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Congratulations, Your First Indie Game is a Flop

June 27, 2012 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 4 Next
 

One battle won... kinda

At this point we could have (and, looking backward, should have!) closed the book on Monkey Labour. From what I know now, it was our first game and it has in fact earned more than the majority of titles do. We should have turned the page and started working towards the second one.

But not so fast. Your second game won't sell twice as much just because some statistics say so. It's the culmination of everything you've learned, the gamers you reached, the connections you made. It's easy to be a general after the battle, but unless you gain the experience on the field you haven't raised your potential.

I say you should try everything and see what results you'll get. Unless you go ahead and do it yourself all the estimates in the world won't give you the real answer. That's how, with one completed, critically-acclaimed game (still quoting the green 75 Metascore as a good enough proof of that), I set out to conquer yet another mountain: downloadable PC space.

Part 2: Your desktop is not your smartphone

Proving the concept

I mentioned I spent the summer of 2010 writing my own game framework for iOS and the following autumn/winter teaching students how to make iPhone games. Coming from a Windows/Xbox background I used to write my games with Microsoft's XNA Framework.

It's one of the most cleanly designed objective-oriented libraries, which makes it well-suited for education. In practice, it's used by hobby and independent developers, and even triple-A studios utilize it for faster development of tools. There are many compelling reasons to use it, except that it's only available for Microsoft's platforms. So I decided to do the students a favor and bring it over to Objective-C for iOS game development.

I registered Retronator as a sole proprietorship at that time and received about $5,000 as a government grant for self-employment. The plan was to slowly use it to cover insurance payments, but I ended up buying an iPad and spending the rest of the summer rewriting the XNA Framework for iOS. I named it XNI and it was very well-received in class (unlike the Objective-C language itself). In those two months of part-time teaching, part-time indie game development at Dawn of Play it served me well as a fast way to make Monkey Labour.


Student games made with the XNI Framework which reached the App Store

After the iOS story of Monkey Labour was over, I returned to my own studies. I wrote my thesis on XNI, and while waiting for my mentor to read the draft, I was curious to test one premise I hadn't had the chance to yet. Because XNI was written as a class-to-class copy of XNA, I thought it should make it relatively easy to port an XNI game back to C# and have a version for Windows/Xbox/Windows Phone with the XNA Framework.

To approach the task of bringing my code from Objective-C to C# in a lazy, programmer kind of way, I looked at tools for source code translation. I sure as hell wasn't manually going to rewrite all those smalltalk brackets. After a week of learning an obscure functional programming language TXL and another two writing formal grammar and transformation rules, I had a working version of something I called Automagical. With the press of a button and eight more hours of manual tweaking I had a playable version of Monkey Labour for Windows.

So what to do with it? My plan was to release it on a new distribution channel I previously heard about on Gamasutra. Called IndieCity, it was like Steam or Desura, but without the gatekeepers, focusing only on small, indie games. It was to launch towards the end of 2011, and I was excited! We could finally be first somewhere when the doors open for customers. I really believed in it and decided to risk my own (Retronator's) time and money, splitting the potential profits with Dawn of Play later.

The IndieCity fiasco

It took me a month of lazy full-time work (four effective hours per day on average, 80 hours total) to make it happen. This included coding the integration of IndieCity achievements and leaderboards, making a PC version of the game's webpage and, to keep things fun, a new “homemade” trailer recorded in my parents' attic. I even begged a voice actor to record the line at the end of the video for 30 bucks plus a promise of my signed artwork and a couple of Monkey Labour promo codes. I was going broke, since I was doing this on my own (I'm not great with saving money), so I hustled everything to get this done in time IndieCity launched.


On set (meaning my parents' attic) filming the new trailer

At this point I should say that I love IndieCity, especially since I'm going to follow by saying how badly it turned out for us. Its premise is great. Lovely designed website. I didn't even give the downloadable client grief, because Steam and Desura force you into one as well. Hell, since it's torrent-based, it scales more easily and offers higher royalties in return (85 percent if you integrate with their system, 75 percent otherwise). Last but not least, it offers support for leaderboards and achievements, both of which are utilized to great extent in Monkey Labour.

I was sure launching on IndieCity would be big. And I was wrong. And things would soon start turning out badly.

First, completely out of nowhere, the site launched on December 8. A little heads up would be nice, but they called it a "soft launch", just to test out if the system was responding as it should before they let the masses in. We sold about four copies to our friends and parents who could finally play our game (WIN!) After the “real launch,” planned for the following week, the crowd would pour in and all our troubles would be forgotten.

I guess I expected some heavy press, all the big gaming sites writing about it. After all, I read about it on Gamasutra and IndieGames, something I couldn't do with my tiny indie game press release. Unfortunately it didn't happen. One Rock Paper Shotgun post can't change the world.

The guys at IndieCity are in fact like us. Just another small startup with hopes to change the world, but little power to succeed with their first appearance. Unfortunately, for what press IndieCity did get, people haven't responded with great excitement. Most hate download clients (or at least having yet another one) and they hate DRM.

The user base of IndieCity may have grown by the time this article is published, but my plan of being out of the gate at day one failed miserably. After almost two months, the numbers stayed scary low: seven units of Monkey Labour for Windows sold.


Article Start Previous Page 3 of 4 Next

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