Indie Haven May Developer Rountable – When is an Indie Game Successful? Laura Kate May 4, 2013 Features 1 We at Indie Haven like to get you as close as possible to the games you love, and the people making them. That’s why every month we aim to bring together a wide selection of of Indie Developers from all walks of life, from BAFTA winners to teenage and student devs, to discuss the hottest issues affecting games, development, coverage and the Indie community. These chats will be broken up into chunks and released across the month, before we start all over again with new developers and new questions. This month we kick off our Roundtable series with a fantastic group of developers. Some you know well, some you may not and some are the stars of tomorrow. We’ve got Mike Bithell (Award winning creator of Thomas Was Alone), Charlie Nash (Up and coming teenage dev), Nicoll Hunt (The mind behind Time Travelling Lumberjack Punching a Bear in the Face Simulator Fist of Awesome), Tim Keenan (Half of the husband and wife team behind A Virus Named Tom), Katharine Neil (Creative force behind the darkly humoured adventure Alone in the Park) and Matt Kain Lewandowski (Part of the bearded brotherhood known as Team2Bit. Winners of IGN’s The Next Game Boss and developers of the upcoming beat ‘em up Fist Puncher).Simon Roth (Developer of the huge Kickstarter success Maia) also joins us toward the end of the Roundtable (I say toward the end as he was significantly delayed due to the wonders of public transport). If you’re an Indie Dev of any size that would like to take part in a future roundtable, please email Laurak@IndieHaven.com and let us know a little about yourself. The more the merrier. Laura Kate: Okay, are we ready to move to question two? Nicoll Hunt: Sure Charlie Nash: Yes siree bob “WHEN IS AN INDIE GAME SUCESSFUL?” Mike Bithell: When it is a good game.. by whatever criteria the creator sat down and created it by. Charlie Nash: I think an indie game is sucessful when you feel like all the work, effort and time you put into it had a positive outcome. Mike Bithell: so if it’s a great story / beautiful / feels good etc.. whatever the creator was after. Matt Kain Lewandowski: Totally depends on the studio and there are lots of levels of success. Financial success is certainly one. For me, I’ll be financially successful when, at the end of the year, there is more money in my bank account than at the beginning. Mike Bithell: Or the same amount 🙂 Matt Kain Lewandowski: Artistic success is also another factor. Tim Keenan: Sappy answer – when it brings joy to a player. True answer – when it brings joy to the creator (this is usually before launch). Nicoll Hunt: Success can be measured in different ways. I’d class my game as successful if it makes enough money to pay by rent & food and/or people just enjoy playing it and go out of their way to tell me that. Mike Bithell: I think financial success is more of a factor than we often own up to. Like.. I would consider a game I made unsuccessful if it didn’t pay for the time it took to make. Charlie Nash: At the moment, my game “Weathered” has not been sucessful since I have had to rewrite script after script with not much to show for it. Matt Kain Lewandowski: I think we all want to believe that we’re successful when we complete the game and are proud of it, but deep down we all really want the game to have a decent audience and find a market. Mike Bithell: Progress dude Katharine Neil: @charlie – I feel your pain! Charlie Nash: Right now I wish I had a team to lumber all of my problems and pain onto them instead. Nicoll Hunt: I think I’d be okay if my game didn’t totally recoup the money & time I’ve put into it, as long as it gives me a step up to something bigger next time. Mike Bithell: That’s fair. Matt Kain Lewandowski’s Fist Puncher. (Ed. the character with rainbow hair is based on Editor Laura Kate). Matt Kain Lewandowski: I’m already proud of Fist Puncher and consider it a personal success (completing my vision, finishing the game, packing it with personality, making it fun and playable) but I really want it to sell to really see it as successful. Tim Keenan: I’ll definitely admit I’d feel my games weren’t successful if they didn’t make money or didn’t find an audience. Yet I truly believe I’d be wrong, because if I loved making it that’s why I did it. I’ll never say this stuff after a launch tho 😉 Charlie Nash: @Mike true true Mike Bithell: @charlie.. I want to know your criteria, because you’re so new to this stuff. Matt Kain Lewandowski: @nicoll… good point. Katharine Neil: I think there can be problems in perceptions around indie success… Charlie Nash: Not sure what you totally mean by criteria Mike, explain. 🙂 Mike Bithell: @charlie What is your objective, once you’re out of school? At what point do you, as a creator, feel like you’ve ‘made it’ as an indie? Nicoll Hunt: I kind of already consider FIST OF AWESOME a success. Even though it’s not finished, it’s got me a lot of attention and I’ve been able to go places and meet people I’d never have had the chance to before. Tim Keenan: I guess my more pragmatic answer would be if I felt like the game connected with people and did well enough that I can keep making indie games. Mike Bithell: Yup. I know on Thomas, I felt my most ‘successful’ when I was in the studio with a hero recording the VO… That was the point where I felt like it had all been worth it. Mike Bithell: @tim: I like that answer Charlie Nash: @Mike Once I have left school, I still hope to stay working on games since it is my ultimate passion so I am hoping to find an apprenticeship or otherwise go to college and get a job too. When I made my first game and got feedback, that’s when I counted myself as an indie. Nicoll Hunt: Yeah, Tim’s answer rings true with me too. Matt Kain Lewandowski: Yup, if you’re able to work on another game, then you were a success. Rags To Riches Mike Bithell: @charlie It’s interesting, because I know a lot of guys in school who are like ‘fuck the system, I’m going to go be an indie like Phil Fish’… I think you’re being smart… go experience a system to react to 🙂 Nicoll Hunt: I learned more in my first year at a AAA development company than at 4 years of Uni. Charlie Nash: @Mike Thanks 🙂 I would ultimately in life like to work with a large team on games, like Bossa. Matt Kain Lewandowski: Plus 90% of people that try to “go be an indie like Phil Fish” fail. Mike Bithell: Yep. If you’re emulating a ‘star’ rather than doing it for the love… You’re doomed Katharine Neil: Yeah on that point, I think students can be often led astray by people who should know better. Mike Bithell: *cough* every popstar reality show ever *cough*. I think indies overplayed the ‘rags to riches’ narrative and that had a detrimental effect on the genre’s future. It’s really hard to do this for a living and we don’t say that enough publicly. Katharine Neil: I agree about the narrative, but i’m not sure it’s indies themselves that do that. Nicoll Hunt: It’s easy to see success stories and think they just got lucky straight away, but most (all) people work for years and years behind the scenes before becoming overnight successes. Mike Bithell’s Thomas Was Alone. Mike Bithell: @Kat You think more on press side? Katharine Neil: Partially, but i’m thinking of a) publishers and b) older educational institution based types. Matt Kain Lewandowski: So true. Look at all the stuff Notch did before Minecraft. Tim Keenan: You see this in every industry. It’s easy to turn a phrase to make anything seem like an overnight success, especially if the person isn’t well known already, but usually it’s the years and years of work that got them there. Mike Bithell: The universities do really push the poster boy creative.. depends on lecturers, I had some pragmatic ones 🙂 Katharine Neil: “Indie” as a brand and the “you can make it if you’re good/if you try” mentality is now a convenient source of energy for the industry. Mike Bithell: But yeah, I’ve heard people say Terry C was an overnight success with Super Hexagon.. and it’s like dude, seriously? He’s been making games you didn’t give a shit about for years. Mike Bithell: I do believe that if you make objectively good games you will eventually ‘succeed’ in the survival sense. Katharine Neil: I had to sit through a lecture recently given by a certain middle aged game industry personality (who is not an indie) tell students that they were more likely to make a living as an indie than as an industry worker with a proper job. Mike Bithell: Wow. That’s damaging as hell. Tim Keenan: Hahaha, nice. The Importance of Branding Katharine Neil: I would like to believe that talent and hard work will eventually succeed, but I think there are so many other factors involoved. Marketing, self-promotion, etc. Nicoll Hunt: It’s definitely a war of attrition to get anywhere, not just in indie games but pretty much any creative endevour. Mike Bithell: True on marketing, but that’s a learnable skill, right? Tim Keenan: @Nicoll Agreed. Katharine Neil: Marketing is one of the reasons I left the mainstream industry, ironically. Very very ironically, now. Matt Kain Lewandowski: Making a good game is half the battle. PR, marketing, networking, branding, etc. is the other half. Katharine Neil: Sure, there are lots of learnable skills. My learnable skill of choice is game development. In the old days I could leave the begging and grovelling to the pros on another floor of the building. Nicoll Hunt: Marketting is a hard thing to do, mainly because it’s very easy to get disheartened when it doesn’t work. Mike Bithell: @kat 😀 Tim Keenan: That’s an area where being indie can help. It’s a type of brand and a type of support network if you’re not a dick 🙂 Mike Bithell: True Katharine Neil: I don’t want to be my own brand. Mike Bithell: But you are, by default. Katharine Neil’s Alone in the Park Katharine Neil: I don’t want to make ‘viral videos’. Maybe it’s my age or something, but I’m extremely cynical about the silicon-valley style “be your own brand” stuff. Also, I am a dick, doesn’t mean people shouldn’t play my games. Matt Kain Lewandowski: You don’t have to make viral videos, but small indie studios do need to make trailers, send press releases, update their twitter feed, keep a blog, manage facebook, attend tradeshows, network at parties, and on and on and on… Nicoll Hunt: I’m definitely trying to make myself a brand. Hopefully not in a “I-want-be-Jay-Z” kind of way, just making my games and myself kind of intertwined. Tim Keenan: I think I worried a lot before about marketing and I’m learning to “let go” a little. You don’t have to make ‘viral videos’ I think. But you do have to reach out to your community. Which I find fun, but I am a loud, obnoxious prick that likes the sound of his own voice 😉 Charlie Nash: Executive Produced by Jay Z. That shit needs to stop Mike Bithell: I’m in an odd position, because I’m massively extroverted on social media (not so irl) .. but my view of the marketing branding stuff is that it’s essential, so I just have to get on with it. Why should I expect people to give a shit if I’m not talking about stuff. I don’t like it when indie’s expect that coverage to fall in their laps. Matt Kain Lewandowski: @mike: Agreed. Nicoll Hunt: I grew up with companies like Sensible Software where the personality of the devs were part of the games, and I’ve taken that on board as something I’d like to do too. Mike Bithell: And objectively good stuff does get out.. if a large enough audience would think it’s good. Nicoll, I love that side, I love chatting to both fans of my stuff and the people who hate it. Katharine Neil: I agree that artists expecting to be discovered is a bulls**t narrative. Tim Keenan: The hardest thing about marketing is that it’s so hard to quantify it’s effect. Katharine Neil: Honestly, it sucks having to be someone I’m not to brand myself. Charlie Nash: I prefer negative feedback. Is that weird? Matt Kain Lewandowski: I also think that if you love your game, pitching it, talking about it, and promoting it is actually pretty fun. Mike Bithell: I think you can be honest tho Kat.. This is why I love Sophie H.. she puts up with no nonsense and is massively known for that. Katharine Neil: Yeah, I do admire her. Nicoll Hunt: @Charlie I wish I could be like that! I’ve blocked all comment threads about my game because the negative comments make me want to give up and not make games. Mike Bithell: And outside of indie, look at punk rock.. Those guys often rebelled openly to coverage.. There’s an audience for that kind of person. Charlie Nash: @Nicoll I just strangely love it knowing that I have either offended someone or annoyed them. Tim Keenan: I took a ridiculous approach to PAX, instead of showing A Virus Named TOM at the Megabooth again and showing it to possibly thousands who could buy it, I took a paper prototype of a new game to the table-top area and 8 people played it and they can’t buy a thing. Possibly dumb, but possibly not. That’s me being me and letting the marketing do itself in a way, no idea how it’ll work, but it FEELS right. Katharine Neil: But the honest truth is I think the self-promotion “wear a funny hat to be noticed” (seriously, I’ve heard that suggested) be your own brand cult-of-the-artist stuff is a huge wank that I never had to deal with when I was a shop-floor game developer working in studios. Charlie Nash: @Tim I thought that was cool. Katharine Neil: @tim – Meeting players and enthusiasts like that is super fun. Nicoll Hunt: @Charlie There is a strange thrill when I get a comment like “This is everything that’s wrong with Indie games!”. Too many of them though chips away at my soul. Tim Keenan: @charlie: Thanks! See, it’s working ;p (At this point we learn that Simon Roth is stuck on a train back from GDC and will try to be with us by the final part of the roundtable. Spoilers, he does arrive in a few questions time). Mike Bithell: That’s my point Kat… You know… In this conversation, I’ve found you an interesting ‘character’.. You created a ‘bulls**t brand’ just by stating an opinion.. It’s all good 🙂 Tim Keenan: @Katharine: Yes, incredibly motivating and inspiring, which I think is necessary. [quote_right]” I think we all want to believe that we’re successful when we complete the game and are proud of it, but deep down we all really want the game to have a decent audience and find a market.”[/quote_right]Nicoll Hunt: An example of how not to market your indie “brand” is the horrible Kwalee videos from a few months ago. Mike Bithell: I missed that.. Katharine Neil: Well actually I’m pretty boring, and I wish that would be okay. Nicoll Hunt: It was basically what happens when someone says “we have to be zany to get people to notice us!” Mike Bithell: So are you faking being interesting for this Kat? Katharine Neil: The point is, I think marketing has SO much to do with the indie scene. Mike Bithell: Are you secretly dull? Nicoll Hunt: Cynical stuff like that gets embarassing very quickly. Mike Bithell: I remember when I first decided ‘I’m going to be a BRAND’… I affected a weird imitation of Stephen Fry whenever talking on social media.. Got called out in like 10 minutes.. Honesty is vital Katharine Neil: We used to complain about this in the mainstream industry, this EXACT problem, just in a different way. The project with the best marketing gets the sales, etc. Now we can’t blame the publishers. What if, in being honest, you bore people shitless? Mike Bithell: You won’t. Katharine Neil: I mean isn’t that like ‘being yourself’ on a date? “Being yourself” on a date is an old wives’ tale myth thing that we know doesn’t actually work. Nicoll Hunt: I think if you’re genuinely enthusiastic about something then people respond to that. Mike Bithell: Yep Tim Keenan: They really do. Nicoll Hunt: A lot of it is trying to not be too clinical about how you express that enthusiasm. Katharine Neil: I’m sure that’s the right and honest way to do things. I just there’s no guarantee of success. Tim Keenan: I was always myself, seriously. I used to try not to be an ass but it was too much work and I didn’t want to end up with a wife that I coudn’t be myself around… poor Holly, she was so young when she met me 😉 Matt Kain Lewandowski: Enthusiasm + a good game. Every developer I meet is enthusiastic, but not all games are good. It’s a sad truth, but many indie devs are shoveling crap. Mike Bithell: I think by being someone who makes stuff.. indies already like 95% of the way there to being awesome.. Doesn’t take much to be seen as super cool 🙂 @matt Do you think good ‘indie marketing’ has ever made a shit game successful? Katharine Neil: You could be the nicest most enthusiastic person in the world doing the best most authentic marketing etc and if you still fail – I don’t think it’s your fault. Matt Kain Lewandowski: @mike… I can’t think of any. Tim Keenan: @Mike: Agreed, many of my fans find indie dev an aspirational thing, so the fact that I’m crazy enough to do it make what I say more interesting. Matt Kain Lewandowski: But I know lots of cases where great games are overlooked. Charlie Nash: A wise man called Javier Cabrera told me to aim small and then gradually get bigger, that way you can achieve all your goals. Katharine Neil: Or not achieve them, because not everyone will achieve them, no matter how deserving they are, or how clever, or how hard they try. Mike Bithell: @matt.. Because of marketting you think? Or game too niche? Matt Kain Lewandowski: I would guess marketing. But it’s so hard to be objective about tastes in these types of discussions. Charlie Nash: But then if you don’t achieve them it’s not as painstaking as aiming really high and getting hit down. Mike Bithell: Failure isn’t the problem, it’s how you choose to react to it. Katharine Neil: Right, small milestones is a good way of working for sure. Katharine Neil: I think we need to be less moralistic about it, as a community, the Steam Greenlight debate showed this. I hate the idea that if you suck at marketing, well, you’re not trying hard enough, it’s your fault, etc. Mike Bithell: I think marketing is too often truncated with audience size.. if you’re making something super personal, weird, specific.. Of course it’s not going to become massive.. It’s a niche audience. If you look at the big hits, what do you see? Platformers, FPS’… Nicoll Hunt: There’s no magic bullet to any of this, and definitely no way to guarantee “success”. I’m hopelessly naive about all this but I’ve found that just being myself and trying to enjoy whatever it is I’m doing has paid off. And with that we end another segment of Indie Dev Roundtable here at Indie Haven. Next time we will be opening up discussion on the topic of the biggest issues facing the indie game industry. What do you think? Does a game need to make its money back to be a success Is success defined by how well the audience receives the game? How much of a role do you feel Twitter and Branding have in determining a games success? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below. Stormbringer Oh man, I’ve reached the end of the Features back catalog. So much for the honeymoon… THE thing people making games or anything don’t really seem to understand is what you are attempting is pretty insane. We have hundreds of years of art produced by artists. When you add something new onto the pile, you’re saying this thing I made is so good that you audience need to find room for it in your lifetime, when you could be experiencing ALL of the other art that has ever been made. That’s extraordinarily brassy! What we really need to be doing is socializing the whole business of making art. Take some of that 2.5B that Minecraft got from Microsoft and use it to keep artists on life-support somehow; it’s either that or wait for every nation to establish a baseline where small and diverse artists can work without worrying about “making a living”. Making a great work of art that is truly worth peoples time is very different from marketing something to people who don’t know what is what and think there is something intrinsically valuable in things that are NEW (to the contrary, history has just forgotten everything that was once new that was never meant to weather the sands of time) There is power in numbers. Video games are complicated. We need to make tools more than games, and databases of artwork that is cohesive and consistently good and always in flux. We need digital props, for the first time the digitization of stagecraft. These things can be very satisfying. A singular work of art at most can affect any one for only a small moment of time. But a tool, a digital prop, these things can affect everyone forever. It’s much more rewarding to invest in tools and resources for artists. Making art on the side is good too, but it isn’t even the ends to the means.