When to give up
Since we learn from our experience, I was not ready to give up on Monkey Labour for PC yet. Maybe the IndieCity promotion failed, but we still had a solid product, undiscovered by many potential players. The iOS version even won an AppCircus award, a global competition for mobile apps (not just games). With the nomination for Mobile Premier Awards and the judges asking me blankly how on Earth we sold only 4,000 copies, I was once again sure we had a great product that only failed in its marketing.
To complete my XNI Framework story, the last missing piece was to create a port from iOS to OS X. Since both operating systems are powered by Objective-C and the same basic frameworks, I quickly had a native version running on my Mac.
Not to spend another week reinventing achievements and leaderboards, we just ditched the online component and published a build with only the pure gameplay at half the price. Planning a joint press release for both desktop versions, I thought I could save this again with my leet PR skillz, now at Level 2.
I felt confident in the way I acquired those 11 Metacritic reviews and sent a similar email to a whopping 50 publications to announce the coming of our game to both major personal computer platforms.
One day of chasing contact emails and mad copy/paste/inserting-name later, I went to sleep and let the European night become the American working day. And when I woke up... Nothing happened. AGAIN.
Monkey Labour running on my Mac
The Mac launch came and went with a single mention, and the Windows version stayed untouched, even though a lovely Romanian site wrote a really nice news piece about it. At least on Mac, we sold seven units in the first three days instead of two months. Still, publishing on the Mac App Store has nothing near the potential of getting the launch right on iOS, where, even without any substantial press, we managed to get a couple hundred sales in the first weeks.
To top it all off, I sent an email to Steam, Desura, and Big Fish Games and got rejected three times. At this point, I should have started feeling bad about myself. The problem was not in IndieCity, not in the Mac App Store, not in the press. Nobody wanted to hear about a year old iPhone game coming to PC. The game world today is fueled by novelty. It was time to quit.
I may have learned the hard way, but I didn't feel bad about it. I believe as long as you put love into what you're doing, while you have fun doing it; results don't matter that much. Yes, you'll feel shitty for some time, and once or twice you'll want to throw something at the wall and call it quits. But your happiness really shouldn't rest in the outcome.
Even in the case of a flop, you won't know in advance of its release. If you enjoyed the process, that's what matters. If you get to continue doing it, you've won. What you learned along the path is what's important (and that's why I'm writing this for you). The Windows port served its own purpose of proving the concept for XNI. It also launched Automagical, a product I hadn't even realized people needed. And yet, without sending 50 emails to tech websites, more people have found their way to it and bought it than Monkey Labour Windows. But while the game sells for a dollar, a beta version of Automagical is about $20. That's a multiplier that can keep me optimistic.
The story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe
I know I did my best. While Monkey Labour didn't nearly cover our production costs, I'm confident our next game will get nearer. Thanks to the R&D part of our studio we're lucky to get to try again. And perseverance, coming from actually loving to do this, is what will eventually win this game.
One of my university professors said it's hard to predict things, especially the future. While I was busy finding out one way of how not to sustain an indie game business, I've kept my eyes on the scene as a whole. Together with the things I've learned, here are my thoughts on how to go about it in the future. It's what I personally (and naively) believe in:
- Compete and win. It's almost like all successful indie games of late have been IGF nominees at one point or another. It's a closing window though, because the number of entrants is getting out of hand. There's also Dream Build Play and all the various festivals like IndieCade that you can show up at. It's the participation that counts -- getting yourself out there.
- Invest into gamer, not gamedev, communities. Hanging out with your buddies and ranting about game development is all fine and dandy, but you're selling your games to gamers. If the time I've spent on TIGSource had been invested on Destructoid or Giant Bomb, I'm guessing more people would know about our indie game company by now. Master Reddit and you're a winner.
- Plan your marketing as much as you plan your game. Everyone understands this as soon as they're faced with the task of sending out a review email. If you have no idea why this game of yours is so special as to waste the time of a journalist, you'll end up feeling very bad after doing a day of PR. You'll make sure you'll have interesting stuff to send out when it's time to talk about your next game.
- Experiment with business models. I see more and more alpha-funded games (Minecraft, Cortex Command, Overgrowth, Project Zomboid... the list goes on). There's even Dwarf Fortress, free and sustained on donations alone! I hopefully don't need to tell you how in-app purchases changed the whole iOS game. While selling Smurfberries might not be getting the kind of customers you want for your hardcore games, all the Kickstarters and Humble Bundles continue to show that gamers will pay real money for good content. It seems there's no better time than now to think outside the box.
The main point is: if you love doing what you're doing, you'll do it even if the business side doesn't work out the first time around. From more and more stories like ours, it's becoming apparent that you simply can't start from zero and feed one game's sales into the production of the next one -- not in the beginning (unless you're really lucky). But if you love doing it, that won't be a problem. You'll keep your day job, you'll still be doing websites for business clients, and you'll still be creating games after hours, because this is what you want to do.
Your first game will probably be a flop in business terms, but it's an epic win for you. 95 percent of the guys that were loud on those hobby gamedev forums you've grown up on never got that far. But you -- you've done it!