If you’re entering the indie games business thinking that you’ll be a success story, you probably shouldn’t be in the indie games business. A recent talk by Vlambeer’s Rami Ismail at the 2015 Control Conference cut through the usual chatter of indie game success to present a grim reality: your game will probably fail.
Most games fail. It’s just a fact of life. In fact, a good proportion of businesses in general end in failure. Creative projects that are in hit-driven businesses, like games, films and music, are extremely prone to failure.
I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it is probably a good thing for you to realize this up front, before you start developing games. Don’t just ask yourself if it’s possible that your game will fail.
The real question to ask is: “Are you planning for failure?”
A small dose of reality goes a long way
Let this grim reality of the games business hit you like a cold shower.
Game development isn’t easy, nor should it be. You’re creating a product that people are going to be paying their hard-earned money for, or they will be spending their money on in-app purchases, clicking on your ads, or however you’ve decided to monetize. Asking this of your users means that you have a responsibility to provide a quality product that’s worth the money.
Many new developers (and a lot of veterans) fail to realize this and take on that responsibility – making games is a business and needs to be treated as such. Creative folks like to lament the “business types,” the “suits,” and the “deal makers,” but those are the people who can take your creative project and get it in shape to make money.
Developer Nicholas Laborde has witten a number of posts on Reddit and conducted AMAs discussing the importance of having a businessperson on the team. While the value is not necessarily apparent while you’re crunching to get a game out the door, it will certainly be seen when revenue starts coming in.
Acting like a business
Another potential way for a new business to fail is if they don’t actually act like a business. Sometimes, it’s not even a lack of success that causes failure – success itself can bring you down if you don’t have the necessary legal structures in place. Once you start making money, you become a target for anyone and everyone that could have a legal claim against you if you haven’t got these structures set up correctly.
There are a number of steps that a new development studio needs to go through in order to be legitimate, just like any other business. These can include:
- Forming a company
- Getting contracts in place
- Owning and registering intellectual property
- Marketing your game properly
So if, for instance, you haven’t made sure that you own or register your intellectual property, you could see others capitalizing on your success (see Flappy Bird and its legion of knock-offs) or suing you for a portion of the profits. With the correct legal work completed, however, this can often be avoided.
Often, getting these things done requires hiring professionals to assist you. While anything can be learned, your time is probably better spent actually developing your game. The opportunity cost of sitting down and searching through your state government’s website to learn what papers need to be filed to form an LLC, for example, can be enormous.
If you’re not ready to start acting like a business, that’s fine – keep your game development hobby going, release free games, and have a great time doing it. Because when you want to get serious and start selling games for real, things will get much harder.
Learning from failure
An oft-repeated fact is that Rovio developed 51 games over 6 years before finding success with Angry Birds. We live in a world where hundreds of apps are released on the iTunes store every day. This is something that every indie developer should internalize. This is the reality of the world we’re living in.
While I don’t believe that this “indiepocalypse” (as some doomsayers call it) is necessarily a bad thing, it is certainly a huge hurdle for most developers. As Rami Ismail points out, we generally only hear about the successes. Very rarely do news stories discuss the numerous failures that are happening every day alongside each successful game.
So why is failure a good thing?
Failure in and of itself isn’t necessarily good. Of course, I’d always rather have a successful product than a failure. However, knowing that you will most likely fail can offer some much-needed perspective, particularly with your first outing. It allows you to do a few things that you might not otherwise do:
- Build “failure” or a bare minimum of success into your business plan
- Avoid cost-intensive game development, at least until you see some profit
- Use guerilla marketing tactics rather than large advertising spends to get your game noticed
- Keep the game’s scope small enough that you can actually deliver games quickly and build an audience for your product catalog
- Set up equity splits between team members who are committed to eventual profitability, but are willing to wait it out until the money starts coming in
If you can’t handle this potential for failure and the hard work that comes with succeeding in the indie games business, maybe it’s better that you don’t do it. But I have a feeling that a lot of devs out there, with the right perspective, can make it work.
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