When you’re going indie it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking you need external funding before you can make a game. But approaching investors and publishers before you’ve gone through the publishing process yourself first can be dangerous.
In a previous article I wrote about what happens when the publisher driven model goes wrong for developers. You stand to lose a lot more than a share of potential profits if you depend on someone else for your business development.
By self publishing and going through the business cycle on your own you gain an instinct for what it takes to make something people will be glad to pay for.
In this quick guide you will learn how to spot a need in the market, find the best way to fill that need and reach the people who will benefit from it most. In future posts we’ll go through case studies of how successful indies applied these steps in their startups and examples of how you can apply them to your own.
How do you know if this guide is NOT for you?
- you have unlimited funding and resources to waste on untested ideas
- you’d rather work for someone else than work independently
- you’re happy to be told what to do, when to do it and how to work
If you answered yes to any of the above then you’ve probably ended up on the wrong website 8P
But if you’re a creative indie entrepreneur and you want to make a living doing something you love on your own terms – then you’re in the right place.
You may end up blasting through these steps one after the other – or you might want to take your time (especially if you have a day job or other full time commitments).
Don’t try and do everything at once – that’s a recipe for burnout. Take it one step at a time and only move onto the next phase when you’re satisfied with the results of the last one.
Let’s get to it shall we? Let us know how you go in the comments!
The Startup Phase
This first arc of your hero’s journey takes you from the ordinary world of cubicle jockeying for promotion in a publisher driven market to embracing a call to adventure and crossing the threshold into the world of the indie entrepreneur!
Step 1: Find Your Focus
- What Kind of Work do You Enjoy Doing? You’re going indie to do what you love. So what do you love to do?
- What Skills do you like to use? This isn’t necessarily about the skills you’re GOOD at, it’s about the skills you’re happy to use every day.
- Who is My Ideal Customer? A group of people you understand and like working with. Usually a community similar to yourself.
- What problems do they need solutions for? There’s no point making something that no one needs. Find a problem, scratch an itch. Even if that itch is just “I wish there were more games like Dune 2!”.
- What do I need to see done? – This is the big question, your Epic Quest, why you get up in the morning and why anyone should care. What inspired you to go indie in the first place?
Step 2: Build Your Community
- Meet Them Locally. Do a search on Google or Meetup.com for the people you want to develop content for. Look for local groups and get involved.
- Find and Join them Online. There is a website and a forum for everything. Look for forums with recent posts and multiple posts per day. Get active in the community!
- Volunteer at Events. The best way to get to know people and start developing relationships in your niche market is to actually help them out. Want to be seen as having something valuable to offer? Offer something of value!
- Answer questions and offer help. The quickest way to find people to help you with your goals is by helping them with theirs.
- Talk to people doing what you want to do. You don’t need to figure this all out from scratch. Someone else has gone through this before. Find them and introduce yourself (politely!).
Step 3: Setup the Bare Operational Essentials
- Register your Business and Domain Name. It would be awfully embarrassing to spend money registering a business name only to find that someone else already owns the website 8P
- Setup the Minimum Legal Entity. Registering a company can be expensive. Many of us start as a Sole Trader. You can always change it later if you start hiring employees.
- Shareholder agreements. If you are forming a company then put your personal feelings in a box for now and explicitly detail who owns the IP, how you will split the profits and what happens when someone wants to leave.
- Get a PO Box. When you want to do any kind of email marketing (and you will) you’ll legally need to list your business address. A PO Box is perfect for that.
- Get Hosting and Setup Your Website. I recommend going with a local provider (Micron21 and AussieHQ in Australia for example) and building your site with something fast, flexible and easy to manage (like WordPress!).
The Experimentation Phase
The second arc of a heroes journey always begins with a series of tests and challenges. These give you the opportunity to develop crucial skills, find allies, gather resources and learn information critical to preparing you for the ordeal of your development.
Step 4: Innovate and Playtest Ideas
- Test your product/solution theories in Context. If you’re making something for users to interact with, how do you know it works unless you have a user interacting with it?
- Do the solutions Work? Do People Actually Need Them? Don’t waste time or money developing a product until you know it actually solves a problem and people want it.
- How does your ideal customer prefer to pay for this kind of solution? Make it really easy for people to say yes and adopt your solution. Why create any obstacles to them falling in love with your products?
- Do you Enjoy this kind of work? Before you work hard developing anything make sure it’s something you’ll actually want to get out of bed to do first.
- Define Your Minimum Viable Product. What is absolutely core to your user experience? What is the easiest way you can create that experience and get it to users right now?
Step 5: Identify and Develop Resources
- What’s the cheapest/cleanest way to produce your MVP? Your users will help you decide how to extend the product and start adding features – right now you need to get it in front of them as soon as possible.
- Learn any additional skills you need to produce it. Just as you should publish a game before working with a publisher, you should do the job before hiring someone to do it for you.
- Create a scalable framework to build on. You are going to want to extend this as you learn from user behavior. Create a clean foundation to build from.
- Monetise around the core user experience. Asking people to pay for something before they trust you or your brand is difficult during development. But you can generate revenue from the tools you build, selling advertising, offering early bird discounts, etc
- Get paid to develop the skills/framework you need. Look for a day job or contracting opportunities that supports your development.
Step 6: Let Data Drive Development
- Soft launch of your MVP within your community. Invite the people you’ve gotten to know in your community to try your product. Get them involved in the development process.
- Start an engagement/feedback loop with early adopters. Learn from the choices they make, ask them for feedback and work together to improve the product.
- Capture and analyse data of user behavior. Build analytics into your website and your MVP to track user choices and behavior.
- Polish features that add value to the user experience, cut features that don’t. This isn’t about being clever. It’s about creating something people will love using.
- Share your development stories, solutions and insights with the community. We want to support people we like and believe in. One of the ways we show that support is by buying your game and telling our friends to buy it.
The Publishing Phase
You’ve come through your ordeal stronger and wiser – and with a badass product to boot! The road back won’t be easy, you’ll still face dilemmas and obstacles distributing it to your niche market – but now you have the confidence of knowing that you have something of real value the community needs. The final arc of your hero’s journey ends with a homecoming, a time for reflection, but don’t get too comfortable. Once you have the taste for adventure you won’t be able to stay in the ordinary world for long!
Step 7: Distribute and Promote Your Product
- Refine your Message for Active and Passive Communication. Whether people find you online or meet you in person make it easy for them to know what you’re about.
- Build systems that make it easy for users to Play/Share/Communicate. The key to something going viral is that it’s REALLY easy for people to share it with their friends.
- Recruit customer service volunteers and QA support from within your community. You’ve built this amazing network of people who believe in what you’re doing, let them help you!
- Pre-Launch setup of media packs, customer service and bug fixing workflows. Go through the marketing checklist. You don’t want to be scrambling after you launch your game to find gameplay footage to send to Kotaku. Make it easy for people to write about you.
- Hard launch your product. Tell everyone you know then kiss your family and friends goodbye for a few days as you prepare to handle the customer service onslaught.
Step 8: Get Comfortable with Accounting and Measurement
- Log all expenses and measure their effectiveness against user adoption and retention. Get the most out of your expenses. Make sure they’re actually benefiting your business.
- Re-launch with new features, updates, promotional discounts, bundles, etc. Keep pinging your product back onto the public radar. Use your user data to improve the experience.
- Track and capture user data for all promotional campaigns. This will give you a good idea of what strategies generate the most revenue and are worth doing again.
- Monetise alternative and custom user experiences. When you’re starting out going free-to-play is a great way to build a relationship with users. They can pay to customise and extend the experience when they’re ready.
- Sell your byproducts. The tools you built to make your game, concept art on t-shirts, soundtracks and special edition behind-the-scenes DVDs. Have fun with this!
Step 9: Take a Break!
- Relax, get away. Remove yourself from the detail so you can see the whole picture.
- Learn something new, totally unrelated to your work. New ideas won’t come from the same old places. Gaining new knowledge and insight feeds your brain with fuel for inspiration.
- Reflect on each step of the cycle, what can you do differently next time? Acknowledge where things broke down. Analyse why. Come up with an alternative way of working.
- Re-assess Your Focus and Values. Are you still following them? Have they changed?
- Look for new problems to solve.
And here the cycle loops back on itself. Each time you go through the arcs of entrepreneurship you’ll get better at spotting a need, innovating on a solution and taking it to market.
The indie journey doesn’t have to end – you can keep crafting new experiences and making a living doing something you love for as long as you want to do it!