Last Saturday I called out for some ideas to write about in these, now weekly, indie-business blog posts. And one of my fellow indie devs opted “finding a sustainable audience” as a topic. I had to think about that for a bit, cause at first I thought that wasn’t something I knew much about. My audience is mostly unknown to me. Sure I chat, mail, and interact with a small portion of the people who play my games, but for the biggest part, it’s a big mysterious audience.
So, that big mysterious audience is something I guess we could compare to the big black void an actor sees when he’s performing up on stage in the lights. He doesn’t see or interact much with his audience, but he knows they are there in the darkness enjoying what he is doing.
The quality and content of the actor’s performance is the quality and content of your game. It has to be of a certain quality that the audience expects from you. It needs to contain a specific amount of gameplay that the audience expects from you.. that’s why they paid the entry fee.
So I might not really “know” my audience on a personal level, but my games are always created with the people, who bought my previous game(s), in mind. I know they expect a certain quality, a certain style and a certain amount of content from my games, so that’s what they should get.
When I originally started creating games for feature-phones (2004-2007) I had to work within the limitations of those devices: 64kb file size for the full game, screens of 128×128, only capable of playing 1 music file, no sound-effects, and of-course a small keyboard and a little controller-stick.
I loved these limitations, they fit the types of games I wanted.. not just fit.. they screamed for my type of games! arcade retro pixel-art games with simple goals and a quick replay value.
During the transition from feature-phones to the, quickly becoming, more powerful smart-phones I got lost a bit. The combination of reading about people earning millions with arcade like games with simple goals, quick replay value and a simple one-touch or tilt control method, and the direction the mobile-phone market was heading, was pushing me to make quick decisions and jump on board.
For a few years, and a bunch of games, I was a bit lost on Android and iOS. My audience was still mostly using feature-phones, so it was gonna take some years before they all rediscovered my games, and I had to build a new audience. The games I created in those years were all over the place, as I was trying to find what to do with touch-screens and all this extra memory and screen space.
I needed a plan. As pretty common in any business, you need a clear direction to push your business forward. “Creating games” is not a business plan. It took some time, but slowly I just decided that my games should be “my games”. The things I like to play and create.
My business plan was simple:
Being a solo game developer, for me finding the identity for my games is pretty simple: it’s me! I create the graphics, so they always have my style in them, the game is designed by me, so it’s always what I like and enjoy. It might be a bit harder if you work with a team, but you should get together, and define what types of games you guys like to make. What do you all enjoy. What’s your identity as a business?
If you work with freelancers, try to stick with the same guys for all your games. This adds their identity to your games. For the last couple of years I’ve worked with Gavin Harrison for the music. There are many great musicians out there, and I get a bunch of mails from them on every new game announcement. But I’ll always check with Gavin to see if he has the time to fit me into his schedule, it adds Gavin’s identity to the music.
Even tho the music style itself varies between games, with art there is always something underneath of the person who created it, and for the music in my games, that’s Gavin’s flair and style.
So a clear identity in both my business and the games I create is what I aim for, and as far as I can tell that’s what my audience likes and why they keep coming back for more. Obviously, the games’ identity will not click with everyone. Actually it’s very possible that it will click with only a very small group of people, but I guess this is where the term “niche” enters that we all love so much. That doesn’t mean you need a niche, you can just go and create games with a huge audience just as long as it’s in your style and it has your identity.
You can also try and change your identity to work for a larger group, that’s certainly one way of doing business and it could very well work for you, but from my experience, it works better if you settle down and embrace your companies and games identity.. and possibly not just in business!
Luckily, as with your own identity, game identities also change slowly but certainly. That’s more of an evolution in your games. For the audience that’s just a bonus, you evolve and become better at your art, so they get to enjoy that ride and from my experience most of them will stick with you. They might not enjoy your latest game as much as the previous one, but they do enjoy where things are moving to.
My games have also grown from these fairly straight-forward games, to games that have much more layers to them. It’s still the same type of game, but there is just more of it.
My final thought on the “sustainable audience” is probably the most important: respect! Your audience, or fan-base, are most likely the players who will insta-buy your game on release. So don’t discount your game just a few weeks later! Don’t suddenly make it free! Don’t put it in a bundle within months! respect your first day buyers!
One thing I often do, is pre-orders with a nice discount. Currently I’m running a pre-order discount on Meganoid giving those people who buy the pre-order a 20% discount. Hopefully it attracts some new players, but mostly it’s for the people who already know they want to buy my game on release.
On the mobile version I often do a launch-discount, so when the game launches (usually Wednesday’s or Thursday’s) the game will be discounted until after the first weekend. Besides being a nice extra information to put in press-releases, it also means that those who insta-buy Orangepixel games, will get a nice discount for helping my game get some downloads.
Doing discounts and sales or bundles later on is obviously a good thing for the business, and you should do those (I’ll get back to that in a later blog). Just make sure it’s fair towards the people who bought it full-price or early.
So to get back to that whole actor thing: the people who buy tickets to the play before-hand are your fans and are keeping you on the stage, those people buying tickets on sales, getting it 2nd hand, or just happen to walk in might end up becoming new audience members, but most likely are just bored and looking for cheap entertainment until the next thing comes a long.
Let me know what you think about all this in the comments!