Self Publish First (Platforms and Publishers are Plan B)

3D and UX Design for Games, VR and Animation

Self Publish First (Platforms and Publishers are Plan B)

August 10, 2012 Uncategorized 5

After our last article about reasons to sell from your website you’re probably still thinking “Yeah, sound greats, but does that even work?”. The obvious success story to look at is Minecraft – but why was that successful? And why is now such a great time to self publish your games online?

Before we get into why having your own customers matter, and the economics behind why creating the games no one else is making is LESS risky than making more of that kind of game people area already playing, here’s a recap on those 5 Reasons to Sell Directly from your Website:

  1. You maintain full control over when, where and how you launch
  2. Connect directly with your peers and player community
  3. Financial cushion while looking for the right distributor
  4. Open yourself up to “lucky breaks” and unsolicited opportunities
  5. Protect yourself from vulture capitalists and conartists

DISCLAIMER: This article is totally focused on self publishing your game from your website as something to do BEFORE trying to get on Steam or Desura – not something you do INSTEAD OF selecting a distribution platform. Embrace the awesome power of “AND”! Do both!


What is it about self publishing that ticks these boxes?


You have your own customers and can reach them without going through a third party. Your customers are fans of you and your game – not fans of the platform who are just as likely to move on to another game on a whim.

These are not random folks who happen to be browsing Steam sales because they’re waiting for the latest episode of Breaking Bad to finish downloading. We’re talking groups of people who will totally dig your game because it’s exactly the kind of thing they’re looking for.

They find you by Googling their interests. By searching stuff like “Parkour”, “Quantum Mechanics” or “Social Influence” (whatever you’re making a game to explore). As opposed to stumbling across your game ONLY when all the stars are in alignment and they just happen to be in the mood to buy something new: you know, if your game happens to be on sale that weekend, they’re home sick and got bored of Skyrim, or all the other games they’ve been waiting to play aren’t out yet.

Waiting for those conditions is just silly if you’re still new and looking for your first fans! If the guy in the sale carousel next to you has a better icon and product blurb then you’re toast.

And seriously dude, do you REALLY want to spend all your time worrying about icon color and which buzzwords are popular this month? Come on, you’ve got an awesome game to make – and making a good game is freaking HARD! Spending time on anything else is a huge distraction that you probably can’t afford right now.

But if you’re planning to self publish on your own first, then you’re going to be in the same forums and on the same websites where you’ll find your first fans – because you all have shared interests! You for your game and them because it’s something they’re really into. All that activity naturally creates paths that lead back to your website and back to your game (heh, well, so long as you remember to put your website in your signature).


Why Having a Niche Community of Fans Matters


That first core group of fans will:

  • give you feedback and support from the start, helping you make a better game
  • help spread the word when you’re ready to launch first on your website and later through a distributor
  • still be there with you even if that platform or publisher doesn’t come through

The caveat of all this is that you’re willing to reach out, contribute to a community and accept feedback on your game. You can’t make a great game for players if you never get anyone to play it!

I’m not asking you to publish your game to the public before you’re ready…but at least get feedback from the folks you think are most likely to be into it and enjoy it (your first fans). They could be other developers or friends you make in those online and offline communities around your shared interests.

The obvious example of all this is Minecraft – mostly because Notch is such an awesome dude (ever hear of a total jerk getting heaps of community support? Yeah, me neither. Lesson: Treat people well. Don’t be an ass.)

Early days, when he was still working part time at, he’d be on TIGSource answering questions and actively participating in the development community while working on his game in his spare time. When he hit a point where he needed to go full time to finish the game, he packaged up what he had so far to sell on his website, let folks know they’d be paying for a very early version of a game still in progress and that purchasing it early would help him fund the rest of development. And that went pretty well.

We’re calling this Alpha Funding now, sure, but it’s not like Notch sat there Googling “funding models” early in development. He found a niche community online, largely ignored by other developers, and made the game he wanted to make and they wanted to play. When he needed help to finish it those folks were there to support him.

Minecraft is not a unique example. Look at how many people fell in love with Derek Yu’s Spelunky when he released to PC – it was awesome and worth sharing, so we shared it. Those same folks tweeted, liked and shared the news of his recent followup release on XBOX live all over the interwebs. There’s no slick PR and Marketing rep sitting there congratulating themselves – that was all word of mouth generated from Spelunky’s first fans.

If there’s any formula at work here it would read something like:

Awesome dude* + awesome game + early community of fans = success!

[The use of “dude” here is totally gender agnostic by the way. Making an awesome game and keeping the lights on is equally hard for everybody – whether you have an inny or an outty doesn’t seem to make much of a difference in that situation.]


Economics and Ecosystems: Survival of the Sustainable


Okay, so, why? Why is self publishing such a great place to start these days…and why the hell are we only hearing about it now?

Back in my naive early days of blogging I thought getting into the history of digital distribution and its effect on our industry would be as interesting to you guys as it was to me. Embarrassingly low pageviews on that first and second post tell me otherwise (doesn’t help that I was still a pretty crap writer back then).

…but, let’s get into just a LITTLE bit of economics, okay? Just enough to explain why now is a great time to focus on a niche and self publish online.


We are all competing over a finite resource: Player Time

Every day we are all getting a little closer to figuring out what the hell happens after we die.

As much as advertising and PR folks would like to think otherwise, our buying decisions are only moderately influenced by flashy trailers and clever prose. Our conscious and subconscious brain is hugely aware of how little time we have available and we’re entirely motivated by “I only have a couple hours, what’s the best use of our time?”

Yes, sometimes that subconscious lizard brain switches on and blasts out some primeval command like: “FEED! BREED! RUN! ATTACK!” but we spend most of our lives learning how to overrule that archaic system. We don’t like being controlled by our impulses and most of our decisions are made when we’re fully conscious and aware of the implications.

[That, right there, is why game designers and advertisers who play mind games to get people to spend money are evil. Because they’re fucking with the conscious brain’s ability to make good decisions by artificially triggering those subconscious impulses. That. Is. Wrong. We are getting a little closer to death every day – do you really want to be responsible for taking away someone’s ability to make a rational choice about how to spend their time?]

If you want to read more about this kind of nifty psychology stuff I reviewed my favorite books on it here.


Okay, that was the psychology, back to the economics:

So players spend their time on games that interest them. Some people will be interested in babes with blades, dudes with bows, dragons and zombies and military shooters, etc. Other people are interested in playing short, simple games on whatever device happens to be handy at the time, like the [insert popular mobile platform here].

Those people are very well taken care of. There are lots and lots of studios making games for those players. Most of those studios have more money, reputation and resources than you – and if you want their players then you have to offer something BETTER than they can if you’re going to flag that “this is a better use of my time” response.

Seems kind of silly to go after established markets now, doesn’t it?

Especially when there are lots and lots (something like billions) of people out there who are getting ENTIRELY IGNORED by those studios who are all busily fighting over the same types of players.

And those ignored players (who may not even realise they’re gamers yet!) are interested in the same things you’re interested in!

They’re probably going to the same forums you are, the same meetup groups, the same websites. They’re already spending time and money on books and shows and music and all kinds of other stuff around that shared interest of yours – and if there was a good game about it they’d be spending money on that too. (Hint: make that game!)


Working Self Publishing into Your Development Process


Epic articles are epic and I know you don’t have a lot of time to read a book on this stuff (yet!). So here’s a really brief overview on how you can integrate finding that niche community of fans and self publishing into your development cycle from day one: A Step by Step Production Framework.

Jumping into a saturated market to compete for scarce player time is just plain silly when there are so many hundreds of thousands of people in the world getting totally ignored by established developers (hell, I’m one of them!)

Find that sweet spot between what you want to explore in a game, and what other people are getting together to talk about, and you’ve got a game worth going indie to make.




5 Responses

  1. motorsep says:

    “Find that sweet spot between what you want to explore in a game, and what other people are getting together to talk about, and you’ve got a game worth going indie to make.”

    And how exactly do we find what people really want to play into? That’s kinda whole another story called market research, isn’t it? 🙂

    I think it’s all comes down to story, exploration and things to do in the game’s world either by yourself or with a buddy. And then it also depends on the age group and social status (social status is a broad term, but I am certain that people who has a family and has to work hard to put food on the table tend to play way less)

    • Epona says:

      Hah, no, I won’t be talking about “market research”. I will be talking about ACTUAL research though, you know, where you learn as much as you can about something that interests you and find folks who share that interest.

      “Market research” in the business buzzword context can seriously mess around with a startup indie who’s trying to figure out their niche. Why do I say that? Because sales data and target demographic studies are inherently about looking at the past and what’s already been done well by someone else.

      Doing what other people have already done is extremely silly for anyone starting out for the first time because you’re jumping into a saturated market with lots of entrenched competition. You’re almost forced to play the bullshit business game to “be competitive” and all that crap.

      But if you’re starting with a group of people who share your interests and making the game for them that no one else has made yet – well, there’s no competition because you’re the only one doing it, you already HAVE your fans so you don’t have to waste precious game design time fucking around with logos and pitch decks and stuff, AND you get to experiment and solve game design problems around something that you think is totally nifty…and THAT is what’s going to keep you motivated when you’re deep in crunch, running out of money and you need something more fulfilling than financial gain to motivate you through all that.

      Good example of all the above: the guys behind Automation absolutely love old cars and they belong to communities of people who share that passion. No one was making a game for them and these guys figured “hell, we love this stuff as much as they do, what kind of game would we like to play?”.

      From that they designed their car dealership tycoon game – and made $60,000 in their first 9 months BEFORE launch.

      Perfect freaking example of how picking that niche group of people who share your interests and making the game you all want to exist (figuring out what the hell that game is and how that plays is both the most difficult and the most fun part!) is a FAR less risky option than trying to compete with established studios in saturated markets.

      Also regarding all the things your game should include: when you’re answering design questions that haven’t been answered and making something totally new…you get to determine what your game needs and what has to be included for it to be complete.

      Just because other games have story…doesn’t mean yours has to. Choose what’s right for YOUR game – whatever that game turns out to be.

  2. Michael B says:

    >ever hear of a total jerk getting heaps of community support?

  3. Alan White says:

    I dont like to usually comment this type of stuff, but I feel obliged to educate you 😉

    Notch was bearly active on Tigsource before minecraft and even after minecraft he has only just 285 posts. I can remember when I first noticed Notch on minecraft, he only had something like 30 posts. I was a bit shocked because he was so successfully, and this is talking about before minecraft bearly had 1000 sales.

    I believe the reason he was so sucessfuly was not because he already had community like Derek Yu but because of things like Stumble Upon and word of mouth. His game was so innovative and amazing that it was had not to tell everyone you knew.

    You can find Notches tigsource profile here;u=4535

  4. Alan White says:

    I retract my last post. It had been eating into me for a while and I’ve meditated on the subject much more. Although Notch wasnt super active on tigsource, he was very active with responding to the community.

    His Tumblr would get so much attention that huge discussions on Disqus would explode. He used to do Secrete Friday for his follows and eventually when he implemented crafting, that exploded into even more community activity.

    He wasnt responding to people directly (although he did respond to me once xD), but he was making those design choices, such as selling directly through his website. He was active in the community through his game.

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