business.

    Who doesn’t love a sincere win like Matt Rix’ up there or Andreas Illiger.

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