Working as an indie game developer is a risky endeavor.
In the world of independent game development, there is a high chance of failure and a steep learning curve — which makes the journey difficult, and the pay off that much better.
The first game I ever made was entirely on my own. I spent nine months developing it by myself, not earning any income and working constantly. By the time the prototype launched, I was running low on money and had a massive problem.
The players hated my game.
The game was a platformer where players aim to jump as high as possible, encountering a variety of baddies along the way.
Some players didn’t like the controls, some players had low frame rate, but most importantly, many players found the game to be too similar to other popular platformers such as Mega Jump or Doodle Jump.
So I scrapped it. Completely. And I started over. I had maybe two months of a budget left, so I took the prototype I had built and turned it into something new.
That “something new” went massively viral.
Even though that experience was a little too close for comfort, I’ve carried lessons from it throughout my career as a game developer. I have learned how to make games succeed by not repeating the same mistakes over and over again.
Here’s how you can do the same.
1. Build Off Your Failures
Even though I scrapped my first game project, I was still able to pull from its foundation.
I took art assets and a lot of the code from my failed game and created an endless runner called You Jump, I Jump. It was smaller in scale than my initial project and took much less time. When it was completed, I launched it on Facebook with the small budget I had left over for testing, which was under $100. I paid close attention to the feedback I got from players in regard to features they used, aspects they liked, and frustrations they encountered. They were especially excited about the ability to send gifts to one another, such as armor, weapons, and gold for the game — so those were the things I iterated on and made better.
That game, to date, has over 11 million players in total.
Granted, the success of the game crashed the server three days after launch — which was stressful in its own right, but also very exciting.
2. Listen to What Your Players Want
After the success of You Jump, I Jump, I took my new understanding of creating something players actually want and applied it to my newest games.
The third game I made was a rhythm game called Piano Tiles. I found that instead of spending a year making a game to get it “perfect,” it was better to go with a shorter development time and launch quickly to get player feedback.
Updates and features were simple to add once I knew what my players were looking for. I could address player feedback in real-time and, as I added those updates, players would keep coming back, creating steady user growth within the game. Existing players knew to come back for improved features and new players would find the game over time as more reviews were added.
By the time the year was up, Piano Tiles had more than 17 million steady users.
3. What Worked Once Won’t Always Work Again
The game that came in-between You Jump, I Jump and Piano Tiles was a business simulator that provided another valuable lesson for me as a game developer: sometimes you can’t repeat success.
I made the business simulator that players start a small business, sell goods, and make profit. I launched it immediately after You Jump, I Jump and tried to apply the same strategy — a short development time with the intent of adding or changing features based on feedback.
No one really wanted to play it.
After I had made Piano Tiles, I tried to go back to the business simulator and change the name and concept to capitalize on that success. I changed the name to Piano Times: Make It Rain and set it so that players ran a piano store.
Still, Piano Times didn’t get nearly as many players as You Jump, I Jump or Piano Tiles. It was neither an overnight success, nor wildly popular over time. Sometimes a game just doesn’t work, and that can be its own valuable lesson.
The whole time I was designing these games, through the failures and the viral launches, I had to keep reminding myself that what I wanted was to be an indie developer. That meant celebrating when Facebook promoted my first game, but then staying calm when I had to fix my Amazon AWS crash on my own — even though I had no idea how.
Sticking out those early challenges gave me the tools and resources I wouldn’t have had otherwise — ones that I continue to use in the world of VR gaming today. Successful game development is about flexibility and iteration, yes, but it’s also about having the fortitude to continue creating until you make something players love.