Tomorrow (June 18th) marks the first year anniversary of me becoming a full-time independent game developer. Wow did the time fly by fast! Over the course of the past year I helped launch Tilt to Live HD, Lite, a couple of major gametype updates to Tilt to Live for free, a paid Viva la Turret update, and finally released a multiplayer co-op mode for both our games. When I think about it that way, it’s definitely been a busy year. I sometimes forget how much content we added to Tilt to Live and Tilt to Live HD, and sometimes I think to myself “man, it’s been almost a year and all we’ve done is 1 game…”.
I don’t think I could think of a more full-filling career than a independently creative one as this. I set my own hours (admittedly probably too many hours), I take days off when I feel I need to or want to. And one of the most fundamental changes I’ve noticed over the months was how I’ve lost track of holidays and weekends. Now that I wake up to go to work (rolling out of bed, freshening up, and walking into the next bedroom) eager and excited for today’s challenges and problems, I’ve found I don’t even care what day it is anymore. In school, and in previous jobs, it was always hard to not think of or be reminded of the next upcoming weekend or holiday. It’s as if people’s lives revolved around them. While I still look forward to weekends because most activities with friends and family tends to be on those days, but I guess I don’t have such a severe case of the “Mondays” as I use to :).
Looking back, if someone was wanting to go the full-time indie path with iOS in mind, what would I tell them?
Don’t chase the fads
If you’re trying to ‘one-up’ a current trendsetter, you’re not ever going to be the trendsetter. Everyone knows about Angry Birds, but you’ll never get that kind of mindshare trying to out-do Angry Birds. It seems to ring somewhat true the iOS market rewards games that bring a bit of something new to the table or ‘best of class’. Games that are top of mind that bucked the trend and did their own thing would be Pocket Frogs (talk about being a trendsetter :P), Casey’s Contraptions (this game fits so well with the iPad, it’s hard to see it not succeed), and Tiny Wings (bird themes aside).
If you have an idea that is a really interesting twist of a current game genre, or a game idea that you haven’t seen executed with much success on the app store you should probably try giving it a go. If the game flops, you’re in the same position as someone who made a ‘trendy’ game and flopped. If it succeeds, you own that niche and the rewards, emotionally and financially, can be great. With that said, don’t be different for the sake of being different. Anyone can look at Tilt to Live and see the obvious influence of Geometry Wars in it. What made it stand out? It used the device’s novel hardware to the fullest, had a non-typical art style for that genre and Geometry Wars wasn’t on the app store yet (phew). Outwitters is the same deal. There are plenty of turn-based strategy games out there already. We just haven’t seen one with our particular brand of humor and art style with a focus on simplifying the strategy element rather than trying to make it artificially deep with tons of units/choices. The takeaway is make the game that you want to make and think could succeed, not the game that the top 10 charts are telling you are currently succeeding.
Shipping a game is half the battle, and I’m not talking about marketing
Marketing and promotion aside, the iOS market has a very different set of expectations when it comes to games. The PC/Console market is very ‘packaged goods’ and ‘pay once’ oriented. We started out with that mentality thinking we would ship and move on. Yet, we’ve submitted probably over 10 updates to Tilt to Live alone, the vast majority of them adding major pieces of content and actually changing the game. The Tilt to Live at launch is no more, and Tilt to Live of today is a rather different game. We added multiplayer in Tilt to Live a year after release. People expect that their games change, and for the better. When scheduling time for a game development cycle, the ‘ship date’ is far from the end of that product’s life cycle. Pocket God is the poster child of embracing this kind of thinking.
The challenge for the developer is trying to find a way to make this sustainable. I think developers are starting to catch on that there is an audience willing to pay for the extra content, so that they can fund even more content for the games that they like. If you’ve got something on the app store people are liking and clinging to, give them more of it! We added a bunch of free content to Tilt to Live, but before moving on we wanted to give players a chance to experience one more idea we had in our heads, but without funding it just didn’t seem feasible so we charged for it. Despite all the flak from the vocal minority, it was successful. Successful enough for us to take the time to update that new gametype with it’s own Co-op mode as a free update. Free updates helps build endearment towards the developer, but it’s a two-way street. Let your customers help support you as well, it is a business after all.
Your first, second, third, or even fourth game won’t “succeed”
It’s hard to speak to this point because I got extremely lucky with Tilt to Live being our first iOS game and also being a decently successful game that allowed me to launch my full-time indie career. But with getting to know other devs in the community, and watching their trials and triumphs, there seemed to be one common factor between the ones that did “succeed”, and it’s not giving up. As cliche as it sounds, it’s hard to overstate that trait. I’ve seen several times throughout the year, a dev that stuck to their guns and eventually one of their games hit a sweet spot and became successful. The ‘overnight success’ I think is a myth that the media tends to give too much credit to and is easy to fall in love with. If you look at the history of just about any of the top selling games on iOS, you’ll find more often than not this person or team has been doing this for years prior, and sometimes in complete obscurity, like us. I’ve had communications with some devs over the months after they launched their first or second game, and then slowly disappeared from the community after those games weren’t break out ‘hits’. I was on about a month long dev cycle for each gametype update on Tilt to Live. I actually believe that had we released each one of those game types as stand alone games, the only one that would have any chance of success on its own would probably be Viva la Turret. So I tend to think of those other gametypes as our small ‘failures’ in a way as they never really became more popular than Classic or Code Red, but we were sheltered from disappointment because they were a ‘side dish’ to the main Tilt to Live game. Not everything will stick, you have to try hard to stay motivated through the ‘low times'.
So here’s to hopefully another wonderful year of the indie life!