What does it really take to be a solo indie games developer?
With the recent release of my mobile game CastleMine, I thought it would be good time to pause and reflect on the long road that brought me to this point. Looking back 2 years, it’s funny to think how naïve I was to think the only skill I needed to bring to this journey was programming. It turns out that this is only a small piece of the puzzle. Everything else must be learned along the way. Suddenly you’re trying to be an artist, a musician, a sound engineer, a salesman, an accountant, a graphic designer, a web developer, a social media expert and many other roles other people dedicate their whole lives to. It’s almost comical the number of hats you’ll try to wear on the way to the finish line.
This can be incredibly daunting and more than a little demoralising as you helplessly watch your release date slip further and further down the calendar. But now that I’m here, standing on the finish line, I’m ready to do it all again.
The following is a recreation of my growing task list as I discovered what’s really involved in creating and publishing a game on your own.
I’ve got a great idea, this will be easy.
- Task 1: Write some code, release a game!
I missed some obvious stuff. This should cover it.
- Task 2: Create some art. Lots and lots of art.
- Task 3: Get some music. Trawl the web in search of royalty free music that suits your game perfectly.
- Task 4: Get sound effects. Listen to 100 “swoosh” sounds to find that perfect effect for that one button. Repeat for every single sound in the game.
Wait I need a few more tasks. I’m going to have to make money somehow.
- Task 5: Research and compare different sales models. Read dozens of articles on ad-supported vs freemium vs paid models. Realise there is no golden apple and just do what you had planned from the start.
- Task 6: Research and compare a dozen different ad networks and incorporate their (sometimes buggy) controls into your code. Constantly feel like you picked the wrong ad provider.
It’s not looking quite right. I need to add some more tasks.
- Task 7: Now that you’ve built half the game you finally know what you were really trying to make. Start again.
- Task 8: Also, you know that art you did at the start? It was terrible and you can see that now. Start again.
- Task 9: People keep talking about this thing called analytics. Research what this is all about. Add it to your game so you will be able to tell if your game is a walk in the park or a frustrating nightmare.
Intermission! Experience may vary.
- Task 10: Welcome your second child into the world. Sleep is now optional. Get relegated to the smallest room in the house, next to the baby change table and diaper bin.
- Task 11: Develop a deeper appreciation for fresh air and sunlight.
I slept last night. Maybe I should start looking into how to publish this?
- Task 12: Register as an Apple Developer, learn all their certification requirements. Buy and learn to use a Mac.
- Task 13: Register as a Windows Phone Developer, learn all their certification requirements. Buy and learn to use Windows 8.
- Task 14: Register as an Android Developer, learn all their certification requirements. Wait, you don’t need to buy anything?
All those registration forms kept asking for a publisher name, who am I?
- Task 15: Name your company! Possibly the hardest thing you’ll ever have to do. Your first 99 names will be taken and you’ll discover a deep, fiery hatred for domain squatters.
- Task 16: Got a name? Great! Register as a company. Suddenly it all feels so real!
- Task 17: Create a company logo. Add ghetto graphic designer to your resume.
- Task 18: See an accountant because now that you’re a company you can’t just wing your taxes anymore.
- Task 19: Setup a company bank account so your wife doesn’t spend your company’s money on handbags and baby clothes.
I’m a company now. But I’m invisible. I need to be the opposite.
- Task 20: Create a Website. Learn WordPress. Write lots of text in case you get a visitor.
- Task 21: Setup a Facebook page because all the cool companies have one.
- Task 22: Setup a Twitter, Skype and YouTube account. Get hopelessly lost in a sea of usernames and passwords.
- Task 23: Brand all these account pages to fool people into thinking you know how to use them.
- Task 24: Post content! You don’t want your pages looking like a ghost town (note: your pages will look like a ghost town).
It’s been weeks since I looked at some code. Wasn’t I supposed to be making a game?
- Task 25: Re-evaluate your game. Make sweeping architectural changes that break everything to fix that one stubborn bug that, realistically, no one will ever notice.
- Task 26: Test. Beg, borrow and steal (don’t steal) as many devices as you can get your hands on and play through your game on each of them. If you still like your game after this you might be onto a winner.
- Task 27: Rope in as many friends, family, co-workers and friendly folk from the internet to play-test your game and hopefully give you honest feedback.
I think the game is done. Maybe I should market it?
- Task 28: Look into marketing. Realise you should have been marketing months ago.
- Task 29: Find every site/blogger/youtuber who might be even mildly interested in your game.
- Task 30: Listen to advice that you should individually tailor press release emails to each of your targets. Attempt this and give up. Promise yourself to use a PR guy next time.
- Task 31: Create a compelling video trailer that really sells your game. No pressure, but if it sucks no one will play your game.
- Task 32: Create some sexy screenshots. No pressure, but if they suck no one will play your game.
- Task 33: Create a store description. No pressure, but… actually everyone just looks at the screenshots.
- Task 34: Create a web demo version of the game and host it. The press (if they take interest in your game) will want instant, easy access.
Finally, it’s ready for release!
- Task 35: Customise all your icons, screenshots and promo images to suit each of your target platforms’ 101 requirements. That’s 15 different icon sizes if you’re wondering.
- Task 37: Pray you haven’t added any last minute game-breaking bugs as you click the upload button. Be prepared to completely freak out if you did.
- Task 38: Execute your marketing plan. Briefly hate your life. Wish your hobby was collecting stamps.
- Task 39: If your game was a flop: Learn from it. Make another game.
- Task 40: If your game was a success: Learn from it. Make another game.
The point of listing all of this is not to discourage the would-be indie game developer, but to show a glimpse of what might lie ahead should you choose to give up your life for this cause. If you have the determination and commitment to see your project through to the end, I can tell you it’s one of the most rewarding and satisfying experiences there is. Everyone who reaches the end of this path will tell you a different story, but this was mine.
So, if you’re about to start down this path, good luck to you! I’ll see you at the end and look forward to hearing your story.