Mobile Mavens

How do indie developers measure and define success?

How do indie developers measure and define success?

Success can mean a lot of things to a lot of different people - while some may consider themselves a success simply by just getting to the next day, others may not be happy until they're diving into a pool of cash Scrooge McDuck-style.

One would imagine that indie developers would be aiming for the former level of success, but is survival really success? And how do you even measure it?

To find out, we turned to our Indie Mavens to find out their thoughts on success and what metrics they track to determine their successes.

Specifically, we asked:

  • How do you define a "success" when it comes to launching your own games?
  • Are there any specific metrics you track to determine if your game was "successful"?
Tanya X. Short Creative Director Kitfox Games

I find it essential to develop a set of goals for a project as part of the initial concept, even for game jams, which trickles down and inevitably influences everything about its scope, budget, schedule, feature set and my end feeling once it's launched.

The goal could be to sell at least 100k units, or to learn how to use Unity, or to make the best snowboarding experience, or win IGF, or whatever else you want, but everyone on the team has to understand and believe in the goal.

Base expectations of your performance may rise, even as the market shrinks or external factors make your goals more difficult to achieve.
Tanya Short

Goals are how I can consistently determine what's important and why, whether it's adding controller support or extending development by two months - and have the rest of the team support that decision, without trying to pull away in a different direction.

Typically, Kitfox goals tend to be some mixture of financial, critical and production success: let's make back our money, make something great (and/or something players love), and not kill ourselves doing it.

If we can hit any two of those things, we're definitely Winning, but even one can be very hard. We can't afford to bootstrap (go for months without salary), so survival of the studio has to be the minimum requirement... within which we define acceptable creative parameters.

Concrete Kitfox goals tend to specifically focus on production and finance more than critical reception.

For all of our projects so far, I have specifically prohibited and prevented any team member from spending more than 50 hours a week for more than two weeks at a time (no crunch allowed), and I do sit down to predict "bad", "acceptable", "great" and "ideal" unit sales for the months after launch, both when we start development and then update those expectations again before launch.

So far, Kitfox has succeeded production-wise (no crunch), and we tend to sit along the Acceptable sales projections, and we even reached 80% Steam user reviews for Moon Hunters, all which is not flying colors but it IS successful enough.

Kitfox's Moon Hunters

We can keep making more games! That some people seem to like! We're living the dream! And hopefully getting better at it.

One important thing that people might not realise when they start out is that for ambitious creative people, you always want to improve.

So, as you go on and create more and more games, your base expectations of your performance may rise, even as the market shrinks or external factors make your goals more difficult to achieve.

Aaron Fothergill Co-founder Strange Flavour

The number of sales and feedback we get from players are our main metrics.
Aaron Fothergill

Is this a campfire "how do you define success"? In which case… to crush my bugs, see them driven before me and hear the lamentations of my players trying to beat just one more level…

Otherwise, it does rather depend on the project. The first general rule of thumb is that if lots of people play it and like it, it's a win.

The second is, "has this helped us survive another year?", so something that makes enough money to get us at least to finishing the next game or major update can be counted as a success.

Some projects (usually very quick ones) may be purely to see if we can find out if something specific will work. In those cases, success is more down to what sort of data we get back and whether the results can then be used in other games.

The number of sales and feedback we get from players are our main metrics. As the usual problem we have is getting people seeing our games, then the player feedback is usually a better metric for us as we can always work on more ways to sell a game that its players really like.

Pavel Ahafonau Co-founder Happymagenta

I'd second Aaron.

Success from an indie point of view is: make great games, earn enough to survive, learn, improve and to make more games.
Pavel Ahafonau

While every indie may dream of becoming a 10 to 20 to 50 to 100 people company that turns over billions a year, there are many things to learn first, so that growing to such an extent becomes (technically) possible - understanding and optimising metrics, monetisation, UA, how to scale up, etc.

I can bet that many of us do not pay much attention to those topics yet, because of many reasons, including lack of experience, budgets and overall naivety. Even given that there quite a lot of info on these topics is available on the net.

So, before an indie there is a long path to go until one can act on scale by effectively spending not just everything he earns on traffic and growth, but also money from investors and as big as $500 million bank loans, having a zero-to-very small actual margin to have a possibility to earn on stock price fluctuations or on a possible M&A deal in the future.

So, a success from an indie point of view is as simple as Aaron describes - make great games, earn enough to survive, learn, improve and to make more games :)

Erik van Wees Co-founder Arcane Circus

Something we've learned about "success" at Arcane Circus, when we released our game Crap! I'm Broke: Out of Pocket, is that you should define your success-goal as early in the project as possible.

Once we released our game we noticed we were adjusting our expectations regarding the sales. At the very beginning of our project we were hoping to settle on the idea of being able to recoup our initial investment.

During launch we were fortunate to have been featured on the main page by Apple which significantly impacted our sales. This led to us being able to make a return on our investment AND SOME.

Arcane Circus' game Crap! I'm Broke: Out of Pocket

An outsider would conclude: "Your goal has been accomplished, thus your game is a success". Yet, I did not... Our feature came and went and the sales went down, but we wanted more because we had already adjusted our expectations based on this new scenario that had just unfolded.

Weirdly, I couldn't feel joy... I didn't FEEL I had "succeeded". I knew the numbers meant we returned our investment but it didn't register to me as "Hooray! We succeeded!"

A success can seem very binary, you either succeed or you don't.
Erik van Wees

I was already thinking about the amount of money we would need to be able to hire freelancers for a next bigger project.

Dreaming of a potential office space and buying better equipment to really get our company going. Yes... "GROW THE COMPANY! THAT'S WHAT I WANT," whatever that entailed.

A success can seem very binary, you either succeed or you don't. It can be as simple as a single rule or as complex as a whole set of requirements.

Because we defined a clear initial goal early on in the project I was able to put things into perspective after my stupid brain tried to make me believe I failed (a.k.a: not succeeding.)

To conclude: make sure you can MEASURE your defined success and that the RULES ARE CLEAR FROM THE BEGINNING on whether something has succeeded or not.

It can also help if you take some time to distance yourself from the project before evaluating the initial goal(s).

Matthew Annal MD Nitrome

A lot of people talk about success as surviving...i.e. Making enough to be able to afford to make the next game. On the other end of the scale Happy Magenta talk of aspirations to become a 100-person mega corp. Both may be true to certain people that but for me it's somewhere in-between.

Success is feeling that you are making enough of a return not just to cover your next game, but that you can stop the feeling of money worries altogether.
Mat Annal

When Nitrome started out success would certainly have been making enough to make the next game but as time goes on (Nitrome has been running over 10 years) that is no longer the case.

Keeping yourself looking for the next scrap of income to keep you going weighs on you over time and as you move through life and gain commitments...families, partners, mortgages etc. it is certainly not a way to feel successful.

So, in my mind success is feeling that you are making enough of a return not just to cover your next game, but that you can stop the feeling of money worries altogether. Only then when your focus can be only on the games do I ever really feel successful.

Touching back on Pavel's point of mega success on the level of the big players in the industry... That was never an aspiration for me personally, as I realised the compromise in the sort of games I would have to make or the areas I would need to focus on would ultimately not make me happy. Realising the compromise, it was never included in my measure of success that I would ever reach that.

Having said that, measure of success changes over time, and once you comfortably reach one goal another comes to take its place at ever higher levels.

In some ways, I think that's led by fear of failing if opportunities are not taken in an ever-changing landscape and in others it may be simplify to keep the challenge fresh. What it also means however is that we may always be below what we perceive to be successful.

Nitrome's Nitrome Must Die

Sebastian Lindén CEO & Creative Director Qaos Games

To make success tangible it's necessary to set goals. For me, success aligns with my expectations, which often relate to assumptions or benchmarks against competitors or the industry as a whole.

It's important for me to make great games. The only metric I tend to look at in early phases of making games or helping others is retention rate.

For some developers, success would be to finally launch their game, for some it would be to make the next Candy Crush.
Sebastian Lindén

I think the key to success lies in making something people want. And to make something people want, users need to come back. Although Apple features can be charming, it's not necessarily sustainable nor relevant to express what your players think about your game.

In defining success, I think it's important to set measurable goals. These could be based on personal goals, expectations, stakeholders, assumptions, previous experience and whether you are looking for short-term versus long-term "success".

Do you want to build a Candy Crush, or do you want to build a game to get enough profits to jump on your next game?

Success goes hand in hand with satisfaction. For some developers, success would be to finally launch their game, for some it would be to make the next Candy Crush. For me, it's building products people love.

Dan Menard CEO Double Stallion

I agree with Matthew that simply surviving weighs down on you after a while. Especially considering that everyone has opportunity costs, and if you are not making games with your studio, you could always be doing something else.

We would feel a worse pressure if all of our efforts were expended simply to survive.
Dan Menard

When I started Double Stallion, I told myself I would go down the rabbit hole as far as it went, but without sacrificing my sanity or quality of life to chase an impossible dream.

Essentially, the studio exists to make cool stuff that will allow us not only to survive, but to thrive. Every year the co-founders and I run Double Stallion we have slightly higher expectations than the last year.

If the studio begins to falter because it can't keep up with those expectations, we're generally okay with walking away. The hope is that this keeps our decision making sharp and allows us to achieve our goals over time.

The pressure can be a lot to bear sometimes, but I think we would feel a worse pressure if all of our efforts were expended simply to survive.

We all want to develop our careers as we get older, and it's hard to do that if you are running in place and the studio is stagnating.

Deputy Editor

Ric has written for PocketGamer.biz for as long as he can remember, and is now Deputy Editor. He likes trains.

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