How to survive as an indie developer in mobile games
This is not a recipe for instant mobile success, but I hope it’s an inspiration for anyone who is passionate about making mobile games
I’m a Belgian independent developer and I have been making browser and mobile puzzle games full-time for almost 10 years. This last year I have been getting lots of messages from students and fellow developers asking me for advise on how to make a living as an indie developer from developing mobile games, so that’s why I am writing this post.
This is not a recipe for instant mobile success, but I hope it’s an inspiration for anyone who is passionate about making mobile games and is interested in my experiences.
You might know me from the games SUGAR, SUGAR (Android, iOS), a game where you must lead hundreds of sugar crystals to coffee cups by drawing on the screen, or FACTORY BALLS (Android, iOS), a puzzle game in which you have to produce balls by combining all kinds of tools.
My most popular game up until now is last year’s mobile puzzler YELLOW (Android, iOS) which recently reached 5 million downloads on Google Play.
Stop dreaming about that one big hit
Now is it possible to survive as an indie developer making mobile games in a market where each day tons of new games are released that are endless variations of the same ideas and that is dominated by big companies pushing games where the main game-mechanics are focused on making the biggest possible profit?
Well yes I believe you can, but first things first: stop dreaming about that one big hit, your masterpiece game you will work on for years that will make or break your indie development career.
My advise is to make lots of small games. It will take the pressure off of having to make that one big hit game and I will explain that the life of a small mobile game can be much longer than you think and how you can benefit from that. So instead of focusing on making a big hit it’s more important to focus on your whole catalogue of games instead.
Having well-defined constraints drives creativity
I work solo, I make the graphics and the music and do the coding for my games. That’s why my games are rather small projects, I try to have projects that don’t take more than 3 to 4 months to complete. This works ideally for me because when I get to the end of one project, I start getting restless to start working on something new.
As a solo developer you can’t master all the game development tools. See the limited knowledge or limited tools you master not as a disadvantage but as a strength to get you started as it is proven that having well-defined constraints drives creativity.
And talking about constraints, forcing yourself to use a limited number of elements for one particular game further helps to keep a project rather small and to stay focused.
Cherishing these limitations is how I come up with the ideas for most of my games.
As to the monetization strategy I use, I have a mixture of premium games and free games, and I plan to continue with this mix.
In my free games I hate to use interstitial ads that break the flow of the game so I often use what I think is the most elegant way to integrate ads, which is to only show advertisements when the player wants a hint on how to solve a certain puzzle.
I also provide an in-app purchase to get rid of these ads, but I see it more as a way to support my game making for people who are enjoying my games, a way to show appreciation for my work.
The life of a small mobile game can be much longer than you think
Now why do I think the mobile games market is so interesting for small indie games. Well when you read about launching and selling a game, you typically read you have to create a lot of interest and buzz around the release of your game and must try to sell the most copies of your game just after that release, because your sales will decrease and if you are lucky you will keep on selling copies of your game but less and less each day.
Well none of my mobile games made that big impact when I launched them and they were hardly if not at all covered by press.
Have a look at the sales curve of one of my premium games:
It looks very different from a long tail curve with a big impact on the release day.
How do I achieve these sales curves? Well, by wisely dividing my development time between making new games and giving care to my older games and by using some features of the mobile app stores to my advantage.
The spikes in my sales curve have various reasons.
First of all, a mobile game is never fully done if you don’t want it to be. It is not packaged, sent into the world and out of your control. No, you can make an update any time you want. You can release an updated version with a new level set, you can completely overhaul the GUI, and so on and each time you make an update to your game that is an opportunity to bring back some attention to your game. You can talk about it on your social media channels, you can write a blogpost, you can contact the press about it.
The second reason why I believe the life of a mobile game can be much longer, and this is even more important I think than the updates, is that with each new small game you make, you get the opportunity to bring back some attention to all those other small games you have made before.
I released FACTORY BALLS (Android, iOS) in 2013 with 44 levels, but I kept working on it for small periods of my time during the years, changing the GUI, changing the controls based on remarks from reviews, adding new levels.
The current version has 164 levels and I’m planning to bump that number to 200 with the next update.
With each release I try to make the game better.
Not every game should or can be expanded with new levels or content. You can release a sequel or a closely related game, like I am doing with my color puzzles series.
I didn’t add more levels to my YELLOW (Android, iOS) game, it wouldn’t benefit the game, it felt like a finished whole.
But still I felt I wanted to tell more. So I released sequels called RED (Android, iOS) and BLACK (Android, iOS). People who don’t know YELLOW but discover RED or BLACK and enjoy it will automatically go and check out the previous game YELLOW.
As I have a past in browser games, something else that I do and that does not cost so much effort is to make a smaller browser version of my mobile games. These browser versions are most of the times smaller than the mobile versions because many levels wouldn’t make sense in a browser because they are specifically designed for touch screen. But I make them with the purpose to direct more players that enjoy my games to the mobile versions.
A no-brainer is of course to have a download button in each game to your other games. Cross promotion is very effective in mobile games, especially if you pay attention to the consistent branding of your game catalogue.
Even if my games are completely different games, they are ‘Bart Bonte games’ and I use my name as a brand for my games.
This cross promotion is also something you get for free in the App Store and the Google Play store. On the game page in the stores your other games appear automatically, and I believe a lot of games discovery happens this way.
If people know who is behind a game, and they like the game, they will go and check if there are other games by that person.
Ratings and reviews matter, pay attention to them
Another prominent feature of games in the mobile games stores is ratings and reviews. Pay attention to them, especially the low ratings.
There is this fantastic feature of Google Play that as a developer you can reply to a customer review, and that reply ends up in the mail box of that person.
So if you get a 1 star review, reply to that review, you have nothing to loose. I sometimes get 1 star ratings from people saying level x in my game is not possible therefore they think it’s a stupid game and they are leaving a 1 star review. Well in a lot of cases when I reply and give the player an extra hint to solve the level, the player will update the review and rating, because he/she didn’t expect a personal reply from the developer, so turning such a 1 star rating into a 5 star rating is a huge opportunity not to be missed.
For some of my games I even made it a sport to reply to every single review, with a thank you message or with a note that if they enjoyed the game they should check my other games, and now I even get 5 star ratings for the game from people because they see I am replying to other people’s reviews.
Another obvious reason to pay attention to your reviews is because you can report reviews that don’t follow the app store’s policies. So if people start swearing in reviews or they start talking off topic, or promoting other games, they are not following the app store’s policies, and if you report that review, it will get deleted and that’s another 1 star review gone, and one step closer to your perfect 5.0 rating.
And why is it important to have these high ratings? The recommendation system of the mobile stores! This is especially the case for the Google Play store: when you open the store you always get a list of recommended games that might interest you. That list is automatically generated and it suggests highly rated games in the game genres you have played before. For me that is the number one source where new players that didn’t know my games before discover my games.
Do your own promotion and press by building up a following
A last piece of advise when you want to follow the path of indie development is to do your own promotion and press by building up a following. Don’t miss out on a chance to let people subscribe to your social media channels or to your mailing list. This mailing list is the most important tool to me when I release a new game. Social media is so quick. When people don’t check your channels within an hour or two since you posted a message about your game, they will sometimes never ever see it. With the mailing list on the other hand, the mail will sit in their mailbox until they have time to check and read it.
My games are honest, not fooling around with the player or using shady monetization tricks
So to summarize this is how I work: I’m slowly building a catalogue of games, branding them uniformly and caring about my older games by keeping them updated. My games are honest, not fooling around with the player or using shady monetization tricks. Key to improving my ratings in the app stores is paying attention to every player’s review and dealing with negative feedback because there will always be some truth even in the hardest criticism.
I believe right now is the best time to create for mobile. In the abundance of endless variants on the same games where the mechanics are focused on making the biggest possible profit, your game will automatically stand out when you make something personal and different. People are craving to find something different, so get to work and tell me what you’ve made!