C2E2 Panel: Publishing your Indie Game

One of the panels this past weekend at C2E2 touched on the difficulties and hardships an independent developer might face when putting out their games.  Dave Lang, CEO of the Chicago-based Iron Galaxy Studios, moderated a panel of Chicago independent game developers who have either previously gone through or are about to enter into such a process.  The panel consisted of Lunar Giant Studios co-owners Jay Margalus and Russ Lankenau in addition to start-up indie developers David Laskey and David Finseth of The Amiable, a 5-person studio currently being “mentored” through the early stages of development by Lunar Giant.  Lunar Giant Studios is helping to publish The Amiable’s first game, Tetrapulse.

From left to right: Dave Lang, Jay Margalus, Russ Lankenau. David Laskey, and David Finseth

The panel started off asking what each groups’ inspirations were for making games.  Lankenau and Margalus began their path because they just wanted to make games.  As novice game makers, they wanted to see what they were capable of doing, and so they entered a game design contest.  Being influenced by strategy board games like Carcassonne, they wanted to bring those ideas to the video game world.  What we got was Delve Deeper, the always different turn-based strategy game in which you command Dwarven miners to fight monsters and pilfer abandoned mines.  The Davids’ story is a little different: they went to DePaul to become game designers.  They and the rest of their group met at Global Game Jam, a festival where people of various fields interested in game design come together to make a game over a weekend.   This group is what turned into The Amiable, a five-person studio consisting of Laskey, Finseth, a fashion-design major, a theater major, and even a breakdancer.  Over that weekend jam, the group designed a game with a central goal of bringing friends together.  Taking inspiration from games like Super Smash Bros., the designed a cooperative game in which players must work together to reach a common goal.  After the weekend session, they all kept working on the game, and eventually this became what is now Tetrapulse.

The next question started to delve deeper (hah) into the benefits and drawbacks of being an independent developer.  When asked why this business model would have been a tougher road to travel even just five years ago, Russ and Jay had a lot to say.  Before the advent and wide acceptance of the digital distribution platform in the 2000’s, game designers had to rely on brick and mortar stores to sell their games.  If the game wasn’t sure to make a profit for the store, you probably weren’t going to get it out there.  Bigger studios had the connections to market their games, but the smaller guys didn’t have the same opportunities.  Fast forward to the present, where we can download a game on a mobile device, Steam, PSN, XBLA, etc. in seconds and anyone can upload their game, no matter how big or small, and any developer now has the opportunity to get noticed by their target audience.

However, this newer method of getting games into the hands of gamers comes with its own set of problems.  The market is quickly becoming saturated with games.  Everybody and their mother can release a game on Android or iOS, and this oversaturation makes it hard for serious developers to stand out from the sea of one-and-done types of games.  According to Ars Technica, 36% of of games in user’s Steam libraries are unplayed.  Gamers are buying games, but whether they just have no time or simply bought it and forgot it because the deal was too good, if a indie developer’s game isn’t played, that doesn’t help them gain recognition in the long run for their subsequent game releases.

This is where experienced indie developers like Lunar Giant have the opportunity to play a role where they “bring [new, inexperienced studios] up through the ranks,” to help these developers get recognition through the contacts already established.  In this case, Lunar Giant is guiding the group at The Amiable through a sort of mentorship to help them get on their feet.  While that may seem counter-intuitive to bring more competition into the limelight, it makes sense when you realize that many indie studios just want to get good games to gamers.  Lunar Giant recognizes they can achieve this either through becoming a publisher or by simply helping other studios get off the ground.  If you teach a man to fish…

When asked why The Amiable thought it was a good idea to get help from a bigger studio rather than to do it themselves, they jokingly say “it was a huge mistake.”  After a short laugh, they outlined how they recognized that even though they were working on making their game as good as they could, commitments like school were getting in the way of them being able to really market their game.  Finseth commented that “the only thing we’re pretty good at is like Twitter,” and so they knew they needed someone who could not only do a better job at commercializing the game, but also help with the logistics, like lawyers, payroll, business structure, etc.  The Amiable group understands that if they were going to try and do all that on their own, with other commitments like school taking up most of their available time, they were more than likely going to fail.  Working with a developer whose members knew what they were doing would increase their chances of success exponentially.  Finseth and Laskey understand that no one knows who they are currently, and Lunar Giant has already gone through many of the steps they need to. Upon seeing that their goals and ideals at The Amiable lined up with those at Lunar Giant, the answer was clear to them to utilize their help and advice.  Not all of this help comes without some cost, though.  When asked what are some of the drawbacks to game design, the guys from The Amiable quickly responded that when you are setting up to sell a game, you obviously don’t get all the profit.  Every mediator takes out some percentage: the employees, the publisher, and the platform.  Everyone needs to be paid some of the profit because they are all inevitably helping to make the game available.  With all these people to pay, the studio inevitably gets a smaller cut, but the guys at the Amiable go on to say that the benefits (better exposure, moving more units, etc.) clearly outweigh the costs.

After talking about the managerial and administration side of game design, one candid question was asked to all the panelists: what does success look like?  “One million units,”said Laskey, half-jokingly.  While sales are important, Finseth thinks that success is about getting the name out, at least initially.  The reward for them is that they finished the game; that experience, along with the skills gained along the way, is what will merit their game a success.  Laskey chimed in, stating that they intend to build a community around the studio.  Whether their first game is profitable or not, the community will be there in the long run in order to buy the next game, and the one after that.  Exposure and a fondness for the company will keep your audience in the future.  Lankenau disagreed with the Davids, at least partially.  “Success is being able to pay the people that are working at your company so that they can continue making games,” he said.  Even if you are well loved by your audience, a developer still needs to be able to sell their game if they want to be successful.  This is the difference between making games as a passion, and making games for a living, he states, and new developers need to understand that developing games for a living requires them to take their work seriously and learn everything required for publishing, not just the game design part.  While this is an unfortunate truth, it’s the same truth you will find about any job you may be interested in pursuing.  So for Lankenau, success is largely measured by the number of units sold.  That measurement gives a studio the best chance to make another game after the first one.

One of the final questions before moving on to the question and answer session was arguably one of the most important questions: how does a new publisher get their name out there?  A number of really good responses came from all of the panelists:

  • Gain credibility.  Margalus starts off saying that credibility is the most important thing a new developer doesn’t have yet, but absolutely needs.  The best way to get credibility is to use Twitter, and while not by any means the “silver bullet,” it’s the best starting point for social media.  Use it judiciously: follow your favorite journalists, game developers, and studios.  Have occasional conversations with them, genuinely get to know them over time.  Let them know well in advance about your game, so that when the game is getting ready for release you have built up a reputation with them and can likely get interviews and reviews more easily than if you are just a random guy tweeting “hey look at my game.”  Start long in advance talking to these people about your game/studio, not just two weeks before your release date.  it’s never to early to start talking about your game, and this is all about the long con.  Just be sure that you do not badger people.  This could earn you a spot on the bottom of the list of many journalists if you constantly talk them up, especially since many of them talk to each other and frequent the same venues.  Just generally be respectful, courteous, and most of all genuine about talking to them.
  • Be findable on the internet.  If someone hears about your game and they want to know more, it’s going to be very frustrating for them if it’s not easy to find information about you, your studio, or your game.  Make sure the game is linked to you, and vice versa.  Help journalists fill in the blanks: make a press kit about these things, along with screenshots, updates, and any other information pertinent to your game.  This also helps you have a consistent story for your studio’s goals and your game’s synopsis.  You don’t want to have to spend 20 minutes of your day trying to figure out what to write about your game every time someone emails you about it.  Say the same thing every time, and keep the message clear.
  • Respond to fans.  If the game is mentioned in some social media format (Twitter, Facebook, forums, etc.), respond to it.  Even if someone hates your game, respond to them.  Perhaps you personally addressing their problems, even if you can’t fix them, will turn their opinion around faster than you can say “Sorry to hear that.”  Responses make you a real person behind the game, not just some faceless developer who made this thing people like.  Personal relationships with your newly-forming fans is important, as it helps them get excited about not just the product, but you and your studio.  Make sure to personalize everything that you do.
  • Make real relationships in person.  Virtual correspondence is huge today, and is the main form of communications in our world.  Still, meeting your fans in “meatspace” and making real relationships with them really accentuates the personal experience your audience will get, in conjunction with the previous bullet.  Go to conventions, talk to video game enthusiasts, meet new people when you are in a new city.  If you invest a little money to meet fans, press, and other developers, you presence in the field will greatly expand.
  • Use non-professional video reviewers (like Let’s Play) once your game is finished to expand your audience.  These reviewers already have a dedicated audience who likes the way the play and/or review games.  They are eager to see good games as well as to play them, and letting them play your game mutually benefits both of you (they get more content to show, and you get attention from their audience).

Overall, the panel was really informative and was a great insight into the world of independent developers.  Whether you are already a developer, thinking about getting in the field, or just interested in the development process, the panelists gave a lot of details about the inner workings and upkeep of a studio beyond just designing and creating your game.  One of the closing remarks was really impactful: no matter what you do, stay true to your vision and what you want to do.  Yes, take advice and fan consideration into account, but make sure the game and your studio stay true to your goals, your ideas, and your values.  People will like your game.  Clearly not everyone will like it, but you will speak to some niche, and they will remain your fans as long as you remain genuinely you.  Make games you like; if you don’t like your game, no one else will.  And as Jay Margalus closed the panel off, everybody Wang Chung tonight.