Secrets of Successful Indie Developers Roundtable 2004 GDC Summary Moderator: Steve Pavlina, Dexterity Software, www.dexterity.com This roundtable discussed what it takes to succeed as an indie developer. The term “indie” refers to those developers who self-fund their own projects and who serve as the sole creative force behind their games. Discussions focused on three primary areas: product development, marketing and sales, and indie life. The first topic explored factors that contribute to successful indie products as well as game genres where indies can successfully compete against big budget retail developers. The second topic discussed techniques to effectively promote and sell indie titles on a limited budget. And the third topic explored the daily lifestyle of being an indie, including the reality of starting a new business, motivation, and self-discipline. Attendance was outstanding with an average of 60 attendees per session. Report Moderator: Steve Pavlina, Dexterity Software, www.dexterity.com Introduction This roundtable discussed what it takes to succeed as an indie developer. The term “indie” refers to those developers who self-fund their own projects and who serve as the sole creative force behind their games. Discussions focused on three primary areas: product development, marketing and sales, and indie life. The first topic explored factors that contribute to successful indie products as well as game genres where indies can successfully compete against big budget retail developers. The second topic discussed techniques to effectively promote and sell indie titles on a limited budget. And the third topic explored the daily lifestyle of being an indie, including the reality of starting a new business, motivation, and self-discipline. Attendance was outstanding with an average of 60 attendees per session. Format The roundtable was broken into three sessions with each session following a similar format. The moderator spoke for several minutes to introduce the issues and prime the discussion. The remaining time was divided equally between the topics of product development, marketing and sales, and indie life. A few minutes at the end of each session were committed to discussing resources, which mainly entailed sharing URLs of web sites which proved valuable to indie developers. Attendance The three sessions had approximately 60, 45, and 75 attendees, respectively, thus averaging 60 per session. A survey of the room at the start of each session revealed that about 20% of the attendees were active indie developers, while most of the remainder were potentially interested in going indie in the future. About 30-40% of the attendees in each session were active participants in the discussion. Because the third session was at the very end of the conference, nearly half of the participants, including the moderator, voluntarily chose to stay and continue the discussion for an additional two hours after the session ended. Discussion Summary All three sessions followed a structured format, and hence the discussions were similar from one session to the next. The topics discussed were as follows: Product Development The segment focused on how indies can develop products that can successfully compete in the marketplace. The consensus was that choosing the right genre is critical. Some indie developers have been thriving in genres such as puzzle games, card games, and war games, while virtually no one seemed to be succeeding as an indie selling first-person shooters. Secondly, factors which contribute to a successful indie product were explored. These included limited scope (focused products that deliver a fun experience with a simple interface), high production value (quality art and sound), and small file size. The general consensus across all three sessions was that choosing the right type of product to develop is a key factor in succeeding financially as an indie. Marketing & Sales This segment addressed how indies can generate attention for their games to produce at least enough sales to support a full-time living. There was some definite overlap between this segment and the first, since a key factor to success in marketing was to select the right kind of title to develop in the first place. Partnering with sites that are in the same target market was one strategy; for instance, a general wargaming site can help promote an indie war game. Also, PR worked very well for some indies but not for others. Many agreed that sending out press releases is like playing darts; most of the time you’ll miss, but occasionally you’ll hit a bulls eye, and one good review on a major gaming site can generate many sales. Techniques for ongoing marketing included creating a blog, which supposedly can help generate additional search engine traffic, and hosting discussion forums to keep visitors coming back. In terms of generating sales, the keys there appeared to be having a clear, focused, professional- looking web site; a free newsletter to keep in touch with visitors; and compelling registration incentives in every free demo. Partnering with other indie developers to cross-promote each others’ titles was another tactic that several successful indies have used. Finally, it was generally agreed that it’s best to partner with many different online and offline publishers whenever possible, since they already have access to large numbers of potential customers. Indie Life This segment addressed the daily life of indie developers, digging deeper into the reality of what it’s like to actually run an indie business. A popular subtopic here was personal motivation. The general consensus was that while some outside-in techniques like setting deadlines, tracking progress, and making promises to others can help to motivate a person, the bulk of motivation to run an indie studio must be intrinsic. One session also focused on the opposite problem – working too much. Setting time and space boundaries for one’s work seemed the best approach for maintain balance; this involves keeping semi-regular work hours and a dedicated work environment. One session went deeper into a discussion of the work environment; since indies spend so much time at their desks, some participants stressed that it’s worthwhile to invest in quality office furniture, especially a comfortable office chair. Another session considered the risks indies faced when going independent, especially when leaving a corporate work environment, and how those risks are offset by the potentially greater risk of never going after one’s dreams. Resources Most of this final mini-segment involved sharing URLs of web sites that could be useful to indie developers. In a matter of minutes, many different resources were volunteered. These included: Indie FAQ - www.dexterity.com/articles/indie-faq.htm Indie Success Articles – www.dexterity.com/articles Indie Forums (no ads) – forums.dexterity.com Indie Review Sites – www.diygames.com, www.bytten.com, www.gametunnel.com, www.indiegamer.com Game Development Resources – www.gamasutra.com, www.gamedev.net Association of Shareware Professionals – www.asp-shareware.org Shareware Industry Conference – www.sic.org Registration Services Comparison Chart – www.regshare.com Newsletter Services – www.ymlp.com, www.ezinedirector.com PR Services – www.dpdirectory.com, www.prweb.com David Michael’s Indie Game Development Survival Guide Conclusion All three sessions enjoyed active and lively discussions. If this roundtable is continued in future years, it may be wise to procure a larger room, since every session saw many attendees forced to stand with no chairs empty, and the last session was so crowded that some potential attendees turned away after seeing how packed the room was.
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