Monday, November 20, 2006

so you want to be indie developer?

Then here are a few things to keep in mind...

1) Your website lasts forever
There are many factors involved in getting traffic to your site, and one of them is just sheer persistance over time. The more links you have to your site, the better,so dead links are a disaster. Because its almost impossible to track down everyone linking to your site and getting them to update the links, this means that when you tell someone the link to a jpg, a demo exe, or a video, for best results you need to keep that link legit forever. If you have a decent webhost, you can fiddle with config settings to redirect certain files to other places, but by far the best way to handle this is to just be organised from the very start. Assume you will have more than one game, and make your site layout reflect this. Try to standardise everything from the very start, with a naming convention, and neat directory layout. If things go well, you will have your website for ten years or more. Start as you mean to go on.

2) There is no standard contract
The two biggest lies in the music business and the games business are these:
"This is a standard contract, it cannot be altered" and "This is what all contracts are like, if you don't sign this, you won't get a better offer." ALL contracts from serious publishers and portals are negotiable, and every clause can be reworded and changed. If you don't ask, you don't get, and if you sign a contract that you aren't happy with, you have only yourself to blame. A related tip is to note that any reassurances you get from the publisher about what a clause "really means" or means "in practice" is useless. The most vital one to watch for is deductions that are mot capped or itemised. If a publisher says "you should get at least $x a copy" make sure it says exactly that in the contract. If they say that deductions will only be a dollar or so per copy, have that amount explicitly written in. If they won't do this, they are probably lying. A single vague clause in a contract can cost you a lot of money. You never know if your game will be a hit, and if it is, it's too late after the inks dry to renegotiate the contract terms.

3) You need to do it all
Many indie developers are ex-mainstream industry programmers. If that's you, you are probably used to big areas of work being done by someone else. You will have to do it all, unless you buy an engine outright. That involves a lot of code people don't think about. You need code to handle input, sound, music, graphics, cheat codes, save games, the front end, version control, any web integration, etc etc. This also goes for non coding activity such as website design and development, marketing, business matters, tech support and QA. If the thought of doing this all alone doesn't scare you, it should do, it's hard work. If you have lots of money, you can pay others to do it all, but it's way easier (at first) to just learn how to do it.

4) Size matters
Big retail games are stupid sizes, and people tend to ignore the whole topic of installer size and efficiency. Demos for such games are even more hilarious, some of them are over a gig in size. That's suicide. Yes, you have fast broadband and will wait 5 hours with it to get the new RTS demo. Newsflash - you are a game developer, you are hardcore. The majority of your potential buyers dont know who the hell you are. They haven't been waiting 2 years for your game, you do not have the Spore marketing budget. You cannot gurantee placements on magazine cover disks, and cannot assume enough downlaods to keep a torrent download viable for your demo. Also, in all likeliehood, you are paying bandwidth costs for each demo download. If you have a 1% conversion rate and a 100MB demo, thats 10 gig of demo traffic per sale, without images, videos, and html. This adds up. Also, lots of people just won't bother with a 100MB demo from an unknown. If you have never given the size of your demo thought before, you will do so now. It's a cardinal sin to include art and sound assets in a demo for levels that aren't included, but you need to know every trick in the book.

5) The exchange rate can kill you
Generally online games are sold in dollars, and as a one-man company, for simplicity, and to avoid fraud and mega hasle, you will probably charge everyone the same price. I live in the UK, where a US Dollar is worth so little we wallpaper our houses with them. That's great for when you go on holiday from the UK to the USA, but its sucks bigtime for when I get paid. Theres basically no way around this, because it's not an issue of charging different prices to different countries for standard-of-living reasons (people always try to rip off the british, and sell stuff cheaper to russia), it's more a matter of converting the currency from the majority currency to the one you use. Ideally you will live in the USA or eastern europe. The worst place to live is the UK (AFAIK). If I lived in the USA, I'd have paid for my house by now. There's no way around this apart from moving to a new country, but it *is* something you need to be aware of.

6) Ideas ARE worth something.
In fact they are worth a lot. Common armchair-pundit wisdom is that "an idea isnt worth anything, its the implementation that matters", but I disagree. Take a look at the current 'casual' and 'indie' game markets. Lots and lots and lots of clones. An original game DOES sell better than a simple clone, all other things remaining equal. The thing is, you have to really believe in your idea, stick to your guns, and still turn out a good (as well as original) game. The great news is, that if your game is original, there is virtually ZERO competition. Thinking of doing a vertical scrolling shooter? it better be as good or better than Star Monkey. Thinking of doing a match 3 puzzle game? it better be superior to Bejewlled (good luck...). But if your game is truly original, you will have the whole market to yourself. Just avoid political simulation games and turn based life-sims. Those arent genres you should consider *cough*.

This post was part of the 'So you want to be an Indie Developer?' blog
project. You can find the other entries via these links:


Lemmy and Binky

Reality Fakers