I Made a Game: Now What? was an extremely educational panel organized by IGDA Chicago with the intent of covering topics under the umbrella of self-publishing and starting up a game studio. The roster included panelists John Murphy and Kevin Geisler (Young Horses,) Craig Stern (Sinister Design,) George Hufnagl (My Escape,) Jay Margalus (Lunar Giant,) and Kyle Hanson (Hanson Law Group) with moderator Heather Decker-Davis (IGDA Chicago).
Should I self-publish?
One of the first points brought up was that a self-assessment of the team is in order. Before deciding to self-publish, you really need to establish what exactly your product is, who the target audience is, and details about the budget. The second point was about risks, which are inevitable in any sort of business venture. Be sure to evaluate the risks versus reward and try to strike a sensible balance.
Self-publishing certainly offers you more freedom as a developer. With outlets like Kickstarter mentioned frequently, there was overall a great deal of encouragement from the panel to consider self-publishing your game. A published game is certainly a good point on a resume, among other benefits.
What are some of the most effective ways to sell a game online?
Kickstarter was immediately brought up again, followed by Steam. Steam was touted as great, but developers often have to build a bit of a reputation before they will be accepted on the platform. There was also mention of Steam being more profitable for indie developers than XNA is right now. Steam is great, if your product is on PC or you can port it.
Another way to get started with selling products online is to begin giving something away. This acts as a proof of concept and gets people excited about what you have to offer.
Are there some fundamental ways that starting a game studio differs from starting a typical business?
It is extremely different to sell a software product than it is to vend other types of tangible goods. The example initially given was creating computer hardware. A manufacturer could take the revenue from units sold and use it to build even more units and this grows their business in a very straightforward, quantifiable manner. In the case of software, you often need to start out giving the product away. It’s not a physical good, so value is communicated quite differently.
There was also a lot of interest in the different types of businesses the panelists were involved with and how to decide what type of business to register. The general encouragement was to discuss important choices, such as the type of business to register, with an attorney.
What are some common pitfalls to watch out for when starting up a studio?
There are, of course, countless potential pitfalls. Be sure to have goals set for what you’re trying to accomplish. The up-front costs are definitely not all you should be expecting.
Above all, rely on solid contracts, not simply good relationships you have with people. You should always have detailed contracts for any business partners and contractors. Have everything in writing.
What’s a good way for a newly started studio to begin building a positive reputation?
Build nice relationships with game journalists (the good ones.) Send emails to game blogs, etc. You don’t need to outright pitch the game right away. Instead of “slinging PR kits,” get to know people and be personal.
There was mention of getting yourself out there, using arenas like Touch Arcade and being active in forums. However, you can’t just say “Hey, I have a game” if no one knows who you are. Get involved in other ways to start with.
Additionally, be careful what you say in public spaces. You are representing your company and product. Along those same lines, it also isn’t a bad idea to Google yourself and your company from time to time to see what comes up.
Get involved with competitions like IGF, Indiecade, etc.
How do you incorporate profit-sharing amongst the developer and contributing parties?
Have everything in writing. The importance of contracts was again revisited. Make sure all details are established clearly before getting involved, details like hours, profit split, experience, etc. Being happy with your business partner is key to successfully running a business.
Most people don’t enjoy contracts or even find them uncomfortable, but you need to have them.
What business models do players seem the most receptive to right now?
People still love free things, so anything given away tends to have a positive effect on customers. There was also mention of Valve’s current business model, in which there are various layers to monetization. People aren’t as comfortable with huge purchases anymore. Microtransactions are a good solution in multiplayer games. Download content (DLC) is also a nice business model because it allows developers to offer new content to loyal players while continuing to build new interest about their product.
Freemium (free-to-play with purchase options for premium content) is also a viable model right now, but it’s not right for all types of games.
Different forms of in-game advertising are also emerging. The panel repeatedly mentioned local company Tap.Me, which specializes in seamless in-game advertising.
How can developers advertise without necessarily having strong connections?
Developers should definitely work on networking and having connections in general, but can also turn to friends and family to start spreading the word. Youtube is also an excellent way to increase awareness of your game. Specific case: user-made videos of Octodad play-throughs earned significantly more hits than the official trailer for the game. Youtube can be very powerful for PR.
Run a blog and put out updates about your game. Keep a list of places you should send press releases. Join other developers to release bundles of games.
What kind of web presence do developers need for their products?
Optimally, you want as large a web footprint as possible. Utilize social networking (LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, etc.) Schedule long-term press items like weekly editorials or web comics. Utilize the talents of your team! Your team members can author articles and blog posts on game design or development. This drives traffic to the game site and communicates your team’s mastery of the craft. Additionally, partner up with your fellow developers to cross-promote each other’s products.
Game reviews are helpful if you can get them.
What are some of your preferred tools for bug tracking?
Some tools mentioned included Mantis and Github. There was also some discussion of how YouTube actually aids QA now, since people post play-through videos or bugs. Often developers find narrated accounts of players experiencing bugs this way.
How much work goes into supporting a game after launch?
Most software products need constant support to continue to thrive. For example, iPhone apps need regular updates.
There are two main business models to keep in mind. Either you create a product that you support for the long-term, or you make smaller “throw away” games and use feedback from those to forge something greater you can get behind.
One important thing mentioned was that you need to be receptive to bug reports and complaints to keep your customers happy. Sometimes forums are great places to find details about bugs or locate complains, which you can work to resolve.
How can I build a community around my game?
Be sure to have forums your community can interact within. You can also release free games to kindle a community. Once you have an audience, you can later start to charge for games or content. Flash portals can also help you gain exposure. Starting a wiki for your game gets players directly involved with filling in the content, which in turn, helps other players.
How do I make sure nobody steals my game idea, my code, or my game’s clever names? (i.e. how do I protect my intellectual property?)
The first mention was Google alerts and how setting them up can keep you aware of possible IP situations. However, this only works if the same name/title is being used. Additionally, if customers complain about your game on a forum, it may reveal knock-off versions of the game people are stumbling upon. Look for odd/pirate versions of your builds or bugs reported that no longer exist in the current build.
When you end up with an IP infringement, you’ll want to draft a cease and desist letter. Since no one really likes being sued, this is generally a good solution.
Overall, you have a choice in how your IP is used. YouTube videos are technically infringement, but since they’re often beneficial for PR, they’re often left alone. It’s ultimately your decision which instances of possible infringement to address.
Alternatively, having perks like achievements often discourages players from wrongfully obtaining your game. With Steam, they can’t have achievements for a game they didn’t purchase!
Another mention was releasing games you’re freely giving away as torrents so people can still feel like they’re being sneaky in obtaining it.
What conferences do you go to?
GDC and IGF coincide, Flash Summit, Casual Connect, SXSW, Burning Man, etc.
How do you handle contracts?
Overall, consult an attorney. There are also example contracts on the IGDA site and other resources available.
Is there an optimal approach to self publishing and is it possible to be over ambitious?
It is definitely possible to be over-ambitious. Watch the scope. It was advised to focus on releasing to one platform to start with. PC is often a good starting place, as it may be easier to port to other platforms. Don’t start immediately with Xbox Live.
What types of businesses do you have?
There were various answers, including sole proprietor, S CORP, and LLC. It ultimately depends on taxes and your business details.
DLC: have you considered the “season pass” model?
(“Season pass” is essentially a subscription sort of purchase in which the user is able to download specific DLC packs during a set time period they have paid for.)
As far as adopting the model goes, it depends on the scale of the game and frequency that material is intended to be released. Deep down, “season pass” is sort of an extended bundle of content.
How about a “pay what you want” model?
Kickstarter was most preferred here. Games that aren’t made yet can offer presale specials, beta keys, etc. Just be careful that you can deliver what you promise!
How is bundling handled (such as Humble Indie Bundle, etc.)?
There should be a contract with clear terms for all participants. Use an e-commerce service to take payments (examples given were FastSpring and PayPal.) Don’t store customer’s personal data on your server. Use a secure service so you can concentrate on doing what you do best: making games.
How does the hardcore audience transfer to mobile?
Find success with your first audience and branch out from there. Look at the type of game you have. Does it naturally lend itself to mobile or touch devices? What is the complexity of the game and time-commitment required for each play?
You may view your game as an extension of the company’s personality or an extension of yourself.
What’s the viability of in-game advertising?
It’s more memorable than a billboard. Some different options include Flash ads, CPMStar, Mochi Ads, Tap.me.
Games themselves can also be advertising (examples like Cool Spot or M.C. Kids.)
What about sponsorship?
Sites like FlashGameLicense connection developers and sponsors. Different types of sponsorship come with different types of licensing or terms. There are types that have more restrictions such as exclusive or buyout. Be cautious of buyout agreements.
There is an article about the sponsorship process for SteamBirds on Gamasutra.
What mistakes helped you learn the most?
Not setting schedules. Be sure to set schedules, constantly iterate, and stay on task.
Creative direction: there should be a single visionary directing the project.
What about donations as a revenue stream?
Tarn Adams with Dwarf Fortress is the exception to the rule, but it generally doesn’t work.
Alternatively, give something tangible with donations, like a t-shirt. The person donating feels like they’re getting something more.
How can I accomplish backend things like logins and carts without a programmer?
Look for a service that handles that sort of thing (PayPal, Google Checkout, etc.)
Mobile: iPhone or Android?
Android recently exploded and seems to have a larger user base. However, there is a variety of hardware on the Android side, while Apple is pretty much locked into fewer specific device specs.
Think of porting up front and design for easy porting between devices. Things like Flash and Unity can help this process.
What makes you want to continue to be indie? When will you start to make games your audience wants?
Find the audience who likes the games you want to make. There are plenty of niches out there, so you get to make the games that big companies will not tackle.
Some say they like to be indie because they feel they can do a better job and don’t want outside forces affecting their decision-making process. There is also a certain level of pride in working with your own team, the people you like to work with.
Closing comments included putting yourself in the frame of mind that you are a business. You’ll learn a lot from the hard lessons. Set goals. Five of the top twenty-five app store games are made by indie companies. Examine them. Make smart decisions. Be aware that business changes all of the time and be ready to adapt.
(Full video coverage for both IGDA Chicago panels is currently in production.)