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Being the Best Unsuccessful Indie
by Kee-Won Hong on 05/29/14 08:47:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


(Originally posted on

If you want to go only by the numbers, stop reading this post. My company, Iterative Games, ran a $5,000 Kickstarter that was barely funded (thank you again backers) and then sold only 3 copies of that Kickstarted title 'Contract Work'. Mistakes were made. I had to go back to a day job in the cubes and took a 6 month hiatus to recover from burnout. You'd be better off reading about the one guy who made a bunch of money, right? As it turns out, maybe not - allow me a couple paragraphs to explain why:

I recently discovered this article on Survivorship Bias (thanks Jay Margalus), examining logical errors we make when we focus only on successes. The famous example goes like this - during WW2, allied brass wanted to know where to add armor on bombers to improve survivability. They examined bombers that survived combat and decided to add armor where those bombers had been shot. Logical, right? It took brilliant statistician Abraham Wald to point out their error; they were examining survivors, not victims. The areas not shot in the surviving bombers should be armored. A simple yet important example of the danger of survivorship bias.

I've also been considering "The Myth of Lone Genius", as explained Austin Kleon in his book "Show Your Work". The myth is that a few individuals appear with superhuman talents and without any outside influences, create masterpieces released with great fanfare. "The rest of us are left to stand around and gawk in awe at their achievements". The problem? The 'Lone Genius' teaches us nothing - you either have it or you don't. Kleon supports instead the concept of 'scenius', a model where great ideas are birthed by a group of creative individuals who develop an ecology of talent.

Thanks for sticking around. Now you're familiar with survivorship bias and scenius, here's why I think it's important for unsuccessful indies like myself to share our experiences: by contributing information about our failures, we can increase the chances of others in our scenius succeeding. With todays tech, it's never been easier or faster to share & collaborate. And those of us yet to succeed have the best perspective on how to help our peers; the fellow student can be a better teacher than the professor because they relate to our situation.

Don't underestimate the power of sharing your experience. Consider the 4 minute mile, a feat once considered physically impossible. For 9 years, the record stands at 4:01.4. On May 6, 1954 Roger Bannister finally breaks it with a time of 3:59.4...and within 2 months his record is broken, at 3:58! Within 5 years, two other runners will break that mark. The task did not become easier, but once it was done, it became easier to repeat. "Once we can actually see ourselves doing the impossible, our chances of pulling it off increase significantly" (Steven Kotler, The Rise of Superman). By simply telling the story of overcoming your obstacles, you increase the chance for others to do the same, and vice versa. If you're willing to be honest, you don't have to sell a million copies of your game before you can contribute. You're not a genius, exactly like the rest of us.

And while we're being honest - openly sharing and receiving is HARD to do. It can be scary to tell everyone that you spent over $1,500 in marketing to sell 3 copies. But sharing that information helps everyone else, a little 'Demon's Souls' type marker that warns other developers 'Here, there be dragons'. I know the indie game scene can feel like a zero sum game where you constantly 'lose' sales to other indie competitors. But when we view it as a co-operative ecology, successes increase the pie for everyone. The latin root of Competition (competere) means to strive together. We compete to bring the best out in all of us.

So let's help ourselves out. Don't let the numbers discourage you from sharing - we're right there with you, and we're all striving together to build better games and better lives in our scenius. Let's all be the best 'unsuccessful' indies we can be.

To wrap it up, here's a few small things that have been working for me:

  • Personal A/B/C testing - when I'm not happy with a feature, I'll build multiple quick versions instead of iterating, then pick the one I like the most. It frees me mentally from the fear of 'losing' a version I like and opens up crazier experiments.
  • Curating Facebook content - I've been selecting games and ideas I like and sharing them on the Contract Work Facebook page with a few thoughts of my own. Engagement on these posts has been 2-3x times better than just regular development updates.
  • Friends help friends - My friend Rob Lockhart introduced me to his artist Pui Che who helped me finish an art piece as part of my Kickstarter rewards (personal recommendations always feel the best). It's been a very productive collaboration -I really like the final piece, and it's inspired development and new ideas.
Contract Work Art Book Cover by Pui Che

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Jonathan Ghazarian
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Another insightful writeup. There's a ton of noise on twitter and other places with indie developers asking how to repeat crazy successes without consideration of all levels of success/non success.

Dan Felder
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Nice piece. Good luck to you. =)

Justin Sawchuk
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Oh yeah every game I ever made was a failure, failed to get press, even when it got press it failed to get any sales. We got featured on and didnt sell a single unit

Dave Hoskins
profile image didn't last long either.

Adrian Mro
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Your games looks cool sellable enough to me. I guess with the proper amount of exposure it would generate a nice revenue.

Kee-Won Hong
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Haha thank you Adrian! There have been a lot of changes recently...I'm hoping the updates translate into more commercial success.

I'll do my best to keep sharing my experiences, both with development and marketing. Thanks for reading.

TC Weidner
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nice write up. With so so so many games now flooding out to the public each week, its turning into a real crap shoot. From where I sit, its not so much about game design anymore, its now more about exposure, branding, and timing.

I see the top games on mobile, Ive played them, they are not anything "special". They are fine, they are OK, but there isnt anything about the game themselves that separates them from the thousands upon thousands of other games offered design wise. The difference lies the exposure they received, or the luck of timing, or from them mostly using and being an already well establish known brand and/or license.

Everything is an elevator pitch these days, and if you attempting to create an entirely knew IP, your already behind the 8 ball. AT that point you better hope you get lucky or have a good friend at a few highly viewed game sites or you tube channels, either that or hope that some famous star is seen playing your game, otherwise you will be missed, ignored, and forgotten

Good PR and a so so game is much better off than a good game with so so PR in 2014.

Like everything else in life, its all about who you know, and good timing.

Tomi Tukiainen
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Hello and thanks for the writeup. Sharing between "normal" peers is certainly useful as reading only about success stories does not give us nearly a complete picture.

While marketing is hugely important I would not agree that Good PR and so so game is much better than good game and so so PR. Everything is built around the game and if it's really not good, everything is doomed to fail. Basically you're destroying value when you are using a lot of assets to push a poor game to players' hands. Eg reputation of a known publisher suffers or more money is spent on PR than earned. Of course you might be able to fool some others to spend their assets while the money ends up in your pocket.

Viral marketing is in my experience one path for a not-so-rich indie to gain visibility without a large marketing budget. Engage players and make them market the game for you. What we have also seen is that viral marketing won't happen easily or by itself. The game needs to engage players for a long while before players want to tell their friends about it. Also plan features to your game to boost virality.

Eric Finlay
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I really like this idea. When I was in school, I entered a student synthetic biology competition, and every single team (except for the superstars) failed in their original plan. Failed miserably. But because everyone still had to present their work, everything got rebranded as a success. I feel like a lot of valuable information was lost because the reasons for failure weren't acknowledged. No-one admitted they failed, so no-one talked about why they failed, so very little knowledge was actually communicated.

I feel that the Indie Game situation is similar. Talk about your failure and relish in it. Teach others why you failed so you can understand it better and never repeat it.

Piers Excell-Rehm
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People say you learn from your mistakes. Well, you learn from other people's mistakes as well! Thanks for sharing your experiences.

Peter Eisenmann
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Please don't get me wrong, but how on earth did you manage to have a successful Kickstarter when only three people actually bought the thing? Did most of the 5K actually come from friends/family?

Kee-Won Hong
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Offhand, I'd estimate about 50% of the money came from friends/family, haven't run the exact breakdown but it was a large portion. A couple more thoughts on why the Kickstarter success didn't translate to sales:

Selling a Kickstarter != Selling a game (this might be worth a follow up post);
Committed many cardinal UX sins in final game, e.g. unskippable cutscene at start, user account registration needed before play;
Marketing generated a lot of traffic, but sales conversion was terrible due to (among other things) a long demo and only accepting Paypal for payment;

I did a longer write up on my mistakes here:

In final hindsight, the game I released wasn't ready for prime time and probably needed at least another 6-10 mo of work. Chalk it up as a failed experiment that I'm working to learn from.

Peter Eisenmann
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Main reason I asked is because I have a campaign running at the moment (though it's on Indiegogo, not KS), and to call it "unsucessfull" would be blatant euphemism.
Regardless of the fact there is usually some interest and positive feedback about the game itself when I post on forums around the web (always including a link to the campaign of course).
Fortunately, I can finish the thing without the money, even if it won't have a cool soundtrack then (which is not as important for mobile games).

Even more fortunate, I did invest only very little emotional energy. What I've read from a lot of campaigners (including you), it seems KS is not only a website where money is exchanged for perks, but also a brutal destroyer of the sanity and physical health of developers.

Peter Eisenmann
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I have tried the online game but did not get the character to walk? It seemed the game window did not receive any key strokes at all (shown by the fact that the window itself moved when trying the cursor keys).
Using Firefox 29 and Win 7 64 Bit.

Kee-Won Hong
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Thanks for the heads up, I will take a look. I do my primary testing on Chrome, so you may have better luck playing there.