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Casual Connect USA 2018: The importance of failure in indie game development

by Sean Webster on Jan 18, 2018

Developers from all over the world descended on Disneyland this week for the annual Casual Connect conference to discuss all things mobile. One recurring topic we wanted to discuss was how independent and smaller developers can survive in a crowded apps market where the Apple’s App Store has over 3 million apps and Google Play has over 3.5 million apps.

For our panel, we spoke with Julian Erhardt of Fluffy Fairy Games, Josh Nilson from East Side Games, and Eiso Kawamoto from Metamoki about their unique stories and experiences navigating the intricacies of the mobile games market.

Don’t be afraid of failure

The biggest theme we unearthed during our talk with these indie developers is just how much failure is part of the growing process. No one gets it right the first time and you won’t get far if you’re afraid to start from scratch.

“We suck at [failing] because we fall in love with every game and think we can fix it.”

“We know the market moves fast, so we have to move fast,” said Erhardt. “We set a deadline and quota we want to hit for KPIs, like day 1 retention. If we didn’t hit it we would just kill the project.”

“We suck at [failing] because we fall in love with every game and think we can fix it,” said Nilson. There’s always a temptation to fix a game with things like in-game events but indie devs have to define the line at which point they know they have to scrap it.

“One important thing is that if you’re developing your first game and it fails, don’t give up,” Erhardt urged. “Try again. You will learn from your failures.”

KPIs indie devs must track at launch

One of the main ways indie devs can make sure that they’re not pouring resources into a failing game is to track key performance indicators (KPIs). But with so many KPIs to monitor, it can be difficult to know which ones to track specifically.

While each game genre is different, there are best practices to follow. “We look for a day 1 retention rate of about 60 to 70%,” said Erhardt. “We’re still aiming for that 10,000 DAU so that we can get an accurate pool to know if [the game] is doing well or not,” Nilson added.

“You need to make sure you really look at play session length and number of video ads consumed,” continued Nilson. These KPIs can tell you if your game is sticky and you can modify your monetization from there. Nilson also urged indie devs to talk to other devs and ad networks for advice about launch strategies. These connections have a lot of experience and can provide valuable guidance.

“We look for a day 1 retention rate of about 60 to 70%.”

“We don’t have the luxury of soft launching a game,” added Kawamoto. “We couldn’t waste months of salaries figuring out what KPIs would work for us.” While tracking KPIs should be a best practice, luck and throwing caution to the wind are factors too. One way to mitigate risk is to open a dialog with your most passionate players to find out quickly what is or isn’t working.

Communication with fans goes far beyond gauging interest your launch strategy. Having a open line of communication with your players keeps retention up and the biggest advocates for your game happy.

For example, in-game events need to be clearly communicated to players before they happen. “You want to make sure that you are clearly communicating to your player what to expect,” said Nilson. “Players like to have a schedule and while you can have one-off events, you have to communicate that when you’re rolling it out.” Additionally, East Side Games hosts weekly Twitch or Facebook Live streams to interact with their fans and to get immediate feedback.

The biggest mistakes indie game devs make

Every developer’s story is different and learning from mistakes ultimately makes a developer stronger. We asked our panelists if they could go back, what was the one thing they would change.

For Nilson, it was trying to rewrite an IP with the game Trailer Park Boys: Greasy Money. “We scrapped so much writing that we thought was funny, but fans just wanted to relive the IP.” Nilson also talked about using consultants to vet their games’ launch strategies. “We don’t always listen to consultants but we always want that information so we know what our KPIs are and what to look for,” he added.

We scrapped so much writing that we thought was funny, but fans just wanted to relive the IP.”

Additionally, indie devs should do everything in their power to stay compliant with laws and app store rules. “That’s where consultants come in,” said Nilson.” If you’re doing a kid’s game, you have to make sure you’re COPPA compliant. For indie devs, having your game pulled even for a day can be devastating for the business.

Erhardt reiterated his point about not fearing failure, saying, “Don’t be afraid of killing [your game] if you see that the market doesn’t like it.”

One last piece of advice from Nilson is to keep some cash at hand to scale your game. “You have to have 50% of your budget on launch because you’re going to be buying ads, support, and extra servers. Not having this money is bad because you’ll need it if your game scales too fast,” he cautioned.

Each of the indie devs we spoke with had different stories about their successes and failures, but there were things that remain constant, like not being afraid of starting from scratch or learning from your mistakes. While it may hurt to see your ideas flop, it’s worse when the business is in jeopardy from putting too many resources into a failing product. Indie devs should also leverage every resource they have, whether it’s talking to other developers or outside consultants for their opinions, and ad networks for launch advice.

Sean Webster is AppLovin’s senior director of Business Development.

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