Archive for November, 2006

An approximate guide to selling Indie games.

Thursday, November 9th, 2006

Welcome to my approximate guide of how to sell an Indie game that you have made.  This article is aimed at the developer/producer of the game (not at publishers and portals as they already know what they are doing (mostly)).

There seems to be all sorts of detailed information out there on various forums and blogs about the nitty gritty of how to sell Indie games, and lots of it is very useful, but I haven’t really seen an overview guide, and that’s what I’m aiming to provide.  So without further ado here goes:

1) Finish your game!

I mean properly.  Make sure that it has a menu system, an options screen including full-screen/windowed mode, a profile manager, some instructions, a proper icon etc.  Check out other mainstream Indie games and compare them to your game to make sure that you have all the “normal” features in it (this is what I did with my BlitzMax Game Framework).

A small point here; if you have done all the graphics, music, sound and code for your game by yourself, then you are either extremely talented and have spent years on it, or the game really doesn’t look and sound very professional (this seems to be more common).  To make a professional level game you either need to a) buy in art/music/sound from the various resources on the web or b) pay proper artists/musicians etc (or offer them royalties).

If your game looks and sounds rubbish, it won’t sell very many copies, no matter how good the gameplay is, this is a sad but true fact.

2)Alpha Test

Get friends and family (your mum!) to alpha test it.  You need a mix of gamers and non-gamers.  When they test it, sit there with them and ask them to speak aloud as they play it (and explore the menus).  Ask them to say what is good, and bad and confusing.  Then watch them play the game carefully, don’t give them any prompts.  You will learn a lot from this.  If the same issue crops up more than once, you probably should consider changing/improving it.

If, after alpha testing, you don’t make any changes to your game then a) you are an expert developer hugely aware of how other people think (what are you doing reading this article?) or b) you haven’t been thorough enough or objective about your own game – do more tests.

Also at this stage (or before) you need to test it on a wide range of PCs to check that it actually works and what the minimum specs are.

3) Beta Test

Ha, so you thought your game was finished at step 1!  If you are a member of a programming or gaming forum, post a beta demo (limited number of levels or security wrapped) and wait for feedback.  You may get some deliberately negative responses (from jealous individuals or Indie “idealists”) but hopefully you will gain some useful feedback and may want to consider tweaking your game again.

At this point you should be fixing minor bugs (if any are left) and improving the accessibility of the game (clear menu system etc), but if you need a major redesign because some element of the game just doesn’t work, then fair enough – go and do it, don’t just try to release the game anyway and hope for the best.

4) Self-Publishing

You don’t have to self-publish, you can go straight to the portals or a publisher if you want to avoid loads of hassle and focus on your next game.

What are the advantages of self-publishing?  Well when you sell it on your own website you’ll keep ALL of the profit (after whatever payment service you use has deducted their fees).  This sounds great and it might be, but only if you can attract a *lot* of traffic to your site.  You’ll need to do marketing, press-releases and advertising to get the required traffic to generate sales and this is a big job in itself (also quite boring in my opinion), not for the faint hearted!

What do you need to self-publish?
- Well, a website for a start and some web programming knowledge (or find someone else who knows).
- An installer program.  There are plenty of free ones out there.  Make sure that your installer is nice and flexible e.g. give the user the option of putting an icon on the desktop or quick launch bar (don’t force them).
- A licence agreement.  You need to show this during the installation process.
- A security wrapper.  You’ll have to spend money on this (gasp) unless you code one yourself (and what a waste of time that would be).  This wraps your software so that it becomes a time-limited demo.  The player must purchase a key from you to unlock the full-version.  I’m sure that you are familiar with this concept.
- Hide the media?  Some people are worried about having their game media in a nice visible data folder and prefer to get it all built into the exe using something like Molebox.  I personally don’t care because if I see my media in another game (unlikely) I’ll just sue, or ask them to desist, or maybe even ask them for some money :-)
- A payment service/provider.  To make sales you have to be able to take money in as many ways as possible.  You could try and code all this stuff yourself but it’ll probably be horrible, limited and bugged.  You need to choose a payment service/provider like BMT Micro, Plimus, ShareIt etc and register you game with them, then plug their code into your site and also make sure that it all works with your security wrapper so that the customer is given a key automatically.

Once all that’s done and you are ready to sell the game from your own site you need to get marketing!  Also get it on tons of shareware sites (and download.com) that list your game for free.  You can pay a 3rd party to register your game with tons of shareware sites using a PAD file, and this service should save you hours and hours (try Glimmer Games).

I’ve probably missed something out from this section as it’s quite a big topic, but that’ll do for now.

5) Find a Publisher

If you can’t be bothered with self-publishing, it may be best to find a publisher who can do all of that for you and get the game on portals too.  They may also make suggestions about how to improve your game to maximise sales - it’s probably a good idea to listen to them.  What’s the catch?  Well money of course.  You won’t have to pay a publisher, but they will take a large percentage of every sale (it varies, but 50% or more is the sort of figure I’m talking).  However, if they are any good, they’ll make you both some money whereas on your own you may fail to even pay for your webspace!

6) Put your game on the portals

Portals are sites that sell all sorts of Indie games, and good portals get tons of traffic meaning tons of downloads and hopefully quite a few sales for you.  Big portals include (but are not limited to) Real Arcade, Big Fish Games, AOL, Yahoo, MSN, IWin, Reflexive Arcade etc.  There’s tons, some small, some large.  Some of the larger ones are very fussy about which games they will accept and they may not accept yours; in fact they may not even reply!  Also some portals are more geared towards action games than puzzle games, so you have to choose the right ones.

Anyway, first you have to make contact with a portal (check out their websites for contact info – sometimes it’s an email address, other times it’s a web form) to find the right person to talk.  Then send them an “unwrapped” version of your game.  They will wrap it themselves and use their own installer IF they accept it.  They may just say “NO”, but don’t be deterred, ask them why not so that you can improve it (they *might* reply).  Some nice portals sort of give you a stock answer as to why they won’t take your game, and some just say “thanks, but no thanks”.  Also, if the big portals won’t take your game, try some smaller ones.  However, if the big ones won’t take it, you have to ask yourself how you can make your next game much better so that the portals *will* accept it – remember graphics and “bling”/polish are *sooo* important.

Don’t forget that the portals will take BIG cut of your profit, normally 60 to 70%!  But they will get sales figures that you can only dream about - so it’s worth it in my opinion.

7) Improve/Refine!

Keep on marketing, get reviews, try different adverts and techniques – don’t give up!

Also listen to the feedback of players and make some more improvements to your game.  It’s quite hard to get a new version on a portal, so save up several sub-versions and only send them a major release.  Some developers have carried on improving their game based on customer feedback and really improved sales.

Consider releasing a level pack.  Some types of games are really suited to level packs, and these may not take long to make at all and can generate lots of income.

Alternatively you may just decide to write your next game.  Make sure this one is better than the last one in every way.  Reinvest your income from the last one in quality graphics and music.  Keep checking out other Indie games for ideas, keep abreast of what the current standard is and see what is selling and what is not.

When dealing with the portals again, use your old contacts and improve your communication skills to really “sell” your game to them.

This whole process is a learning experience.  Never stop learning and trying out new things.  It could take years to get the formula right, and then you’ll have to keep changing the formula as the market progresses and changes.

Conclusion

And there you have it.  Not a definitive guide, but hopefully useful to beginners.  I haven’t really talked about web versions of your game, that’s a topic for another day, sorry.  I’ve probably missed out tons of stuff and I deliberately haven’t gone into detail because it would take days.  Nevertheless, I hope that you find the article interesting and useful.  Please leave comments to let me know your opinions, thanks!