Jeff Vogel of Spiderweb Software wrote about being an indie game bottom feeder. He breaks it down into a few principles.
Stop worrying about piracy and worry about being a person your customers want to support
He talks about coming to terms with the fact that piracy happens. Interestingly, he finds the best way to “combat piracy” isn’t to pass onerous laws such as SOPA but to be a decent person that your games’ players would feel good supporting.
If you are creating an ultra-casual, appeals-to-everyone kind of game, you can get away with charging less than a dollar or even releasing the game for free and using ads or selling add-ons. But if you’re appealing to an underserved niche, you must charge more for your game. Having 5,000 customers pay you only $1 means you won’t last long. The good news is that your customers are willing to pay for it.
Find the customers who are looking for what is no longer being made
Most small business advice out there says that you should find a niche, Vogel’s advice is similar, except he points out that there are plenty of game genres that used to be wildly popular and are no longer of interest to the larger companies in the game industry. Those are now underserved niches. While the popularity of these now-niches has dropped below the point where EA or Activision would find it worth their time, there are enough people who still want to play those kinds of games to make it profitible for an indie.
Vogel mentions the Atari 2600, which was my first game console. I remember playing games such as Frog n’ Flies, Yar’s Revenge, Solar Fox, and even E.T for hours on end.
And the Atari 2600 is still fun. It’s just not fun enough. The art of game design has progressed far beyond it, and Pitfall doesn’t have what it takes to compete anymore. But you know something? All of those old games can be updated. All of those old genres have tons of fans out there. They just don’t know they’re fans yet.
So does this mean you should clone old games and expect to make tons of money so long as you’re not a jerk?
No, and not just because the clones have been done already.
You can take inspiration from old games that are otherwise still fun today. Take the original Mario Bros for example. It was a platformer with a static level design, and you could collect coins and hit enemies from below before knocking them out. Now look at Super Crate Box, a platformer with a static level design in which you collect crates and use a variety of weapons to fight off enemies. Tell me where you think it partly takes its inspiration from. Yet, it plays very differently. The developers didn’t create a Mario Bros clone. They did something very different.
I think Vogel’s approach sounds similar to Dan Cook’s “reinventing the genre from the root” approach.
It occurred to me that game design, like any evolutionary process, is sensitive to initial conditions. If you want to stand out, you need to head back in time to the very dawn of a genre, strike out in a different direction and then watch your alternate evolutionary path unfurl.
Perhaps having kept my Atari 2600 all these years was a much better idea than I thought.