Game Design, Programming and running a one-man games business…

The success trap & the Newcomer bonus

Its a tough time out there in the world of indie gaming. I talk to a lot of devs ‘off the record’, whether we are just chatting, they are pitching a game to me, or they ask for advice… so I hear opinions from a lot of people and… its a tough time out there. 1,592 games have been added to steam this year apparently (and its only July). How on earth do you get any attention for your game? who on earth is going to buy it? how are you going to break even.

Now to be honest, I’m one of the doomsayers who will tell you that you won’t, and you will almost certainly lose money. Thats just the way things are. Only the top 20% or so will break even, only the top 5% are going to make a living. Maybe. There are a lot of poor games out there, and the globalization of attention means the distribution of attention/money to games gets more skewed all the time.

So you might think its fine for established devs, with money in the bank, and known IP. But actually those devs have a problem new developers do not have. lets arrogantly call it the success trap.


If you are working on your first game, or have a bunch of failed games behind you and little/no press attention / audience, in some ways you have a big advantage. In fact three advantages, a sort of ‘newcomer bonus’…

1) Nobody is bored of hearing about you. You are new, fresh and exciting. If you make an amazing game, you are an ‘overnight success’ and also ‘hot new talent’ and ‘the new face of…XXX’ and all these other media friendly things. We seem hard wired to get excited by ‘new’. If I make the same game, its less newsworthy. Seriously.

2) There is nothing to compare your game to. Its the ‘first’ (even if it isn’t) game from you. MY GOD YOU MUST BE TALENTED. Literally 100% of your games are hits! you are like Guns n Roses with their first album, or the first Highlander movie. Surely everything you make will always be this good how awesome. Also insert comment about minecraft here.

3) You can take risks and do new things and be adventurous with your game, because there is no opportunity cost.


This last one needs some explaining. Right now I am mulling over what to do when I finish tweaking Gratuitous Space Battles 2. I like working on it, I want to keep improving it, making it as good as possible. I may then do a completely new strategy/sim game (designed in my head, but not started yet). I also have 2 ominous looking camera tripods in the office now hinting at something even more ‘new’ I could work on instead.



I could make Democracy 4.

If Positech Games was actually a public, traded company, we would be making Democracy 4. We would *have* to, because shareholders would kill us otherwise. Its the *obvious* thing to do. It would sell, it would make money. We should do it. We should do it in *exactly* the same way that Valve should be making Half Life 3.

And yet…I’m trying to resist doing whats ‘easy’ and expected’ and thinking about doing radical things instead, but this takes effort, and is worrying, because there is an opportunity cost. In other words, if I do something weird and new, it has to do better than Democracy 4, or internally I’ll think I screwed up.

New devs don’t have that in the back of their mind. And thats a good thing. Be experimental while there is no downside.



7 thoughts on The success trap & the Newcomer bonus

  1. I think the fact you’ve written this article suggests you really shouldn’t make Democracy 4.

    At least not yet.

    Develop that new idea that’s in your head and use your current success to give it a boost. If it totally fails to excite the market then no problem, finish it then move onto the next idea.

    Only return to make Democracy 4 if Democracy 4 is the idea that’s ‘currently in your head’ at the time…. or you find yourself in a dire financial situation (unlikely by the sounds of it, you don’t seem the type to waste your hard earned success), then churn out another sequel and refill the coffers with the inevitable sales that would follow.

    What I try to do is think ahead 20 years, then imagine how annoyed at myself I would be if I’d produced 20 sequels that were nothing more than cash-ins.

  2. You could create DLC for Democracy 3 and add new features like in Masters of the World into the game.

  3. You could trade some control for less opportunity cost. Maybe hire someone else to work on Democracy 4 or sell the rights to another company?

  4. Don’t do Democracy 4. You definitely more time in between titles, not least to think about cool things that would absolutely definitely make it much better. To be frank, Dem3 is not sufficiently better than Dem 2, nor GSB2 vs 1, to really delight all your customers.

  5. I know you’re not hurting for cash, so why does the ‘new’ have to be better than Democracy 4? Now is the perfect time to try something new… if you don’t, you will probably end up always be doing what’s ‘expected’.

  6. This might sound silly since I’m suggesting things and then saying “don’t listen to suggestions” but what I mean is – listen to suggestions but don’t think about them immediately – eg. just read the suggestions but sit on them until you forget them and then if you have brains of a genius, your brain will have automatically forgot that you read them and then later come up with the ideas as your own ideas that are slightly different and suited to what you do. That’s how great artists who get ‘inspired’ work :-) – eg. I may play piano.. I know everything I play sounds eerily familiar but I can’t really figure out what song it’s from. That’s the kind of stuff people like me really like – it makes sense and is familiar yet original.

    Well I’m not sure if it will sell but I don’t really dig how democracy looks and I wrote about this before. So you could simply get some people who can present what their vision of it looking like would be and then get them to do some sort of ‘special edition’ or whatever and then if it works out well, get them to do more art assets for sequel later. The main thing that would make it more personally attractive would be some sort of old newspaper/vintage type of look and then throw in historical video clips when something happens. Reminiscent of say Railroad Tycoon 1, Civ 1 etc.. I still have those first ones (their special editions) in DosBox as I think they’re just plain superior to the sequels that look more boring due to functional reasons of needing to add all sort of new features … some perhaps to justify a sequel rather than for gameplay (are you trying to justify sequel or make a great game? this could explain why I’m not big fan of sequels – full of mediocre ideas possibly pressured by publisher due to asks from critics – not that you shouldn’t listen to critics but one needs to put in effort to filtering the suggestions instead of doing them willy nilly)

  7. Quick analysis of the old Microprose game graphics: They use a lot of typography and photos/art style you might’ve seen in some old movie or document. This makes sense – infact it doesn’t matter what was really used in history, what matters is the perception – people have seen movies depicting something and now if you want to re-create that “atmosphere” in the game you’d imitate that style.

    So if one liked the “atmosphere” in say Star Trek as “futuristic”, then you’d go for that type of look because it was what most might prefer to think as the futuristic look. Often this seems used by music composers. eg. In Mass Effect one theme is very much like a short cue that plays in TNG and that’s my favorite of course due to the familiarity.

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