Exposing the Grimm reality of the indie dev fairytale Chris Higgins December 14, 2013 Features 4 By now we’ve all seen the story: talented developer, disenfranchised with the mainstream, works tirelessly to create something different and ends up with a best-selling game. The indie fairytale has been told and retold in every form of media, from documentaries to devlogs, news articles to twitter timelines. But the reality for many of those who see these rags to riches transformations and aim to follow in their hero’s footsteps is far more Grimm than it first appears. Luckily, there emerges a new hero, one to restore the balance to newcomers’ expectations of the indie trajectory. His name is Byron. Byron Atkinson-Jones is by no means a new addition to the industry. Having worked a long list of senior roles in high-profile giants and small studio underdogs alike, he struck out on his own to found Xiotex Studios in 2007. Since then he has worked on several personal projects and contributed to many others’ in the form of consultation, during which time he would always hear a familiar question. “I get a lot of people approaching me how to make games,” Byron said. “They then usually announce how they are thinking of going full time on it. I wanted to show them that we aren’t all as successful as Mike Bithell and that his kind of success is actually quite rare.” Byron has set out with his new game Blast Em! to dispel this myth of instant success by revealing everything about a new game release. From sales figures to source code, everything is open to the inquisitive wannabe developer to see and, hopefully, learn from. “The best way to do that was to show, day-by-day since its release, how many games get sold,” Byron told us. “I’m doing it in phases, so the first one is just using social media like twitter, stage two will be a press release, and so on. Each time I’ll note what’s happened and then you can see the effect it has on sales. In essence I wanted to try and help by giving a clear picture of what it takes to make and sell a game these days.” Stage two is still in the works, but from viewing the latest figures today, it appears Byron has hit a day he had been both expecting and dreading since the beginning of the experiment: the day of no sales. The expectation of this day will largely mitigate the anxiety such an event would cause in the average developer. However, for one team recently, this reality came as somewhat of a shock. Seaven Studio, the French developers of puzzle-platformer Ethan: Meteor Hunter, last week found themselves in just this position. Having spent an entire year hammering away at the game, getting favourable reviews and attending every event on the gaming calendar, within a month of launching Ethan had sold just 127 copies. Across PC and PS3. “We knew from day two it was bad news,” said Olivier Penot, producer and co-founder of Seaven. “When you sell a video game the first two days are the most important ones. When we got official reports from GoG & Sony we were sure. Morale was pretty low to be honest, it was one year of efforts not being rewarded and even smashed in “You did a shitty job you wasted a year.” That was basically the feeling.” After a couple of weeks of reeling from this devastating news, Olivier put together a detailed post-mortem of the launch, the results of which are staggering and more than a little brutal. Self-identified reasons for the lack of sales range from external uncontrollable factors, such as next-gen consoles eclipsing the launch window, to doubting their own art direction. But instead of dropping out altogether, the team has turned the experience into something educational. “We weren’t expecting so few sales to be honest,” Olivier said. “Our target of 3000 sales first month was already pretty low in our mind, but it was based on a previously released game by Hydravision digitally, which was out with good reviews but absolutely 0 marketing. The game was announced a week prior to its launch! So we were thinking “If we do the same quality with all of the marketing/PR we should be fine.” Right? RIGHT? Learned our lesson!” The outcome of Ethan’s failure is that the team will now have to cancel all the additional content and ports they had planned and set to work rushing out a smaller project to keep them afloat. Of course, since publishing the post-mortem they’ve also seen a small surge in sales and votes on greenlight, in a similar vein to the story of Flippfly’s Race The Sun, who published their breakdown of sales (or lack thereof) in September. But even this twist in the tale is unrepresentative of most indie projects, as Byron is quick to point out. The traditional routes to fame and success have very much disintegrated in the modern age, PR coverage does not guarantee interest as much as, say, the sweeping glance of a YouTuber. “YouTubers are kingmakers these days and it’s where the real power to make or destroy a game lives,” Byron said. “It would be great to get one of them on to make a video of Blast Em! but getting their attention first is hard. I did send an email to one of them but no reply.” According to the stats and events he records, Byron did catch a small bit of fortune with one LPer by the name of Abatage giving his game a go. And, again from the stats, it is possible to see a small but distinct increase in sales. These insights, conducted in the rigorous way he is going about them, could be crucial to developers entering an industry where sales figures are notoriously difficult to find and even harder to analyse. “As long as the game keeps going I’ll keep updating the stats and trying new things. If anything it’s a big lesson for me too. It’s been something like 3 years since I released one of my own games,” Byron said. “It’s already been cleared for Steam so when I eventually go down that route I can show how it does on Steam. However in order to make these stats really useful I have to show what it’s like through the different phases: Social media, press releases, Humble Store, Steam, and so on. “I know it might seem strange why I’m doing this. I get more out of helping others than I do making games these days. I’d rather try and be something of a help to other developers, especially those thinking of entering into the scene than just make and release games.” Test Nice Article! AnotherIndie Well, interesting article, but maybe some different metrics for this lack of success should be analysed too? For example, that Blast’Em game, really doesn’t look like it brings any news nor particular polish, to the table. Not saying it’s easy to live the indie dream, but the quality (and often the originality) of one’s ideas and execution is still one of the main factors. Byron Atkinson-Jones It’s a lot harder to quantify subjective metrics. For instance my tastes are clearly different to yours so what you would consider an original/polished game I might consider boring/ugly etc – so in this instance how would you measure it? An example is that I think Zaga 33 is an original highly polished game and Thomas was alone a bland platformer, some are likely to think the reverse and that’s the problem, it’s hard to measure what somebody thinks without engaging with them in some detail and that’s even harder to do with thousands of visitors that the Blast Em! site has had. Stormbringer The problem is someone has to make making games as easy as writing a novel in your spare hours. Nobody wants to work on the tools, everyone wants to work on the games. And the players have truly absurd expectations that do not apply to any other media. Game resources need to be shared, developed together, and reusable, and reused at every chance possible. The brilliance in a game isn’t in doing everything from scratch, just like we don’t grow actors in test tubes and throw them away after one use. It shouldn’t be a gamble to make a game. It should be a pastime. Something you do for the journey, not the results. Plus there is a whole world of possibilities in endlessly modifying and improving (and studying) already existing games. All of these tools that are inevitable and will so much improve games (which can really use so much improvement) go against many sacred cows held by players and developers alike, that stem from a culture of thinking about media as individual precious jewels to be held to the breast, instead of the stories and experiences that they actually are, which could exist as an infinity of permutations, digitized, customized, told and retold like stories of old, from the days before copyright and the making of fetishes out of recordings. Full disclosure: I’m one such nobody. Click my profile link for next generation tools.