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Why Indie Games are Getting Pushed Out and How to Stay Alive (soragora.com)
45 points by darrelsumi on Oct 24, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 22 comments

App store discovery is definitely one of the biggest problems. Especially Android, which persists in using a limited set of bizarre subcategories for games.

Both Apple and Google have humans maintaining their storefronts to some extent, but what they offer is incredibly limited. They're not a fraction as good as Steam for finding new things you might like.

And for the last point about tracking metrics, here's a great blog post on the subject by a then-Google developer:


I don't have any problem at all discovering good apps on the App Store. For the most part, the stuff on the top of the store is great, and when I want something a bit quirkier (i.e. a Hokkien-teaching app) I search for it. What kinds of apps do you feel are difficult to discover?

I recently went to an conference and found out that typical user acquisition costs ranged from $60k to $120k in order to get a top 25 title into the app store. Added to this was the fact that you pretty much had to give away the game for for free, and then hope to sell things in the game to the 2% of folks who would buy. So what this really means is that the launch of the game is really the start of an ongoing project to refresh the same title to keep user interest. These are quite daunting tasks to an indie developer who might be able to throw $20k at a project.

The best advice that I came across was to make it a point to avoid doing what ever everyone else was doing. So go after a niche gaming audience and maybe even think of another platform where the well funded publishers aren't playing.

To me, the implication here is that you can no longer bank everything on one title. Your first title may need to be a loss leader for a second and third title, to follow shortly thereafter. Hopefully you build a fanbase with the first title, and you try to convert those fans to the subsequent games. This is not cheap, by any means, and for true garage-style indies, it will mean either raising some capital, partnering with others who have it, or being incredibly savvy with PR and guerrilla marketing. Or it may mean a really long, slow strategy, building up a loyal following over the course of a few years. (That's the way a lot of fledgling studios had to do it in the early console days, and it may be similar in the future.)

The niche strategy is the other option. I've seen certain niches that have really loyal, under-served fanbases with deep pockets and a high willingness to pay for quality. Take the RPG segment, for instance. Square-Enix (an 800lb gorilla, sure, but still) recently released an RPG for a whopping $30 on the iOS App Store, and by all accounts, it seems to be very successful. I'm sure you can measure the number of people who paid for it in the hundreds of thousands, and probably not the millions, but still, that's a successful launch. A small, hyper-loyal niche without much price sensitivity can be the basis of a very lucrative strategy.

Loss-leading is for losers. I mean, it works if you are a large entity with super-deep pockets and a long horizon before you need to make your money back. For small developers it is death.

The first dot-com bubble was all about user-acquisition and loss-leading. Look where that ended up.

Perhaps "loss leading" was the wrong term on my part. A more accurate description for what I was trying to get at would be expecting to break even or turn a small profit on the first game, then converting that game's base to a higher-margin second game.

That being said, I don't think loss leading, in and of itself, is out of the question for a small developer. There are periods of time during which dropping your price to free can drive a significant boost in trial. This is a valid promotional strategy, assuming it's used sparingly and strategically enough that it doesn't piss off the userbase who paid for the game.

This discussion seems to focus on the mostly-saturated iOS App Store, which is fair enough, given the money being thrown around there, but I wouldn't write the Windows Store off just yet.

We've got just over 800 indie games in the Windows Store right now, and many of those are (quite frankly) basically crap. To me, this looks like a tremendous opportunity for indie game devs. It's still a gamble, but that kind of comes with the job.

"Although 2D and casual games are still dominant, a growing fraction of mobile gamers are looking for console or PC level quality."

Gameplay/concept/'atmosphere' comes before graphics, surely. Sometimes even the big players get this (eg: WoW, especially near its launch).

Windows Store for Windows Phone 7 was largely a flop since it was impossible to do native code with it (games had to be in C# with XNA, or in other words a new title entirely and harder to port).

Android grew faster in games with 2.3 introduced the best NDK support (C/C++ rather than Java) (NDK initially was limited in 2.2).

Windows Phone 8 allows native support, this will be a land rush soon if there are decent phone sales. The only pain point of going to Windows then will be the DirectX portion compared to OpenGL (they really should have gone OpenGL ES on mobile for port reasons, it won on embedded already).

Platforms like Unity and others will be setup for it so it opens it up for many more devs = more games.

There are many AAA studios already making use of C#.

A big issue was surely the tiny market size Windows Phone has.

AAA studios may use C# for tools, but exactly zero of them use C# for their actual game engine.

Are you sure?

I know a few cases in German studios.

Like what? AAA has a definition involving budget, it doesn't just mean "not indie". I am not aware of anyone operating at that budget level and using C#.

ExDream, http://exdream.com/Games/

The first company in the world releasing a .NET commercial game back in 2002.

Bitcomposer, http://bitcomposer.com

EA Phenomic, http://www.phenomic.de/

Kindle Fire might also become a good platform to focus on -- also Android users outside of the United States...

Kindle Fire has a lot of promise for developers in general, but the last time I looked at it Amazon's setup for actually getting your code in their store sucked (even by comparison with iOS and Google's Android store).

Has that improved?

Better looking but the waits/review times are still long. You have a longer initial review just to get in their Android store, then an additional review/wait delay for Kindle Fire. I was sure Amazon would be the fastest but they are new still really and should improve.

Play! is actually great to launch on and test initial builds, then when solid update for the others. Being able to update right now is so useful in promotion and software, but it does lead to more versions and less quality control I bet in the end. But it is more responsive to issues.

I don't have much patience for articles like this.

Look, if you can't get someone to open your app more than 3 times, maybe it's because you are not making interesting things.

If you build something that is high-quality and that makes a difference in peoples' lives, they will flock to you, because there is so little of that. On the other hand, there is an overabundance of 99-cent and free-to-play software that has no real reason to exist other than to try and make the developers money. But this is the mindset that this article comes from (evidence: the author's first three pieces of advice are "cross-promote", "market well", and "internationalize", things that have nothing whatsoever to do with what is being made or how good it is.

These are not useful tactics, at least not in isolation, because they don't address the core problem: that a developer in this situation is a dime-a-dozen. The solution is to stop being a dime-a-dozen.

You don't need to differentiate your particular piece of software so much; work on differentiating yourself as a developer, in terms of the quality and interestingness of what you produce; be a thought-leader rather than a follower who mainly thinks about cross-promoting; and once you manage these things, you will automatically be doing okay. (And you are much more likely to be satisfied with your life, which is quite a nice side-benefit).

Of course, most people will not follow this advice, because it requires effort, introspection, course-changing, all that stuff. Most iOS developers will continue going as they are and continue suffering the consequences. Not pretty but that is just how it is!

This is generally good advice, and it's well articulated. But respectfully, I don't think it's a fair critique of the article. First, because marketing and product development are not dichotomous operations. Both seem to be necessary to break out of the increasingly crowded app marketplace, and a "build it and they will come" strategy is not sufficient. There are plenty of beautiful, elegant, astoundingly creative games that are languishing in the App Store for lack of discovery (driven by insufficient or inattentive marketing).

I did not find that the author was advocating marketing tactics to the exclusion of development efforts, or to the exclusion of product differentiation. You say that his tactics, "in isolation," are not effective -- but the author wasn't claiming that they should be used in isolation. He happened to be focusing on them in this article, because this article was specifically about launch tactics. It was covering one small area of a broad spectrum of efforts required in app development. That doesn't imply a suggestion that this is the only area.

While it's true that a developer should focus first and foremost on making an amazing product (and on making himself amazing), he shouldn't ignore the tactics offered by this article and others like it. There will come a time when his app is built, and when he's getting ready to launch. When that time comes, he would be well served to have a launch strategy, and some tactics he can draw upon to execute that strategy.

Building a magnificent app, then simply tossing it into the wind and hoping for the best, is doing disservice to the effort you put in to build that app.

Very well said.

Articles like this reduce games to some grey, by the numbers marketing exercise. The reason so many games on the app store sink like a rock is because they just plain aren't enjoyable experiences and treat their players very cynically. It's totally disappointing that micro transactions, sneaky psychological tricks and nagging the player at every stage is so actively encouraged in the mobile space.

Gameplay and designing experiences for the player is seen as some sort of afterthought.

Games can be such a wonderful immersive medium, but it's hard to get lost in another world while there's a bright bouncing icon asking for your credit card or facebook details every three seconds. Mobile games really could be so much better than this.

I for one would love to see more focus on building great things and less on monetization. Long live the indies and hats off to people like yourself who are out there pushing things forward.

I spent two years building an iOS game without any special psychological or monetization tricks. My goal was simply to make an interesting and engaging game, and charge people a few bucks up front to play it. But making a living doing this is not as simple as it seems.

My game (http://buttonbrigade.com) is completely unique and those that play it love it, but so far the market has shown very little interest, even for the free version. From this side of the fence, it seems much easier to market and make money off of a clone of an existing game.

I wish it were simply a matter of making a great game and enjoying success, but if I want to keep doing this for a living, it seems I need to put much more effort into marketing than actually making great games.

We were motivated by this problem, so we've been working on a site that can help you guys pump hype into your indie games, http://www.hypejar.com/most-hyped/video-games/indie-kickstar...

One thing I've learned from doing small game dev: We are responsible for our own marketing. I think it is healthy to expect and plan for app stores to give us exactly zero exposure; it leaves much less to chance.

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