From time to time I like to talk about being an indie developer in general, like this time. I’m hoping that at least some people find these posts interesting!
So what is the topic of this post? In practice, I try to explain what I consider the best approach to be an indie developer regarding development schedule, based on my past experiences. Let’s proceed in order.
The main goal of every indie is to first stay afloat (which is not so easy as it seems) and then hopefully make a profit. To do this, you need to release new games (DOH!).
Now comes the more interesting part: what is the best strategy? In my first indie years, I had no long term plans at all. I was just making whatever game I wanted, often deciding on impulse. Those were very different years (talking about years pre-2008) and I wouldn’t advise it unless you’re just doing it as hobby.
In more recent times I tried very different strategies: both taking my time to deliver the best game possible, like I did with SOTW, Planet Stronghold 2, and start several projects at once like I did for example back in 2016 when I released 5 games in a year!
Let’s see both approaches in detail.
Releasing a big polished game every few years
This is what most indies are doing to be honest. They take their time, polishing the game, doing a lot of testing, adding new features, getting feedback, etc etc.
I have tried doing it several times in my indie career. But every time, I can say it wasn’t worth it, from the commercial point of view.
Seasons Of The Wolf took me around 10 months fulltime (12 if we also include the DLC). It wasn’t a flop at all, however it definitely wasn’t worth all that extra time.
In more recent times, I did almost the same thing with Planet Stronghold 2. This time, once again it wasn’t a flop, but it performed way worse than SOTW (but that’s also due to the “sci-fi curse” and reason why I’ll never make a long sci-fi game again).
In summary: the longer the game takes to make, the higher it needs to sell. It’s that simple. It doesn’t even matter how much money you spend up to a certain point – because it’s your own time that matters. I have my own way to calculate ROI (Return Of Investment): I divide the game earnings by the months I worked on it and that is my “virtual salary”.
Example: let’s say a game earns me $10k and took me 5 months to make, my virtual salary is $2k.
So, if the time you work on a game increases, the revenues need to increase as well. As of today, I got better ROI from TFTU: Hazel than Planet Stronghold 2, despite the first being a much smaller game, plain VN, and yuri only. That says a lot I think…
Let’s make super quick games ASAP!
That’s what you might think after reading this post so far. Well, that’s not true either! The games need to have a certain quality, or in case of VNs, have a good base idea, and good writing/art/music. Then, they can be even short. But they still must be quality products.
There’s also another factor to consider: game price. If you make a game which is 50-60k words long, you can’t ask $15-20! My RPGs are usually $20-25, and even if I had a few complaints (users always complain about price) in general they sold way more than my cheaper games, which means that for the vast majority of people, the price was fine.
A good thing of small games is that you can test ideas quickly, see if a new game world works, get quick feedback, not lose enthusiasm because you don’t still need to work 8 months on it, etc etc.
Also, there’s a psychological aspect to take into account: some players when they see cheap games, they think they’re automatically bad, and maybe are reluctant to buy them at all.
The formula of success
As you see, it’s not so simple to pick what kind of game to do. My advice is to mix both small with long games. Because both the things below are true:
- releasing a game every X years is bad because people always want to play new games and they might forget about you and so on. Also a new game release is always a big marketing boost.
- releasing bad games (rushed, done quickly) can lead to a bad reputation and in future people might be wary of trying your new games, even if they might be better than what you did in the past
So the formula of success, in my opinion, is to release 1-2 short/medium games a year, and maybe a bigger game every 2-3 years. The short games still need to be of good quality (good idea, writing, art, etc) of course.
This probably applies only to VNs developers. For “regular games” already releasing 1 game a year is a sort of miracle (most indies doing any kind of game but VN take 2-3 years to make one!).
Sounds hard? Of course! Being a full time indie developer is VERY HARD (especially in today’s crowded market)!