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Minimum Sustainable Success? Know Your Context.

I read Dan Cook’s recent gamedev sustainability polemic with anticipation and interest, but I couldn’t make heads and tails of it for a while. Yes, we need to be realistic about projecting revenues, I could not agree with that more! But then the details got murky.

The crux of Dan’s argument seemed to be that: 1. the chance of failure of any individual project is very high, so 2. we need to make tons of projects for a chance of a breakout success, and 3. don’t think a single success is worth very much because it has to pay for past and future failures as well. To explain this claim, he then does a neat walk-through of how many games they made at Spry Fox in the last 5 years (31 prototypes, 11 released projects), and how many actually made money (4 broke even, 3 were successes that paid for the failures).

Except this part made zero sense to me when I read it. Who can make 31 prototypes and release 11 games in 5 years? What time travel dark magic is this? 🙂  Because in my neck of the woods, it takes at least a year to make a game, and even that’s when you’re very disciplined about sticking to the schedule. Writing a game is a commitment closer to writing a book – and it takes just as much out of you.

Finally it dawned on me. That talk should have been titled differently: “Minimum Sustainable Mobile Success”. And then – then it makes much more sense. Make a ton of little games. Throw them at the wall and see what sticks. Don’t bet your farm on any single title because your success depends entirely on the roll of dice that is the app store featuring and the audience’s fickle response. And don’t make a premium title.

Except… this advice is not at all applicable to the PC market. You know what happens if you try to make a game in a few months and release it? Nothing. It won’t pass Greenlight, it won’t show up on Steam, it won’t get an audience. It might show up on, along with a ton of other minigames that people play for free, but that’s not a way to build revenue. The PC market is a very different beast, and it demands games that are larger, more fully developed, that have more meat on their bones. And players are willing to pay a premium price, if they get what they paid for.

So the tactics for indie survival in the PC world are going to be very different. You still run the risk of the game not doing well, but the shotgun approach is only going to backfire, because that’s not what the audience wants.

Instead, you have to start thinking less like a pop artist releasing singles on iTunes, and more like a book author committing a year or more of their life to a single piece of work. Instead of mitigating risk via quantity, mitigate risk via quality. Just start with the assumption that your game is not going to be a blockbuster – so what can you do to make sure it’s not an abject failure either, and gives you another swing at greater success next time? (And this metaphor is not ideal either, because success is not static, it changes as you acquire a reputation as a creator.) You have to find your fans, and in order to do that, understand who you’re writing for, and understand what is interesting about your game and why they should care. And just as importantly, figure out where your audience is, how to get your game in front of them, and also how many will (realistically) want to pay for it.

The point of all this is – if you’re not on mobile, making larger-scoped games, the shotgun approach is not viable. A portfolio of games is a great goal, but as an indie developer it will take you many years to get there. So don’t go wide. Work on minimizing the risk of failure of each particular title, and on building your portfolio over the long term.

As with everything in life, context is key.