Never Say Indiepocalypse: 3 Amazing Indie Mobile Game Devs Who Defy Gravity
Thirty years ago the geeky kids lucky enough to have consumer gaming devices — an Atari 2600, Commodore 64, NES or even the mall arcade — became the first generation to believe they could grow up to make their own games.
Back then, it was unimaginably difficult to actually become a game developer, though. There were no internet courses, no colleges for game design and no “industry.” The earliest developers just wrapped their games in plastic sandwich bags and mailed them to stores in hopes of selling a few copies.
In the years to follow, the “industry”grew up and produced a lot of successful small developers along the way. A few, like Atari and Origin, became giants, choking out the competition.
And then they collapsed.
This pattern of booms and crashes in the gaming industry has made people excited to predict the next Indiepocalypse. These theorists argue its inevitable that mobile games — having grown in eight years from nothing to a $37 billion industry — will see a bursting bubble in the near future. Mobile games, they argue, are increasingly dominated by big companies, and many indies already complain they can no longer survive — not unlike the narrative running rampant in Silicon Valley right now.
One thing that is different in this boon, when compared to boons of yore, is that there’s a crush from the other side, too (e.g. not just he “big guys”). It’s now incredibly easy to get into game development, meaning a lot more “little guys” are vying for market share. The last five years have produced 390 colleges with game development courses, exponential growth in self-publishing platforms, software that allows anyone to create games without writing a single line of code and a lot more young users who grew up thinking they want to make games.
If the Indiepocalypse is real, then the success of indies will forever come down to luck. A few, in Flappy Bird-style, fly high while everyone else suffers in the dust. But if there’s no Indiepocalypse, then the following reasonably skilled indies will be able to do well, not just once, but in a repeating fashion — continuing to master the growing mobile game market.
Pomelo Games: The skilled newbies
Imagine starting out as an indie game developer without any experience in Uruguay, a country without a game dev community and nobody to teach you?
Pomelo Games matches each and all of those handicaps, yet stands two for two on successes. Its recent arcade exploration game, Mars: Mars, has even been spotlighted by Apple. Today, Pomelo’s games have over 3.4 million downloads.
Pomelo’s first game, Bullet Boy, started out as a paid game meant to be sold on the App Store. “Halfway through we decided to switch to free-to-play because we were scared that premium games were really hard to get noticed,” says Federico Romero, a Pomelo founder. Bullet Boy stretched into its second year in development as the team labored to change the business model.
Quality became a mantra, but Romero wondered whether it was enough. “We were confident that we were making a good game, but we were worried about the way it would perform. There are tons of games released every week and a lot of them don’t make it.”
Luckily, Pomelo had an ace up its sleeve: the company used to be a work-for-hire software company. Now, half the team was continuing that business through supporting the game devs. “The team that was making the games was pretty free to not worry about launching by a particular date, and really focused on making the best game they could.” When Bullet Boy finally went live, two and a half years after development began, the team was relieved to see an App Store feature followed by a flood of downloads.
Unlike some games whose massive amount of downloads don’t translate to cash, Mars: Mars’ players were luckily receptive to ads. “Most of our revenue comes from rewarded ads, we don’t use any other kind. Players engage a lot with them; and even our players who don’t like ads tolerate them,” says Romero.
Romero says there’s no secret formula to mobile game greatness. He attributes Pomelo’s success to grit and a global standard of polish. “If you’re in a small country that doesn’t have a lot of video game companies, it doesn’t matter if you’re making the best games locally,” warns Romero. “You’re competing in a global market.”
Qwiboo: The solo cowboy
London-based developer Qwiboo is one-man team Vladimir Roth. Roth started his career with nothing more than a phone. “I always wanted to be a game dev but it was really difficult to get into the industry. Then the iPhone came out with the App Store, and suddenly it was possible for anyone to make silly, small games.”
Roth’s first hit, a premium game called Bike Baron, is permanently featured on the iOS Hall of Fame. The game was made in partnership with fellow dev Mountain Sheep, but Bike Baron’s programming and game design are all Roth. Since its launch in 2011, the game has scored, according to Roth, over 10 million downloads, and about $1.5 million in revenue. And Roth’s most recent game, the free-to-play, Ball King, has made over $200,000 since launch in 2015.
Roth made sure he had a year’s worth of savings before jumping into game development: “I see people quitting their job on a whim. I definitely would not recommend that. I was thinking of it a long time, and it took me longer than a year to get everything in place and start out as an indie, and even then I had contracts lined up in case it didn’t go well.”
Luckily, those savings have never been needed. A keen focus on Apple’s styling is what helped put Roth’s games on the front page. “I go for quality instead of quantity, and that ties nicely into Apple’s way of thinking,” he says.
Being an indie developer also gave Roth the freedom to play around with monetization. He modeled part of Ball King after popular indie hit, Crossy Road. Both rely heavily on rewarded ads. “Rewarded ads are very scary for huge studios because you never show ads until the user decides to watch. When you open their games sometimes the first thing you see is the ad for another game. It’s because they need to maximize their profits. Not us indies!”
When asked about what he thinks of the industry today, Roth is realistic, but not too worried: “It’s much harder now than it was before, because there are more people making games. But there are also more players, so to me it feels that even the small games can get some players on board.”
DoDreams: The calculating experts
DoDreams is on a slightly different level than Pomelo Games and Qwiboo. For one, they’ve been around a bit longer. Founded in 2008, the Helsinki-based studio is now made up of 18 people. It started focusing on mobile in 2013 after traditionally making PC MMO games.
At the helm is marketing professor turned gaming studio CEO, Erik Pöntiskoski, who was recruited out of a teaching job he’d taken after his first tech venture failed. “A friend of mine who was one of the cofounders had been following my startup career. It was interesting, because I felt I’d failed as an entrepreneur. But when I chatted with him I realized I’d gained a lot of experience validating concepts early on with customers.”
Unlike many indie studios, DoDreams is run by a businessman who, at least at the beginning, had little idea of how to make games. What he did know was managing developers. “My job was simple, it was to give them time and peace-of-mind to make these games. I knew eventually when we just try stuff, we’ll become better. We decided with the team what the boundaries were for experimentation. Quite quickly, those boundaries define what kind of games you’re going to get.”
DoDreams experienced failure at first, launching six games before Pöntiskoski saw hit potential in the last: the multiplayer racing game Drive Ahead, which he says currently has a staggering 30 million downloads on iOS and Android.
Drive Ahead’s appeal is a mixture of unique game mechanics and the fact that players like to share and watch clips of their friends getting bonked over the head with cars. “It’s a fast-paced physics game where you can really show off your skills, so our fans love sharing clips from the game. In addition to that, the clips are very entertaining, so people also love watching them,” says Pöntiskoski.
Knowing a 30-million strong user base doesn’t come together everyday, DoDreams wasted no time using Drive Ahead’s players to jumpstart their next game: “Last summer we introduced a soccer game mode as a special event into the original game. As soon as it was out, people started begging us not to take it away.”
And thus Drive Ahead! Sports was born, a soccer-on-wheels game vaguely similar to the popular eSports hit, Rocket League. In October, it was one of the top 100 racing game in 99 countries on iOS, and the studio is hard at work on two new games under the Drive Ahead! franchise.
Keep up the hard work
Undeniably, today is a hard time to be a game developer. But by no means should indie devs stop creating. While there’s no secret formula, developers like Pöntiskoski, Romero and Roth prove that hard work will still do the trick.
Game development is an iterative process. Pöntiskoski advises devs to just take smaller steps. “Be happy for small improvements,” he says. “If your first game got 1,000 downloads and the next got 10,000, you should be happy and celebrate, then sit down and analyze it. Why’d we get 10 times more downloads?”
Don’t lose all hope if a game you had high hopes for falls short anyway. Roth tells devs that it’s okay to fail efficiently: “Don’t worry if your second or third game doesn’t do well. I see so many people betting everything on one game; there’s a huge chance it will fail. Keep it small and with quick turnaround,” he says. Eventually, devs who have failed learn to tilt the pinball machine of fate.
And on naysayers warning small development teams away from making games? “Don’t listen to people who say don’t try,” says Pöntiskoski, “Anybody has the right to be in this business, and you earn that right by making great games.”