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50 Easy Steps to Indie Success
by Tanya X Short on 10/10/13 09:45:00 pm   Expert Blogs   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.


As the director of Kitfox Games, I have read dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of articles claiming they will assist my 4-person team in making "a successful indie game." New articles come out every day, all with helpful advice for me and my team. Some were linked to me by personal friends, family, colleagues, or industry mentors.

I like to think these people were well-intentioned. 

So, having read all of this, what's my plan to succeed? Follow my lead:

  1. Okay. Obviously the best thing you can do is FINISH YOUR GAME
  2. But wait, don’t ACTUALLY finish it! I hope your game isn't done yet! You’re supposed to start marketing first
  3. So how do you market? You need a hook. I hope you weren't planning on just making a good game! Don't be ridiculous! You'll need a unique tagline that's more interesting than the other 1000 emails in a stranger's inbox.
  4. Now that you have a hook, the best way to get your hook out there? Presskit(). No, this part isn’t a joke. Do it. 
  5. Then contact the press! Here’s some checklists on who to contact and how. You’ll probably need “at least 6 months worth of one person working full time” 
  6. And aside from actual journalists, "take social networking sites very seriously." 
  7. Even reddit. Or maybe especially reddit.
  8. But advertisements? Definitely "don't spend money on traditional marketing and customer acquisition." 
  9. But you don’t want to disappoint anyone. “Be realistic about what you can do.” So, mobile games are easier to make, right? Right. Let’s be realistic. 
  10. Except “a lot of people never pay anything on the App Store” 
  11. And “most apps fail commercially”. Probably because the mobile scene is "completely commoditised".
  12. But don't go console. “Chances are you won’t be able to quit your day job by releasing a game on XBLIG.” “The vast majority of games on [Xbox 360] make … less than $1000”.
  13. And putting your game on Ouya might just be worth it ... but maybe not.
  14. So, PC! Just make sure you're on Steam, or else. You'll need press first if you go traditional, and going Greenlight means community management.
  15. Plus, if you’re on PC you can maybe get hundreds of thousands of sales through bundles! But even bundle salespeople say to use bundles only “during the long-tail period of your game’s lifespan”. 
  16. Does your game design have multiplayer? Incorporate multiplayer “to create long term value for players”. 
  17. Try to speak "to a wider audience".
  18. No, wait, find a "small niche long-abandoned".
  19. But did you want to make money? Free to play is “the only way to make money in video games”. In fact, "freemium will dominate. You can't beat free."
  20. No, wait, that’s Evil Game Design. Almost as evil as those coercive, greedy pay-2-play techniques
  21. But whatever you do, don’t make money your number 1 priority. It's, like, ironic.
  22. In fact, indie heroes try their “utmost hardest to ignore any commercial pressures that may arise”. 
  23. Besides, when failure can be “one of the happiest and most satisfying times of [your] life”, why not do away with the word failure entirely and “redefine success”?  
  24. And if you DO make money, feel bad about it! You’re probably “after weak people in vulnerable states.” 
  25. In fact, “Not all games can be free-to-play.” So… figure it out yourself. You're probably doing it wrong anyway.
  26. And remember those journalists you talked to? They're not interested in free to play
  27. Just remember, “there’s nothing wrong with people wanting to play your game for years.” No need to get defensive or anything.
  28. Besides, premium games get pirated like crazy. Might even turn your most successful game into your "least profitable."
  29. But hey, pirating can "make an indie game into a success"! 
  30. In fact, if it’s premium, maybe start selling your game as soon as it’s in alpha.  
  31. Wait, isn’t this the same as a Minimum Viable Product from business? No, that can’t be the same thing. Never mind. 
  32. No wait, in games, it's called a demo. “There is simply no excuse for failing to have a demo at an early stage.” 
  33. Or you can just give away some for free, as a gift
  34. No, wait, game demos halve your sales
  35. And if your demo's good, someone might clone it faster than you finish it. 
  36. You still need money? You could do a Kickstarter. Everyone loves crowdfunding.
  37. But don’t ask for high numbers. You shouldn't actually need money. 
  38. And be careful about using stretch goals. Never stretch goals.
  39. Unless you’re famous already. Then stretch the goals.    
  40. Just remember if you get too much money, the internet will turn against you.
  41. And maybe “the Kickstarter bubble is strained to breaking point”...
  42. But you can avoid crowdfunding nonsense altogether if you build in metrics to track your monetisation and get those DARPUs sky-high! They say “your game has to fit a ‘million dollar+ formula’” 
  43. Actually, "there is no single right answer or standard model" in business intelligence, so just get used to flailing about with your metrics. After all, Ultima Online used metrics. Are you better than Ultima Online? 
  44. But metrics alone can’t save your monetisation.
  45. So, I hope you haven't been specialising too narrowly, because you’ll have to be a master of everything. Programming, business development, marketing, art, design, production. 
  46. And not just game stuff. You’ll need cinematography too. “The worst thing you can do is make a bad trailer and deliver something that’s not the same level of quality as your game.” 
  47. Well, maybe you don’t need to track your schedule and budget. You might as well take your time and deliver when you’re done, since quality is what matters
  48. So just make an awesome game! Get really good review scores! 
  49. But reviews won’t matter. In fact, “making a good game doesn’t guarantee you anything” You’ll still flop. And that’s okay
  50. On second thought, don’t worry too much about the design. You probably suck at it anyway.  

So! Have you made a million dollars and won IGF yet? Ha! No, me neither.

Of course, the real lesson to take from this is what we all knew already: every game is different.

Advice is often given by genuine experts in their field, and yet it still might not apply to what you're doing when taken literally. Unless this guru is specifically playing your game, and has a telepathic connection to every niche of your platform, and can look into the future to see what will happen when your game releases, any insight naturally comes with caveats. Some advice has timeless common sense behind the words. Most doesn't.

My team and I will make mistakes, but we'll learn from them, and if asked, we'll give others advice based on what succeeded and what failed. Hopefully they won't take that advice at face value and will interpret it carefully for their own game, team, goals, and situation.

As long as we keep creating, you and me, we'll be all right.

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Cem Bugra
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Spot-on and full of win! I believe advice is useful only if you know why, how and when to use it.

Aaron San Filippo
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Love this, thanks :)

Celso Riva
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Haha love all the various contradictory sentences one after another :D

Tom Battey
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Well that put paid to more or less every single 'X tips to indie success!' article I've seen in recent history. Reminds of the hundreds of 'how to self-publish your ebook!' ebooks I see and very pointedly don't buy every day. Bottom line - stuff is all different. Yeah. Find the way that works for you, and work it. Then blog about it after. I still enjoy reading these things.

Jeff Murray
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Love it! Great article! Thanks to your sharing all the secrets, I don't have to read all those other articles about 'making it' ;)

Simon Windmill
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I love this. I wasted months of time/work by listening to everyone's advice and changing direction to try and please everyone. The resulting game vanished without a trace on iOS.

Paul Tozour
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Great article. There's way too much useless advice out there.

Christian Kulenkampff
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Great article! Thank you!

Titi Naburu
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Thanks for the article!

Some people say "statistics show that 90% of A-style games failed and 80% of B-style games failed, therefore I'll do B-style". The real question is: what did the 10% and 20% of games succeed? Statistics can easily show correlation, but it's hard to draw conclusions about that.

Kale Menges
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Very nice.

Robert Leach
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Kris Graft
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By the way, I don't think that Tanya's point of this is to say that knowing the first-hand experiences and advice of other indies is utterly useless...many of the articles here (many from Gamasutra!) do have practical takeaways. But as Tanya notes, every game and every situation is different. Any kind of advice needs to be considered in the appropriate context. Anyway, nice post, Tanya. :)

Aaron San Filippo
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Good point, and thanks ;)

Adam Culberson
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Good point.

Jennis Kartens
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Haha, very nice read. Thanks :)

Jonathan Neves
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All lessons considered.

Matthew Burns
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Hahaha! Love it! Bravo!

Kujel s
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Very enjoyable read, thanks.

Wes Jurica
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Pfft! I am already doing all the things on this list!

My game is gonna be hyooooooj!

Curtiss Murphy
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Are there any hard rules? I read those articles and experimented these past 2 years, and in the end, I reached the same conclusion. It helped to be informed, and then, I had muck my way through it ... Mukity-muck style.

I loved your article, and would like to ad just one rule, which has saved me from misery: DON'T QUIT A DAY JOB TOO EARLY.

Lars Doucet
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That last point is the only rule I would lend any universality to!

Adam Culberson
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What if I got laid off my day job??? ;)

David Paris
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I'm afraid your only consolation is that you are period appropriate.

Alexander Jhin
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Quick, funny, deep and AWESOME. Thanks for the article.

Lance McKee
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Very fun article to read after so many headlines suggesting the "key" or "secret" to creating a "good game". Although I've always felt that every game's development process will be unique, and that all advice needs to be considered with that in mind, it still gets stressful to see articles or even just headlines that suggest I'm doing it all wrong.

The final line of this article, "As long as we keep creating, you and me, we'll be all right" makes me feel much more relaxed, and much more motivated to keep going. So thank you!

Jason Carter
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Hah, love it Tanya.

Yeah I've read so many articles on marketing, but I think it boils down to making connections, working hard and finding what's best for YOUR game.

Reddit is really nice though, and also Boston FIG, was fun chatting with you there too. Keep up the good work, I'm interested to see your take after finishing Shattered Planet and successfully marketing it!

Cheers and good luck with that whole... marketing beast.

Ryan Czech
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Bravo! I was starting to think this myself after reading so many articles this year, but you put the nail to it and pinned it down for all of us to see and ponder over. There's just no one right answer, the best thing a person can do is read everything then make up their own mind.

RJ Volosky
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Excellent satire. As a hobbyist looking to make to move to indie, I've found my head swimming in all of the contradictory advice I've been reading. I had some great laughs here!

Tanya X Short
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Thanks everyone! Glad you liked it! :)

Ifeanyi Oraelosi
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51. Stop reading this article and go build a game!
52. No wait, learn a little more first.

Eugene Joseph
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Great article, thanks! Was just wondering if point 8 links to what it was supposed to. I was expecting to read about whether indies can afford to advertise (or not to, in the spirit of the article). and if they do advertise, how to stretch their advertising dollars.

Marc Schaerer
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Spot on, informative and very entertaining, thank you Tanya :)

Linh Ngo
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Tanya, you forgot the 51st step:


Fun read, thanks!

Vivek Dani
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Perfect! Very good read with links to all the info, good work...

Romain Aymard
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Lars Kroll Kristensen
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very, very full of win. I'll make sure to follow each and every advice to the letter for my next production.Then certainly, nothing can go wrong.

Dominik Gotojuch
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Spot on. There is no rule of thumb, different things work for different teams and various setups. Even the "FINISH YOUR GAME" point can be disputed in these turbulent times of alpha and crowd funding.

Tushar Patil
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Nice article.. actually good collection.. worth reading and may be a good check-list for indie.. good job thanks for this :)

Marc Kruzik
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Very good article.

Now I have to read everything and make a shorter version for my job, so you just gave me a rather big amount of work. Thanks ? :)

Jesse Joudrey
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I couldn't have said it better.

For every piece of advice out there there are tons of counter examples. I make sure I mention this every time I speak about game dev. "Here's a bunch of advice that works some of the time..."

Ted Brown
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Methodical clapping of hands.

And a slowly spreading grin. =)

Justin Sawchuk
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There is no way I could survive making indie games if I didnt have my inheritance. You either got to have saving or go into debt, as long as you dont mind not having any income. As long you have indomitable spirit.

Look at the guy who made salvation prophecy he worked on it solo for 5-6 years was dirt poor, hardly got any money after it was released, but eventually it got greenlight now hes probably laughing all the way to the not so poor house.

James Liu
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Ha! This was great. :D

Matthew Bockholt
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I followed every step exactly and my game failed.... I want a refund.


Cesar Orbenes
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Awesome article, one of the best and more entertainig I have read on gamasutra :)