A Successful Indie Videogame Company Vs. A Failure: What’s the Difference?

ambroo / Pixabay

A videogame company is a difficult venture for anyone, even with the deepest of pockets. The failure rate is EXTREME. How extreme? The New York Times says 80% of games (8 of 10) fail to make a profit.

So what distinguishes a good videogame company from all the failures?

We came upon this game industry question on Quora:

What separates successful indie games companies from unsuccessful ones?

We couldn’t resist writing up a quick answer. You can see the brief answer at the Quora link below, but here’s a more in-depth discussion:

Great question.

There are a lot of elements that go into a successful indie videogame company, just like any other business. It can fail on funding, staffing, management, vision, design, execution, technical foundation… so many pitfalls. But if I were to pick one, I’d say FOCUS is the key to a successful indie game company. You could also say DISCIPLINE.

People don’t make videogames to make money or to become famous (although that’s usually in there somewhere*)… they make games because they’re passionate about games, love playing them, skilled at creating or coding, and love sharing the joy and fun of a good videogame. 

The most common mistake I’ve seen with game startups — and with the personal approach taken by videogame employees toward their work, as well! — is that people don’t know where to draw the line. They overestimate what they can do, lose track of their budgets and their scope, and gallop headlong off the cliff of fiscal and timeline suicide. The saddest cases involve videogame companies that bet the farm on that first game, without realizing how malformed the initial approach was.

1) The game concept was for a Triple-A title, but they had a single-F budget.
2) The game concept was essentially a remake of last year’s big hit, and by the time it got to market five years later, it looked uglier and played worse than the game that inspired it.
3) The team was passionate but green, and they bit off more than they could chew.
4) The game was well-funded by one of the biggest companies in the world. The team was full of veterans. Great marketing and support. Everyone wanted the game to be a blockbuster, but too many months wasted on building hype, making demos that didn’t improve the game, and indecision on actual gameplay. By the time it hit the market, it sold well enough, but was too late to make a real impact. Bitter? Me? No, never!

Focus maintains a clear vision of a viable, polished, and fun product that fits the market and the resources available. You rarely see an indie game company fail because it thought too small (although it’s possible). You often see a game company fail because its reach outstripped its grasp.

I think it's also important to acknowledge how stacked the deck is against videogame development/publishing success. The odds are not in your favor, bravehearts. As with movies, it's a saturated market and your efforts are competing with some of the heaviest hitters and most beloved franchises in the world. As a result, a lot of indies cannot be blamed for failing. Market conditions shift during a game's months- or years-long production 

But I guarantee you: if an indie game company is in the black, they are lean, mean, and focused like a laser on their goals. And they should be championed for it.

I met a guy recently who is one of the founders of Storm Wars, a free-to-play collectible card game on PC, Mac, iOS, and Android. He's not a gaming icon, but he's making ends meet while working for himself creating games. I told him, "You're living the dream!" and he laughed... but I really think it's true. Anyone who's hammered out a place in the game industry independently is worthy of our respect.

*If you just want to make money, you’re probably at a bank figuring out how to cook up some new and ethically-dubious financial instrument. If you want to be famous, you’re probably… waiting tables in Hollywood.



Game Case Study Update: Kaos War and Damon Grow

So recently I wrote a long, rambling post talking about the Kaos War MMORPG and some of the mistakes that founder Damon Grow makes during their journey (as documented by a Games.net video series).

What ever happened with Damon and Kaos War?

Kaos War never came out. Not a big surprise, you say? Get this: Damon Grow has pivoted successfully and is now leading a small dev team at Superstar Games, which has investments from a number of notable groups, including lead backer and NFL legend Joe Montana.

Grow has clearly done well, even if he hasn’t blinded us with brilliance. I’m pleased to see that he’s managed to make the most of the unique attributes we saw on Kaos War: the passion, the communication skills, the chutzpah.

His big project when he launched Superstar was a VR football game, though. On the website, there’s not a hint of that project, although if you search around you can find video and news coverage. Instead, the site touts several modest casual VR games.

That, too, I think can be read two ways. Either you’ll think he never finishes his projects, or he’s learned to bite off something he can actually chew. Good luck, Damon. It’s a tough industry.


PewDiePie Makes $15M/Year and Is a Racist


I haven’t watched much PewDiePie but occasionally I’ve enjoyed one of his playthroughs as a way to get a sense for a game. Now, after he’s been dropped by Disney and YouTube, I realize from the reports that he’s a dirty scumbag and a hero to neo-Nazi hate groups. (I also realize he was pulling in $15M per year for his goofball videos. WHAT?!?!)

This is yet another sign that the Internet is making it so we can’t have nice things. It used to be that you could watch baseball, play videogames, and pretend for a few isolated moments every day that we can all coexist without hating each other based on superficialities.

But no, that’s no longer the case. Baseball’s now political (I cite the congressional hearings where Democrats and Republicans lined up on party lines to support or criticize Roger Clemens for PED use). Choosing a home improvement store or a pizza delivery service is now political. And watching a freaking game playthrough is political.

I blame you, PewDiePie. Die, PewDiePie, die.


Videogames Are Murderer Kryptonite, Says NPR

videogames-and-murderersFor your enjoyment, here’s another salvo in the ongoing discussion about “do videogames make kids into psychopaths,” aka “First-Person Shooters Were Designed by ISIS and the Taliban to Extend Satan’s Nefarious Reach into Our World.”

As you might expect, this TED Radio Hour episode connotes play with balanced human psychology. Less expected, perhaps, is a researcher who finds that the lack of play is part of the formative story for murderers.

Yes, that’s right. Murderers might’ve turned out okay if they’d only played more first-person shooters. 

I mean, maybe the infamous University of Texas mass murderer, Charles Whitman, wouldn’t be the first guy you’d want to see pumping quarters into a Silent Scope cabinet at the corner arcade. But, says Dr. Stuart Brown, the lack of unbounded, reckless, communal play might’ve been a factor in his lack of normal psychological development.

Personally, I find the demonization of videogames to be a bit tiresome, a symptom of a society looking for easy answers. Sure, like anything else, videogames can be taken to excess. But outlawing videogames is like outlawing kids playing cops and robbers in the local park. Just because it’s popular and loud and visceral doesn’t mean it’s evil.

In many cases, the solution for violent, unruly kids is quality parenting. Right? That’s my easy answer for the day. (“Said like a true non-parent” would be a valid riposte.)

Anyhow, I think we can all agree with the theory that play is an important part of the human experience. Here’s your podcast breakdown:

Does something serious happen when we play? In this episode, TED speakers describe how all forms of amusement — from tossing a ball to video games — can make us smarter, saner and more collaborative.

Here are the four parts:

  1. Comedian Charlie Todd and his group Improv Everywhere choreograph bizarre, hilarious and unexpected public scenes, creating whimsical opportunities for total strangers to play together.
  2. Dr. Stuart Brown says humor, games, roughhousing and fantasy are more than just fun; humans are hard-wired to play. He came to this conclusion after conducting some somber research about the stark childhoods of murderers.
  3. Primatologist Isabel Behncke explains how bonobo apes learn by constantly playing. She says play isn’t frivolous; it appears to be a critical way to solve problems and avoid conflict.
  4. When video game researcher Jane McGonigal was bedridden after a concussion, she gave herself a prescription: play a game. She says games helped her get better; and for many of us, virtual games can improve our real lives.

Kickstarter Drama: Why Are the Fans Paying for It?

Kickstarter Campaigns for Veronica Mars and Richard Garriott?

So yeah, as you’ve surely heard, Kickstarter and other social fundraising vehicles are now part of the movie- and videogame-making landscape. How about a little review of where two of those big-name campaigns are now?

I’m talking about the Veronica Mars movie and Richard Garriott’s Shroud of the Avatar game. Both of them are fully funded with room to spare: Mars asked for $2M and landed an authoritative $5.7M, and Garriott got $1.9M from a $1M goal.

Did These Kickstarter Campaigns Cheat Us?


As always, it’s an eye of the beholder kind of deal, but Mars is showing a tidy 78% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s not The Godfather or anything, but certainly respectable.

The game is a little harder to judge. It’s clearly a work-in-progress kind of project, with the official site talking about a novel and episodes. TIME Magazine has an insightful column about Garriott’s inflated claims and deflated relevance to modern RPGs, but it’s not a review. And PC Gamer has a vaguely positive “first impressions” preview from November 2014, while the Steam page for the game has the gamer consensus as “very positive.”

Honestly, I find PC Gamer’s article ridiculously generous. This is a product that costs $45 yet still has questionable gameplay elements and a sluggish framerate. It is indeed an alpha game that costs full retail — and my hat’s off to Garriott for pulling this off. However, I’m also cognizant of the fact that the game delivers some things that gamers can’t get elsewhere, like a supportive community, weekly events, and most of all, the ability to comment on the game during a meaningful stage in its evolution. As a developer, I’m not particularly enamored of that opportunity, or the possibility of it all coming to naught, but I do wish Garriott the best (and I enjoyed attending the barbeque he holds in the Austin area for the game developer community). It is indeed possible that the game could become something completely unique, a dynamic world that continues to evolve as new ideas and new technology are introduced. It’s a longshot bet, but the best-case scenario is that this could be a new paradigm: an evergreen title that self-heals and evolves to become what its funders want — and discover what they want — in real time.

And Why Did Garriott Ask Us for Money?

Author Paige Ewing also has some insider insight into the logic and motivations of Garriott’s Kickstarter, which she’s allowed me to share here. Initially she’s commenting on some of the raised eyebrows among our friends who questioned the appropriateness of a millionaire asking fans for cash:

Personally, I don’t think Richard’s kickstarter is much about money. 1 million doesn’t even put a dent in the budget necessary to make a new multiplayer online game nowadays.

However, Richard’s last attempt to make a great game took 7 years of his life, and the lives of lots of other talented people, and a fair chunk of his fortune, and bombed.

Part of the reason for that was a lack of participation, input, and buy-in from the folks who buy his games, the players. Being an intelligent man, that’s a mistake he is trying to rectify.

In doing things this way, he’s getting buy-in ahead of time, and he’s also encouraging the people who are enthusiastic about gaming to give him their input on key aspects of the game before it launches.

Richard has already invested a fair amount of his own money and time in this game. It may not be mentioned in the kickstarter, but this game has already been in the works for some time. He wants to expand his art team, work on the complex decisions like how will player vs player work in this world to make as many people happy as possible, and for that, he wants some assurance that he’s going in directions people will enjoy.

He is particularly shooting for the older gamer market, and he needs to know that’s enough of a market to justify the expense and time.

Kickstarter isn’t just a way to make money, it’s a way to test response to an idea, and to get a market excited about a new project, among other things.

This is all just my opinion, of course, from an outside perspective. I haven’t spoken to Richard for more than ten minutes in years.

So there you have it. I don’t think Kickstarter movie and videogame campaigns are going away anytime soon, and I believe it’s a valuable way for creatives to take the temperature of the fan base. As long as that thermometer isn’t forced into any of my body orifices, I’ll keep from crying foul.


Bioshock Co-Founder Calls It Quits

bioshock founder quitsSurprisingly, Irrational Games’ co-founder Ken Levine recently announced that he’s shutting down that studio. This means that future Bioshock games will almost certainly have much less of his handiwork. He did also say that he will start a new studio under publisher Take-Two that will focus on smaller, digital-distribution games. The new studio will only include about fifteen hand-picked heroes from Irrational.

With an announcement like this coming so hard on the heels of a well-received game like Bioshock Infinite, you immediately start to analyze the announcement and speculate about what happened behind the scenes. Levine’s rationale is put thusly:

To meet the challenge ahead, I need to refocus my energy on a smaller team with a flatter structure and a more direct relationship with gamers. In many ways, it will be a return to how we started: a small team making games for the core gaming audience.

Fair enough. Certainly you could guess that part of the problem was an unwieldy team rent apart by politics and backbiting.

For some really interesting analysis, go to the Gamasutra article comments to see what actual game developers are saying. Here are some of the more plangent thoughts and memes, paraphrased for your pleasure:

  • It’s serious trouble for the industry when a developer that released a top title a few months ago cannot sustain itself. You don’t implode your team without a good reason.
  • Take-Two may have decided to shut Irrational down after Levine picked the top 15 people and announced his intention to move on. But why didn’t he just form a small “special project” team of 15 within Irrational?
  • Bioshock was a critical success, but not a blockbuster and possibly ran a loss.*
  • Maybe it wasn’t Levine who shut down Irrational, but rather Take-Two, whose stock jumped at the news of the shuttering. Maybe Levine simply saved what he could from the smoking ruins.

None of these are particularly savory, but all of them sound quite plausible. I’d like to point to our article on why becoming a game designer isn’t all we’d hope it would be. Best of luck to all the Irrational staff who are reacting to this dramatic change.

* According to Wikipedia, BioShock Infinite was the top-selling console game for March 2013 and shipped 4 million copies by late July 2013. However, it wasn’t one of the top 10 selling games of 2013 and it placed #16 in the UK, where it sold particularly well.


Can the Game Industry Ever Do 40?

game-industry-weekThe Videogame Industry and the 40 Hour Workweek

TIME Magazine has a new article up about the 40-hour workweek. Most people in the game industry find this concept quaint. “That’s for regular jobs,” they’ll say, or “Never gonna happen.” Not only are long “crunch” hours often necessary because of publisher deadlines, the dreaded holiday season shelf space rush, and the difficulty of creating bespoke software, but crunch is part of game industry lore. Crunch is a rite of passage. No one likes it, but we often accept it as a beautiful torment, like labor pains for an expectant mother.

Still, the article makes some great points. I hadn’t been aware that Ford Motor, of all organizations, had run a series of trials to determine the optimal workweek, and they concluded that forty is the magic number. The guys who invented the American assembly line decided that more hours would actually decrease productivity and increase errors. Longer hours would create sloppy work that would have to be redone.

We’ve definite seen a tremendous amount of labor wastage in the game industry. Producers or department leads chasing bad ideas down rabbit holes, rogue employees fighting fiercely for features that are clearly out of place in the game’s schedule and scope, and yes, flawed game concepts that never should have left the drawing board. Each of these wrong turns costs thousands of dollars and precious resources. However, game industry veterans could easily argue that many such missteps are made by executives who are getting plenty of sleep (and perhaps too much alcohol or other mind-altering substances).

For those of you who want to get a game industry job, make sure you know about the work-life balance in games and read up about “EA Spouse,” the infamous person who stood up to Electronic Arts (and many many other industry players) about the sacrifices it demands.


Free Game Rentals at Redbox, and More

free game rentalsJust a Few Days Left of Free Game Rentals

Zowie! The free game rentals deal at Redbox is no joke — all week, they’ve been letting you rent games for free if you just reserve the game online before picking it up.

At first I thought it was just a neat one-time promo. But I looked more closely at the fine print and… there isn’t any. In other words, this isn’t a “one free game rental per person” deal. This is a “free game rental Wednesday, and free game rental Thursday too” deal. There’s no silly pretending you’re two people, or using different email accounts and credit cards. Redbox wants you to have a lot of free game rentals. And that is not a bad thing. It’s just too bad I didn’t figure this out earlier so I could share it with you folks.

Unfortunately, this is only good through tomorrow (3/1) UPDATE! Redbox has extended the free game rental deal through 3/8/12! Act now, and you could get a rental tonight and another one tomorrow. You’ll need to sign up for a free Redbox account.

How Game Rentals Work at Redbox

Redbox movie and game rentals are simple: rent today, return it by 9pm tomorrow. “Today” begins at 12:01 am today, though, so if you’re crazier than I am, you could drag yourself down to the nearest kiosk at midnight on a Saturday morning and get a good 45 hours in before returning it at 9p on Sunday. The selection ain’t the most expansive, of course, but they’ve got most of the titles that everyone’s buzzing about right now.

And Check Out NBC’s New Show “Awake”

Turns out an ex-Austin resident is the brains behind this new show, which tells the story of a police detective who survives a terrible car crash that kills either his wife or his son… but he’s not sure which. In one of his realities, his wife lived, and in the other it was his son, and he can’t tell when he’s waking or dreaming.

I just watched the first episode online (embedded above; you can fullscreen it) and it’s the best thing I’ve seen from TV this year. The acting is top-notch, the puzzle-solving police work brilliant, and best of all, this thing has tremendous heart. You really feel for this guy who’s torn between two half-lives and is trying to reassemble himself in the middle. Just don’t blink, because the dialog is fast and polished and the whole thing feels cinematic. Highly recommended.


Bad Company 2, Bioshock 2 and More for $5, Today Only

A tip from our friend Aidan — Battlefield Bad Company 2, Darksiders, Bioshock 2, and a number of other triple-A titles for the PC are on sale at Valve’s Steam Store.

Hurry — you’ve about 18 hours to redeem this deal before it goes away…!

Stay tuned, too; by the looks of it there’ll be some more blockbuster deals on slightly off-peak games all weekend.