Maia developer Simon Roth dispels the idea that indie developer success stories are entirely built on luck

The myth of the ‘lucky indie’

In the indie business circles I follow, there is often talk about the “luck” in a dev’s success.

There’s discussions on how Minecraft was a fluke, or the old nugget of how Rovio made 51 games before Angry Birds, or how development should “fail fast” to increase output and up the odds of a good roll of the dice, and how we must plan our companies around making the one game that will drag us out of the gutter.

This attitude to business is damaging, especially to the indie community. Smaller devs are passing up the chance to create a sustainable business, under the impression they cannot work towards a success with clear direction, and must stumble upon it.

Moreover, it is actively suppressing creativity and distorting the types of games being made. I’m sure most developers who identify as indie would rather not make large design compromises to their vision for the sake of sales.

It seems that the strong misconception around success has been cultivated by the prevalent survivorship bias driving the discussions of business development in indie circles. Key details of accomplishments are glossed over due to them being ‘obvious’, seemingly unimportant or uninteresting, or the developer is far too modest/embarrassed to attribute their success to hard work on anything but the game.

Attributing the success and sales of a game to luck is to admit a black hole in your knowledge of the processes involved.

It means that companies with flash-in-the-pan products grab the limelight whilst solid businesses like Introversion, Positech, Mode 7, Distractionware and Vlambeer plug away at creative, profitable games year after year.

Attributing the success and sales of a game to luck is to admit a black hole in your knowledge of the processes involved. All effort expended in development, marketing, PR and community management can be carefully measured and returns calculated. Risk can be accounted for as a margin of error. Once you know these margins you can work towards improving in the areas you are failing and start building towards a realistic desired outcome.

Thankfully, this is not as hard – or expensive – as it sounds and is well within the grasp of even the smallest micro studios. The majority can be done on a tiny budget and gut feeling; the critical thing is that it must be done.

The indie game is changing

In 2015, you can no longer release a game in a vacuum and expect it to gain momentum. There’s no meritocratic option. Indeed, the ethos of ‘just make a good game’ hasn’t been a viable path for developers for several years. Whilst it will certainly help in building coverage and a community – and even on the business side; an IGF nomination will sidestep Steam Greenlight, for example – in reality you can sell any game. The War Z – rebranded as Infestation: Survivor Stories – was universally panned by critics and often cited as one of the worst games ever, but has sold 3m copies. Three million.

The golden age of indie superstars may be over, Steam and other portals may be awash in thousands of games, but it’s now easier than ever to drive sales of niche and creative titles. It takes very little effort to rise above the tide, especially with the greater flexibility and low overheads of being an indie. Forming relationships with the press, YouTubers and streamers, attending and organising events – an independent developer can see positive returns on almost any amount of business development.

As the effort increases so do the gains. Just look at Rami Ismail’s tireless work for Vlambeer, attending nearly every games event under the sun, or Mike Bithell’s constant and assiduous interaction with the consumer and industry press.

Indies need to embrace this and find their own comfortable place in it. It might seem tough for many who want to see themselves above and beyond the tedium of running and presenting a business, but if devs do not actively engage with it, they will needlessly lose out to those plucky few who will.

Remember, “diligence is the mother of good luck”.

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