Peter Molyneux recently commented: “I don’t think we’re going to be all indies for the next five years – these things go in cycles, just like in the music business. You have a time where punk is big, and then you have times like now where everything is manufactured.”
And he’s spot on.
Right now, indie developers will be working all the hours they can and surviving on just enough to get by – but to what end? Do they really want to be in the same situation five years down the line? Not likely. So while those fertile minds overflowing with creativity strive to add passion and determination into their project, someone needs to keep a look out for the sustainability and growth of the business.
Maximising effectiveness is a tricky balancing act. On the one hand, indies are trying to realise their dreams and make the best game they can; on the other, there’s the commercial reality of making a return on all that blood, sweat and tears. Lesson one must surely be to explore opportunities on every conceivable platform. Unless a platform holder hands over a large bag of cash for exclusive rights, it makes absolutely no sense to not release on multiple platforms.
Middleware that takes care of the lion’s share of cross-platform migration should be closely investigated. The results output by these time-saving tools will still need attention but the process will lead to multiple versions, giving indies access to previously inaccessible markets.
Thomas Was Alone creator Mike Bithell is realistic when it comes to his audience and multiple platforms, commenting recently: “Your average gamer who is not seeking out weird indie stuff – for them, me having a PC game coming out doesn’t impress them.” Thomas Was Alone’s success on Steam was certainly not to be sniffed at, but it’s only part of the picture.
Mike added: “I saw a ridiculous sales boost just because the second people saw it was coming to PlayStation, it became a ‘real game’ for a lot of people.” Originally planned to be created in Flash, development was switched to Unity. Subsequently audiences have enjoyed the game on PC, Mac, PS3, PS Vita and Linux.
Lesson two for the indie must surely be to concentrate on what they do best. Any tasks that divert attention away from the primary focus of creating games will most likely have a detrimental effect, be it either on quality or the schedule. Part of the Team17 mantra is to always look for outside expertise when necessary. As Jastor Gallywix often says, “Time is money…” and outside skills are a sound investment when it comes to the development and marketing of a game. Buying in the necessary skill sets to aid in the completion of a project means indies can keep their overheads down while also having the luxury of outsourcing the very best talent to further add to the quality of the production.
LEARN FROM THE MASTERS
It’s not just production values where indies should consider their options. Clever use of social media and attending events might help achieve a sort of cult status, but as Mike Bithell points out: “You’ll require more traditional marketing and talking to press.”
Marketing, public relations and sales are integral parts of a game’s lifecycle. Indies should not lose sight of the fact that no matter how good their game is, without noise and store presence it will go largely unnoticed. For many, a strategic publishing deal is sometimes the best answer.
Understandably a publisher will want part of a revenue share, given that the work they undertake will improve the indie’s and the game’s visibility and vastly increase potential sales. Percentages can be haggled over, ownership cannot and the wise indie would do well to keep hold of their own IP for the sake of future growth and sustainability.
Of course, we’ve all seen the rise of the indie before, albeit in a much more simple time. Remember the mail order ads that appeared on the back pages of the computer game press in the late 80s and early 90s? Legend has it that Peter Molyneux’s first game, a text-based business sim called The Entrepreneur, sold two copies.
Since then he’s secured his future by creating and selling both Bullfrog then Lionhead, making some pretty mainstream games in the process. His passion for games undoubtedly remains the same while his sound business decisions have allowed him to retain his independence.
Modern indies would do well to learn from the past masters.