Starting with the sixth GDC 2015 takeaway, Eric switches from game design to business. The first business talk, Surviving the Jump from AAA to Indie, was packed with plenty of warnings for any game developers who are thinking of going Indie.
When I spotted a talk about jumping from AAA to Indie, how could I not attend? A subject that’s always on my mind, I wanted to absorb as much information as possible from the people who have taken the plunge. In this talk, five indie game developers spoke about their personal experience of leaving AAA to go Indie.
The first speaker was Shawn Alexander Allen, who left Rockstar to make Treachery in Beatdown City. His talk was much more personal than the others and focused on some of the emotional trials that face people going into independent game development. To make a game that stands out takes time, and, during that time, there’s nothing to compensate you for the incredible amount of work you put into it. Going so long on your own, without anything or anyone to tell you whether you’re making the right decisions is stressful, not only to you, but to the people around you.
And the success bias that portrays the glamors of indie game development, or any form of entrepreneurship, tends to sweep the less glamorous side under the rug. After all, the media focuses on success stories; no one interviews the developers who put a game up on Steam Greenlight only to never have it see the light of day. And for every Minecraft, there are tens or hundreds of thousands of games that leave the developer broke and sometimes broken. In Shawn’s case, he did experience success in the end, but it carried a steep price, and he warned that it’s important to consider that price before making the Indie leap.
Mike Bithell (Thomas Was Alone, Volume, Steam), who also gave a talk mentioned in GDC Takeaway V, focused on two points: not being overly conservative and being human.
In Mike’s case, his conservative nature meant that he couldn’t admit he had fans in the early days. Had he been able to admit it, he would’ve done more in the early days to stoke those fans, and push his business forward, so he warned against making the same mistake. He also warned indie developers to stay human by putting your voice and your opinions out there, while not trying to own every conversation about your game or your company – trying to own a conversation not only feels patronizing to fans, but feels weird to the person doing it. He wanted developers just starting out to be friendly and fast to respond to their fans, because the early fans are the ones that stick around.
The third speaker, Cliff Harris (Democracy, Gratuitous Space Battles), focused more on the jump out of AAA. He mentioned how difficult it was for him to leave AAA because all of his coworkers thought he was crazy to leave such a stable job for something so risky. But he gave a piece of advice regarding this that works for any jump from a stable job to a risky one: the people telling you that you’re crazy are subconsciously trying to justify their decision to stay behind. If they admit you’re making the right decision, then where does that leave them? Of course, their concern is not all selfish; they usually do want what’s best for you, but like an overly concerned parent, they might not know what’s best for you.
He also warned that one of the difficulties of going Indie is that there’s no longer anyone to talk about your game with. Without coworkers, there’s no one to turn to for advice, leaving you in a strange place where you have no idea if what you’re doing is right or wrong. He also gave a few business-related hints, such as: create a dedicated office, make sure to enforce serious working hours, use an hourglass to take breaks, and get outside and exercise (Cliff chose archery).
He finished his talk with a few business hints: in the UK you need to be making $150,000 / year / employee to make a go at it as a business; haggle if anyone comes to you with an offer; and spend the money to advertise because there’s no other guaranteed way for people to know your game exists.
Borut Pfeifer (Skulls of the Shogun) gave a warning to indie developers about the value of game publishers (hint: they’re not as valuable as you might think). Usually, when a developer hooks up with a publisher, they’re looking for the publisher to use their promotion and marketing resources, their connections, and their experience to make sure the game gets into as many players’ hands as possible. But, like book publishers, the publisher’s goal is to get as much as possible for as little as possible. It’s better for them to throw out as many games as they can and hope for one to stick than to risk advertising dollars on a small number of games. The strategy works for them; it’s why they continue to do it, but it doesn’t work for the developer, who often signs too many rights away in exchange for so little in return.
Borut gave some specific hints, one of which was to never give platform exclusivity away. If a publisher is willing to pay you for a platform exclusive, make sure you set that exclusivity up as a sliding window, where you can eventually release on other platforms. In fact, doing so often gives you the chance to focus on developing for other platforms in stages, rather than trying to hit everything at once, and the publicity from a previous platform success can help on a new platform.
He also warned about something I have experience with myself: developing for new platforms takes more time, especially if you’re developing for them before they launch. Although he didn’t go into too much detail, I can fill in from my own experience. There’s a tendency to see a new platform as mostly complete and ready to ship minus a few details (should we paint it black or white?) before launch, but platforms actually receive a lot of major changes that affect game development right up to the last few months before launch when they finally get sent out to factories for production. “Months” sound like a long time, but when you think about how game submission processes often require months, that doesn’t leave much time for the developer to react to changes. For most platform holders, new platforms are a work in progress. In a handheld, for example, the screen resolution might get changed every few months as the platform holder realizes they can squeeze a better screen into the machine, or the resolution might drop because they decide they need to get the price down to remain competitive. For home consoles, the memory might double (or be halved). And although a new platform is a wonderful chance to become “the game” on the platform and receive a lot of attention, you’re going to have to consider the cost of adapting to changes and working with undecided specifications even late into development. Games are difficult enough to get working even without that extra hassle, so launching on a new platform requires very cautious estimating.
Borut did give some specifics regarding ways to negotiate value from a publisher. One was setting spending caps on marketing or requiring developer approval for marketing campaigns as a way of protecting yourself from the publisher spending your future income in ineffective ways.
He also warned developers never to chase the money. If you’re doing something for free in the hopes that something will come of it later, you should see that as a red flag that “later” probably won’t come. If you still feel the need to work for free, at least get those “later” promises in writing. He also warned developers to double-check each and every contract they sign. In the end, what was discussed between the developer and publisher can often get warped back into legal boilerplate (the standard publisher’s contract), so you need to be aware if that happens and be able to request the differences be stricken from the contract.
The fifth and final speaker, Robert Zubeck (1849), went into some advice about launching games. He was very cold on the mobile market and recommended launching on PC first, then going mobile to make sure your game has some awareness built around it when it goes mobile. His reasons for being hard on mobile-only launches came down to numbers. Premium content is a difficult sell to players who have so many free options, and free-to-play is a red ocean market, with a lot of participants holding fat advertising wallets to make sure their game gets to the top. (One example I can recount is the Clash of Clans train looping through Tokyo – that’s right a train… in a foreign country… try to outspend that!)
One problem he did mention with having a PC launch followed by a mobile launch is price setting. Frankly, prices need to be lower on mobile because players aren’t used to parting with as much money as on the PC, but of course, having the same game with different price points will upset PC players. (I’m not aware of any great answer to this problem, so if you’ve encountered one, it would be great to hear about it in the comments.)
Robert reemphasized the importance of getting your game out in people’s minds on PC first because there are so few effective ways to get your game out in people’s minds on mobile. With so many games and players churning through them so fast, word of mouth is difficult to spread. And advertising doesn’t work very well for premium games. Also, unlike in the PC or console market, review sites are not that influential. The most effective form of advertising, getting “featured” in the store, is a crapshoot because of how few games make this coveted spot – though you can improve your odds by using the hardware in unique ways and implementing all of the platform features.
Although the five speakers only had a limited amount of time to speak, they each managed to step past the unwarranted glamor that so often surrounds “going Indie” and doled out useful information for anyone considering taking the plunge.