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

The #1 metric for your indie game

People do not want to hear this. It will not be popular. There will be denial. I have spent a long time, in phases over the years, in denial about it. I have wanted to believe it was not true, because realizing the truth is often very depressing, and if you are like most passionate and committed indie devs, you associate a lot of your personal self-worth with the success of your game, and you absolutely do not want to hear what I’m about to type. You may disagree, you may REALLY disagree, and for all I know, I may be wrong, I’ve certainly been wrong many times, but I assure you that when I type this, it is absolutely what I believe to be the case right here, right now in 2019 making an indie game for the PC.

The #1 metric for your indie game, in terms of determining its success is how good it is.

There. I said it. Unleash the rage hordes.

There are a whole host of reasons why we may try to argue that this is not true. Maybe luck is the biggest factor (seriously? you can do better than that, especially as some developers,/studios then seem to be weirdly consistently lucky…), Maybe its marketing spend (definitely a factor, but not #1. what was minecraft and flappy birds marketing budget?), maybe its nepotism and who you know? (really? was notch super-connected? was he a regular at GDC parties before minecraft) Maybe its originality (seriously? is rimworld a huge hit because of the original art style?) Maybe its timing? (seriously? when did making a game about income taxes gel with the zeitgeist of gaming tastes then?)

Face facts, we WANT the reason for a games success or lack of success to be something OUTSIDE our control. We want it to be something that we can shake our fist at, and complain about to our friends down the pub. “My game would have been a huge hit, if only I was friends with Mike Bithell, or if I lived in San Francisco, or if I had a bigger art budget, or if I had released it a month/year/decade earlier/later.”

I’ve made loads of games. Seriously loads. Many more than people realize. have you tried Kombat Kars, Space Battle 3001 and Kudos: Rock Legend? Probably not, but I’m responsible for all of them. None of them did that well, and they all kind of suck. I did a game called Planetary Defense, which kinda did ok considering the super-short dev time. It was ok, but the gameplay was fairly shallow. Kudos:Rock legend couldn’t decide if it was serious or casual. Kombat kars was hampered by my total lack of understanding physics programming. Space battle 3001 looked like someones first space game, and played like it too.

There is an absolute art form, to which many devs acquire olympic style skills, to come up with reasons that your game failed. People could write whole books on all the various outside factors that were beyond their control, which meant that inexplicably their last game was not a success. Its quit impressive to see the mental gymnastics. The only factor that is never considered? The actual game. maybe the game is just not good enough. It might be good, but not good ENOUGH.

Its a topic for a whole blog post in itself to explain why if you game is 90% good enough you will get 10% of the sales, when its 95% good enough you get 20% of the sales and when it hits 100% you get 100% and buy a sports car. Just trust me, its true, I have long experience of each stage of that.

And now before you hurl abuse at me, I’ll explain the nuance of what I mean when I say ‘not good enough’. Its probably not polished. The gameplay is not balanced just right. The tutorial is not good enough. The player options are not comprehensive enough. There may not be enough content. The art style may clash. The sound effects may be annoying. The music may be too repetitive, or annoying. There may be big obvious missing features where players expected things to be in the game. There may not be enough tooltips or hotkeys. The translations may be of poor quality. The performance may suck for some players., and so on and so on…

Production Line was started over 3 years ago. about two years ago it was a good game I was very proud of. it got better and better during early access. it was released this year and I considered it to be a very good, polished, high quality game. It got extremely good reviews. I could easily have moved on, but I have not, and I’m still working on it every day. It is not good enough. It is very good, and has made a profit, and sold a lot of copies, but it is not good enough.

I’m on update 76 right now (started working on it today), which is based around changes to some charts and graphs that display data about the component import costs. This is a tiny part of a tiny part of the game, but I am aware that its a bit obscure and confusing and some players have said so. The games reviews are very positive and the vast, vast majority of players have no problem with those charts, or do not care, but some players think they suck, and dispassionately I agree. They need to be made better.

That wont be the last thing I improve or tweak. I’ll be working through my polish list for a long time. As I work more and more on the game, and finesse it more and more, the sales go UP not down (as is the curve with most indie games). I’m not awaiting the imminent demise of the games sales, but the absolute opposite. I’m 90% there and heading towards 100%. Quality is all that matters.

I know this isn’t an option for everyone because: experience & economics. Not everyone has 39 years of coding experience, not everyone has a financial cushion that allows them to spend a bit longer to make a game higher quality. I know this. I know the position I am in, very acutely. The reason for this blog post is not to criticize but inspire. I want people who are struggling as indie devs to do well, and I feel thats best achieved by pointing out the truth.

We all lie about ourselves, even to ourselves. I think I am much funnier and better looking than I really am. I also think I’m thinner than I am, and probably kid myself I have some hair. We also lie about stuff we do, and stuff we make. The problem is, when your own sense of self-worth and your own pride get in the way of seeing reality, you are doing nobody any favors. Your indie game is probably not good enough, and deep down, you know it.

9 thoughts on The #1 metric for your indie game

  1. I agree with you to an extent. I read a lot of post mortems on Reddit and Gamasutra and the game in question looks dull and unoriginal. Well yeah, a dull, unoriginal game isn’t going to do well. However, realize that you have a huge advantage that I and many, many other indie developers don’t. You have exposure.

    Any game or screenshot you release automatically gets thousands of eyes on it. If it’s even slightly interesting, you’ll get a lot of feedback and buzz. Had that first Production Line video only gotten a dozen or so views, do you still think you would’ve dedicated the next year or so on it?

    Of course, a bad game without AAA marketing is going to fail. However, it’s possible for a good game to fall completely off the radar before it even begins to get traction. I’ve released a couple games on Itch and even getting a hundred views on the game, let alone downloads, takes ages without something driving people to the pages (I’ve done little marketing other than posting on my Twitter and Reddit). I’m not saying my games are good, but nobody views their pages, so nobody knows whether they’re good or not.

    Your reputation fights half your battle for you. You no longer need to worry about how to get buzz started for your game. If I have an interesting idea or post a gif or screenshot that’s intriguing, I have to hope one of the 97 people who follow me on Twitter that aren’t bots will 1. See it and 2. Decide that it’s interesting enough to them personally to retweet. If one of those few people who happen to see it isn’t the target audience, even if there is a huge audience for whatever it is, the post will fizzle out, get no engagement and I’ll be left wondering if there’s any potential behind the idea since nobody seemed to care.

    So in order for me to succeed, I will need to both have a good game and figure out how to get it in front of enough eyes to gain traction.

    1. I do agree that exposure and marketing, and the free variety that comes from previous success is definitely a force multiplier on success, but its only a multiplier, it will magnify the success of a good game, but i release screenshots of my next game and it sucks, its still going to fail, I’ll just get a lot of people telling me so :D

    2. I just don’t buy this, plenty of games like Magicka and Dead cells didn’t have big budgets or were promoted, they gained word of mouth by quality alone.

      The problem with game makers is you need to make a game for a market for which there is demand and paying customers. Success is when demand for game type and quality game you’ve made meet.

      It’s always been that simple, people who don’t see that are idiots.

  2. When you say good, you mean polished, balanced, no bugs, etc and not good as “it’s a good game i enjoyed playing it”? reading your post makes it unclear for me -sorry. Could you define good as you intend it in this post?

  3. I do not think this is depressing, at all. To the contrary. How good is your work (you can extrapolate to any kind of work, not only games) is the ONLY factor you have control. Marketing? Yes, but you need money. Luck? Good luck with that. But how hard do you work to make your thing the best you can, that is something that YOU CAN CONTROL.

  4. Can anyone suggest any really excellent games that just bombed? That would be a valid counter-argument. The problem being that you probably didn’t hear about them, because they bombed.

    1. Yes I know one, it’s called Inked, it’s a great game made by 5 guys in Croatia with a unique art style, fantastic story and interesting puzzles:

      It has good reviews and you can even try-before-you-buy and yet the sales haven’t matched the quality of the game.

      It’s not the only one either but to me it’s one of the clearest examples…

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