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Giving up going it alone: The tale of the developer who couldn't afford to be indie any more

Giving up going it alone: The tale of the developer who couldn't afford to be indie any more

Life as an independent mobile game developer can be a very trying business, especially if you're going it alone.

Just ask Rob Caporetto, a one-man app developer based in Melbourne, Australia. Having released Pocket Dogfights, a 1942-esque aerial shoot-'em-up for Android and iOS, and while still working on the retro-tinged Pivotus, he made an important decision.

Caporetto took to Twitter on New Year's Day to break the news: he would be giving up commercial indie development. Pocket Dogfights would become completely free, Pivotus would be developed more slowly, and he would be pursuing other full-time work.

"My decision to wind back was the result of burn out," he tells us.

"Particularly from the closing months of 2013. I'd spent that period both getting Pivotus development off the ground, and looking for contract work - as I had been doing over the last few months. Doing both of these was a stressful process."

Multi-tasking

It's a story you'll hear time and time again, and Caporetto is under no illusions that this situation is unique to him. After all, his struggles are based on the classic, longstanding issues faced by the independent mobile developer - time and money.

"Attempting ‘open' development on a game whilst looking for contract work at the same time was slowly wearing my morale down", he says. "In an attempt to remove some of the stresses at the time, I decided that it wasn't really worth continuing my game development activities in their present form - at least for the moment."

Like most small-time developers, I funded the game's development from my day job.
Rob Caporetto

He continues: "Do I believe that these experiences are common? I certainly do. I know of a few other developers here in Australia who have been through similar cases, and I also have seen plenty of other games which I've bought over the years suddenly disappear from iTunes - their developers simply couldn't justify the expenses of the development account."

Having witnessed these pitfalls first hand, it's clear why Caporetto was firmly realistic from the outset about his own chances of becoming an App Store success.

"Honestly, I never expected that sales of Pocket Dogfights would be able to cover all my bills," he admits. "In fact, my only real goal was wanting to be able to cover money for social events, as it's a rather simple game, and to expect anything else would be unrealistic."

"Like most small-time developers, I funded the game's development from my day job," he goes on, "but I was sadly let go just prior to submission. I was incredibly lucky to have had enough savings to be able to live for a while and to handle the launch, at least until I would be able to get some contract work to be able to cover the bills.

"That is why I put the time I put into it. As things slowed to a crawl sales-wise - it took six months to reach a payout amount in sales after the launch burst - and as my search for work didn't result in any stable leads, it became apparent that things weren't working out as I was hoping, which led to my decision to walk away. At least that way, I could focus on finding work full-time and not worry about the stresses involved in trying to develop and release a game."

Money on their minds

Mobile platforms have always been harsh to all but the best and luckiest indie developers, but it's slightly alarming to consider just how common these stories are. According to Caporetto, the biggest barrier to indie success on mobile is the perception of value among mobile gamers.

"Thanks to the shift towards free-to-play, I feel there's an unrealistic disconnect between how much money content costs for a developer to create, and it's end price to the consumer," he says. "At launch, it was disenchanting to see comments telling me that it was barely worth paying $1, regardless of my own feelings about the value of my work."

Pocket Dogfights

Indeed, there is evidence of an ingrained reluctance to pay up-front cash for a mobile game. Caporetto told me that he'd experienced a "very significant" amount of piracy on Android devices, with only "a rather minute portion of sales" on the platform. He reckons - and, indeed, the statistics agree - that Android has a bigger problem with the 'everything is free' mentality, since initial regulations restricting the publication of paid apps based on country of origin "led to Android owners getting used to free apps early on."

Unsurprisingly, then, he reported that Pocket Dogfights was "most successful by far on iOS, both in terms of paid downloads, and after going free."

But Android users aren't alone in shunning paid apps while hungrily pursuing free ones. Predictably, Caporetto reported "quite the spike" in downloads across all platforms after Pocket Dogfights became a free app.

This widespread piracy of Pocket Dogfights on Android, combined with the download spike across all platforms after it went free, prove Caporetto's point to a certain extent - there was no lack of demand for his game, but a skewed perception of value left would-be buyers unwilling to make the spend, no matter how low the amount. Be it illegal or above-board, it seems that mobile gamers love getting something for nothing - even at the expense of the developer.

Breaking barriers

Well, no surprises there, then. But if this is the reality of indie development on mobile, then what can be done? We asked Caporetto if he felt Google and Apple had a responsibility of sorts, to make their platforms more indie-friendly. Would that even be possible?

"In some way, I feel that they do have some responsibility," he details. "The fact that the App Store didn't really offer a solid way for allowing people to try before they buy is one of the factors which led to the race-to-the-bottom pricing in the first place, and I've already discussed the problems with paid apps on Android."

I found it incredibly tough to get people to submit a review, especially on iOS.
Rob Caporetto

"As for things which could be done at this stage?", he muses. "I'd like to see some more useful grouping of games - it's be great if there were centrally managed collections, but which could have contributions from users. I'd also like to see better focus on reviews - I found it incredibly tough to get people to submit a review, especially on iOS, where ratings etc are cleared upon a new release."

We also made reference to the fact that, via Twitter, Caporetto had encouraged those who wished to give him some financial support to use his itch.io page, which offers a 'Pay What You Want' system for the PC version - like Bandcamp for indie games, if you will. Does he feel that the App Store and Google Play would benefit from putting a similar model in place for indie developers.

"In short, certainly," he says, seemingly enthused by the idea. "One of the things I feel experiences like mine show is that whilst there are mobile gamers who are begrudgingly paying the minimum, there are others who would be willing to go above and beyond, which is an experience I had with itch.io. This, I guess, becomes a form of patronage in the modern age, which is something I feel is incredibly important for indie development in the future."

"Right now, at least from my interpretation of Apple's guidelines, it's not possible to use the in-app purchase system in that way, but it'd certainly be something I'd take advantage of. That way, I could focus on providing a fun, fair and pure gameplay experience to my player base, and not need to worry about the complexities that freemium design offers. And then they, in turn, can contribute with a single, fair payment to me."

Perhaps there are hidden complexities which prevent Apple and Google from implementing such a system, but on a surface level it seems relatively simple. There's certainly a large number of indie developers who'd wish to welcome donations without locking off non-payers. And, if - as Caporetto's experiences suggest - there are some supporters willing to pay above the odds, then the platform-holder would still claim a tidy slice. A win-win scenario, you might think.

Back to the future

But the mobile gaming landscape wasn't always so complex, and until a few years ago the app marketplaces were often considered a refreshing return to a simpler era of gaming.

Knowing that Caporetto is a huge fan of retro games, and the Commodore 64 in particular, we asked him to what extent he saw the mobile market as a throwback to those days, with basic games by bedroom coders selling for a few dollars a pop in budget software ranges.

Pivotus

"Back in 2009-10, I certainly believed that the mobile market was the next generation of the budget labels," he tells us.

"Having a platform which was very easy to publish onto, and filled with smaller developers gave them the opportunity to really play around and innovate - both with new ideas, and with bringing widely-abandoned genres into view, e.g. shmups."

"More recently, however, I believe the rise of free-to-play, and larger publishers coming into the mobile space have raised the barriers to entry enough that this is no longer the case. Launching a free-to-play game requires a significant investment to get your initial users, so developers who don't have that kind of money to begin with, or are creating games which are smaller in scope, can't get the visibility which they could in years past."

Launching a free-to-play game requires the kind of significant investment that's beyond many developers.
Rob Caporetto

So, with Caporetto's loving reverence for the simpler days of gaming - a good, honest price for a good, honest experience - it's somewhat predictable that his views on freemium aren't entirely favourable.

"I'm not a fan at all", he says, making his feelings immediately clear. "The games I enjoy making and playing don't work well with freemium constraints. When those 'gates' are raised for the purposes of monetisation, I find it breaks the flow, and I find it greatly reduces the challenge, and even starts making games unfair to play."

He also suggests that freemium design, and the nagging thought of sustainable monetisation, can be damaging to a developer's overall vision: "I certainly do believe that when not restricted by the need to pay the bills, they'll be able to play closer to their visions."

But paying the bills is, unfortunately, an unavoidable reality for Caporetto himself. So, with a rocky experience of developing a paid app and a negative view of freemium, what are his plans going forward?

"I certainly would like to be able to release something which I can charge for in the future", says Caporetto.

"However, the biggest concern I have with doing so is simply trying to work out the best, and fairest, way to do so. When I look at Pivotus and some of my other ideas, they're not the types of games which any of the existing schemes would work well for, so there's the ongoing case of working that out before I try anything else."

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Features Editor

Matt is really bad at playing games, but hopefully a little better at writing about them. He's Features Editor for PocketGamer.biz, and has also written for lesser publications such as IGN, VICE, and Paste Magazine.

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promoteindiegames hello@promoteindiegames.com
You can get away with pay up front on mobile, if you are a well known brand, whether you are a well known indie brand or a large publishing company, either way if lots of people know of you, then you can release as paid up front and get some traction to make it worth it. Games journalists will automatically be interested, you might get featured by Apple and your already established fan base will more than likely pay for your game.

If you are like the other 99.9% of developers releasing on the App store, then charging upfront is just going to stop you from making any money whatsoever. Because even if you have a great game, nobody will know that, they wouldn't of heard about your game in the press, they wouldn't know any of their friends who have played it and on and on, in that situation your base line should be free to download, at least that way you are removing the main barrier to entry and hopefully if you're game at least looks good in screen shots will get people giving it a go.

There's also a big difference between F2P with an hard currency (consumables) and F2P with one off IAP's, consumables may well make the most money but are usually the hardest to design your game for.

I'm currently working on a iOS turn-based strategy game, which is going to be F2P with one off IAP's. Hopefully that gives the players the best of both worlds, they can download and try the game without paying, but that only get's them the basic version of the game, if they then like the game and want more they can pay, I think that's about the only/best way an indie developer can do things on the current App store.

Finally, something I never understand about the indie game community for all it's game jams, and meet ups and everything else, most of the time devs prefer to work alone, which to me is a big part of the current problem. To stand any chance (ignoring flukes like Flappy Bird) of doing well with any game these days, it needs to be of a very high quality, in graphics, in sound, in well designed play etc, and all of that takes time. Sure an indie dev can create an ok game by themselves in a year, fine, but "ok" doesn't cut it and the quality required to do well is just going to get higher and higher, that is going to require TEAMS not 1 guy working alone with someone else doing graphics.

Indie game devs need to start thinking in terms of working together more. Because of that I set up www.indiecollaboration.com , which looks a bit plain right now, but it hopefully will be a place where indie devs can make it easier on themselves to get their games to the required quality by working with each other to at least stand a chance on the App stores.
Shane Rubans
Agreed, great article... but could be made even better with some links to Rob's work. I know it's not a hard task to search for anything on the internet, but to make it that little bit easier for folk, some links:

http://rob-caporetto.com/
http://pocketdogfights.com/
http://robc.itch.io/pocket-dogfights
http://www.pivotusgame.com/
Simon Burbidge iOS Developer at Whisk Mobile Development
Good article, and certainly representative of what I've seen from indie devs across categories. The "gold rush" of the App Store, and massive numbers of apps (both good & bad) have made it increasingly difficult to get noticed. If you can't get noticed then you can't pay the bills.
Sounds like Rob had the decision to go full-time indie made for him when he lost his job, but as someone who's taken over a year to complete a game whilst employed full-time, it's a double-edged sword - you want to be able to devote all your time to the project, and it is frustrating making slow progress, however you also need to pay the bills, and a "day job" makes that easier.
If the App Store was improved in some of the ways suggested, then it would certainly make it easier to make the switch.
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