There was a telling moment in the UK games development scene recently. A couple of years ago, the British Government lifted the lid on Games Tax Relief – a system designed to allow developers to claim back some game production costs, providing the game in question was identified as “culturally British”.

After the initial rush of enthusiasm and jubilation, developers then – in a typically British manner – started to get suspicious. Was this a cynical ploy to get more bright red post boxes, Beefeaters and British bulldogs in games? How could anyone deem whether a game was culturally British or not? How would you go about claiming? Would the amount of money you’d be able to access be worth all the perceived effort it would take to get it? Was it all just a big trick?

Of course, as the months passed, all such questions were answered in full, with both the process of qualifying for the funds and the system devised to identify them as culturally British laid out in full. Even developers initially wary of the tax relief had to acknowledge that, at its heart, it was a scheme designed to promote diverse, creative, and most importantly successful games development within the UK. Yet, still, at the time of writing, I’m aware of indie developers across the UK who are reluctant, hesitant, or even plain irate when you bring up the prospect of them applying for Games Tax Relief.

Why? My gut is, the prospect of benefiting from the relief – that, low and behold, it might enable them to turn a profit in the long term – suddenly makes their chosen profession very real. It’s no longer a hobby, or something they do on the side. It’s their job.

Secrets and superstardom

I should clarify that the vast majority of independent developers I know are hard working, talented folk who are desperately looking to turn their businesses into profitable enterprise – and, indeed, many will. Nevertheless, there’s also a small band of developers who, though equally hard working and talented, seem to regard actually making money from their chosen profession as some kind of betrayal. Like fans of obscure bands who, later in their career, go on to enjoy more mainstream superstardom, there’s an belief rarely spoken of that these indies have somehow sold out.

If true, I think a lot of this stems from the fact that, like other less creative industries, many people who end up working in games start out treating it as a hobby. Almost all of the developers you encounter at events around will the globe will, when laying out their story, start by telling you they played games as a kid and had dreams of making their own when they grew up. More than any other profession I can think of, video games is populated by leagues of people who went into it not to make money, but rather to do something creative. That’s something unique that the industry as a whole needs to foster.

Events like GDC are a crucial way of making key connections
Events like GDC are a crucial way of making key connections

However, at the same time, I’m of the belief that, while it’s important that this remains a creatively driven industry, if scores of the best studios on the planet eventually fold because they’re simply making no money – or, even worse, strive on from their bedrooms barely being able to afford to make rent or eat, working every hour of every day and night to make a game they believe in but, commercially, simply doesn’t have legs – then there isn’t going to be all too many indies left in the years to come.

What makes this even more frustrating is, while a good game is always the most important element in every success, there are other things that an indie studio can do to increase its chances of commercial validity. Working from Manchester in the UK, there are events, meet ups and conferences aplenty all over the city where indie developers could meet potential partners, publishers, service providers, or even investors, yet only a handful ever take the opportunity. Many stay at home, isolating themselves and focusing on one issue alone: getting their game finished.

Tools for the job

It’s an especially vexing subject for a company such as ours, given that we’re one of the many service providers in the position to give those creatives something of a business boost.

Analytics are a logical way of taking a good idea and crafting it into something that really translates with a bigger and (hopefully) profitable audience, but with many indies, we need to get to the stage where a developer realises that they can utilise analytics, public relations and wider marketing techniques and even publishers without selling their soul in the process.

As we’ve discussed on these pages recently, the mobile market is an especially intense, crowded corner of the games industry, and that’s not going to change. If anything, it’s only going to get more jam packed as the years go by, and the time where it was possible to pass along, amassing just a handful or so of downloads for game you loved but others find difficult to connect with is long gone. Making money in mobile isn’t a case of ego, enjoying success isn’t a luxury – it’s actually a matter of survival.

We’re not talking semantics here, either. I was asked at a games conference a couple of months ago how many mobile developers I know personally who are making a decent profit on mobile alone. When put on the spot, the reality was that I could only think of a handful, and even then, most made their name in the early days of the App Store, before every man and woman in town had readied their carts and headed over to iOS to dig for gold. The vast majority of developers I encounter are simply making their way on mobile, looking out for the next month or two – or maybe even the next game – to deliver the goods.

How to get ahead

So what is there the average mobile developer can do? To have success in the smartphone arena, you have to treat it like a business. You have to set out from the start to do more than simply make a game – you have to make a marketable game, and then you have to utilise social media, attend events, meet journalists, use tools to make your game better, tap up publisher and investors, and all the things other people in other creative industries do.

This is not an unsolvable problem by any means. This is a case of creative, talented people realising that, while they may have stepped into the games industry as a hobby, they’re going to find it far more rewarding if they back up their talent game design wise with some business nous. If you’re reading this blog post, chances are this isn’t your hobby any more – it’s your career. So treat it as such.

Of course, not everyone can make their thousands or even millions on mobile – every industry, every trade has its winners and losers – but, with consumers flocking to smartphones in ever greater a number, there’s a major case to say now’s the perfect time for mobile developers as a whole to come to their senses, realise this isn’t a hobby, and tool themselves up for the world of business. Go to conferences, meet those contacts, plan your PR, utilise those analytics and, most importantly, make great games. If you don’t, there are thousands of other people out there who will.

Key takeaways:

  • Mobile is a massive market, and one that’s still growing, but such growth brings with it more and more competitors
  • Too many developers come into games development treating it like a hobby, but the mobile market doesn’t let studios coast on by any more
  • There are easier ways to get more serious about your games dev business – conferences to attend, investors to meet, development tools to plug into, publishers to tap up
  • Essentially, it’s time to wise up and take games development seriously, because those who don’t will be left behind

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