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The middle road

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There have been a bunch of articles posted lately talking about the failures of “indie development” and of course there was the release of “Indie game: the movie” showing the “success” of indie development. Rami Ismail (Vlambeer fame) just posted a great article about these articles and “the scene” they represent inspiring me to finally write my view on things.

The failure stories usually come with “investment” numbers that, at least to me, seem to be randomly picked out of the sky; and in most cases I hope they are because else these guys should never be handling money or investment again because it was a clear failure from the get go without any understanding of the market.

The “success” stories, especially those in Indie game: the movie (“IG TM”) show a weird view on reality and at times I was hoping these guys were acting because they seemed very close to the edge of an extreme life crisis. My girlfriend even asked what was wrong with these guys.  And let’s be honest, who watched the movie and was glad you have never been around mr Fish while he had one of his mood swings and possibly a kitchen knife nearby ?  It’s a good thing these games turned into success stories, cause I wonder what would have happened otherwise.

Anyway, this article is about the story that nobody ever talks about, probably because they are too busy just enjoying their job. It’s the story about those that are not creating big hits that you know about, and not those screaming that there is no money to be made.. this story is about those taking the middle road.

I (orangepascal) have been developing games for mobile platforms for eight years (give or take a few months) as Orangepixel so I hope that gives me some credit to speak out. I started small and saw a couple of euro’s drip in on a weekly basis, I guess this is what you can read all about in the “failure” stories.  The first few games were pretty crappy, written in short time periods with only a clear view of what I wanted to create, but no clear view on what I actually could create.

In my case it wasn’t as much as not being able to code it, but I just had no clear grasp on the mobile market. Every device was different, every device was sticking to the standards in their own way. And not just on a manufacturer basis, no, this was on a per-phone-model basis.  A Sony f500  would act different as a Sony K800.  Seeing as I only had one phone, the game looked awesome on it, I read about the standards, so the game was sticking to the standards.. sadly the phones simply didn’t and only a few phones would run the game.

I got a better fix on that with every game I released, I hardly had any money to invest into it, so I started on a low budget of nothing, only investing in a website and stamps for mailing out contracts with distributors for my games. Now don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t broke, I did have money, but I also had enough brains to know I shouldn’t put it all into this venture.

In the end, the website and possibly the Sony F500 are the only two things I really consider as investment into my business. Everything else was never seen as investment for a developing a game, it was just part of my life. New hardware or gadgets? part of my life, the weeks or months I put into creating a game? part of my life.

However, I never got so emotionally attached to my games as some of the guys in “IG TM”. I just enjoy creating fun and simple games, I dream of making a million-dollar hit, but I’m down to earth to know the chances of that are just extremely small. I enjoy life because I don’t have any boss telling me when to work and what to work on. When I don’t feel like working on a day, I simply don’t. When the sun is shining, I go outside and know that I’ll have more then enough time to develop games in the winter when I hardly go out.

I also don’t bend to the laws of “independent development” saying you should always be in charge of the work you do. No way! I did a massive amount of games for other companies, because they pay ! That means that even if the game didn’t find an audience, I would still have my money.

I put my love for games into the games I create, I don’t see it as a higher goal or emotional trip, I don’t want to teach the player any life lessons or reach out in some weird way, I just want to create games I enjoy myself, and hope others love playing it.

For most of the 8 years I basically flew under the radar of anybody or anything. I wasn’t an indie-development, but I also wasn’t a huge publisher or developer. I never attended game shows or meetings, and was only present on one forum (j2meforums). It’s safe to say many of the Dutch developers still have no clue that OrangePixel is in fact a Netherlands based company doing mobile games for longer then most of them.

All I have been doing for these past years is releasing games, a lot of games, and gamers picked up on them. I work fast so can get a lot done, handling the game design (my vision) the coding, the graphics and the sound effects. For the last couple of games I found the talented Gavin to handle my music, a guy who can do any style I throw at him and we usually get the right music pretty quickly and he will do his “thang”.  These last few game I also asked Denis to do my game-trailers since my shaky-camera recordings were simply crap. In the end I have these two small “investments” before releasing a new game, but that’s only been the last year, knowing that I will at the least make back that investment.

It’s also important to not limit yourself to creating games. You have to do marketing! Telling that to people usually makes them go “yuck” like it’s a dirty thing they don’t want to be part of. Guess what? It’s not dirty! and even if it is, it’s a requirement. Dive into it, learn the skills, there are some basics that are covered in many articles about marketing and just doing these should see your game sell 100 copies in stead of 10 on launch day ;).

The big question now is probably: so how does it work? Well between the hit games and the failures, there are the “good” games. Be honest to yourself and compare your game to the best games out there.. are your graphics really at that same level? are the game mechanics really up there? Did you really put time into polishing the interface? did you put time into adding little, close to stupid, special effects in your game? Be bloody honest about this!

Once you did all that, and you got some marketing skills, your game should get some mentions on game sites, on twitter, facebook, and other social sites. It might sell a couple of hundred, but it should sell. And while you work on some improvement, fixes and updates for this game, you start on your next one. Your next game release should be better then the last one, people who buy have to be left wanting to check out your previous games.. and that’s where it really starts.

So read the failure stories, but keep in mind that if you create a game in one or two weeks, it still has to compete with games made in multiple weeks or months in a world that sees 20-40 new game releases every day spread over various platforms. There have been probably only a handful of people who hit it HUGE on their first game, and everybody loves reading these stories cause they are the ultimate Hollywood dream.. but that’s all they are: dreams. Your first couple of games will make a couple of dollars each.

Also enjoy “IG TM” it’s a great movie about games, just don’t see it as the inspiration to give up a day job.. these guys were extremely lucky, and when watching it, just imagine what would have happened if their games failed?

Finally, to put a bit more perspective and hope at the end of this article. As mentioned I’ve been doing this for 8 years, I have no student loans or other money coming in, just a monthly mortgage to pay and a couple of mouths to feed (me, my girlfriend, couple of bunnies and cats). I manage to be doing this for a lot of years. Not creating million-dollar hit games, yet not creating over-invested failures..  I’m enjoying the thing I do for as long as I can, I’m travelling on the middle road.

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  • dragn

    Great article. Thanks for sharing your experience! Keep up the good work!

  • Chris

    Hey Pascal,
    I’ve been following you for quiet some time now and I really enjoy reading those articles – since they aren’t only showing the shiny and fabulous life of an indie dev.
    Since I’ve been working on mobile titles as well and am still in the making, it’s nice to read stories of people already being in the business.

    Wish you the best for the future and keep it up :)
    Best regards,
    Chris

  • Great article! I’m also in this middle-ground, not making millions, but making enough to get by, and be happy doing what I love. I think most devs who are passionate about what they do would be very comfortable on this middle road.

  • Nice post! I am in that middle ground as well – although not for as many years as you. I’m not making millions, but I’m doing exactly what I want to do. And people are paying me to do it. To me, that is about as good as it gets.