There are two core truths concerning game development:
Everything always takes more time than you’d expect.
If you expect things to take more time than you’d expect, Truth 1 will do its damned best to hold firm anyway. Looping logical paradox may ensue.
Flippancy aside, game creation is generally a volatile space, even in its best-case scenario. Even being part of some AAA project in the heart of On-Rails Corporate Gametopia packs a degree of uncertainty, challenging time estimations and system-crashing curveballs. Moving towards the other end of that spectrum (hyper-indie, underwear-in-basement noodlecoder) brings more of these problems forward and becomes one of the main obstacles in everything “going as planned”.
If you ever want to start any sort of commercial game project (you know, for monies), it’s absolutely vital that you understand how this works – and why managing this runway problem involves more than just cutting features and rushing to release.
Commercial game development should never be sanely attempted by any team smaller than about eight people. It requires professionals in such diverse fields as project management, marketing, 2D/3D art, animation, sound engineering, music making, coding, design, testing, scriptwriting, and so on.
“…and if marketing ever gets left in the dust, you may as well scuttle the entire project and spare yourself from further loss.”
However, independent game developers are not sane people, so they regularly hop onto these sorts of projects with as little as one or two humans in total. Sure, there’s loads of shortcuts, tools, easy publishing platforms and other means of getting ahead out there, but nowadays they’ve become the new baseline for keeping your head above water. At a minimum, you’re going to find yourself having to fulfil several job portfolios at once, and doing them all reasonably well.
This is exciting, rewarding and feasible (otherwise nobody would do it), but it’s also demanding, complicated and very out-of-the-box-ish (otherwise everybody would do it).
Constant sacrifices will have to be made. We’re not talking about loss of social life and reliable eating habits (though those are considered traditional) – we’re talking about which corners to cut in a project where absolutely everything feels important. Screw up your graphics, and your game looks unprofessional. Make a mess of your gameplay, and people won’t have fun.
…and if marketing ever gets left in the dust, you may as well scuttle the entire project and spare yourself from further loss. The best game in the world can easily flop without reliable and consistent exposure. This is the thorn which lodges itself firmly in the side of any indie developer, and turns six months of “we’ll keep our heads down and just code this thing” into years of meandering between active development and the sort of stuff which gives that active development meaning.
In safer environments – contract work, advergames, and other projects where retail success is essentially “not your problem” – focusing on active development has no downsides: you do your work, finish more or less according to the time budget, and boom: you get paid and don’t have to worry about the damn thing anymore.
For an unknown indie trying to make a success of themselves (“success” being defined as somewhere in non-bankruptcy-land), this is not enough. The product does not passively sell itself. Not after a launch campaign, not even with a pre-launch hullaballoo. Time and time again, the survivors of our industry plan a consistent campaign of media exposure long before release: the idea being that by the time you launch, your potential audience has already been exposed to your product repeatedly and frequently.
It’s basically social proofing. The first time you advertise something, a small section of the people you reach will be interested – these are your early adopters. While they’re critical to your success (and totally faith-inspiring at the same time), relying on these early birds to cover your expenses will not get you anywhere near the amount of return you need. Their love is beyond value: which means it’s unrecognisable as legal currency.
“The big secret about indie development nowadays: pre-releases are the new day-one product!”
These people become your advocates – when you produce new game updates or release a video, they’re the sort who play and share. This in turn creates a sense of more exposure (and validation!) for people who weren’t convinced the first time: suddenly, the game they glanced over in their news feed a few weeks or months ago is coming at them from new sources, with extra recommendations.
People who didn’t buy in to Round 1 join Round 2, and in turn start advocating to their connections – providing a stronger case for Round 3. Eventually, a prominent YouTuber hears about you from a few friends, features your game on their channel, inspires others to make similar videos, and your ideal end scenario is a massive hype snowball which justifies all your development time and ensures that your game finally sells well enough for you to say, “Okay, I’m gonna do this again.”
So, not a problem right?
Generating the sort of marketing hype which allows your game to go on that exposure escalator takes a phenomenal amount of time and effort. Your six months of pure dev time can easily turn into four months of dev and two months of marketing – not enough to finish the game, but enough to give you a half-functioning alpha build to show off in the pre-order videos. This creates other inefficiencies, too: you may be forced to dedicate time to temporary tutorials and UI changes, because you need to put your best foot forward to demo players. This sunk work is destined to be wiped and replaced later, but becomes necessary to inspire faith in your project. So you’re doing, say, an additional month of dev work that’s doomed to not be in the final product – meaning that your six months of developer runway has turned into three.
And that’s not counting money that’s spent on additional marketing considerations: want to connect with your peers at a conference? Show off at expos and showcases? Build a name that echoes among important developers and funders? Prepare to fork out for accommodation, plane tickets and promotional materials, and remember that the time you spend at these events is also taken away from development.
Let’s be generous, and say this knocks off just another month of runway. Three active development cycles goes down to two.
With these regular concerns – and not counting what can actually go wrong – we see ourselves cut down to a third of the original time spent on that “final release beeline”. It’s a tough situation, but necessary: either you run a comprehensive campaign to borrow precious months of runway (by promoting the game for pre-orders and other funding), or you make a naïve flat release in that time, and watch it flop completely.
When you consider that your next funding cycle is subject to the same “marketing tax” as the previous one, it doesn’t take much imagination to realise how this makes successful indie development a long, meandering road to that product version 1.0.
This isn’t as screwed up as it sounds, though. The big secret about indie dev nowadays: pre-releases are the new day-one product! Today’s players find extra value in getting involved with a game before it’s “ready”, enjoying experimental content, receiving exclusive attention, and getting the chance to put their voice towards the game’s evolution. By the time you do reach full release, it’s likely to just be gravy.
Nothing epitomises this quite like local success story Broforce (here’s its Steam page), which has seen utterly phenomenal returns from its presence on Steam Early Access. Even at the height of their rockstar prominence, development team Free Lives never eases up on their promo, and the end result has been years of popularity, engagement and growth where formerly there could only have been something once-off and a lot smaller.
Not bad for a game which, in a way, has never actually been released!
Accounting for extra promo needs in your budget – and being prepared for a long-haul campaign of engagement, hype milestones and indirect development – is absolutely vital when considering your needs for a commercial game project, and becomes especially important when you’re a small-time SA dev.
Don’t ever drop that ball – even if people are pressuring you to tick that arbitrary “100% complete” box. Because at the end of the day, you’re an independent game developer in 2015, and boxes are for people stuck in the past. Delayed gratification has its benefits with so many things in life: and a career in game creation is no exception.