The games market is absolutely booming and will top $108 billion this year, growing at a CAGR of 19%. Mobile games remain its most lucrative segment and now account for 42% (or $46.1 billion) of the total revenue generated by app publishers. Want to grab a share of the pie?
How to create an indie game: step-by-step guide to success
It all starts with an idea – and your idea has to be validated.
Here’s what you should do:
- Study the App Store and Google Play download/top grossing game charts to see what game genres tend to perform better in terms of revenue and user engagement. As of October, 2017, the upper regions of the US top-performing iOS app charts are occupied by popular Match 3 games like Candy Crush, Puzzledom and Homescapes, the omnipresent Minecraft and occasional “edutainment” titles like Word Connect. According to Statista, however, it is strategy and role playing games that generate most revenue (in July 2016, for instance, such iOS games made $ 194 million and $ 162 million, respectively). Platform games (or endless runners) usually get tons of downloads (like Temple Run which was downloaded over 170 million times) but fail to make significant revenue;
- Choose the right genre. As an indie developer, you’re probably operating on a shoestring and therefore won’t be able to create a fully-fledged city-building game capable of evaluating the aftermaths of various in-game events and modelling appropriate scenarios, so say goodbye to your Minecraft and the Tribez clone ideas. Want to launch a match 3 franchise? A custom mobile application company with a solid game dev portfolio would spend around 3000 hours (man-hours, to be precise) to create an app like Candy Crush. How long is it going to take YOU? What’s more important, will you be able to compete with publishers like Playrix and King?
Your success largely depends on your ability to see beyond stereotypes. You surely remember Alto’s Adventure, the endless runner game created by an indie studio from Canada? Although the game made use of simple mechanics and went paidmium on the App Store (it’s currently priced at $ 4.99!), Alto got featured by Apple and created enough buzz to attract and engage players.
And that’s why you should think of a flexible monetization strategy early on. Since only 0.19% of mobile users spend money on games, you’d better go freemium or employ different monetization strategies on Google Play and the App Store like Snowman (the vendor behind Alto’s Adventure) did. Going free-to-play (and pay-to-win) is the middle ground for most indie developers, although it remains to be seen whether you’ll manage to provide enough content to engage users in the long run.
Ok, once you decided on the game genre, it’s time to develop game concept.
How to make a successful mobile indie game? According to Michail Katkoff, Product Manager at Supercell, it’s all about choosing the right theme. Put yourself in your potential users’ shoes. If you browse the App Store and come across a post-apocalyptic game, you already know what it’s all about (trying to escape from zombies, stopping the spread of a deadly virus, etc.). If that’s your cup of tea, you’ll download the app straight away – and you don’t even need to watch explainer videos to understand what you have to do to kick that zombie in the face.
However, you should pick something neutral: Pavel Shylenok, CTO at R-Style Lab (you can check his profile here), believes the casual games market changes every two or three years. In early 2010s, it’s farm simulation and epic fantasy games that gained most traction; today we see more space war and steampunk apps released to the market. Targeting a specific niche – for example, players who love Harry Potter and therefore might spend a few dollars on a game taking place in a bewitched castle – might be an option.
What’s next? You should hire several game script writers to develop different concepts taking into account the game mechanics and mobile platforms (it’s either iOS or Android or both) and select the best one. A couple of settings and game levels would do for a start; don’t go into much detail since the concept will evolve over time.
- Choose several post-apocalyptic (or whatever theme you’ve settled on) games that made it big and use their visuals as a reference for UI designers. Meanwhile, UX designers and developers will create a game level with default objects (graphic primitives) instead of characters and objects. Does it work and look OK? Fine, go ahead;
- Write a comprehensive spec covering the functional and performance requirements of the final product, monetization strategy and further development;
- Break the project into several stages (with each iteration having an achievable milestone). As Attilio Carotenuto, the author of the incredible “Postmortem of My First Indie Game” put it, being an indie developer is “really 10% game dev, and 90% everything else”. That’s why you have to learn to prioritize tasks, manage your team and make changes to the scope based on user feedback. Unless you have 10+ developers on your team, you don’t really have to use fancy project management software like Jira and Redmine (Google Sheets will do).
Technology stack & game design
Obviously, the choice of an engine that will breathe life into your masterpiece depends on your familiarity with certain game dev technologies (or the expertise of the software development company you’re going to outsource game dev to).
What are the options?
- Cocos2D. The open-source game dev suite renders images with the OpenGL library and supports Objective-C and Swift by default; Android support is enabled through the SpriteBuilder plugin. The framework powers many popular gaming applications including Badland and Castle Crashers;
- Unreal Engine. The Unreal Engine community offers a plethora of tools for game developers and designers and supports iOS/Android programming environments. There are many cool games created with Unreal Engine including I Hate My Job and the Infinity Blade franchise;
- Unity. The UnityScript/C# cross-platform engine is equally good for 2D and 3D games. With Unity, you don’t have to develop everything from scratch – just hit its dedicated store and choose the add-ons you need.
Ah, yes. Is it a 2D or 3D game you’re going to impress users with?How to Make a Successful Indie Game Click To Tweet
Both skill- and money-wise, it’s a lot harder to create a decent 3D game. Another reason to start with a 2D app is your very small chances of success; it would be a shame to spend 20 months on a high-quality 3D game that will pale into oblivion like most apps do!
So, we’re going 2D then; how many game levels, characters and upgrade options you need to attract and retain players?
Pavel Shylenok (who is now CTO at r-stylelab.com) spent years building mobile games. Based on his experience, Pavel claims non-tech guys spend up to 80% of their game dev budgets trying to make their games look and feel nice. You may as well translate it into man-hours (2000+).
Where does the huge amount of graphic content come from?
A relatively simple Match-3 game like Candy Crush features about 9 thousand animated backgrounds and objects, 50 animated controls and screens and at least 15 particle effects!
That’s a lot of work – especially if it’s just you working on the game. I’ve already told you about Alto’s Adventure, a stylish iOS/Android game built by an indie studio from Canada. Check out this amazing post written by Harry Nesbitt, Alto’s sole developer and designer; the guy spent 18 months working his fingers to the bone to finally bring the game to life! Harry says their team decided to swap Cocos2D for Unity in the midst of the game development process to achieve the desired level of visual complexity – and that’s exactly the kind of situation you might find yourself in.
Technology-wise, you should also spend some time doing the back-end development to enable app processes (AWS is the way to go). Do not forget about social media integration: features like leadership boards, social sharing and the option to invite friends help games go viral (although virality as we know it is most often created by marketers).
According to Pavel Shylenok, it also makes sense to go single-platform first (iOS or Android), gather user feedback, polish your product and test different monetization strategies.
Mobile game marketing
Here we are then! You’ve got a playable app up your sleeve. Testers seem to love it. Now you only have to submit the game to the App Store/Google Play – and fame will come.
The reality is quite different. Building an indie game and pushing it to app stores is only half the story. Unlike PC gamers, smartphone owners do not normally browse Google Play in search of new app titles – and that’s why 90% of indie games never land on players’ radar and bring little to no revenue. Wonder how to make an indie mobile game that will dominate download charts? You should start a marketing campaign months before the planned release date (and marketing can never be 100% free)!
Here’s how to get your app noticed:
- Build a small fan base in advance. How to make an indie game a success even before it’s released to the market? It all starts with an awesome game trailer (a YouTube channel is required); it should feature footage from the game and reviews or at least quotes from game dev professionals and be 60-90 sec long. Share the video on social media. Initially it may get only a few views, but it’s the very tool that’ll help you get game press coverage. Keep potential users informed about what’s going on with the game. Record funny clips documenting the game dev process. Get in touch with the leading game dev platforms like Gamasutra, Pocket Gamer and Touch Arcade; if you’re lucky, some well-known editor might review your game for free. It will not necessarily translate into a bajillion downloads, but extra promo never killed nobody;
- Do not hire a PR agency. With most PR firms charging some $ 10 thousand for a basic promo package (which includes a forgettable press release, a couple interviews with editors and SMM), hiring one is most likely going to be a complete waste of money and time. Use that $ 10K to attend a game dev conference where you can meet useful people (including the App Store editors) in person;
- Try your utmost to get featured by the App Store and Google Play. Although some developers claim a strong social media presence and press coverage yield a better ROI than a feature on the App Store front page, the majority of mobile games that have made it big recently (including Alto’s, Prune and Badland) got the golden ticket. Want to replicate their success? Pour your heart and soul into game design to make your app stand out from the competition. Find as many beta users as you can, study their feedback and get rid of the features that add little value to your product. Once again, create a stellar trailer which offers a glimpse into your alterative universe. Also, you’d better consult a reliable software vendor with a solid game dev portfolio to get an unbiased opinion (and professional help).
How to create an indie game in a world where 80% of independent studios operate at a loss? Well, most indie guys who achieved commercial success had either worked for an AAA game company in the past or had money to support themselves and hire third-party artists and developers while working on their apps full time. And it might take you up to 15 flop games (Rovio says hi) to get the right one.
But it doesn’t mean you should give up on your dream; instead, you should acknowledge the challenges, align your expectations with the hard indie reality and work hard – and success will eventually follow!