Five Years of Being A Full-Time Indie Game Developer

Five Years of Being A Full-Time Indie Game DeveloperReflections on Career Choices

Wow, it’s been a while. Figured passing another milestone is worth at least some sort of update. Looking back at my 1 year milestone has been amusing. My initial thought was that almost all the points brought up 4 years ago would no longer apply. A lot of the insights back then are strangely still quite applicable. So what’s happened in the 4 years since? On a more personal level, I’ve improved my eating and exercising habits to stay healthier. If I want to be at this for many more years to come, letting my health deteriorate while I work isn’t the wisest decision. On the games front: I’ve helped ship 4 games across 8 SKUs not including at least 5 pieces of DLC across those games, with a 5th game currently in production. Not too bad in terms of productive output.

On the satisfaction front, not much has changed, which is great! Each day I look forward to working on something cool or improving something we’ve made. The “case of the Mondays” is still a fading memory. While most of what I said back then I think still applies, I figured I could address some of the changes that have occurred in the past 4 years in regards to iOS indie game development. I think for anyone that is starting out in this market they’ll find some useful info below and hopefully avoid the mistakes I made.

On Gaming Trends

So this is a quirky one. Quickly on the topic of cloning:

Cloning has come to the forefront over the years in some pockets of the indie scene, particularly on mobile. There are some infamous examples where the act of cloning or doing what most call “a fast follow” has paid off handsomely. Still, the numbers seem to imply that it’s not a winning strategy and you aren’t going to be winning any friends in the indie scene either.

Now back to trends in the general sense. I still maintain that chasing trends on the app store isn’t something you should do. But here’s the caveat: don’t be oblivious to them. You could find yourself caught in what feels like a fad and is in fact a huge tidal shift. The prominent example is the App Store’s shift away from premium games to free-to-play games. Over three years ago, I made the mistake of not taking that shift seriously enough thinking paid games would simply co-exist along-side f2p. I was so wrong. Paid games still exist on the app store, but it’d be hard to argue that they haven’t been negatively impacted by the pervasive free-to-play culture on some level. I think my stubbornness to understand f2p hurt our game’s chances for success, more specifically Outwitters.

In regards to game design trends, I think if you’ve correctly identified a genre of games that are popular or becoming popular, you’d be doing yourself a disservice to not investigate further. Why is it popular? Is it simply 1 game bucking the trend or are there more examples? If there are more, what do you think makes those games connect with such a large audience? And last of all, can you use that to your advantage for any game you make next (read: not clone)? I’ve made the mistake over the years of turning my nose up at some games or genres of games without really taking the time to understand what makes them tick.

It took me a while, but I was able to expand my definition of “play” and what makes “good gameplay” to include modes of play that are outside my usual experience. For example, one of those modes being meditative play. If you want to know more about modes of play I’d recommend listening to this episode of Designer Notes. That podcast helped solidify my own thoughts on why people chose to play certain games that before I wouldn’t even classify as “games”. Armed with a broader understanding of “play” it’s become easier to look at games that are trending and not immediately dismiss them as a fluke or accident, but look at them as possibly hitting upon an underserved niche that most designers wouldn’t even look to design for.

On Shipping Games, Updates, and Fan Service

The idea of free updates is a fading one to be honest. Yet I’ve still seen it marketed as a headlining item in several paid mobile games over the years. My previous post from 4 years ago alluded to this same reality, but in more vague terms. If you’re in the business of making games for a living, and you’re not sitting on mountains of cash you seriously need some minimal business case for doing free updates (beyond bug fixes). If you’re promising free content updates to those that pay for your game, you’re making a pretty big gamble on the app store. Here are some of the most likely reasons to do so:

  1. Your content updates are so cheap and quick, that it’s negligible to do so whether you break even or not. You use it as a marketing tool.
  2. You’re banking on a success to where the revenue will go way beyond “breaking even” that it’ll cover the cost of any content you release as free updates.
  3. You’ve got content ready to go or very close to being finished but didn’t make it into the release of the game, so putting it into updates isn’t a big hurdle
  4. You’re making a huge mistake.

#1 is tenuous at best, because in the past 4 years I haven’t really seen anyone “turn around” a paid game’s trajectory via cheap and quick updates. #3 is kind of a subset of #4. Just because you’ve finished some content that didn’t make it into the shipping game doesn’t mean it has zero value, despite what the vocal minority will tell you. Over the years I think I may have become a bit more hard lined on this: Embrace your fans that adore and actually support you. If you have a thousands of players who haven’t paid a cent and would riot at the idea of spending money on your games, don’t lose sleep over them. I use to. The only time that makes sense is if a) you’re serving ads b) and you don’t have thousands, but millions of players.

Your Benchmark for Success Shouldn’t Be “Break Even”

If a business sets it’s goals only ever to just break even, it’ll never have the resources to grow, improve, or more importantly weather any troubled waters in the future. If you’re truly “breaking even” then you’re 1 mistake or botched launched away from complete failure as a company and it’s back to your “day job” with you. Four years ago I stressed that your first, second, third, or even fourth game won’t succeed. I can’t stress that enough. I think Daniel Cook of Lost Garden says it best:

When I talk about probabilities in game development, I’m by no means saying that success is all due to luck. Instead, it is merely acknowledging that even when you do everything you possibly can there are still huge risk factors that are out of your direct control. You might as well plan for only a small chance of success with an individual game.

I think the above thinking may apply to mobile even more so than other platforms. For anyone starting out, hell, anyone struggling in the indie game business, they should give that article a thorough read. Even if you don’t agree with his underlying conclusion (freemium being more stable long term), the economic realities of game development are hard to ignore. This is probably the hardest lesson I’ve learned over these past few years, and I’m still learning.

When budgeting a game, I tend to restrict the budget by a lot. Eventually I’ll get to the “minimal” game I’d be “satisfied” making, and then the data suggests you should take that and slash it by 90% more in order to hope to achieve any sort of benchmark for success. It then becomes extremely tempting to wave away the facts and just tell yourself “it’ll work out in the end” and barrel ahead. There’s no shortage of “by the skin of our teeth” success stories in the indie scene, which might perpetuate the myth that all you need to do is make a great game, and it’ll work out. A great game is a great game, but if your budget outstrips the size of the potential target audience, there’s no amount of “greatness” in that game that’ll save it or your company. The essential takeaway is: be mindful of where your time and money are going in regards to developing your game, and don’t let either (especially time) spiral out of control.

Are Things Better.. Or Worse?

That’s a tough one. For anyone that hangs in mobile indie circles, there’s a lot of doom and gloom

these past several months in regards to the health of the app store and its future for indies. It’s undoubtedly harder to make a dent on mobile these days than when we entered the market over 5 years ago. The average revenue per game for us and many others have gone down over the years. Even the most well known publications in the mobile space are feeling the squeeze. It’s forced me to look beyond iOS. The smallest and easiest jump was to Android. It’s a tougher market to make revenue from, but as time goes on, every bit has helped. I’m taking that a step further with our next game, Space Food Truck, and targeting yet another platform in addition to our usual fare. Having talked to many fellow indies over the years, and having followed the scene for longer than I’ve been in it, when things start looking rough, the indies that are able to take the changes in stride instead of clinging to any one particular platform usually are the ones that stay in business. Any particular platform owes me nothing.

I think my mindset has definitely changed over the years in regards to platforms. Starting out I saw mobile as a way to “get a start” in the indie game business with the ultimate goal of being on multiple platforms. Somewhere along the way it became “the destination” in my head. It was easy to look at our successes and think “yep, it should stay about the same.” But taking the long view it was clear that staying exclusive to one platform didn’t make sense. The last couple of years was a wake up call to how quickly things could change on any given platform. Expanding to different platforms takes effort. It doesn’t happen on it’s own and you have to plan for it. I didn’t initially and it cost me extra time in porting and sub-optimal release schedules. It is not solely a technology problem. Marketing, PR, networking, advertising all need consideration.

If my goal is to make great games and reach as many people as possible with them, platform is mostly irrelevant. So while the app store might be harder to scrape a living off of, I think these days there are more opportunities than ever to sell your game. Consoles have become more attainable for a small indie team, Steam has become more accessible, iOS and android devices are more powerful than ever, crowdfunding can help lower costs, and engines like Unity and Unreal make it easier than ever to have your game run on all of those platforms. So if you’re just starting out as an indie and are dead serious about making a game, your choices are many. Don’t get caught with all your eggs in one basket.

This article was written by Alex Okafor and first appeared on his blog. It has been published here with his permission. You can check out Alex’s game studio,, or follow him on twitter.

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Alex Okafor is an independent game developer. You can check out Alex's game studio,, or follow him on twitter

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