See Me At ISVCon Next Month, Plus Registration Discount

ISVCon July 13-15, 2012, in Reno, NV

From July 13-15 I’ll be in Reno, Nevada, attending ISVCon, a conference for independent software developers and vendors. It’s actually a reboot of the Software Industry Conference (SIC), which the Association of Software Professionals (of which I am currently President) purchased and is hosting for the first time.

I’m not only attending, but I’m also going to be part of a panel of game developers talking about how games are different from other types of software. I’ll be joined by Gregg Seelhoff of Digital Gamecraft and Christopher Williamson of DreamQuest Games. Each of them also have their own talks about quality assurance and mobile app development, respectively.

In 2008, I attended SIC for the first time, and I met a lot of great people there. A lot of those people I still interact with regularly today, and I find these kinds of connections well worth the cost alone.

This year’s conference reboot looks to have a fantastic set of sessions for independent software developers, including talks on marketing basics, social media marketing, best practices in freelance and outsourcing, Cloud-related technologies to help your business, mobile platforms, Software as a Service (SaaS), and more. Learning about trends and best practices from experts in all of these domains in one place is hugely valuable.

If you can make it, I’d encourage you to register at http://isvcon.org. I’d love to meet up with you. In fact, as a thank you for being a reader of my blog, you can sign up with coupon code “GB2012″ and get 10% off of the registration price.

There is a discounted room rate in the ISVCon hotel block at the Atlantis Casino Resort Spa, which is where the conference is being held, and the deadline for getting a room in that block is June 28th. You can get your room rates at $69 (weekday) and $99 (weekend) a night, plus you get the $12 per night resort fee waived, instead of paying up to $150 a night with a $12 resort fee (per night!) added on top.

Also, besides saving on hotel rates, the cost for registering for ISVCon bumps up on July 1st, so there’s two good reasons to sign up today instead of waiting until the last minute.

I’m really looking forward to ISVCon. Will I see you there?

Sell More Software with the Software Marketing Glossary

As an independent game developer, I’m always interested in learning not only how to better make games but also how to better market and sell them.

One great online resource I’ve found is the Software Marketing Glossary. It’s full of ideas to help indie game developers sell more software.

That link takes you to the article on selling, which has a few great ideas for upselling, even if you only have one game to offer. For instance, are you offering your customer the chance to not only buy your game for him/herself but also to buy a second copy as a gift for a friend?

In the rest of the glossary, you’ll also find definitions for marketing terms you might not be familiar with, in-depth articles such as tips on crafting your sales message, links to great resources, and even short book reviews, usually with links to longer reviews.

With the Software Marketing Glossary, even complete software marketing beginners can get a good overview and come away with some actionable knowledge to help sell their games.

Why I’m Glad I Didn’t Try to Create a Kickstarter Campaign

Kickstarter

Before Double Fine had their really successful campaign and seemingly everyone thought Kickstarter was suddenly this brilliant way to raise money for indie games, I looked into it.

As development continued on Stop That Hero!, I worried about continuing to fund it with my savings before I actually ran out. I was aware of Kickstarter, since I backed Addicube and most recently Bhaloidam by Corvus Elrod, and I also backed Anthony Salter’s Inaria on 8-bit Funding. All of which were successfully funded, by the way, and I’m proud to have been a part of the reason why.

It seemed to make sense that a relatively unknown indie project could expect to get at least a little bit of funding to help make a game a reality, and I figured a Kickstarter campaign for Stop That Hero! would be an excellent way to experiment with crowdsourced funding.

I figured that I should look up how to run a successful Kickstarter campaign, and I found a lot of good information. Unfortunately, what I learned is that running a Kickstarter campaign is a lot of work, and that means dedicating time to it, and that means I’d be dedicating time away from the project I really want to work on.

Having to spend time on backer award, a high quality video trailer explaining the campaign, and finding people to fund the project? If I had dedicated marketing staff, sure, but I don’t. Plus, I clearly underestimated my budget needs for this project as it is, and I would need to ensure I knew how much to ask for so that I didn’t end up being underfunded. I’d also want to ensure that the requested funds were realistic. I’m not going to be getting millions of dollars for my project, and if I asked for that much, it means a high likelihood that the campaign itself will fail and so I’d lose access to the money that actually gets pledged.

Recently, I read an article on The Ugly Side of Kickstarter, and while the title makes it sound like it exposed some seedy underbelly of crowdsourced funding, the reality is that they’ve found what I found: that a Kickstarter campaign requires a lot of work and isn’t some magic money-making machine.

Basically, my takeaway with my own investigation was that Kickstarter campaigns are fantastic if you have the time, the marketing ability or star power, and a really good reason for it. It’s great for backers to feel some ownership in the development process and for developers to get a great marketing outlet and potential customers.

But I definitely wasn’t going to launch a Kickstarter campaign when I didn’t plan for it in the first place. Perhaps for a future project, but not as an afterthought. No one benefits from a half-assed Kickstarter campaign, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to put together a full-assed one in the time I could spare for it.

Have you looked into Kickstarter, 8-bit funding, or similar crowdsourced funding sites to fund your indie game? Have you backed any projects? How was your experience?

I Need to Prepare for Anniversaries Better

Today marks six years since GBGames, LLC was officially formed.

Since last year’s anniversary post, I hit a major milestone.

I had my first sale.

My casual strategy game Stop That Hero! is available for GNU/Linux, Mac OS X, and Windows. When I released the initial alpha in December, I had little idea of what to expect. This one-month project became a one-year-plus project, and while the game wasn’t anywhere near finished, I was getting some good feedback from play-testers. I figured the worst-case was that no one would buy the game, but if I didn’t offer it for sale, no one would have an opportunity to say otherwise.

I now have actual customers, and some are even providing feedback to make the game better! It’s gratifying, and I’m looking forward to getting them my next update for “Stop That Hero!” Unfortunately, it’s been slow to develop, partly because my efforts aren’t focused.

As I mentioned at the beginning of the new year, I’m out of savings, and it wasn’t very clear how to proceed. I wanted to continue to work on “Stop That Hero!” and other games, but I couldn’t continue what I had been doing since it wasn’t paying the bills.

I was torn. I wanted to persevere and not give up too soon, but I can’t ignore reality (and my lack of money). I wanted to continue until “Stop That Hero!” was finished, but I wondered if working on a much smaller project would get a quick win out there. I want to spend time on game development and marketing to increase sales and revenues, but I wondered if doing so meant more of the same and therefore the same results, and so instead I should spend time on finding outside work, which makes it a self-fulfilling prophecy since I’m not spending time on the things that would make my business earn me money. And all through this turmoil, I had no forward motion because I wasn’t sure where forward was anymore. It was like I was lost in my life without a compass and no idea how to find my way back out.

Today is not only the anniversary of GBGames. It’s also been one year since I proposed to my girlfriend. My fiancée is incredibly supportive, and in the roller coaster that I’ve been on since going full-time indie, she’s helped me keep things in perspective, especially when I’ve been stressed out and was beating myself up for things not working out very well in my business.

In my mind, I had a deadline to get my business turned around before I need to find an alternative and stable form of income. Something I’m incredibly aware of is that we’re getting married in a matter of months, and we have plans for our future life together. Each day that my business isn’t making me money (and there’s a lot of those days) added pressure on me to do even more before the day comes when I’d feel I had no choice but to give up.

The truth is, I don’t have to choose between continuing to run my business and a happy marriage.

There are plenty of options. If my business becomes a part-time endeavor again, it’s not the end of the world, even though I’ve been trying to avoid that situation.

I was way too attached to the idea of being a full-time indie game developer. The idea that I would need to find outside work felt like a huge failing. From that perspective, I found myself looking back and second-guessing every decision I made. What if I had stopped work on “Stop That Hero!” after that first month and switched to a new project? What if I stopped focusing on making games for Linux-based systems so I could use non-portable tools such as Unity? What if I got a smartphone earlier so I could work on mobile games? What if I was paying more attention to cash flow and would have taken on part-time work earlier? What if, what if, what if?

“The first step to acceptance is to give up hope for a better past.” There are variations on this sentence that I first heard from my friend Alex Myers, but the point is that what’s done is done. Learn from the mistakes, but move forward with those lessons. From this perspective, I’m always learning. I released an alpha of my game and found that there weren’t a lot of people interested. This was always the case, but now I know because I see the results. I could focus on how few customers I have, or I can focus on how many new customers I now have and how to grow that number by providing good value.

It’s odd. Even though things are much more urgent these days, I’m somehow feeling more positive about everything. I think it is because my old perspective made me feel powerless, but my new perspective makes me feel empowered. Even with less time to work on games, I’m somehow getting more done. I know what my goals are, and instead of stressing out that I don’t know how to accomplish them, it’s actually fun coming up with ways to do so. My cash flow is still negative, and yet it is months after the point when I thought I had no more money and I’m still able to pay rent.

As my fiancée put it, it’s natural to feel disappointed in things not working out as you hoped. In a way, I went through a mourning period, and perhaps now I’m out the other side. It may be another anniversary where I didn’t prepare a fun sale or have exciting news to report, but GBGames is still here, and I am, too.

GDC Badge Pro Tips

While I won’t be going to the Game Developers Conference this year, I thought I would share some tips for making the most of your GDC 2012 badge and holder. These tips are especially important for people who will be attending their first GDC, such as some of the fantastic students I met when I spoke at the University of Iowa last Friday.

Feel free to share this post. And thanks, Ian Schreiber, for these tips when I attended my first GDC last year!

Hear Me Speak Live at the University of Iowa

I’ll be part of a group of game developers talking to students at University of Iowa on Friday, February 24th, 2012.

Where: Room 240 of Art Building West, Iowa City, IA

When: 4PM

Other speakers include people from Glass Cannon Games, Zach Ellsbury of Seraphic Software, iOS developer Karl Becker, and P.J. Lorenz, organizer of the Midwest Indie Game Developers Meetup group.

Filling a No-longer-served Niche

Jeff Vogel of Spiderweb Software wrote about being an indie game bottom feeder. He breaks it down into a few principles.

Stop worrying about piracy and worry about being a person your customers want to support

He talks about coming to terms with the fact that piracy happens. Interestingly, he finds the best way to “combat piracy” isn’t to pass onerous laws such as SOPA but to be a decent person that your games’ players would feel good supporting.

Price appropriately

If you are creating an ultra-casual, appeals-to-everyone kind of game, you can get away with charging less than a dollar or even releasing the game for free and using ads or selling add-ons. But if you’re appealing to an underserved niche, you must charge more for your game. Having 5,000 customers pay you only $1 means you won’t last long. The good news is that your customers are willing to pay for it.

Find the customers who are looking for what is no longer being made

Most small business advice out there says that you should find a niche, Vogel’s advice is similar, except he points out that there are plenty of game genres that used to be wildly popular and are no longer of interest to the larger companies in the game industry. Those are now underserved niches. While the popularity of these now-niches has dropped below the point where EA or Activision would find it worth their time, there are enough people who still want to play those kinds of games to make it profitible for an indie.

Vogel mentions the Atari 2600, which was my first game console. I remember playing games such as Frog n’ Flies, Yar’s Revenge, Solar Fox, and even E.T for hours on end.

And the Atari 2600 is still fun. It’s just not fun enough. The art of game design has progressed far beyond it, and Pitfall doesn’t have what it takes to compete anymore. But you know something? All of those old games can be updated. All of those old genres have tons of fans out there. They just don’t know they’re fans yet.

So does this mean you should clone old games and expect to make tons of money so long as you’re not a jerk?

No, and not just because the clones have been done already.

You can take inspiration from old games that are otherwise still fun today. Take the original Mario Bros for example. It was a platformer with a static level design, and you could collect coins and hit enemies from below before knocking them out. Now look at Super Crate Box, a platformer with a static level design in which you collect crates and use a variety of weapons to fight off enemies. Tell me where you think it partly takes its inspiration from. Yet, it plays very differently. The developers didn’t create a Mario Bros clone. They did something very different.

I think Vogel’s approach sounds similar to Dan Cook’s “reinventing the genre from the root” approach.

It occurred to me that game design, like any evolutionary process, is sensitive to initial conditions. If you want to stand out, you need to head back in time to the very dawn of a genre, strike out in a different direction and then watch your alternate evolutionary path unfurl.

Perhaps having kept my Atari 2600 all these years was a much better idea than I thought.

An Online Conference You Can Attend #AltDevConf

If you’re not familiar with AltDevBlogADay, you should be. Each day, a game developer posts on a variety of game development topics. There’s a huge backlog of content there now, and while the recent redesign has made it difficult to find the category you want (you have to click on a post to see only some of the tags available as of this writing), it’s great getting regular, up-to-date, state-of-the-art tips and tricks from the people in the trenches. Authors can be mainstream game programmers, indie developers, academics, or anyone who has something valuable to share.

AltDevConf

It seems to be such a successful site that they’ve decided to host an online conference. AltDevConf will be held on February 11th and 12th (that’s this coming weekend), featuring three tracks: education, programming, and design & production.

Our goal is twofold: To provide free access to a comprehensive selection of game development topics taught by leading industry experts, and to create a space where bright and innovative voices can also be heard. We are able to do this, because as an online conference we are not subject to the same logistic and economic constrains imposed by the traditional conference model.

As it doesn’t look like I’ll be attending GDC this year (I’m still hoping to win an All Access Pass with my GDC magnets), AltDevConf seems like a high-quality substitute. While it won’t be the same as rubbing elbows with other indies or meeting cool celebrities in the gaming world, I’m excited about it.

Do you plan to attend? Will you be speaking?

Linux Game Publishing CEO Steps Down

Yesterday, I woke up to an email saying that Michael Simms is stepping down after 10 years of running Linux Game Publishing and Tux Games.

Wow, 10 years! That’s a lot of enthusiasm and work, and unfortunately it takes its toll:

It took me some months to notice what was going on, and even longer to accept that my burnout was going to kill LGP unless I did something about it. The lack of drive slowed down production of new titles, shipping, customer service, everything that I either handled or had a big part in helping with, was all being compromised.

But I didn’t want to let the company die. Of course not, I have invested too much time, money, blood sweat and tears into LGP to just say ‘That is it, bye’. And so I sat down and had a long think about how to save it.

Clive Crous will take the reins at LGP and Tux Games. Good luck, Clive, and good luck with your future endeavors, Michael!

Is Asking Customers to Pre-order a Bad Thing?

A month ago, there was a post on Reddit asking what people thought about indie developers asking for money up front.

Some people are fine if they get a good quality playable build for pre-ordering, but no one seemed to be happy with the idea of funding basic engine development. It seems the general consensus is that people are getting tired of the so-called “fad” of funding a game before it is finished with no guarantee that they will see a payoff.

Minecraft‘s wild success through pre-orders aside, it’s not really a new funding tactic at all. Lots of indie developers have tried to ask for money before their games are finished, and some have seen more success than others.

The Indie Game Development Survival Guide by David Michael mentions how Samu Games started selling Artifact when it was in the beta testing stage, complete with perks for early customers. And this was in 1999.

Today, sites such as KickStarter and 8-bit Funding have enabled a number of high-profile projects to get funding from fans. Of course, a lot of projects don’t get funded and therefore don’t become high-profile.

So if you don’t have a big name to leverage like Notch or Andy Schatz or Derek Yu, are you doomed to obscurity?

No, but obviously an existing name brand helps. Otherwise, success at crowdfunding requires hard work to get your name out there. In other words, marketing. And you have to be able to demonstrate you can deliver the goods.

I started taking pre-orders for Stop That Hero! late last year, and I’ll admit feeling a bit anxious about it at the time. I didn’t have the game in a playable state yet, and here I was asking people for money in anticipation of the initial release.

While I didn’t get many pre-orders, it was definitely a nice feeling to see people actually spending some money on my game. It showed some interest, and it gave me a productivity boost to know I had existing customers to satisfy.

Now, when it comes to how I marketed the Stop That Hero! pre-order, I’m sure I did a lot of things wrong. Perhaps I should have had more videos of game play as I continued work. Maybe I should have been posting more screenshots. I could have chosen to prioritize work on certain features in the hopes that they would excite players more than the features I did work on. And maybe I wasn’t very assertive with asking for pre-orders in the first place.

At the time, I was struggling to get the alpha build across the finish line, but I kept getting good feedback from playtesters. Since the game was good enough to provide some enjoyment to players, it meant it was good enough to ask for players to pay for that enjoyment.

Now, of course some people weren’t happy with the idea of paying up front for a game they couldn’t see. And it’s hard to blame them. Since many game projects don’t get finished, it’s asking a lot to essentially gamble the cost of a pre-order on an unknown. Especially when indie developers don’t necessarily have the offsite backup solutions of larger studios when disaster strikes. See the Project Zomboid burglary for an example. All of their code was gone when someone stole two laptops, so it was a huge setback for the developers who had to rely on outdated backups to continue.

And it didn’t sit well with some of their customers, judging by the Reddit thread. It seems this experience turned some people off of pre-orders and paying for early builds in general.

All that said, it seems that making pre-orders work requires regular, quality content. Basically, if you stop talking to your customers and prospects, they’ll stop caring.

But if all you do is talk and never produce anything, no one is going to stick around. Whether you’re taking pre-orders or pledges, you have to be able to show that you can deliver results.

If you can do both, then pre-orders are worthwhile. Otherwise, you’re wasting your customers’ time as well as your own.