So you have your game idea and against all odds, you’ve built your own game prototype. Congratulations! What’s next for you on your indie game dev journey?
The paths diverge here – all twisting towards an uncertain future. It’s scary to some and exciting for others. It’s a good thing that despite it being the road less traveled, the pioneers who have come before us want to share their own insights so that more indie game developers can succeed in the industry.
The third talk covers general insights into where an indie developer goes from this point onwards. Our distinguished panel of speakers includes Nico Tuason (Games by Nico), Lalna Watewilai (Unity), Alex Valdez (Good Knight), Marvin Apacible (Maccima Games) with special panel guest Ryan Sumo. Neil Corre of Think Simulator led the conversation, uncovering the highs and lows of the indie developer life, and what it takes to make it in this unique but fulfilling industry.
What made you decide to go full-time indie?
Nico: It was kind of a long-term decision. It was never a spur-of-the-moment thing. I started making games in 2010, but before that, I was working as a web developer. One of the things we were doing was Flash banners and navigation menus. From there I discovered that you could use Flash to make games, and I was always a long-time gamer. It was a dream of mine to make games. It was just a question of how to do it. Flash was my gateway to creating games.
Marvin: While I was still working at Oracle, I also started game development with Flash. It started as a part-time job.
Alex: I started game development with Visual Basic, Click and Play, and Multimedia Fusion stuff, before GameMaker was popular. During the Flash boom, I first jumped into animation because that was my other passion from before and I really enjoyed using ActionScript.
Lalna: I have the privilege to work with many indie studios in Southern APAC region, where we help them with things like user acquisition, monetization, player engagement, and so on. From my observation, when indies set up their studios, it’s mostly fueled by passion. There’s an overlap between passion and opportunity. That’s when the stars align and I see the studios are born! I have one Australian customer who started with a simple idea: he wanted to make games for his kids. When he did his research, he found out that the mobile games business is huge. He saw the opportunity and decided to start his game business part-time. He enjoyed the process so much that he decided to convert it to a full-time business.
How did you manage to stay afloat for so long in this business?
Alex: With Good Knight, I’ll be blunt: I got lucky. I’ve got good friends and supporters. It’s a really hard investment. The life of an indie developer is really hard, especially if you don’t have financial help, despite having seven years of experience making games professionally. A big help is having a community with you on your journey. It’s very helpful to connect with people because you don’t know how and where help will come from. Some help we received was as simple as asking a random person at a game jam event if they would be interested in funding our project. One thing developers don’t know, because they are usually introverted, is that you need to talk to people.
Marvin: We’ve been at it for about five years already. The first three years we were completely bootstrapped, so savings from my previous work and borrowed finances. We signed up with our publisher Squeaky Wheel which got us to survive the fourth year. And last year, we released our first game, and because the team is still small, the modest share we got from that game is enough to keep us going. I was surprised about our success because I set my expectations very low.
Lalna: On indie marketing: I think it’s important to look at the kind of audience that you want to target. Your game mine not just be targeted to Filipinos, but also to the US which has strong fanbases. It’s also important to figure out where outside of your own country you could have the advantages, especially when your game is in English. Do experiments, like going for Tier 1 countries (US, UK, Australia) and Tier 3 countries (Indonesia, Brazil, India), and seeing the response. You can take advantage of scheduling posts or even get help in the country that you are targeting. You can also go for app store optimization tactics.
Nico: I focused on art direction and programming, and didn’t really have the energy for marketing. A good benchmark for release is getting around 10,000 Steam wishlists, but we released the game at only 500 wishlists. We just wanted to get the game out. YouTube marketing is a tough egg we’ve still to crack.
How did keep yourself and your team passionate and motivated throughout the whole development process?
Nico: I spent six years making a game, not all of it productive, but even when you’re not working on a game, it occupies space in your mind. One of the things that helped me is to realize that game development is hazardous to your life. You need to take steps to make sure you are in the right state of mind when you work. As you sit at your desk working, your HP bar is draining.
One of the things I did to get around it was to get out of the house, especially when the honeymoon period is over, and you need to treat it like work again. I made sure I got exercise and my diet was healthy. I had to train myself to eat healthy! You need to recover and take care of your body and nutrition in order to do this hazardous job.
Ryan: Show your game to other people. If you can find a couple of people who can see your game and you see the interest on their faces, you can really feed off of that.
Alex: If you guys ever feel like you’re Sisyphus, it means that you’re overdoing it. Maybe you’re going in the wrong direction. Games like (HAL Lab’s) Earthbound were restarted completely from scratch. Another thing you could do is make a demo of your game for people to react to your game. Join a game jam in the middle of production for your main game, just to gain some momentum.
Lalna: Ask yourself why you are feeling down or feeling unmotivated. What is stopping you from finishing your game? The second piece of advice is to take a walk down memory lane and remind yourself why you started doing this in the first place? Lastly, don’t forget to celebrate every small win. Sometimes we crunch and forget to take a break. It’s okay to pause and continue again.
Marvin: Make sure your project is something that fits your team’s capabilities. We all have very ambitious game ideas that we’d like to do, but it’s not always suitable for starter teams. If your team and budget grow, then you can scale your ambitions.You’re less likely to fall into development hell.
What is a good timeline for developing your first game?
Ryan: Obviously depends on what kind of game you are making and what your ambitions are. For Academia: School Simulator we started in January 2017 and released on Early Access in January 2021. So that’s four years of development on a school management simulator game.
Nico: My first game took six months because I was still learning, and it was a tower defense game. The second game took three months, an action game. If you’re just starting out, I would not recommend going beyond six to three months. If the scope of your game is gonna take you beyond this range, scale down. Something simple to get started, and the more prepared you will be to take longer projects.
Lalna: The most important thing is to first, finish the game, and then second, is to get feedback. If you wait for too long, the game might not be relevant anymore. You should also note what kind of platform are you using, what genre are you making.
Which market or platform is a good place to start for your game dev studio?
Ryan: For the Filipino market, you can already cut out console. The choice is between mobile and PC.
Marvin: For Maccima Games, we’ll stay on Steam for the foreseeable future. My personal opinion on mobile is that it’s already crowded, and you’re also competing with big companies and their free-to-play games.
Alex: One thing that I like that happened last year is that PC and mobile are merging, thanks to Genshin Impact. There are games that work on PC and mobile. The only think you might have a problem with is pricing.
Lalna: At the end of the day, if you want to reach a larger audience, it’s worth considering mobile. It also depends on the monetization model you choose for your game. Many factors come into play.
Should you have multiple platforms and social media accounts, or should you focus on one?
Ryan: We were intentional about going to PC first because that’s what we’re comfortable with, so mobile didn’t make sense for us. Look at your resources and adjust yourselves so that you can hit those targets. It’s ideal to pick where you’re most comfortable with, then that’s less stress for you.
Alex: On Facebook, it usually doesn’t work, except when you cater to the Filipino audience. Focus on posting your achievements. Simply advertising doesn’t work, you need to engage. Twitter, on the other hand, I would blame it on the timezone. Use certain #hashtags to get eyeballs on your project. Reddit is a platform you can’t force, but if the users were the ones who post it, that’s good. I didn’t like Discord, but this is where our community exploded.
Marvin: We actually have 2 social media platforms: Facebook and Twitter. I agree that it’s better to do free marketing on Twitter, but the majority of the engagement is from game developers and the players already bought your game. As for Facebook, because we post on both posts, only relatives would react - unless you use paid ads. Third, we tried Discord. It’s very stressful to read the discussions there, but the community members go the extra length to recommend your game to streamers that they know. There are some fans that can help you expand your community.
As we continue through our series of game development talks, we would like to invite aspiring game developers to register for Project PIGI and jumpstart their careers and passion. You can view the full session of indie survival here.
Kenzie Du Games reviewer and journalist at VirtualSEA.