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On Business Decisions for Indie Games
by Shay Pierce on 09/10/12 08:12:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

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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.

 

There's been a lot of controversy lately about Steam, Greenlight, and their decision to put a $100 fee on submissions of indie games to Greenlight.

It's been hard for me to pin down my own feelings on all this, until I realized that they were already summarized by Jon Blow in a talk he did a year and a half ago.

When asked by a student about how he made the decisions surrounding selling his game on Steam and the Humble Indie Bundle, Blow answered:

It's not that important of a question. If you get to the point where you're actually asking yourself 'should I sell my game for cheap on Steam, because more people will buy it?', that is a really good problem to have! Because it presupposes that you finished a program, that the thing is playable, and that people will want it. All of which are much MUCH more difficult than making the right decision about where to sell something. I'd say focus on those things. … I really cannot impress upon you enough how difficult a thing it is, and how rewarding it is when you manage to do it.

[You can find this quote in this presentation, around the 48 minute, 22 second mark. The entire presentation is worth listening to though, especially the parts where Jon talks about the importance of optimizing your development process.]

If you read this as "if you build it, they will come", you're not really reading it. Jon is saying that making a great game is such a difficult endeavor that it's about 1000 times as difficult as making a decision of what platform to be on. (Exercise for the reader: how long does it take you to make a great game? How long does it take you to raise $100? If you think the ratio is smaller than 500-to-1 then you are probably majorly underestimating the time it will take to make your game... or, your game probably isn't as great as you think.)

Actually, I'm going to contribute some original opinion of my own here... though I think it's one that is partly implicit in Jon's statement above. If you are worrying about the precise details of how and where you'll sell your indie game, and your game is less than 75% finished, then stop worrying and go work on your game. I say this for several reasons:

  1. You still have much, MUCH harder problems to solve, and you'll have nothing to release until you solve them. Go solve them.
  2. If you think your game is less than 75% finished, that probably means that your game is less than 50% finished. This is a good rule of thumb in general.
  3. Steam is only ever going to accept the top 5% or so of finished indie games; this is all they've ever accepted. Sharing your game when it's not even close to finished seems like an exercise in futility.
  4. By the time you finish your game, there's a good chance that the sales options available will have dramatically changed.

This last point is important. I've been working on an indie project since I left OMGPOP in March. During this time, within just two days, the following things happened:

  1. Steam announced Greenlight
  2. The OUYA kickstarter was launched and funded

Each of these events completely changed the possibilities for how I might sell the game I'm making. Luckily, my game is relatively platform-agnostic, partly so that I can minimize the effort I spend thinking about things like this until it matters. Even now, I regard it as still being too early to worry about how I'll sell my game and which of these platforms I'll be on... if all this changed in 2 days, what else could change in the months/years remaining before the game is ready to launch?

[Additional example: between posting this on my own blog and loading up Gamasutra.com to repost it here, I discovered the Steam "Big Picture" announcement. Which, I believe, could completely change the landscape again. This coming after a period of two weeks in which Valve changed the landscape twice by announcing Greenlight, and adding a $100 fee to it.] 

If you form any opinion on anything Valve has done in the last month other than "I'll wait and see", then I honestly have a hard time regarding you as sane. Why worry about the best place to be on a landscape when that landscape is made of quicksand and shifts every day? If your plan is dependent on being at a certain point on that landscape, you'll probably fail because the landscape will change before you can launch. Instead, focus on making a great game first and foremost, and making sure that it could fit in at many places on that landscape. Deciding between those options will be less scary and important in the end... and the inevitable changes in the interim won't sink your project.

Eisenhower said "Plans are worthless, but planning is everything." In other words, think about your plans... but don't pretend that any one plan is as valuable as the fact that you're thinking through all the possible plans.

[Shay Pierce is a programmer and designer of games who's worked in the industry for 9 years. He created the iOS puzzle game Connectrode. This post is cross-posted from his blog at Deep Plaid Games. Follow him on Twitter at @IQpierce]


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