svero of Twilight Games is an experienced developer so I felt it would be worthwhile to pick his brain a little about indies and portals and scene in general. I was going to ask him follow up questions to these initial two but he sent back so much information in each reply I think they stand on their own!
Read and consume…
You’ve been in this indie development game for a while. How have things changed from the point of view of someone starting out fresh today as compared to when you did it? Advantages? Disadvantages? Could you speculate as to what kind of strategy you would use if you were just getting started, right now?
The main difference is free exposure. When I started, you could place a game on the popular download sites, and sell up to a few thousand units a month if the game sold very well. That may not seem like much compared to portal sales today, but it was all your money, and every sale made was directly through your website. That means if you sold 500 units, you earned ~10k at 20$ a game. It wasn’t really a walk in the park, and certainly not every game would do that, but it was possible. Traffic-wise, the numbers were there to support it. The fact that sales were direct meant you could create mailing lists of customers, and grow your business incrementally with each new release. When you wrote a new game you could get in touch with many of your past customers. Now, on the other hand, I’m not aware of any way to get thousands of sales without advertising or paying someone else a significant percentage of each sale. The only exception might be issuing press releases, which can sometimes generate a lot of sales, but isn’t completely under your control.
Of course today many developers work with large portals like RealArcade (Arguably the Wal-Mart of online game sales). It’s interesting to note that game sales didn’t HAVE to go this way. I see nothing comparable for utilities. I believe, if you make a new FTP or Calculator app, you just sell it direct through download sites the way you always did. There’s no RealApps version of RealArcade. For PDA units it seemed to go another way with the download sites becoming pseudo-portals themselves. Anyone can put an App or Game up, but the site collects a big percentage of the sale. The sale happens through the site. It’s kind of half way between a portal and Download.com – That’s probably the way Download.com should have gone when it was still a traffic contender for game sales. See Palmgear for a PDA example.
Working with a portals means you can potentially sell 10’s of thousands of units (100’s of thousands for really bit hits over time). I think the key word there is “potentially”. That’s the good part. The bad news is that you only keep a small fraction of the sales, and you don’t retain any of the customers. Portals can still be part of someone’s strategy to make money. But, if you do succeed, it’s what you do with that money and how well your game does on the portals that varies tremendously from developer to developer. For instance, if you’re lucky, and your game really takes off, it may be possible to reinvest in your own direct sales through advertising. There’s no denying that portals present some opportunities for developers that didn’t exist in terms of the sheer scope of audience you can reach and the amount of money you can make. But while the potential is still there, it’s actually very hard for a small individual developer nowadays due to heavy competition for the best promotion spots. Think of it a little like a regular retail store. You walk in and some games are on the end of the shelf in a nice display right front and center, and other games are at the very back collecting dust on a lower shelf. There are only so many good up front spots, so not everyone gets to have them. In retail stores publishers pay for good spots. I wonder how far along that will be for us? Will the top 10 be for sale eventually? It’s certainly not unthinkable. I’d also say that portals don’t really milk the full potential of every game they present. They take the 10 or so that are selling best and push those. A lot of the games that didn’t get pushed, or only got pushed a little, could have sold much better had they been promoted instead. So a game with a lot of sales potential may only make a fraction of what it could depending on how many games were released around the time it was, and what the competing games were etc… Imagine you release a good game during a lull. It can hold onto the top sales spots for a few months. So it gets more traffic and more sales. Compare that to releasing the same week Zuma 2, Diner Dash 3, and 2 other big new hits happen to be ready for release. You get no promotion and sell very little of the exact same game. There are a lot of factors that play into how your game does and not all of them are under your control, and not all of them have to do with how good your game is.
I’d say indies starting out today should focus on a long term business strategy. It should be one that makes sense for them personally, and which builds solid value into their business. If portals have a place in that strategy then by all means, work with them so long as it continues to be profitable and feeds into that strategy. There isn’t one good path for a company to follow. I think what developers should be asking themselves is… If I were leave this business tomorrow, and I wanted to sell it to someone else, what would it be worth? If the answer to that is little or nothing then IMO, you don’t have a good business strategy. Whatever you’re doing, you should be trying to build wealth into the business itself. If, for instance, you sell a game through portals only to finance the next game before you go broke and sell through portals again… you’re rolling dice. If the audience changes or the market becomes inaccessible or unprofitable for any reason, you’re out of business. It’s not like the developer a few years back using download sites, because in his case every game he launched generally led to a bigger audience that knew about and purchased directly from him. That has real value. Many of the small or mid size devs that are doing really well today gained their traffic and audience several years ago. New devs have a harder time because they don’t have a direct audience they can cater to. They have to earn every sale from day 1 and they’re hard got and not free.
The indiegamer.com forums have been alight lately with discussions centering around the future of portals and specifically those developers who cater to that audience. My feelings on things are fairly well documented but what are your feelings on the chances of a casual game, especially one that is cloning another, making it big today? And, so we’re clear, by “big” I mean generating a substantial enough income that the author can fund their next game and still have a little to put away for a rainy day.
Well it depends. Are you a single programmer living in an apartment in Indonesia doing his own artwork, or a new startup company in San Francisco with 4 former retail game guys, who all have families to support, and who just rented their first office? There’s a huge difference there with regards to “making it big” by your definition. How much does it cost you to produce something competitive? Assuming we’re talking about the PC downloadable market, and not cell phones, or consoles or any of the other ways a good game might make money, then what does the market look like for either of these guys?
In a recent Gamasutra article Reflexive said they spend $150,000 to $350,000 developing a new game. I know smaller companies (myself included) are spending in the $50,000 to $150,000 range as well. That might seem like a lot but someone living in the states, just covering their basic expenses for the 6-8 months it takes to finish a game might easily spend 30-40k. Then you also need to consider art, music, sound, some kind of marketing budget etc… And we’re not just talking about a few games. We’re talking about many companies releasing several games a year with those production budgets. Popcap, Iwin, Bigfish, Reflexive, Playfirst, Sandlot, etc… And then there’s all the smaller or mid level established studios like Retro64, Arcadelab, Raptisoft etc… And of course in many cases the smaller studios are teaming up with the big guys for distribution and funding. For instance Raptisoft works with Popcap, and I’ve worked with Iwin.
Most games will see a small sales spike when they’re first introduced, and then after a few weeks they’ll fall off and sell very little. That’s true for well funded games by established studios as well. Looking back this year, 12 games were released in January on Realarcade. 9 of those didn’t last even a month in the good sales spots. Of the 3 that did, none made it to the 2 month mark. I guess it’s easy to say.. well my game will be better and those games didn’t deserve to sell well, they weren’t that hot etc… but I know quite a few developers who thought they had the next big thing, only to find out that actually they didn’t. So, sure, portals make a lot of money, and I believe that the market is growing and still has a lot of potential, but while the portals are doing well, I also believe that each individual small developer has to struggle a lot harder to succeed. There’s simply more competition in the market. Part of the reason those games don’t last so long is that there’s another game that’s just as good to take their place. And quite frankly I don’t see the market getting any easier. To me it looks like it’s getting harder. Most of the top games are by established well funded studios, and I think it will veer more in that direction over the next few years.
With regards to clones.. well I think it’s a mixed bag business wise. Obviously if you produce something orginal that’s good and goes on to be a big sales success people will clone you. Sometimes they’ll do so with very little shame, and as quickly as they can, copying almost all the details of your game to speed up their own development and grab a chunk of your success before anyone else can. Raptisoft coined 2 good terms to describe that. Parasite cloning, and my favorite “Skin and Win!”. It’s not too encouraging to someone who wants to develop an original game. I have one in the works now with a unique mechanic. I’m on the 12th prototype, and it’s not quite fun yet. Suppose that game takes off when I release it. The cloner doesn’t have to do any of that research or experimentation with the gameplay. If it works they just do it the same way I did it. Subtle things can make a big difference and when you’re really designing it takes time to figure out what works best. Couple that with the fact that publishers and portals are more reticent to really push or pick up an original game, and it can be a little disheartening. I know many developers ask themselves… why should I bother doing this when, by copying, I can do away with a lot of the risk? I’m not personally against cloning per se. I think there’s a place to take a good basic idea and run with that and do something of your own. What I dislike is when companies copy everything as a way to reduce risk, and try to dig into someone else’s success.
So on the other side fo the coin, if you’re the one cloning, is it a guarantee of success? As a pure business decision, I obviously can’t sit here and tell you that cloning doesn’t work at all. Customers are in fact hungry for certain kinds of games, and willing to buy the same game over and over again. Portals are also on the lookout for what the current hot style of game is and more willing to accept that kind of game and push it up front and center because they know it sells. But I think it’s also a little deceiving. It looks like making Luxor again with say, an Indian theme, is a recipe for success. So why risk innovating? But in reality, a lot of those sorts of clones don’t last very long in the sales charts. Part of the reason is direct competition. If you were inspired by Diner Dash’s success to make a similar game you’d have to contend with Mystic Inn, Diner Dash 2, Snowy Lunch Rush, Cake Mania etc… That’s a little different than competing with dissimilar titles where one customer may prefer what you made over a Diner Dash game. In the clone case customers looking for that style of game will select the best one, or the one that most suits them for whatever reason. I’m not completely sure, but I believe the money gets split up more between similar games. If to counteract the competition, and short sales span, you’re trying do it on a low budget, your chances of competing directly with something like Cake Mania are diminished. So, all in all, I think it’s a pretty dubious business strategy for most newcomers. It’s certainly not a free ride, where you can walk in with any old copy of a game and make big bucks.