You’re working on an indie game? Fantastic! That’s brilliant. You must be feeling so proud, so overjoyed, so brimming with creative spirit and confidence. It’s a great feeling, isn’t it? Soak it up. Bask in it, while you still can. Because I’m about to rip it apart.
Your game – that project you’ve been dreaming of doing since you were a wee whipper-snapper, the project you’re pouring your heart and soul and life savings into – is probably going to struggle. And it’s probably going to struggle for a few key reasons.
This blog post is a reality check. Don’t take it personally. We all get married to our own ideas; we all think the stuff we make is beautiful, or else we wouldn’t be making it. But it’s a cut-throat market out there, on Steam, or the App Store, or the eShop – and the sooner you can get that perspective, the better your chances will be.
So, without further ado, here are five hard truths about your indie game – and how you can work around them to be in with a decent shot regardless.
Your game isn’t unique
In 2020, there were 10,263 games released on Steam alone – the vast majority indie games. I could count on one hand the number that was genuinely, truly unique.
This isn’t necessarily a problem. There are only so many permutations of genre, gameplay, art style and story. There definitely aren’t more than ten thousand.
You don’t need to make a unique game to be successful. But if you rely on your game’s uniqueness as part of your marketing strategy, you’ll more than likely end up disappointed.
Instead, consider focusing your attention on what is at the heart of your game – the reasons you decided to make it, the key features that get you up in the morning and keep you at your desk late into the night.
Your game might beg, steal and borrow from a hundred others, but the exact fusion of creativity you’re bringing to it is yours and yours alone. Be descriptive in your pitch, tell the story only you can tell, and people will infer what makes it special. If you’re struggling to do that – if you really can’t pick out specifically what is at the heart of your game and your game alone – that might be a sign that you need to refine that design document a little further.
Your game looks terrible
Long gone are the days when indie games got a free pass on the graphics. With dozens of games releasing every single day – many of them with dazzling art styles and extraordinary visual finesse – you’ll get lost in the noise if you can’t capture someone’s attention with a screenshot.
Many indies confuse “good looking” with “eight billion polygons”. The good news is that you can be successful as an indie without an entire art department on hand. The trick is playing to your strengths and hiding your weaknesses. When Mike Bithell started work on Thomas Was Alone, he realised he wasn’t very good at drawing organic shapes. So he made a game about quadrilaterals with personalities.
Resist the urge, then, to try to compete with triple-A blockbusters – but invest time, effort and resources into honing an art style that stands out in a still image, and animations that wow the moment you hit ‘play’ on your trailer. The average Steam user spends less than ten seconds on your store page before moving to the next thing, and it’s through their eyes that you can win their heart.
Oh, and please resist the urge to buy all your assets from the Unity store. You can get away with some prefabs – the odd crate here, a cheeky table there – but store-bought assets have a tendency not to sit together neatly, to make your game look incohesive, and players will smell it from a mile away. Your art assets themselves are just as important as the code that displays them all on-screen and tells them how to behave.
Your game isn’t competitive in the market
While subtle, there is a difference between a good game and a competitive game. And I’m not talking about leaderboards and esport competitions here, either.
A good game will be enjoyable, invigorating, entertaining and rewarding. A competitive game will almost certainly be all of those things, but it’s more: it’s a game that has an advantage in the market over other similar titles.
If I want to buy – ooh – a point-and-click adventure game on Steam, I have more than two-and-a-half thousand to choose from. I’m only going to buy one game today. Why should it be yours?
Your competitive advantage (or disadvantage) in the market is the result of how your game’s quality intersects with its discoverability, its price (or value for money), the slickness of its marketing assets, the novelty of its concept, the names attached to it, the kudos you have as a developer, the quantity of players who may potentially be interested in it, endorsements by press and influencers, the number of similar games available, word of mouth, and more besides.
When you’re evaluating your competition, looking at their successes and failures, be sure to assess a representative sample of case studies. What are the most successful games doing? What are the least successful games getting wrong? What percentage of games in this genre tend to perform well? What’s the average, and what can pull you above it? All of these questions are worth asking yourself – really asking yourself – before you get too far into your project to correct your course.
Your game will be delayed, and then delayed again
Throughout my career, I have worked with and for a huge number of indie game developers. I’ve made and shipped several games myself. I’ve marketed hundreds. And almost without exception, every single one of them has released later than first planned.
Making games is hard. The first time I made a game, I was confident in my six-month production schedule. The game finally released a year and a half later – and only then after we’d cut a bunch of features so as to actually get it done.
The more games you make, the better you’ll get at estimating how long things will take, and the more you will be able to predict and mitigate problems before they arrive. But even very experienced game developers get it wrong, regularly – because typically, your second game will be more complex than your first, and your third more complex than your second, and you’ll run into new and unexpected issues every time. And you’ll still inevitably come up with an awesome new idea half of the way through production, something that absolutely needs to be added to your game. You’ll have promised yourself you won’t allow the scope to creep, but come on. The idea is awesome. You won’t be able to resist.
You must be realistic about this – partly because it will affect your marketing plan, and partly because it will affect your production budget, which in turn impacts your bottom line and the ability for your marketing work to bring in the required returns. As a rule, assume your game will take twice as long to make as you think it will – but don’t be surprised if you overshoot that target too.
Your game won’t be as good as you hope it will be
Look. No one sets out to make a bad game. Everyone, in their head, is trying to make their magnum opus.
But very few games are exceptional, despite their creators’ best efforts.
I don’t mean to dash your hopes and dreams, but it is worth going into your project with realistic expectations. If this is your first game, why would it be better than other studios’ second or fifth or tenth games? Equally, if having a great team with a great idea and a decent budget was all you needed to make an instant classic, there would be a lot more instant classics in the indie game scene, and far fewer bankruptcies.
Of course, you should aim to make your game as good as it possibly can be – iterating on your idea, being open to feedback, always trying to make it better. But you should also resist the urge to grow dollar signs in your eyeballs by comparing your project to that one-of-a-kind super-hit that got glowing reviews in every outlet under the sun and made its creator a millionaire. That could be you – but however talented you are, the odds are low. Don’t bet your livelihood on it.
Instead, try your best to maintain perspective on the game you’re working on. Seeking objective outside feedback can help – and by “objective” I mean not friends, not family members, and not people who are standing right in front of you at a convention because they’re probably going to tell you they love it regardless of what they really think, just to be polite.
There are plenty of developers who’ve had decent success from making games that are just fine. The trick is to be mindful of the product you actually have – not the one that exists in your mind – and market it on its own terms, its own strengths, and its own competitive advantages. Is it a pretty good game with an awe-inspiring soundtrack? Sell it on the soundtrack! Is it a piece of perfectly okay genre work that you’re selling for half the price of your competition? Sell it to die-hard genre fans and focus on value for money! The worst thing you can do is market your game based on what you wish it were, rather than what it actually is – because that only ever leads to disappointment all around.