This is a transcript of the Jake Birkett video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JmwbYl6f11c
Jake references this great blog post by Dan Cook towards the end of the talk https://www.gamedeveloper.com/business/minimum-sustainable-success
Minimum Sustainable Success
Let’s dream for a moment about sustainable game development.
Game development is inherently unstable. Technology, markets, profit margins and teams shift regularly. Any of these can quickly destroy a previously comfortable business. Individual game developers end up dealing with unexpected layoffs, last minute moves across the country (or across the world) and a level of uncertainty can damage our relationships and long term happiness.
In order to simply make ends meet, you end up compromising your dreams, for years. Or decades. Game development exemplifies Schumpeter’s creative destruction on an accelerated scale with intensely personal consequences.
So what is required to build an oasis? A place where, at minimum, one might make games at least without having your beloved team or your bank account regularly exploded. This essay covers some of numbers behind reaching success as a developer of premium games in the current market. I don’t offer solutions, but you may find some of the concepts useful.
The uninteresting case
There are obvious examples of extreme success. If you happen to make a game that personally earns you 10 to 30 million USD after taxes, you can likely devote the rest of your life to game development. You may not have enough to fund larger teams, but given reasonable budgeting, you’ve at least covered your expenses until death. For every additional teammate you need to make games, add another 10 million to your lifetime game making budget. (You may not want to actually spend your own money, but that’s a different discussion)
For those of you who find your gilded selves in that particular pickle, well done. None of the rest of this essay is meaningful to you.
What are the borderline cases? Imagine a glider that slowly drifts downwards, but manage to catch just enough of an updraft to never quite crash.
The following are some ideas pertinent to surviving long term in a hit driven media industry.
- Defining success: Success rates, Size of success, Variability
- Tactics for surviving the odds: Budgeting, Prototyping, Hobbies, Revenue streams
1. Defining success
In the 90s, Sierra expected 1 out of 4 games to be a success and pay for the other products that failed to turn a profit. Recently, Mike Capps, the previous president of Epic, claimed that he couldn’t promise more than a 10% chance a game would be a success. If you made 10 games, on average, you’d expect only 1 would be considered a success.
Success rate is simply the ratio of ratio games that hit some threshold of financial success vs the total you’ve released. It is never 100% and can range from 1 to 25% based on the particular market you are in.
Over time success has been dropping. 25% is almost never seen in modern game markets. Tools are cheaper, distribution platforms are more open and there’s simply a much larger supply of games today than there have been in the past. The number of game players has increased as well, but far slower than the vast increase in developers. Given a set of equally competent games, only a fraction will become profitable.
I typically think of success rates in the context of experienced developers. These are numbers coming from professional developers that are already using every trick in the book to mitigate risks. They are making sequels, they are leveraging existing relationships, they are selling to their fan bases.
When I talk about probabilities in game development, I’m by no means saying that success is all due to luck. Instead, it is merely acknowledging that even when you do everything you possibly can there are still huge risk factors that are out of your direct control.
You might as well plan for only a small chance of success with an individual game. This isn’t being negative. Smart people make good money off probabilistic systems every day.
Size of success
How big of a success is actually a success? There are many definitions of success out there. For the purposes of this essay, let’s consider making enough money to not go bankrupt the first tier of success. At the very least that means paying for your failures.
The first thing to realize is that not all profitable games provide long term success.
If you make 10 mobile (or PC) games for $100,000 a pop.
- Brutal failures: 3 make a total of $153.02. They didn’t get featured by the app stores and were lost in the sea of obscurity. Pretty common, though people tend to be shy about discussing their failures.
- Moderate failures: 4 make $50,000!
- Break Even: 2 games break even. Everyone talks about them as if they were a success.
- Success: Only a single game earns $1 million. It needs to earn 10X its cost to cover your million dollars in total dev costs.
What happens if that profitable game make $600,000? It earned 6X its costs! You made a profit of $500,000, enough to make 5 more games. However, you are still on the long road to bankruptcy, despite an apparent success. There’s only a roughly 40% chance those 5 swings at bat will result in a success. Long term, you’ll find yourself out of money or in debt.
I regularly hear press or indies trumpeting that a team broke even or doubled their money on a project and I cringe. I’m happy that they got a scratch off ticket to play again. But these are the same developers that are quitting the industry or sunk into despair when a game or two later they’ve run out of money.
It is a disservice to other developer to claim that a breakeven project is a financial success. Break even means almost nothing. You are still on the knife’s edge of baseline survival and should operate financially exactly as if you had achieved nothing.
Even studios that have successes that are 10X their average project cost still end up going under.
Flip a coin 20 times. On every 1 out of 2 times should be heads. But you don’t get a pattern of alternating heads and tails. You get streaks. You may see 10 heads in a row. This is within the bounds of chance. However, if you really needed tails to come up, you are in a lot of trouble.
Random systems have natural variability and game development does as well. The best team in the world can strike out 10 times in a row. It is just as likely for your failures to be front loaded as it is for your success. So not only do you need your success to pay for the average rate of failure. You need it to pay for the worst possible luck.
The more buffer you have, the longer bad luck streaks you can survive. At the very least, add a few expected failures into your success rate calculation. It isn’t a perfect tactic, but it helps you deal with bad luck in addition to mere average luck.
What I personally consider a successful project
At Spry Fox, in the past 5 years we’ve accumulated the following numbers:
- 31 projects started as prototypes.
- 20 smaller prototypes that also didn’t pan out. Some took months, others took days.
- 11 released projects
- 4 that didn’t make money (both brutal and moderate failures).
- 4 break even projects
- 3 outright successes.
For us a success means a released project makes back 5 to 10X its production cost. That is what pays for all the prototyping, failed projects and general poor dice rolls.
I was surprised to note that of our prototypes, roughly 1 in 10 end up being a successful project. I assumed we had a lot more horrible prototypes than apparently we do. For released projects, we are closer to 1 in 3 being successful.
That’s better than expected. But it does make me mildly worried that a bad luck streak is on the way. It would be completely fair to suggest that our successes were front loaded and our actual success rate is lower than the current small sample indicates.
However, the most important aspect of these numbers is that we are aware of them. They limit how much we can spend on a project and how much we could keep in reserve.
2. Tactics for surviving the odds
There are a vast number of techniques that help deal with the variability in game development. The following, however, are ones that don’t fundamentally alter the odds. They help you survive the odds, which is a very different goal.
Basic Budgeting for Sustainability
It is very common to spend too much money making your game. At minimum ask the following questions:
- Target Revenue: How much do you expect to make?
- Success Rate: What is chance of making that much money?
Your budget is likely Target Revenue * Success Rate. So if there’s a 10% chance of reaching $500,000, you should spend $50,000 on each project. That’s 1 full-time experienced developer for 5 months assume pay of $10,000 a month. Or if you underpay yourself relative to what you might make at comparable jobs and spend 10 months at $5,000 a month.
These numbers should look scary. They suggest that the vast majority of indie developers are ripe for financial ruin and are operating primarily on hope instead of any rational financial strategy. I think that’s accurate.
Low cost prototypes
Notice that the numbers I shared for concept success rate are quite similar to Mike Capp’s 10%. However, our released games have a much higher success rate (30+%). The reason for this is that we prove out the gameplay early using a low cost pipeline of low cost prototypes.
These prototypes cost dramatically less than a released game. Some of those 30 prototypes only took a couple days with a single programmer. By disproving bad ideas early, we put real money into games that have a much higher chance of success.
Releasing on multiple platforms
Each time you release a game on a new platform, you get to roll the dice all over again. And you do it a much lower development cost. Triple Town was only a break even game on the eInk Kindle. It was a true success on Android and iOS. If we had stopped after the first release, I would have considered Triple Town a financial failure.
Using designs and technology that quickly and cheaply transfer to new platforms reduces your porting costs and decreases the size of success you need to remain in business.
Operating as a hobby
One of the trickier aspects of sustainable development is the need to pay for food and housing. What if you can pay for those costs through some other means than games making money?
Some typical paths.
- Contracting: You can save up money working for someone else and then spend that money on a period of full-time development. The cost here is two fold. Development goes more slowly and long term you average wage is lower.
- Working at night: You work a full time job doing something else and then spend evenings and weekends making your game. The cost here is that work goes much slower. It is also not likely to be your best work since it is difficult to maintain quality while working more than 40 hours a week. You also bear the opportunity cost of sacrificing your leisure time to making games.
- Supportive spouse or family: Someone else in your family makes enough money that you have the leisure to work on games full time. The costs to the artist are generally low. The dominant one is a reduction in household family income. A great situation if you can manage it.
We don’t talk about it much, but a large number of successful ‘professional’ artists are in a relationship with someone else that pays their way. They aren’t successful entrepreneurs with a deep understanding of sustainability. Instead they are full-time hobbyists in a fortunate financial situation. They accumulate excess leisure time and spend it on game development.
This sort of blessing is very difficult to admit. But embarrassed silence dupes less fortunate artists into pursuing an unrealistic fantasy of how to thrive. If you are a kept developer and are living off someone else’s money, talk about it. Indie finances could use a little sunlight.
Longer term revenue streams
Premium games tend to have spiky revenue streams focused around launches and special sales. Financial instability is built into the business model.
Here are the most common ways of adding a dash of stability.
- Franchise: A long term game franchise where sales come from promoting sequels or remakes. This tactic is regularly practiced by conservative large companies, but also works for smaller operations like Spiderweb Software.
- Eternal updating: Continually update a game and making some noise about it. Toss in some sales. For most titles, this tends to drop off after a year or three. A consumable game tends to not be an evergreen business asset.
- Freemium: Make a game service and build a stream of revenue. This requires that you know how to run a freemium business. It is an uncommon skill set for an indie, but quite valuable.
These give you a base layer of predictable revenue. As long as your burn rate as a company doesn’t go wildly over your income stream, you can keep making games.
These revenue streams have been our goal as a company. We are looking to build long term games that produce a steady stream of revenue from a community of dedicated players. This isn’t an easy target to hit, but at least we are building games with that conscious aim in mind.
The big lesson is that your exposure to luck is something you can manage. Think about releasing a portfolio of games, only some of which will be a success. And you should budget in such a manner that you can afford to make that portfolio. Blowing your existing capital on a single title is almost always a dumb idea. Sometimes it pays off. Most of the time, it doesn’t.
However, it is also worth realizing that playing the premium market straight on is, by many measures, a sucker’s game. The standard bet is to lose money on 5 to 10 games and have one success that lets you do it all over again. For most companies, the house always wins in the long run.
Perhaps the longer term solution is to run your games as a service. Try to create a product that produces reliable cash flows. This likely require a certain level of business thinking. You are making a financial machine that lasts instead of a Hail Mary piece of art that vanishes.
So, you’re not special, nor is your game, and you’ll never ship a hit.
That’s the uncomfortable reality for most of us.
And the sooner you can come to terms with that, the sooner you can start figuring out just how to survive as an indie.
And of course, the longer you survive, the greater the chance that one day your game will be special and you will ship a hit.
So I’m Jake Burkett, and I love making games.
I love designing games, I love coding, and I love shipping games as well.
So I went indie in 2005, and I’ve made a whole bunch of commercial games.
Most recently, Regency Solitaire.
I also love doing game jams and one game a month, and I’ve made a bunch of sort of free mini games.
And I also co-founded Full Indie in Vancouver, which has got over 3,000 members.
It’s a pretty awesome meetup group.
And I run the UK version, so if you’re in the UK, look up fullindie.co.uk.
So I’m a no-hit wonder.
Plenty of talks are out there about hits, or maybe abject failures, and there’s the failure workshop down there.
But there aren’t many stories about people who survive for a long time, and I’ve survived for over a decade now.
And that’s what I’m going to talk about today.
I’ve shipped over 10 games.
All of them have sort of made some kind of profit, ranging from very poor to okay.
And I’ve meticulously collected a lot of data, which I’m going to share with you today.
I’m a firm believer that you should focus on your own games instead of working for other people, and I’m going to explain in detail why.
I also think that having a long tail is extremely important, is vital to your success, and having a back catalogue is a really powerful effect.
Also, you need to be adaptable and determined.
These are traits that you need to develop over time.
I want to change your mindset from, I’ve made a hit game, so I want to make a hit game, to I want to build a sustainable business.
Now that’s not as glamorous sounding, but I do believe it’s more realistic.
So the legendary Jeff Vogel, he said, nobody knows anything.
And there basically aren’t any magic bullets.
You hear about big hits and so on, but we’ve got this problem where if you only hear about the successful games, you’re sort of ignoring all of the failures, and I don’t think it’s painting a realistic picture.
One example is Indie Game the Movie.
I like that movie a lot, but it sort of could lead you to believe that if you wreck yourself physically and emotionally for several years, and then you ship on Xbox, everything will magically be okay.
Which, you know, obviously I don’t agree with that.
So for years I’ve been searching for the magic formula for game dev success, and I’ve asked people why they think their games are a hit.
Some are honest, and they say, I got lucky.
I don’t really know why I was successful.
And good for them.
Others think it was PR and marketing that got them successful and going to shows.
Others say it was YouTubers and Twitchers who made them famous.
But you know, there isn’t really any clear-cut answer.
And you might wish to be like John Blow, maybe, but the thing is, you weren’t him from birth.
You didn’t grow up in the same place.
You didn’t learn the same things as him.
You didn’t ship the same game at the same time as him.
So in order to be authentic in the games that you create, you need to connect to something in yourself and let that come out through your work, and you can’t do that if you’re trying to be someone else.
So how do you define success?
Well, I asked this question to the dev community on Twitter and got lots of answers.
Some people define success as shipping any game at all.
And yeah, that’s a really good starter.
Others thought it was if players enjoyed their game or if they innovated and made something new.
Some people have got loftier ambitions and want to retire comfortably or own a Tesla.
That’s not happened to me yet.
And others, you know, most people really said to be successful is to be able to continue making games for a long time.
And that’s what this talk is about.
So we all know what this sort of indie dream is, but the reality is quite different.
It is very hard work.
Have you ever watched your basement-dwelling, noodle-eating, single indie friends get rich while you struggle to feed your family and pay the mortgage?
And maintaining motivation in those sort of times is quite tricky.
You know, there are far easier things we could be doing as indies, but why do we do it?
We do it because we love it, because we want to make games.
So how can we keep making games for a long time in the face of things like the indie apocalypse?
Is there such a thing?
I think this sort of thing has happened many times before in different platforms, and it will happen again.
But if you’re fast, the market is fast moving, and if you adapt and you plan for sustainability, then hopefully you’ll be more resilient.
So we’re going back through the mists of time to 1984.
That was my first computer, and it came with a manual that taught me how to program BASIC, and I started making games.
And then I got a Commodore 64 and an Amiga, and they were some of the most fun computing times I’ve ever had.
And I’ve played a lot of games over the years.
You might remember when games came in massive boxes like this.
I’m glad you can download them now.
So for some reason I ended up in my 20s making business software, and we made stock control and accounting systems, which sounds kind of boring, but I learned a lot from that process.
And in my spare time I was working on a Kung Fu platform game called Iron Fist that I was very passionate about.
And I was staying up every evening until 4am and all weekend programming this thing.
And I soon realized that I couldn’t go on like this because I felt like a zombie, and I had a sort of early midlife crisis and decided to quit my job and go full time.
Now at the time I had no savings.
We just moved to a bigger house.
We’d had a second child, and my wife was a full-time mother.
And I said to her, oh, I want to make games for a living.
And she, thank goodness for her, she said, well, she trusted me and had faith in me to do that because I believed in it.
So that was great, although I just wondered if she was sleep deprived and she’d have agreed to me being a professional juggler or something.
So I worked on Iron Fist full time for quite a while and was enjoying it, but I soon realized that I’d really, the scope was just too big, and it was going to take forever to finish.
And also at the time there was no market for it.
There was no Steam, there was no Xbox Live Arcade.
And all sort of games were sold via download.com or the casual portals.
And I just didn’t think that I could make a go of this type of game.
I probably could now, but not then.
So I decided to abandon the game and start on a smaller project.
So the point is I wanted to ship a game and get experience in shipping a game and see what that whole thing was like and then improve upon that.
And around that time I saw Bejewelled.
This is the first one, and I liked it a lot.
And I thought, hey, I could make a game like that, but with a different theme and some levels and kind of new mechanics.
Now I know to most of you making a match 3 probably sounds horrific, but I actually like that genre and had fun making games in that genre.
So I made a Christmas-themed match 3 game.
And to save money I used stock art, stock photos, stock music, and I even used the Comic Sans font.
There we go.
So this game, it actually played pretty well, I still believe, but it looked like ass.
And as a result it sold $1,800 worth.
That’s net, not gross.
That’s what I’ve received.
And that is over 120 months, so 10 years.
What’s interesting though is over on the right you can see it’s still selling a few units even now, even today.
And we’ll come back to that later.
So I know kind of how long it took to make and worked out that it was, it earned me about $6.50 an hour, so I would definitely call that a fail.
However, the fact it sold even a single copy made me think, okay, well let’s try this again.
And I thought, I know what to do.
I will reuse the engine and make an Easter-themed match-three game.
And instead of using stock art, I’ll pay a friend of mine to make some pixel art, because I’m sure that’s what casual gamers will love, pixel art, right?
Obviously looking back I realized what an idiot I was, because the game didn’t do very well either.
This has made nearly $3,000 over 10 years.
So that’s not done very well, another fail.
So around this time, and in fact for the next two games, I didn’t make any money at all.
For 18 months we just didn’t make any money from games.
And I had to do IT consultancy to make ends meet, so I had to sort of set up networks and get rid of viruses.
And my wife, she did science writing and got a part-time job at the university to make ends meet.
We also got out loans.
We told them it was for home improvements, but it wasn’t.
And we shuffled money around on credit cards using 0% deals, so I’d buy all my food on credit cards and shuffle the money around.
We also got low-income tax credits from the government, and we used that to pay childminders so we could keep working.
So we lived very frugally, we didn’t do anything fun, and it was kind of not a great time.
Of course I’m not advising this, I’m just saying this is what I did.
And it’s very much possible to survive, you know, if you want to find a way, and I sort of did.
So, yeah, if you’re starting out, clearly you need some kind of runway, don’t do what I did.
Even if you’re making your tenth game, you still need some kind of runway.
You’ve got to make sure you can reach the end of it without selling your soul.
So the only thing is, a lot of people procrastinate, so maybe sometimes there is something to be said for just getting started and figuring out things as you go along.
Once you start something, and it’s difficult to go back, your brain starts working on solutions as to how to move forward, and that’s something I found anyway.
So after Easter Bonus and its sort of flop, I got contacted by a guy, an American at the time, who I’ve still never met to this day, who said that the Wizard of Oz book IP was going to expire in a hundred years, and it would become public domain, and we could use the book IP and make a match-three game.
And he said he would pay for the art and a musician, and I just had to code it for free, and we would share the revenue at the end.
Again, that’s not something I’d advise, but he seemed to know what he was talking about, and he had some good contacts, and I thought, okay, let’s give it a go.
The game actually did turn out very well, and I also had to switch to a new technology and make a new engine, which I sold on the Blitz Max forums, and I sold 200 copies of this engine for $50 each, and those people paid me for the privilege to fix my engine and tell me how to improve it, so that was pretty neat.
One of the things this opened my eyes to was the fact that it’s definitely worth spending money on art and audio.
I do really believe that if you make your game look good, it will sell better.
That’s not always the case, but it really is kind of obvious, and I see a lot of games come out, and I’m like, that just won’t sell.
People won’t equate it with value because it doesn’t look good.
So how did The Wizard of Oz do?
Well, you may not see this sort of low-level stuff, but seven years after it sold, I did a mobile deal with a publisher and got a big sort of advance on sales, so anything can happen in the lifetime of a game.
That’s seven years later.
We can look at that in aggregate, and you can see that the last five years had a whole new boost of revenue, and I’ll talk about how I did that in a moment.
So it’s made about $90,000 net, about $250,000 gross.
It didn’t cost me anything to make because somebody else paid for the art and so on, and it’s maybe about $100 an hour, but it’s taken nine years to get that much money, right?
At the time, in the first year, it only made $20,000, and we thought it was a flop.
So it’s a success now, but it was a very long success.
I also thought, okay, well I can improve upon this and make another Christmas-based Match 3, but this time with better graphics.
So I paid, well actually I had to persuade my wife to let me spend $2,000 on art.
The 3D shapes are actually made by the guy who made the robots in Rise of the Robots, if any of you remember that game, and 3D-rendered backgrounds.
Well I had to make it very quickly because Christmas was looming, and the thing with seasonal deadlines is you can’t move them.
You can’t phone up the Pope and say, hey man, can you move Christmas to February because my milestone is delayed.
It’s not going to happen.
But that game overall has done pretty well.
Each of those spikes is Christmas, and every year.
And if we look at it in aggregate, we can see that the most recent five years again have done better than the first five years.
And that’s because, well, the re-promotion each year was I went back to the casual portals and just emailed them and said, will you re-promote my game, and they did.
If you don’t ask, you won’t get promotions.
You’ve got to try.
And some portals that wouldn’t take the game early on changed their standards.
They probably dropped them and then took my game.
So that was good.
And I also got the game localized, which gave us new opportunities.
And I also doubled the amount of levels in the game and slapped a gold label on the game, because everybody loves gold stuff.
And that did very well and gave the game a new lease of life.
So keep your game alive.
There are many different ways you can keep your game alive way after you’ve shipped it.
And obviously, only do that as long as it makes sense to.
There may be a time where you just need to let it die and move on to something else.
So it’s made nearly $100,000.
It really didn’t take me long to make.
And it’s made about $200 an hour now, which was pretty good, I think.
But it took a long time to get there.
So in the first year, it only sold 1,000 units.
So just let that sink in.
Only 6% of the total revenue in the first year.
So that’s why it is essential that you think long tail about your games.
And hopefully that will give you an idea that you shouldn’t really be heavily discounting your game or bundling it in the first year, or maybe ever.
So around this time, as I said, I was totally desperate for cash because these games hadn’t made any money.
And Big Fish Games, they contacted me and said, would I do some contract work for them?
And I signed a deal, and they gave me some money, and I paid off my debts.
And it was like how in a first-person shooter game, when you get all shot up to shit and you have to go and hide behind a wall and heal, that’s what this was like for me.
So I worked on that game for nearly a year.
And I worked with a great designer at Big Fish called John Cutter.
And it turned out to be a casual game hit, and it’s been cloned many times.
And it’s a very popular game that people still play today.
But I can’t share the sales figures.
Sorry, because that’s owned by Big Fish, and they’d probably stick a lawyer on my ass or something.
Then after that game, they asked me to make another couple of games, and I agreed.
I made this game, Unwell Mel, about a dude who’s got all kinds of food and bugs in his gut, and you have to go in and explode them.
The theme wasn’t really everyone’s cup of tea.
And really any game you make, the theme’s not going to appeal to everyone, unless it’s about candy.
So because these games went well, they said to me, hey, why don’t you move to Vancouver and join the studio that we’re just starting up, and you can work there.
So I talked to my wife about this, and we thought it would be a great opportunity for us and our kids.
And so we moved over there.
The overall experience was good, for sure, in Vancouver.
So, oh, I’m on the wrong slide.
That was the thing about contract work.
Obviously, I chose good contract work there, and I’ve had lots of offers of terrible contract work over the years, and you’ve really got to know which ones are right for you and within your skill set.
But I moved to Vancouver, and one thing that I made sure happened was I was allowed to keep my company.
So I made sure the contract said I could keep Gray Alien Games whilst I worked for them, because I didn’t see it as a long-term thing that I would do forever.
So I learned to say yes to opportunities.
Early on, I became manager of the business software company.
I also ended up running an aikido club, and I moved to Vancouver to work for this studio.
All of these things have been growth experiences, and I’m glad I said yes to them.
That’s my dad.
He’s the guy who bought me the Spectrum in 1984.
And sadly, he passed away when I was working at Big Fish Games, and it was a big, big shock for me.
And I like to think he can see the successes I’ve had up to now, and that he would be proud of me.
But unfortunately, I’m an atheist, so I don’t think that’s happening.
The reason I was so happy that Dick was passing was that I re-evaluated what was important to me in life.
And that was things like my family, how I spend my spare time, and what I’m working on, and what the long-term goals were.
So that is when I really began to learn to say no to things.
If you ship on mobile, you get all these ridiculous emails through about ad monetization platforms.
If you ship on Steam, you get all these emails through about key giveaways.
This is a great opportunity for you to give away 10,000 copies of your game.
No, it’s not.
But you also get some deals that maybe do sound quite juicy, and you think, oh, maybe I’ll do that, this crappy bundle or that crappy bundle.
But you have to evaluate them all in terms of, will they help me grow, and will they meet my business’s long-term goals?
And if they don’t, and they’re just some kind of fun distraction, you have to ditch them and move on.
So whilst I was in Vancouver, I co-founded a group called Full Indie with Alex Vostroff.
Any Full Indie members in the house?
But this happened because in 2007, I went to an Indie meetup in Birmingham in the UK.
And we met in Cliff Harris’ hotel lobby and got very, very drunk until about 4 a.m. in the morning.
But it was actually a revolutionary thing for me, because I got to meet other developers and find out what they were up to.
But it was just the fact that somebody understood what I was doing, sorry, and the problems that I was going through.
And that, for me, was revolutionary.
And that’s why I wanted to set up Full Indie in Vancouver.
Full Indie now has monthly meetups with over 3,000 members it’s got.
They don’t all turn up at once, so it would be a nightmare.
They also have game jams and an annual conference.
They’ve done three conferences.
So there’ll probably, hopefully, be one next year.
Go to Vancouver.
It should be awesome.
Now most people tell you to do networking.
But for me, networking is really about making friends.
I don’t have any co-workers or no HR department to support me.
So being part of a like-minded group is very powerful and really important to me.
So I’ve been to game jams, shows, meetups, and I spend far too much time on social media.
But one of the things I’ve learned is it’s really important to help people out, to share information.
And when you start sharing information and tips and so on, it comes back to you.
And over the years, I’ve got consultancy gigs and found investors and just got loads of really useful tips to help me sort of move forward.
In fact, the main reason I would say I’ve survived as an indie is because other successful developers have helped me out.
Unlike business software, where you have to basically keep everything secret from your competitors and they do the same with you, indies aren’t competitive.
And long may that continue.
So after a while at Big Fish Games, I decided that corporate life wasn’t for me, and I quit.
And I quit with some experience.
I also had a Big Fish Games pension, which I immediately cashed in to make a runway for my next game.
So I made a game called Spring Bonus.
I’m a bit soppy about the spring.
I like the flowers and so on, and I like the fact the sun is coming back.
So I enjoyed making this game, and I used social media to recruit artists.
And I made a big list of them and tested them and went through and picked the ones I needed.
And I crowd-sourced localization.
That would probably make localization experts cringe, but it totally worked for me.
And I learned about using metrics and doing extensive testing at Big Fish Games.
So I was able to push the game out to a load of people, get their stats back, and then balance the game accordingly.
The best thing was I actually shipped the game seven minutes after my non-compete with Big Fish Games expired.
So this is what the graph of someone panicking looks like.
I logged the amount of hours I work on every game, and I was cruising through January, February, you can see it there, and then in March I was like, oh my God, Easter is a month away.
I need to actually finish this game and get it out the door.
Now, that highest peak of 84 hours or something, on the day I was supposed to ship the game, the night before I’d stayed up all night long, and I tested all the levels, had one hour sleep, and was making the final build.
My wife came into the office and said she didn’t feel very well, and I had to take her to hospital.
And when she was in hospital, they said she had a rare form of cancer.
And luckily, she was a treatable form.
And because we lived in Canada, who has a healthcare system, which you and the US guys have got to sort out, I just can’t believe it.
Anyway, she got the treatment she needed, and I’m very pleased to say that she has the all clear now.
But that was an extremely tense launch, game launch.
And since then, it was very harrowing for her, but it was tough for me and the kids as well.
And I had a whole summer just very listless, didn’t really feel like doing anything, considered quitting making games.
I actually sort of took some medication and sort of managed to come out of that time period eventually.
But it was very tough, and it reminded me that unhealthy deadlines are just not good, and to try to avoid those.
I still haven’t perfected that, but this is something we need to treat ourselves with respect, because you don’t know when the proverbial will hit the fan, when some kind of family thing will crop up and cause a problem.
Anyway, how did Spring Bonus do after all the agony?
That’s five years of sales.
There were small bumps for Spring.
And it’s made pretty good money, $18,000 net revenue.
It didn’t cost me much to make, because I paid the artist an upfront to sort of say, I’m serious about this, let’s get started, and I gave them revenue on the back end, and that’s worked very nicely for me.
And I recommend that approach.
It’s obviously easier if you’ve shipped games before and they trust you.
One of the things is it’s made about $130 an hour total, but it could have made way more if I hadn’t wasted hours and hours on stupid mobile ports, because mobile is not very good.
I’ve tried mobile games for three of my games.
Developers actually came to me and said, hey, would you let me port your game to mobile, and we’ll do a revenue split.
And I’ve tried that.
And the thing is, it’s really boring and soulless.
They send you these builds, and then they don’t work very well, and you have to send them back feedback and keep testing them.
And then you have to do all the iOS provisioning profile crap, which is just horrible.
And at the end of the day, they don’t make that much money.
That’s what I found.
Obviously, people have had different success with them.
And so for Spring Bonus, the green bit is what it made from mobile.
It made $12,000 from mobile, which I split with the dev.
And, OK, that’s more than zero, but it meant that I wasn’t focusing on something else, which is desktop games, which is where my skill set lies.
So after Spring Bonus, I worked with Klei Entertainment for a bit on Eats Munchies in various roles.
And Jamie Cheng is the CEO there, and he helped us out at a time when we really appreciated his help financially and so on.
And so I learned a lot from him.
He’s an expert at business.
If you can ever accost him and get some tips, do so.
He’d probably hate me for saying that, because he’s a busy guy.
And I also did a lot of consultancy work around the time, because I’d built up a reputation as knowing what to do in casual games.
And now it’s time to talk about this graph, which is the dollars per hour of all of the projects I’ve worked on.
The green one in the middle is when I was an employee at Big Fish Games.
Now, that obviously had benefits like medical and sick pay and holiday pay and a pension.
But ultimately, it’s one of the lowest earning things I’ve done per hour, even though it was a good job.
And the blue bars, apart from the first two failures which you saw, are my own titles.
And they’ve all made more money than being an employee and being a contractor.
So early on, I said there is a problem with contract work.
And the problem is that it’s got a thick ceiling.
Whereas if you make your own games and play the long game, you should hopefully come out all right in the end.
Also, if you track your business like I’ve done, you can find out which of those projects you’re working on you should do again.
If I didn’t track things, I might think contract work was great and keep doing it.
I mean, I know there’s a time and a place for it.
And maybe a lot of us need to do it at different times.
But just think very carefully about should you be doing that or your own games?
So this is a breakdown of the revenue I’ve earned from games over 10 odd years.
And you can see it’s come from many sources.
But in 2011, I decided to switch focus from working for other people to working on my own games.
And that’s the blue part of the graph.
So that’s going up, hopefully.
And I’m not even earning more money than I was eight years ago.
But it’s a hell of a lot more satisfying.
And my quality of life is a lot better.
I’ve also got my eggs in many baskets.
So I earn income from multiple different revenue streams.
That’s one month in June last year.
The black is a payment from the FBI for adding a backdoor into my games.
Also, on the right, you can see all the different platforms I’ve used over the years.
And some of them have died.
Some of them have been bought out.
And there will be new ones in the future.
It’s an ever-changing space.
And that’s why you need to keep looking for these opportunities.
So in 2012, I decided to move back to England for many reasons.
I missed a lot of my friends from Vancouver.
But I learned a lot of stuff there.
I learned how to be a better designer and producer.
I learned how to direct artists.
I think there’s one in the audience who probably disagree with me.
I think you can only really herd artists in the direction you want them to go.
I also learned the importance of metrics and testing.
We actually worked on a free-to-play game at Big Fish Games.
But that was sort of enough to put me off forever.
And I learned about networking.
And I joined Toastmasters, which is a really good group if you want to improve your speaking skills.
And also, in Canada, everyone is obsessed by hockey.
They just talk about it all the freaking time.
So when I got back to the UK, it cost a lot of money to move continents.
And I had to equip our house with all the sort of appliances and buy a car and everything else.
And some of that debt is still on 0% credit cards today.
And at the time, a friend of mine, Cass Prince from Puppet Games, he said, will you port Titan Attacks, my PC game, to mobile?
And I was desperate.
And I said, OK, yeah, let’s do that.
And I like the game a lot.
But it turned out to be a lot more challenging to do the port, a lot more complex than I had originally thought.
So I had to sort of put it to one side and turn it into a side project while I did other things.
Eventually, it shipped in a humble bundle and made some money.
But it’s one of the worst-performing projects I’ve ever worked on.
So do not make decisions out of desperation.
It’s really important to remember that every game project will take longer than you think it will take.
A game project is never quick.
And you really need to explore your options very carefully before you decide what project to work on.
I know that’s kind of obvious, but just remember it.
So whilst I should have been working on Titan Attacks, I ran out of money.
So I needed to make another game.
And I made this game, Spooky Bonus.
A lot of people thought Spring Bonus was for kids because of the Easter theme.
So I thought, well, OK, let’s make a darker game.
And after living in Vancouver, I realized that North Americans are obsessed by Halloween.
We’re nowhere near as obsessed by this in the UK.
And so I thought, let’s do a Halloween-themed game.
And I spent some money on art and music and so on.
I had to get a loan to spend that money.
And it’s actually done very well indeed.
It was a casual game hit.
And it’s made.
It’s actually our best-selling game to date.
The only problem with casual game hit is the portals take most of the money, like 70% of it.
You get 30%.
It’s the opposite of Steam.
So even though it made them a lot of money, it did me OK. But it wasn’t my golden ticket.
So why did it work out well?
Well, it was a very small scope.
It took me three months to make.
It definitely resonated with the audience.
I spent money on art.
I made it look good.
I didn’t do a mobile version.
I focused just on making the PC one as good as possible.
It was localized at the beginning.
And it was my seventh match-three game.
I don’t know if I should be ashamed of that or proud of that.
But by that point, I knew what I was doing.
And it turned out well.
We launched at a good time in the casual market, which is sort of dying now.
And I launched on all the right portals.
And I even got an advance from one of them to give them an exclusive deal, which really helped with cash flow.
But the most important thing I learned was everyone loves exploding pumpkins.
So if you can fit one of those into your game somewhere, maybe make Shara shower with a pumpkin simulator or something like that.
I think you’ll be OK. So while we were making Spooky Bonus, my wife suggested we make a Regency-themed Jane Austen romantic card game.
And I said, actually, that sounds like a really good idea.
No one’s done it before.
And so I asked her to work with me as a researcher, designer, tester, and so on.
And she agreed.
And we made the game.
But at the beginning, we heard about a grant for the southwest of England, which is a sort of tech wasteland that I live in.
I think we’ve only had computers for a few years.
Mostly, it’s just tractors and stuff.
And we heard about this grant.
We pitched for the grant.
And we got it.
And I did all these things, which you should do to get a grant.
But basically, they’re the foundation of a good business plan.
And you should do it for all of your games.
I think one of the things that helped is I had a track record.
And I said to them, hey, at the end of this funding, you want to tick a box which says, you backed some projects which actually made some money and were successful.
And if you want to tick that box, back me.
And they did.
So that worked out pretty well.
Nevertheless, the game took longer than planned.
And I had to find other funding sources.
This is a recurring theme, you may notice.
So I tried to get a bank loan.
But that was just no good.
They’re not interested in Indies because you don’t have anything they can come and send around guys with baseball bats to collect if you don’t pay the money back.
I actually ended up getting a loan from another Indie business, which took like 30 minutes to set up.
And that came about through making friends.
I also put my own personal savings into the game.
And we managed to get tax credits for the game in the UK.
You may have some similar thing in your area.
Our tax credits were tied into making a culturally British game, which ours was.
And we actually were able to claim back 25% of our salaries, which was pretty cool.
I got that in a lump sum at the beginning of this year.
I didn’t do crowdfunding.
I’d rather convince one investor that the milestone is delayed than 10,000 braying Kickstarter users.
Your mileage may vary, but that’s just my sort of particular paranoia.
So there’s apparently a Jason Della Rocca.
He’s a very clever guy.
He’s doing a whole talk about funding.
So if you’ve got a full pass, you might want to go and check that one out.
So how did Regency Solitaire do?
Well, it turned out to do very well on the casual portals.
And it got, people love it.
They gave it great reviews.
It won a kind of few awardy type things.
The only thing it didn’t get is an IGF nomination.
And I’m not bitter or sour about that at all.
One thing to note is that it made 14% of its revenue on Steam.
So most of its revenue was off of Steam.
However, it only got press once it came out on Steam.
And it’s kind of a bit of a sad fact that games aren’t really viewed as validated as games until they’ve come out on Steam.
I don’t really like that really, but that seems to be the way things are.
So as I mentioned, I worked with my wife on Regency Solitaire.
We did the whole thing like this for a year.
Normally I’d advise against hiring employees because they’re a sort of can of worms in terms of finances and legal stuff.
But we’d been together for 15 years at that point, and we sort of knew what we were getting into, even though Helen’s friends said, you know, it would drive me insane working with my husband.
But we managed that by having different office spaces.
We’d come together for meetings, and then we can go back and be introverts in our own spaces again.
But we discussed the design together, the visual design, the story, all kind of aspects of the game.
And we also shared PR and marketing duties, which was great because that sort of thing can be a bit of a drag.
And we also indulged our passion in British history and went to sort of various locations for research, which was nice.
But it was a learning curve.
Helen expected certain amounts of mentorship, and I had to balance that with the reality of shipping an indie game.
She had to get used to using Photoshop to do all of the sort of art direction and so on.
And we did do a lot of design by committee, and as I’d done a lot of design over the previous ten years, there were some arguments about that sort of thing.
Also, Helen had to make the story fit the game.
So she was used to sort of writing, but we had to change the story many times to make it fit the game.
So that’s something that was a learning curve for us.
And I had to be a project manager for not only the artists and the musicians, but for my wife.
Can you imagine being a project manager for your partner and telling them what they should work on and why?
I also had to give her timely feedback when all I really wanted to do was hide in my room and code.
And we had different daily routines.
She’s a morning person and I’m an evening person, so we had to find one sort of part of the day that worked.
But ultimately, two heads were better than one.
It was really good to have an invested team member, and this is one of the best decisions I’ve made in the ten years, is to have someone else to bounce ideas off of to improve the game.
And it’s like having a jogging partner.
They turn up to work, you turn up to work, and you get stuff done together.
However, a friend of mine is sitting over there actually.
He once described my life as indie hard mode.
Because when you’ve got kids, the thing is, your productivity will suffer, but paradoxically you have to earn more money to survive.
So it’s very tough.
So my advice is try to work hard and get rich before you have kids.
So after Regency Solitaire, I pitched an idea to Cliff Harris of Positech.
He sort of publishes indie games.
He actually rejected my first idea, and I went back with another one, which was Shadowhand, which he accepted.
So he’s helping fund this game, which is a sort of big relief off my mind, because I’ve spent most of the last ten years trying to scrabble around for money.
And this game is a RPG card game, which involves a sort of solitaire-style mechanic that drives these battles.
It’s set in 1717.
You’re a highway woman who is an aristocrat by day and a highway woman by night.
And we’ve got a full sort of inventory system.
You can even wear a beard if you want.
There’s a black one as well if you’re into that sort of thing.
And we’ve got a full sort of visual novel aspect to it like we did with Regency Solitaire.
So that should come out this summer, hopefully.
And if there are any press here who want to talk about it, I’m here for the week.
And we’re showing it off at Rezd in London in April.
So a little while ago I asked on Gamasutra Indies, I asked them to give me their sustainability tips.
Don’t worry if you can’t read that.
It’s on Gamasutra Indies Sustainability Top Tips.
You can look it up.
I got loads of them.
And they contradicted each other as well.
So most people were sort of saying stuff like, spend as little as money as possible.
Some of them said, don’t go to conferences.
So I guess they’re not here now.
And others said, do spend money on art and tech and go big.
I think the reason for the discrepancy is people are at different stages in their indie adventure.
And I do believe it’s sensible early on to control your costs, figure out what you’re doing, learn from your mistakes, and then start to spend money on the right project, whether it’s your money or you’ve got investments or grants, even better.
Spend right money on the right project later on.
So one key thing is to be able to weather flops.
So over the years, I’ve had a couple of really bad flops at the beginning.
I’ve had games that have only made money after like five or ten years.
And I’ve had some hit games, but somebody else took all the money.
And I’ve had a few, you know, Spooky Bonus was pretty good.
So I’ve had a few successes that have kept me going.
And Dan Cook, he’s a very clever man, and he’s written a blog post called Minimum Sustainable Success, which talks about making many, many games and hopefully surviving by making sure that you can survive not just one flop, but multiple flops in a row.
My biggest and perhaps most important tip is to get a cat.
This is my cat, Suki.
She is very fluffy, and stroking her is just the best possible thing you can do for stress.
And I must have come up with so many ideas sitting in that chair in the garden.
Another thing I need to give a nod out to, some old people will know this reference.
In 2004, I read Cultivate Burning Desire by Steve Pavlina, and it set me on a path of – well, that’s what made me go indie when I read that article.
It made me quit my job and everything.
I’m not sure if I should thank him or not.
But I did follow a path of personal development and looking at what motivates me and how I can be more efficient and so on.
It’s a whole separate topic, but it really did help me get where I am today.
And there’s a lot more work to do.
So this is the graph of someone who didn’t give in.
This is my revenue from my own games over the last 10, 11 years.
It’s going pretty well now, but it’s taken a long time to get here.
And there’s no guarantee that the future will be bright either.
But one thing is that I’m kind of certain of is that I will find a way somehow.
I always sort of find a way to keep going.
And there’s a lot of advice out there for how you can succeed.
And hopefully you’ve got some ideas from my story.
But what ultimately makes the biggest difference is you and what’s in you and whether you’ve got the will to survive.
On the flight over here, I watched the latest Rocky movie.
It’s pretty good.
It’s like Rocky 7 or something.
And in it, he says something like, one step at a time, one punch at a time, one game at a time.
And that, my friends, is how you do it.
So yeah, if you have any questions, please find a mic.
Thanks for the talk.
My name is Mark Mikulek.
I am also an indie game developer.
And I have three small questions that may have large answers.
So the first one is spring bonus you said, right?
Was that a premium game or a free to play game?
Oh, on mobile you mean?
Or just in general, like you said, it’s a casual game, right?
Well, all of my casual download games on PC were premium.
So people paid $9.99 or $6.99 if they’re a member of a club.
Some of the sites have a system where you can join up and play as many games as you want, like Netflix or something.
And then I get paid per minute of play.
One of my games, Spooky Bonus, had five million minutes of play in the first month, which I think has wasted a huge amount of human time.
But we did launch Spring Bonus on mobile.
And it was a demo, like seven level demo.
And then at the end it said, pay whatever to get all of the rest of the levels, which some people just didn’t understand.
They just didn’t seem to get this idea.
So it wasn’t technically free to play.
It was like gated content or something, I guess.
Demo, full version.
OK. Second question.
You inferred that you do not like free to play.
Why do you not like free to play versus premium?
Why don’t I like free to play?
OK, so when I worked at Big Fish Games, I read and studied a lot of stuff about human psychology and all the tricks and tactics you can use to make people spend money, and about whales and all of this sort of stuff.
And after doing all of that, I just felt dirty.
And I decided that I didn’t really want to employ those techniques ever again on human beings.
So that’s why.
And final question.
You said that you’ve made seven match three games.
Why have you, like how different were the match three?
Were they still, like is it just like a reskin?
Or were the mechanics different?
Like why did you sort of stick in that sort of niche?
So why did I make seven match threes and were they different?
OK, well basically whenever you ship a game, you never put in all the stuff you wanted to put in.
And you have a big list of features you didn’t complete.
So for every game, one of those games that I made, I changed the theme up and I added in some more features from before that I didn’t have time to do before.
Plus the theme always kind of changes what kind of power-ups you can put in and what kind of objects you can use.
So every game improved.
And the last game, Spooky Bonus, had quite a large meta game about decorating your house with very spooky objects.
And I used that same meta game in Regency Solitaire.
So there was always an improvement for me for each one.
Even reskinning a game, people talk about reskinning.
Reskinning a game properly still can take a couple hundred hours, let alone making all the new levels and all the new features.
Thank you so much.
Can you talk a little bit more about how you trapped your hours and if you used like special software for that?
No, I’m pretty old school.
I just used Excel and I just basically typed in start and end times on particular tasks and then summarized it all.
One thing I did was, and I still do, is I categorized tasks so they might be coding, they might be testing, they might be dealing with contractors.
So I’m able to look within a certain project on the breakdown of tasks.
What I actually find is that making a game, the coding portion might only be a quarter of the entire time.
There’s a lot of time just dealing with assets and plugging those in and doing design and doing marketing and PR.
So that’s how I do it.
Just old school, but it works.
Did you do it like on a daily basis as a routine or like a weekly basis?
No, a daily basis.
Every time I open up the compiler or do any work, I just make a log entry.
I’m a bit sort of, yeah, what they call anally retentive, I think is the word.
That looked very useful.
I was curious if you had any tips on how to sustain motivation through the failures.
So there’s the financials, but there’s also the sort of emotional side of that.
So how did I sustain motivation through the failures?
It’s just because, well, a couple of things.
I sometimes think having a family is both a blessing and a curse in the sense that I’ve had to provide for them.
And when you have to provide for your family, you know that you can’t sort of fail.
You’ve got to kind of find a way and keep going.
And so I’ve always had to keep finding a way and keep going.
So that’s one sort of form of motivation.
I also stayed motivated by doing stuff like one time I had some money in my company and I took it out and paid a small chunk off the mortgage.
And I did that because I knew that when I got hungry, I would start to be motivated and make the next game.
That’s not healthy.
It’s not healthy motivation.
But I knew that it sort of worked for me.
Luckily, I’m sort of beyond that now and I feel that I’ve made good games and I want to keep making good games and improve that sort of skill.
So I think my motivation has changed over the years.
But I don’t know.
It’s such a wide topic.
There’s a lot of stuff about figuring out what time of day you work best, about having to-do lists where the easy tasks you can do here, everything’s broken down.
The whole one step at a time thing is big for me.
But also at the same time, visualizing the end goal, which is a successful game that you’ve launched.
I just love launching and shipping games and seeing how well they do and wanting to improve from one to the other.
So it’s a culmination of things, I guess.
I think we are done unless anyone’s got any more.
Oh, one at the front.
I don’t know if you can sort of repeat it, but- Maybe you better use the mic.
Now that you kind of have all these games that have a long tail, do you find that you spend much time maintaining games that you’ve already released from a long time ago?
Or has that maintaining work not stacked up against you?
So do I spend time maintaining games I released a long time ago?
I did up until recently.
That’s how come I got this whole new lease of life from these old games.
I would keep sort of maintaining them.
It’s more, to be honest, about maintaining a relationship with the distributors and getting them to re-promote the game.
But I was maintaining them.
But recently I’ve decided to sort of let these 10-year-old games go to the side now and just 100% focus on my new games because I want every hour, every thought I’ve got to be for the new games and not to be distracted.
It’d be great if I had someone else in the team maybe who did deal with all that stuff, a biz dev person or something.
But it’s not something I’m doing anymore.