Indie gaming has become a huge industry in the past few years since all you need to do is code up the next Flappy Bird clone and throw it into the mobile store to become an indie developer. Crowdfunding websites like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo make it even easier when you don’t even have to pay for the development costs yourself. It makes it seem pretty easy to become an indie developer, right?
Back in February, I founded an indie game studio called BlankMediaGames LLC with a good friend of mine, Joshua Brittain. It was always my dream to start my own game company, ever since I played Diablo at the tender age of 8 (thanks Dad!). I used to wonder “How in the heck do you make a game like this?”
Now that I’m a game developer and co-founder of a gaming company, I know how to make games – but there’s more to games than just knowing how to make one.
After our company was founded, we put the game into Alpha. Town of Salem is a murder mystery-style browser game, based on the party games Werewolf/Mafia and inspired by the Starcraft II mod Mafia.
Josh had worked on it for years during college, but had to shelve it when he started working at the same local game company as myself (non-compete clauses, and all that). We worked together for about a year and a half before I left. Upon my departure, he asked me to take up the Town of Salem mantle, since he couldn’t work on it.
Six months later, he left too, wanting to follow the path of the Indie with me. That’s when the trouble began. Other Indie game developers will know how this goes…
Why Kickstarter’s a Doubled-Edged Sword
So, we had a product; that was good. It was in a playable state – even better.
Then, we thought to ourselves: “How in the hell can we finish this game without any money?”
That’s where Kickstarter came in.
In the past, Josh had tried – and failed – to get funded; but now that I was on the team, I thought we had a good chance. All we had to do was make a kick-ass video for the Kickstarter. The catch was that we are programmers, not public speakers, not cameramen, not Adobe Premier bad-asses and not A/V techs. How were we supposed to make an awesome video?
Simple: we had to wear hats.
Lots of people talk about wearing different “hats” during things, meaning taking on different aspects of the process. We had to sit down and make an awesome trailer. I had to get in front of the camera, and attempt to not sound like a babbling idiot. No-one tells you before you set up a company that you have to wear every hat [Editor’s Note – you can say that again]. You and your small team have to be able to do everything. Which means, you have to take time away from what you’re really good at doing (for me, programming) to learn how to use things like Premier, Photoshop, and start doing marketing/advertising. We were doing this Kickstarter so we could finish the game, not to take more time away from working on it!
The first few days
So, we had our awesome video, our marketing was in progress, Town of Salem was live and people started playing it. We had all of our friends and family telling everyone about it and we had a pretty successful first day. It was good. Then, it wasn’t good. We stopped receiving the steady stream of backers after a few days. We were off of the recently created list that Kickstarter has. We tried to contact Youtubers, game reviewers and other websites. We had a couple of very small YouTube videos put up but it wasn’t enough to get the traction we were looking for. The game got up to about 45 concurrent users during peak hours. While we loved the guys that were playing, it left us with a sour taste in our mouths. Did we screw up another Kickstarter? Did people not want our game? Why weren’t guys in suit walking up to us, offering us tons of money for the gold mine we knew we were sitting on?
The halfway point
At this stage, Josh and I were feeling beaten and broken. We were second-guessing ourselves and seeing all of our dreams start to crumble in front of us. I don’t think I have ever felt so helpless. Thankfully, someone was watching out for us. Amongst all of the marketing and advertising I was doing on various forums and e-mailing different video game websites, the awesome guys here at Continue Play got back to me. They were extremely excited about the game and it rekindled our hope that we would succeed. The article brought a lot of traffic to the Kickstarter.
Around the same time, we got noticed by some very popular Youtubers: OhmWrecker, LordMinion777, EntoanThePack, TheRPGMinx, dlive22891, and TheTeshTube made some really awesome Let’s Play videos and promoted the game on their Twitter feeds. LordMinion777, a pretty big Youtuber with almost 100k subscribers, said “You guys need to play this game … you will not be able to stop. I have not slept in three days”. Hearing that and watching the other awesome videos the tubers put out, we had a HUGE influx of people.
Too much of a good thing is a bad thing
We jumped from an average of 200 daily users with a max of 45 concurrent users to about 2,000 daily users with a peak of over 800 concurrent users. Then the next day, it happened again. We went up to about 4,000 daily users and over 1,000 concurrent users.
Continue Play, combined with the Youtubers, had made our game popular overnight. We now had full games going all the time, never dropping below 200 users online at any time. It was like Angels descended from heaven and said “Here you go bro, you’ve been working hard so we got your back”.
Here comes the bad news…
We weren’t prepared. To reference World of Warcraft, we should have listened to Illidan. Our servers started to crash every hour or so. The stress was too much for our dinky little server. Just look at these charts to understand how much we increased from our normal activity:
We spent the next 3 days working the longest days I have ever experienced. We were trying to juggle fixing the server crashes as quick as possible, upgrading our server and trying to keep up the hype our game had gained. It’s all kind of a blur at this point. Somehow we managed to both fix our server issues and, at the same time, not die. It was a good kind of hell.
And so it comes to this…
We’re still hoping that our Kickstarter will pull through and, even if it doesn’t, we now have a player base that’s supporting what we do. Truthfully, that’s the hardest thing to get as an indie developer. Building a community is extremely difficult and is basically impossible without some help and we’re so glad that someone out there noticed us.
A lesson to all the potential indie game developers reading this: Be prepared to put your soul on the line. If you’re like us, quitting your job and pursuing your dream, you have to know what to expect. I hope that this insight into our experience has given you an idea of what to expect. There’s a lot more to this story, but that’s for another time. I haven’t been trying to scare people away from going Indie but just remember: becoming an indie developer isn’t a job. It’s a way of life.
[Editor’s Note: Blake Burns is a guest columnist and in no way affiliated with Continue Play. His views are entirely his own. You can check out the Kickstarter campaign for Town of Salem here]