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Congratulations, Your First Indie Game is a Flop
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Congratulations, Your First Indie Game is a Flop

June 27, 2012 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

[An indie developer reflects on how he spent too much time and effort trying to make a failure into a success, sharing his experiences about going from iOS to PC and Mac, and why being first out of the gate doesn't substitute for having a truly compelling game.]

Seven. I log into IndieCity again and check the total sales number to see if, by some miracle, the figure went into double digits. It didn't. Total units of Monkey Labour for Windows sold: seven. And that's not thousands.

While selling seven games in two months is horrific in any case, this is not, however, another whiny post from a disillusioned indie game developer. It's just the result of an experiment at the end of a longer story that needs some explaining. I am not complaining. In fact, I am already happily working on our next game. I still get to work on what I love. In my book that's all that matters.

What it is, though, is yet another scenario of what can happen when you decide to start making games for a living. More important, it's a story about game publishing, marketing, and sales. I'm not one of those guys who just want to focus on their art or their code. I love the business side of making games. This article is about what I've experienced in a good year of doing so.

One more note before we begin: Monkey Labour was developed by Dawn of Play, a small game studio founded out of a larger research and development company Razum. While I'm part of the team just as much as anyone employed there, I am technically an independent contractor, working under my sole proprietorship Retronator. While I can talk about Monkey Labour's numbers open handed on most parts, I have exact work figures only for my own contribution to the game.

A peek at my IndieCity dashboard


Part 1: The (iOS) Story

What does it take to make the minimum possible game?

I'm not going to talk much about what Monkey Labour is -- in its place you can imagine any small, polished game. The goal is minimal content, so that you can make it in a month or two. It's very important that it's nonetheless of good quality, as this is the first barrier of entry, the basic requirement to combat today's flood of games, if you will.

Suffice it to say that Monkey Labour indeed is such a game, with generally favorable reviews and a score of 75 on Metacritic. It's not the best thing ever, but still a nice little game that won over the nostalgic hearts of a lot of its players. From a production standpoint, it's something me or you can realistically create when you decide to make your first commercial game.

So how much time goes into making and selling your simple little game? Two to three times as much as you imagine, that's for sure. As always, it all depends on a multitude of factors, the major ones being the size of the game and your previous experience with doing exactly the things needed to realize it. This can all vary wildly, but let's get concrete with our example.

I have been making games as a hobby for over 15 years and recently taught classes about it at university, so I'm no stranger to game programming. I also spent the summer making my own iOS framework before going into this project. It would be the same if I took an existing framework and got really familiar with it. What matters is I knew exactly how to make this game. After the guys at Dawn of Play briefed me on the design, it was pure execution.

I had a very good base, in other words. But in spite of that, for a simple, one-screen arcade game with a basic menu, my programming time clocked in at 109 hours. That's a month and a half of part-time work (three to four effective hours per workday, done alongside my teaching gig). Game Center integration (leaderboards and achievements) were done by an additional programmer and took two extra man-weeks.

It would take less today, but every project has a thing or two where you end up chasing strange errors for a week more than you've anticipated. We later published an update to the game, which took another 71 hours to make. All in all, just the coding part took eight man-weeks of full-time work (assuming you squeeze six hours of quality productive time into each workday).

Now, if you ever had the idea of coding something up in your bedroom each day after school or work, even if you spend two hours per day on average making it (and I'm being optimistic) you'll be locked in your room for six months just to write all the code for a simple arcade game, polished up enough to make a serious entry into the App Store world. And that's just the code! At that point you'd still be selling zero, with your programmer art graphics, no sound, no trailer, no webpage and only your Facebook friends knowing this game even exists -- at least those that still read your status updates, after you've dropped off the grid for half a year.

When you're doing everything as a company, things move faster, but they cost more as well. Add the in-house graphic designer, who makes all the pretty graphics and webpage designs, the director, management, hiring outsourced sounds and music, filling in forms on iTunes Connect... Did I mention the music and sound effects cost money?

And of course you'll need a trailer for your game. An office, Internet, accounting firm, fire safety certificates, not to mention the time for catching up with legislation and paying taxes... It all takes some time to do and you're going to be the one doing it. There are so many little things we don't think about when we dream of writing the next Tiny Wings in our spare time.

It's almost impossible to get the planned money/time figures off by less than a factor of three. Whether you're doing this with a couple of buddies in your free time or going the full-out company approach -- while the real money spent on the production can vary wildly, the amount of work is the same in any case. Be prepared to put it all in with your bare fingertips.

Monkey Labour
team: the artist, the director, the coder, the additional coder, the additional-additional coder

So, after five people (plus two outsourced for sound and music) spent the greater part of two months on a game for whose production any solid developer should reasonably charge $50,000, the game was released on the App Store.

Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

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