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

Common mistakes by indie game developers

Background: I’ve been a one-man indie studio for over 20 years, sold millions of games on steam, direct, and on mac and even some console stuff. I’ve arguably had 4 ‘hit games’ over that period (seven figure revenue). This is all just my opinion, but its based on long experience. I’ve been programming for 40 years.

Making an indie game is really hard, but making a financially successful one is way harder. Luckily, indie game development is not new, so there are a lot of old wise experienced devs like me whose mistakes you can learn from. Nobody ever listens to the old timers, but I commit this to the web anyway for the 1% who do. This is offered purely as a means of help, I’m not trying to sell anything to developers. So here is what you probably do wrong :D

Do not choose the wrong platform

Do not make a mobile game. No small indies make money from mobile games. Its entirely owned by the big mega-corps churning out bland F2P monstrosities. Your innovative and polished arty indie game will get zero visibility. The discoverability for games on mobile is awful. Unless your advertising budget is in seven figures, avoid mobile.

Some indies do seem to make reasonable money on consoles, especially switch, but be aware that there is a built in timer here… the new console will come out in X years and render your target platform out of date, also be aware there are publishing hurdles here, and QA hurdles, and that you are again reliant on the discoverability efforts of the platform holder.

PC is probably your best bet for now.

Do not choose a bad genre

So you fancy yourself as a talented 2d side-scrolling puzzle platform developer huh? Let me guess… this one is different? it has a cool mechanic nobody has seen before! its got a cool setting, its got a cool art style…you REALLY like puzzle platformers etc..

Unless you literally have a seven figure marketing budget, or….. actually no, I cannot think of any other circumstance that makes sense… Do not enter a genre that is super, super-crowded. Look up the genre on steam and check out new releases sorted by date. Are you absolutely sure that you are going to get visibility there?

Game Influence | Run Willy Run | BK Insight | Banana Kick

Do not make a game you will not love

There is conflict here with the previous tip, because if the only games you have ever played are puzzle platformers, you may be screwed, but c’est la vie. You can NOT make a success of a genre that you do not really absolutely love. I tried to make a tower defense game once and it (relatively) bombed. You cannot just ‘do a bit of research’ into a genre and understand what makes it tick, and what players want. If you really do want to make a game in a genre that you have not played before, then you better set aside six months minimum, and rack up a good 500-1,000 hours in the hit games in that genre.


You also need to read forum posts, blog posts and watch lets-plays of people in love with that genre. You have to eat breath and sleep that genre, and know what an audience is crying out for. You have to work out why the hits in the genre worked and the flops failed.

This is one reason why my own top genre (political strategy games) has very little competition. The venn diagram of indie game developers, and people who studied economics and politics as their degree must be really small. Sure, you can clone an existing game, but are you able to converse with players of that genre like one of them? I KNOW why we do not have women represented as a distinct social group in Democracy 4, and why we do not model individual states. I could give you a 10,000 word essay on each topic at the drop of a hat.

Know your genre. Know it really well. Be the superfan in that genre.

Pick your dev tools, language, engine once. NEVER change them

I code in C++ using visual studio. I coded my own engine. I have not changed this. Ever. Not in twenty years. Why would I? What do you see in indie strategy games that I cannot do using this development environment? Almost all indies chop and change languages, IDEs and engines like they are changing clothes. This is utter, utter madness. You do NOT need the features in the latest shiny engine, and you NEVER will. If you must use something like Unity, pick a version and never, ever change. Not for the new shiny thing, no matter how shiny, not for all the talk of ‘better productivity’. Its all bullshit, and it will waste your time and cause you stress.

When I edit the csv files for Democracy 4 I use my copy of office 2010. I have not upgraded, nor will I ever do so. I can do everything in Excel 2010. I will not upgrade from Visual Studio 2013. When I tell people this, I get angry tirades from people calling me stupid, and telling me that clearly they are using much more productive tools than me.

None of those people ever seem to ship anything.

Do NOT upgrade your tools, do not upgrade your dev PC. Get everything sorted, start your game’s development, and touch NOTHING until a year after you have shipped your game and support has dwindled.

Use a name that describes the game.

Do not get all arty and clever and name your game ‘Adrift upon fragility : prelude’ or anything that sounds like a pretentious prog-rock album cover. Can I tell roughly the theme of your game, and its genre from the name? If not: you failed. You are not Jonathon Blow. People are not buying the game based on your name, they just see a game name and a thumbnail. If they cannot tell the genre and setting, you lose. Minecraft is an excellent name.

Actually start marketing from day one.

The minute you have anything, even some blue blobs on a black background, thats when you start talking about your game. Marketing your game is your job. Apple and Google will not do it, nor Sony, nor Valve, and streamers are not constantly scouring steam looking for obscure games. YOU have to drum up interest. Start tweeting, start blogging, start posting on reddit about your game in development. Do something related to your game marketing every week, right from the start so it becomes a habit.

Your individual style will determine what platform works best for your during-development marketing. I love youtube, despite being a complete introvert. I used to do weekly 15 minute youtube videos talking about my game. Now I do them every 3 weeks. In between this I also post development stuff to Facebook, reddit, my forums, steam’s forums and twitter. You need to cover multiple channels for people to hear about your game.

Marketing is NOT beneath you. Marketing is a skill, that is every bit as hard, and technical, and involved as programming. You need to take it seriously. its a BIG part of what you do. Marketing the game IS game development, and you have to put the hours in.

Tweeting a WIP screenshot once a week is not a marketing plan. Do more. Do much more. Ignore how many followers you have at the start, it WILL grow.

Do not make excuses.

Your game normally fails because you fucked up. Yes you. You did something wrong. Its almost always your fault. Its tempting to blame poor release timing (again…thats your fault anyway), or to blame a platform for not promoting your game, or even to blame gamers for not realizing how awesome your game is, but its almost certainly your fault. If you cannot accept that you screwed up, you will never learn how to avoid that mistake again.

Maybe your game had poor performance (learn to optimise) maybe the character art was poorly received (change artist/work on art skills), maybe the game was too short (add more content!), maybe you got the price wrong, maybe the name/platform/genre choice was bad. These are all your decisions.

This is especially seen during marketing. Devs always say they are too busy to do youtube videos or blog posts (MAKE the time, this is poor scheduling on your part). or that they do not bother tweeting a screenshot because there are no views. Its a circular argument. Nobody is hanging on your every word, because you never say anything…

Many devs DRAMATICALLY underestimate the effort required to market a game during development. As a good rule, tweet your dev progress every day, do a video once a week, a decent blog post with screenshots once a week, and submit this all to reddit and facebook and whatever other platforms you are marketing on. There should be dozens and dozens of articles and videos about your game BEFORE it releases.

Have an actual marketing budget.

Knowing what I know now, if you took away every penny in my bank account and asked me to market an indie game, I would do 3 things.

  • Sell something I owned, probably a laptop, to raise money for marketing
  • Get a part time job waiting tables or driving to raise money for marketing
  • Put in 40 hours a week full time making videos, writing blog posts, replying to forum threads, tweeting etc.

If you have zero dollars marketing budget then you need to go get some dollars. Not $100 or $1k, think $10k bare-bones minimum. In an ideal world, 20-50% of your development budget would be for marketing. This might be spent going to shows / keymailer subscriptions / PR companies / Advertising / Software and equipment to make better videos (webcams/lights/greenscreens).

The extent to which established developers spend advertising money is under-reported. Most developers have some weird superiority complex about paid-ads, and feel dirty and guilty for doing it, so they don’t blog about it. They want you to think that it was all word of mouth because they are so awesome.

I spend a lot of money on advertising. Probably $100,000 per game. Yes really.

Support the game post-release.

Releasing the game is literally just the beginning. As far as many of your players are concerned, this is a BRAND NEW THING. They do not want to forget about it and move on. They just played it for the first time today and oh boy, they are excited about all the improvements you will be making on a regular basis over the next 12 months bare minimum.

You hate this right? Most devs do, but I don’t mind it for a year or so. If you plan to release the game and then forget about it and just expect money to roll in then YOU WILL FAIL REALLY BADLY.

Gamers, esp on PC, EXPECT post-release updates. If you do not exhaust all those post-release update visibility things on steam, then you pretty much are saying you abandoned the game. The absolute #1 best thing you can do to boost sales after release is update the game. Fix ALL the issues that players complained about in week 1. Yes ALL of them. You should still be working full time on the game at this point. Meaning 40-hours a week minimum developing requested features and adding requested content.

Not all player ideas are good, sure, but you need to fix all the bugs you can, improve performance when required, and add quality-of-life features that players request.

The day you release your game you basically get given FOR FREE (in fact they pay!) a small army of QA staff who work around the clock to provide you with bug reports and feature requests and data to help you balance the gameplay. So many devs just turn their backs and ignore those players and all their free help. Do NOT do this. It doesn’t matter if the launch was not a big success, even if you sold just 100 copies, its worth updating the game with those low-hanging fruit fixes and tweaks.

I’m on update 40 for Democracy 4 now, which took about a year of updates. Each update probably has between 10 and 30 changelist items. Every single one of these things improved the game. And yes, a solo developer can do this. Its really hard, but what did you expect?

Talk to other developers.

There are lots of indie devs, and we are not all your rivals. The competition is Call Of Duty and Fortnite, and frankly Netflix and Twitter, not another indie dev likely selling a few thousand copies a year. Helping a fellow indie is not a zero sum game.

There is a ton of wisdom out there. Almost anything you run into during development is something that more experienced devs have seen 5 or 6 times. Ask us how we dealt with it. Ask for advice, and TAKE advice if its relevant to you and it comes from experience.

Note that developers who are on reddit 8 hours a day are not people to listen to. There is nothing ‘elitist’ about checking the credentials of people telling you how to make a game. There is a ton of content out there from long established devs like Jonathon Blow, Introversion etc, who discuss what they did, what worked, and what did not. Read/watch and actually apply the lessons they have learned the hard way.

Democracy 4 Translations. The Economics

I’m trying to decide what other translations make economic sense for Democracy 4. Its never a clear issue. There are some countries where sales are potentially high, but then most gamers speak English anyway, so the boost effect of a translation is small. Then there are countries that sales are entirely dependent on translations being available. Also some countries have higher piracy rates, meaning you are basically just making pirated copies better! Time to look at some stats. Obviously I cannot make any decision without stats. Yes, I may well be on the spectrum…

Here I am going to consider the arguments for translating into Korean, Chinese and Japanese. Which, if any, of these countries make sense as a potential translation target? One useful stat would be to look at Democracy 3s steam sales figures in each country, as a percentage of revenue, as this game is older so it has lifetime (not just early access) stats.

  • China: 1% of revenue (Chinese translation available but added post-release. 5% revenue in prev year)
  • South Korea: 1% of revenue. Not translated 2% in prev year
  • Japan 0% of revenue. Actually to be precise: 0.478% of revenue. Not translated Yikes…

There are a bunch of countries where we do not have a translation with higher revenues such as these:

  • Sweden. 2% revenue
  • Norway 2% revenue
  • Netherlands 2% revenue
  • Denmark 1% revenue

But I think its fair to say that English is commonly spoken in those countries by gamers, and if not, they also have French or German to choose from, so not bad. The big question is picking between Russia, China and S Korea. Its worth noting that S Korea is a playable country in the game… so maybe this needs adding? So is Japan!

So to get really stupid, lets look at the population under 30 to get the total addressable market for each of our now 4 countries:

  • Japan: 27 million
  • China: 237 million
  • South Korea: 13 million

Hmmm… not helpful. Maybe a better source would be to look at steam traffic in general, which I found on this page.

  • Japan: 1.5% of traffic
  • China: 22.7% of traffic
  • South Korea 3% of traffic.

So frankly Japanese is looking like a bad idea. Untranslated sales were close to zero, and as a percentage of steam traffic, its really low for EVERYONE. South Korea is better, but still low. China might be a better bet. We DO have a swanky Unicode engine which will effortlessly render everything in Chinese and Korean… so it seems like that could be a good idea. I need to get a translation quote, and then look at the numbers a bit more, and then pace up and down and lose sleep some more. I’ve scheduled the stress and pacing for tomorrow…

Where do the wishlists for my game ACTUALLY come from?

I was this many days old when I discovered this stuff… Anyway, I have been trying to boost sales of Democracy 4, as you do, and thus have been experimenting a lot with the UTM tracking cookie stuff that steam now supports. The results have been mixed, and complex, and not the direct topic of this quick blog post, but one thing did come out of my analysis…

I’ve been tracking a bunch of different ad campaigns I have been running since the 6th april. Lots of spreadsheet crap later, I concluded that I can trace the relative effectiveness of multiple ad campaigns that have led to to be able to vouch for 167 wishlists adds for Democracy 4 during this period. Unfortunately there is a problem with this number:

In that period, Democracy 4 had over 8,000 new wishlists. That means I’m fussing and huffing over a stupid <2% of the total. Why do I give a damn about these -ad-generated wishlists when clearly I am getting so many more from other sources. But where?

The first place to look at is the graph, to see if we had any actual notable spikes in wishlist adds during that period:

Clearly the answer is YES. Around 30th april to the first few days in may there was a big spike in D4 wishlists. Its not earth shattering, but its pretty good. Sadly steam has no way of telling me directly where they came form, unless they came from people using UTM tracked links, which clearly they were not, or I would have spotted them earlier. So I had a hunch this might be youtube related, as I have done some promotion to youtubers lately. I narrowed down a google search for “youtube democracy 4” with a super tight date range, and the top hit was a bunch of lets play videos from a Turkish youtuber. How can I tell if this is the spike?

Well… this is what I learned today. You will not find this information ANYWHERE in the wishlist stats pages for steam. You might imagine if it was anywhere, it would be there…but no. To be fair, its explained in the steam docs, but its hardly intuitive. If you go to the regional sales reports for each app, and look at each country and then expand the little + icon you find it…

So as I understand it, I got a 2,600% increase in the usual number of wishlists per-day from Turkey over that period. Its actually *not a lot* in revenue or wishlist terms, but the percentage difference is pretty eye popping. This is handy because its not just saying I made $x extra revenue thanks to this youtube coverage, but also potentially more due to the wishlisters who would hopefully then buy the game on sale later.

Of course thats interesting…but it begs the question as to how effective is it compared to ads, and if its effective enough, how to encourage it in future. I got about 8,000 wishlists over my examined date range, and 513 seemed to come from this youtube vid. Total Turkish wishlists were 965, so over half of them came because of one youtube vid. That means its DEFINITELY worth trying to repeat that in other countries.

And of course there lies the issue. How to get youtubers to play my game? And not just the wannabes with 5 followers and 2 views per video (1 to check it uploaded, and 1 from your mother). This is the real problem. You can get your game in front of a lot of youtubers with ads on keymailer, but still, thats just a capsule. How to really get across to them that this is a GOOD video for lets plays?

FWIW I think the game is unusually good for youtub,e but especially twitch. You can literally poll your viewers on what laws to pass or spending to cut/increase. What could be better for hilarious results and interaction with your viewers? The trouble is, finding a way to tell that direct to youtubers without just shoveling money at PR companies to pester them for me. I’m still not 100% sure on the ROI there. (its so fuzzy).

Food for thought anyway. BTW if you *do* want a key and have thousands of followers/views, you can see our keymailer link here:

Positech Energy. OH YES INDEED

So yeah… I have literally been wanting to type this for years, and I’m finally doing it. There is not THAT much concrete I can announce, but there are plans..real plans..and actual actions…

I’m a big renewable energy fan. If you follow this blog a lot you might know that I have solar panels in my garden (2.1kwp) and also have put some solar panels on a local school (as a charitable thing). I’m a big fan. I also have over the years invested in peer-to-peer networks that build solar farms, through sites like the westmill solar farm co-op and abundance. I got quite into it. It *can* be a reasonably good (and very safe & predictable) investment. I’ve wanted to do a lot more for years.

Luckily, I seem to be unusually good at running an indie game company, and also unusually good at investing the profits, which means I’m finally in a position to fulfill a very long-held dream and actually start a little solar energy company, which I have unimaginatively called Positech Energy. Its a real proper registered company, and everything! It even has an incredibly crap placeholder website that has almost zero content!

So…whats this for then?

I’m a big fan of solar farms, and have read about them a ridiculous amount., I always wanted to build one, not just invest in one someone else built. Frankly investment is easy, and lazy. You just read some financial documents and click a button. You could do it in the bath ffs. Its not the hard work. The hard work is the actual nitty gritty of where the tires hit the road and you have to talk to planning people, and local government, and solar installers, and energy companies, and regulators, and energy distribution companies… and about a bazillion other pieces of bureaucracy… This is what puts people off, and its PRECISELY because this is so awkward, and difficult, and stressful that I decided to do it…

I am aware of just how easy it is to be a ‘slacktivist’. Someone whose idea of activism is using a hashtag, or adding an emoji to their twitter profile. Thats all well and good, but its not even 0.000001% as effective as getting off your ass and physically making a change. I’ve already insulated my house to oblivion, put solar in the garden, bought an electric car, switched to a green electricity provider, and so on. I’ve done the green-investment thing, but really, its only one step up from slactivism. I haven’t really made an impact on the issue I care about: climate change and green energy’s part in all that.

So… I’m planning on building a solar farm. We have a potential site (actually potential site #2 now…#1 fell through), and are in the haggling stages. Its nowhere near me. I wont be able to nip out there to stare at it daily. It is in the UK though. Also… its kinda MASSIVE from the POV of me, but tiny from the POV of the big energy companies.

It turns out that roughly 1MWp is the size we are aiming for. So a peak output of about 1MW, which is quite a lot. over a year you generate maybe 1,000 MW(ish). For comparison to fill (from empty) a high performance Tesla model S is 100kw, so thats 10,000 cars recharged per year. Its also a lot of space, and solar panels. Thousands of them in fact.

The plan is also to incorporate some energy storage (effectively a shipping container or two full of lithium ion batteries wired into the grid). This allows you to get a better price for the power, as you can effectively ‘cache’ it for when its a good time to sell, and also you can sell ‘grid stabilization’ where you allow the national energy grid to rent space in your battery to dump excess power and then slurp it back a few minutes (or seconds) later if they are having trouble maintaining grid frequency. There is an open(ish) market for these kind of services.

This is going to take MONTHS to have any progress whatsoever. There will be a lot of staring at paperwork, and spreadsheets, and emails, and phonecalls/zoom meetings and bureaucracy and nonsense. I’ve already been driven MAD by the insane demands of simply opening a second bank account in a new company name… But hopefully it will be worth it.

Because I love stats, and the free market, and sharing, I intend to be very open about the technical and financial side once we actually have contracts signed. That might be a while…

(BTW I am still working 40+ hours/week on indie games with Democracy 4. This crazy adventure is my hobby. Its not a big time commitment)

Six months in Early Access (Democracy 4)

So yup! Today is the day, according to my calendar. Six months into Early Access on my political strategy game; Democracy 4! Thats quite a milestone, and a good time to reflect on how things are going so far.

The big thing to note is that this is the first of the ‘Democracy’ games that has been in Early Access. In the past, I did listen a lot of user feedback, and released patches and updates to the game, but that was all post-release. Of course, these days the change between being in early access and post-release support is very blurred, and to be honest totally arbitrary. I doubt I will stop improving and tweaking the game just because we declare it to be out of Early Access at some point. I guess the only real difference is the point at which you want to signal to potential buyers that the game is fully playable and content complete enough to enjoy.

Frankly, that point is now. We have committed publicly to adding Italy as a playable country, and that brings the total countries in the game to 9, which I think is pretty reasonable. This is an indie game, with mod support and I don’t think 9 countries is too small a number.

I’ll almost certainly add more anyway…

The thing is, I don’t actually mind being in Early Access. I guess there is a bunch of ‘deferred sales’ from people waiting for me to flip that switch, but I am in no immediate hurry to do so. Having the game in EA encourages feedback and lets players know you will read it, and thats definitely a good thing.

Something else that suggests that we may be complete enough to declare the game done, is our language support. We entered early access with just English but we now support a total of 8 different languages. I am tempted to add Chinese or Japanese at some point, but TBH there isn’t a particularly strong business case there, and translating from English to these languages i quite expensive…

One thing we have not done yet is an OSX port. TBH apple have done absolutely everything possible to put me off ever considering this, even though the game uses opengl and is not tied to windows. Frankly, apple change what they are doing, pull support for things, and redesign their entire business model and dev platform so often I don’t even *know* if they even support opengl any more, and whatever API they support now will change next year, so whats the point? Maybe at some future point when apple have settled down, stopped charging devs for having the honor of making OSX games, and stopped changing the min specs, maybe it will make sense, but until then my advice to mac gamers is to buy a PC.

Anyway, people like stats on anniversaries of game releases, so lets look at some. Here are some juicy steam stats.

  • 1,177 reviews
  • Roughly 58,000 sales
  • Roughly 88,000 wishlists right now.
  • Current review score: 86% positive

Now a bunch of more fun gameplay style stats:

  • Games per day: Roughly 4,000
  • Most popular screen res: 1920px
  • Average framerate: 58.4 FPS
  • Most common event: ‘Share IPO success’
  • Most triggered situation: ‘Technological Advantage’
  • Most triggered achievement: ‘ShuffleMeister’
  • Average Socialism: 39.1%
  • Average Liberalism: 80.9%
  • Average Voter Cynicism: 1.55%

I suspect real world voters are more cynical :D

I know lots of indies would have done a super-complex analysis of that units sold chart with arrows and breakdowns of what each spike was, but frankly I’m too busy and don’t care. My experience is that a HUGE chunk of getting more sales is just improving the game, and that the spikes tend to be steam sales or discount weekends etc. I’m more interested in growing that lower line (regular daily sales) than the spikes. YMMV.