Blog 6 - Secrets of a Successful Indie Game
First of all, a bit of a disclaimer... we don't know, and we've yet to meet anyone that does know, a magic formula for creating a successful indie game. Testament to this are the countless numbers of developers who have released numerous games with little to show for it and the occasional one-off success stories who have made a small fortune out of a single game and appear just as surprised with their newfound recognition as the rest of us. However, we've released 11 indie games at the time of writing and have played countless others, both successful and unsuccessful, so we hope we at least have a bit of an idea what we're doing (although we could point you in the direction of a number of internet forums who would disagree with that statement - more on that below).
Our Experiences
Our top 5 most popular games...
  1. Avatar Grand Prix 2
  2. Avatar Grand Prix
  3. On A Roll 3D
  4. Blackstone - Part One
  5. On A Roll
So what have we learnt from our own experiences? Our most successful game to date has been Avatar Grand Prix 2, and our second most successful game was its predecessor - Avatar Grand Prix. They were both released for Xbox Live Indie Games and are the only racing games we've released. But their genre is not their only thing that makes them stand out in our back-catalogue - they're also the only games to use Xbox Avatars (3D characters that games use to represent themselves), they were two of only a small handful of multiplayer games we've written and in the case of AGP2, the only game we've ever done with online play.
One other thing that is both noticeable and has been commented on about Avatar Grand Prix, Avatar Grand Prix 2 and our third most successful game, On A Roll 3D, is that they are all very easy to pick up and play. Despite their overall popularity, players of indie games don't give potential purchases much of a chance, and why should they? Indie games often cost less than the price of a cup of coffee, and you don't see people perusing the menu for too long in their local coffee shop if all they want is a drink. So, the key here is to get the player hooked within the first 30 seconds of a demo, or the first 10 seconds of a video trailer. Get to the gameplay, and make sure it's fast and fun!
Steam Greenlight
We've had the ignominious experience of subjecting ourselves to the Steam Greenlight process and its associated user feedback. To say some of the comments we had were brutally-honest would be putting it lightly. On A Roll 3D went through Greenlight with only 20% of users giving it a "yes" vote, yet when it reached the Steam marketplace it had nearly all positive reviews. Because the game didn't have particularly high sales compared to most other Steam indie games, we suspect that only a small percentage of gamers were actually interested in it. So those that sought to purchase the game (i.e. after release) gave favourable feedback, whereas the community as a whole (i.e. Greenlight) did not.
After Release
As is the way with anything that goes up for sale, valuable customer feedback will only come in after release, by which time it is often too late to do anything about it. We've had many e-mails, Tweets and Facebook posts, and On A Roll 3D on Steam even has its own forum with, at the time of writing, 87 posts on it. On that forum, the most popular question asked is: "Will you add a level editor to the game?". For games that lend themselves to a level editor, and to be fair On A Roll 3D does, including one allows players not only to design their own levels but to share them with the community too. This in turn makes a game more attractive to potential buyers if there are many more user-created levels on offer, not to mention making it more popular without any extra effort from the creators.
  • Give them everything - multiplatform (where appropriate), multiplayer (local and online), level editors, etc.
  • Get them hooked quickly - demos should be playable and should get to the gameplay quickly (players are buying the game, not your fancy menu system) and trailers should show gameplay from the start, not your company logo for five seconds before anything happens.
  • Make it fast and fun - racing games, platformers, something that people can pick up and play with a learning curve such that there's an early sense of achievement, and later levels (but not too much later!) are challenging.
  • Focus on playability - chances are you don't have the resources of a commercial games company. Your games will be smaller and perhaps not as pretty or polished. But when it comes to designing an original concept for a game, it's a level playing field, so take full advantage. In fact, it could be argued that indie developers are less restricted because they can be more adventurous without having to worry as much if an idea doesn't get off the ground.
  • Don't spend ages and ages on a game - although there was a correlation between the time we spent developing games and the eventual success they had, it was by no means the most important factor. We've seen some incredibly successful indie games from other developers that we reckon we could've put together in a few weeks, if we'd thought of the idea first. The ability to constantly question whether the tiny corner of the game you're about to spend the full day working on is really necessary, is a good thing!