9 Steps to Self Publishing Your First Indie Game

 

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.

Do What You Love (via iStockphoto)

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!

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12 Comments

  1. Hi, Epona.  Love the site.   Concerning Step 3 (Bare Operational Essentials):  don’t forget trade marks for your business name and game titles.  A registered trade mark is a powerful tool for protecting your brand, and the earlier you get it, the better.  And it’s not only embarrassing to find someone else has the same or a similar trade mark, it also exposes you to damages and injunctions, as well as loss of all that work you’ve put into your branding.   You can check the ATMOSS database at http://pericles.ipaustralia.gov.au/atmoss/falcon.application_start for Australian trade marks; but the possibility of an international market means that may not be enough.  The US database is here for a start:  http://www.uspto.gov/trademarks/index.jsp.  Thorough searching via Google etc is indispensable, and unregistered trade marks may cause you as much grief as registered trade marks. Applying for registration of a trade mark in Australia can be done online and there’s plenty of guidance at http://www.ipaustralia.gov.au.  You can do it yourself, but as a lawyer 😉 I have to suggest you consider getting some legal guidance with the process.

    • Hey Michael, thanks for the reply! I’ll update the steps to include checking the trademarks as well. Mind if I reference you as the source and link back to your linkedin account?

      I’ve got some indies I’m working with who are stressing about the startup costs (don’t we all?) and reckon that they can wait to trademark their IP when they know they have something they can sell and will recoup the costs. What do you reckon? Trademark early at startup or trademark later at ready-to-sell product?

  2. Thank you for putting the marketing checklist in your blog.

    From @fatcowgames:twitter 

  3. Hi, Epona.  No simple answers, of course! 

    Applying for registration later can make sense, but each mark can involve unique tactical issues. One consideration is that there is a delay of – at the very least – around seven and a half months after an application is filed before registration can be finally granted. I’ve often had clients ask me to register a trade mark for their big launch ‘tomorrow’ … However (provided you follow through with successfully obtaining registration later), the date the application is filed is the date your protection effectively starts. 

    The important things to know before investing in branding or launching a product is that you actually can register the mark if you choose to do so, and that you won’t be infringing anyone else’s mark, registered or unregistered. 
     
    If you’re planning to get a trade mark at all, you should consider at least lodging the application and geting confirmation from the trade mark examiner that registration will be granted before you invest in branding for the launch.  Using the TM Headstart process (http://tinyurl.com/79ht6d3), you can get a preliminary indication from an examiner within about a week for only $90, which goes towards your application fees if you decide to convert to an application within the time limit.
     
    Application costs start from around $120-$180 in Government fees (not including legal fees), and registration fees (at least $250) can be paid six months or more later, once you know the mark will be successfully registered – and if you are still planning to use it.

    The above is only about applying for protection in Australia – applying for protection internationally involves a whole lot of other issues and costs, of course. If the product starts taking off and you don’t have your international trade mark portfolio sorted out already, do it urgently, because there are people out there just waiting to cause problems by getting in first.  

    The IPAustralia website is great:  http://www.ipaustralia.gov.au/get-the-right-ip/trade-marks/
     
    The reference and link would be fine, thanks  (the usual reservations apply … the above should not be regarded as legal advice or the views of my employer etc).

    • On re-reading: perhaps thinking about trade marks could be part of Step 4?

      • Would definitely want it AFTER the validation stage and before the soft launch of the MVP. 

        Will add it right to the start of Step 5. 

        By that point an indie startup would have defined their minimum viable product (the cheapeast/easiest/fastest way to test if they’ve got a game people really want to play) and are setting up their conditions to start tests with their ideal customer. 

        Perfect time to start looking into trade marks! Early enough to have the registration process started by the time you actually need the trademark – but not so early that you find yourself spending money on something you decide to pivot away from. 

        Michael you have been a huge help! Thank you for all your feedback 8)

        • >Would definitely want it AFTER the validation stage and before the soft launch of the MVP

          But if you have your heart absolutely set on a name, get in soon (eg: of the 19 Australian ‘zombie’ trade marks, 11 were applied for in the last two years and eight are registered for computer games). 

  4. Jamie

    is it necessary to set up as a sole trader? Legally, can I not just start selling my game via, say, Steam or whatever without setting that up? Cheers.

    • Hey Jamie,

      Steam is just a shelf that you put your products on. They’ll take a cut for hosting it, and send you the remaining dollars.

      Those dollars that you make from the sale of your games (either through something like Steam, from your own website, from conferences, etc) is going to be taxed by whatever government you’re currently living under.

      If you are making money from the sale of goods (ie; your games) then most countries require that you register a business and pay them the appropriate amount of business tax – or you can get in a bunch of trouble with local/federal tax collector dudes.

      So, short answer, YES – if you are making money from your creative products (through ANY means of distribution) you will need to have some kind of business entity set up that can be taxed.

      WHAT business entity you set up depends on where you are, how much it costs, tax rates, etc.

      ((Usually it’s easiest to set up as a sole trader first while you’re starting out – and change to whatever kind of business entity makes sense LATER after you start making enough cashes that you can actually afford all the paperwork and shiz))

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