Lately I've really wanted to take some time to sit down and share my thoughts about what it means to me to be an indie game developer, but I've honestly been quite busy just being an indie game developer. One thing's for sure, the cost of following your dreams is usually paid in blood, sweat, and tears (though mostly just a drain on your bank account).
For those of you who don't know, I've spent roughly the last three months developing and releasing my first indie game for iOS called Iceberg Frenzy. I created the game as an entry in the Stencylworks Winter Game Competition to promote their new development platform, iStencyl. I won third place in the competition which was pretty cool, but I was honestly more interested in just getting my game published on the iOS App Store. From the start I was pretty much set on releasing the game for free while testing the waters with iAd support. I was mostly curious just how many downloads I could get with a game that no one's heard about from a developer that no one knows about, and my best bet was to make the game free.
I really had no expectations for how the game would do once released, but part of me hoped that it might generate enough ad revenue to offset the costs of development (mainly the iOS Developers License and the iStencyl Pro subscription which allowed me to publish to the App Store). It's been a few weeks since the game was released on iPad and I'm far from ever recouping my expenses, but I'm really okay with that. This is my passion and my day job still supports me financially so I don't really feel like I've failed. In fact, far from it. Everything about Iceberg Frenzy has felt like a success.
First of all, I've gained extremely valuable experience about publishing to the App Store and dealing with Apple's developer pipeline and Game Center integration. All of those things seemed like monumental obstacles for a hobbyist like myself, but I researched everything and came through the other side virtually unscathed (except for a few bruises from Game Center).
Secondly, I've drastically improved my programming skills. Now, some of you familiar with Stencylworks might cry foul and say, "That's not real programming". If that's your opinion then please go download Iceberg Frenzy and tell me that it's not a real game. It might be simple, but Stencylworks is not some template program that spits out cookie-cutter games with different graphics. I'm extremely proud of what I was able to accomplish and I know that my next project will be even better.
Most importantly of all though, I am more driven and motivated than I have ever been. This entire experience has proved to me that I can make games on my own and I can make money doing it (though not very much yet). I'm convinced that if I stick with this long enough it is only a matter of time until I create success for myself. And I'm not even just equating success with income. To me success comes from a place where I am fulfilled in my work.
Now, to be fair I should probably elaborate on some of the downsides of indie development, and trust me, there are quite a few. Making indie games often feels a lot like work, and even worse, work that you probably won't get paid for. That can be somewhat depressing at times. It's also clear to me that it takes an extremely large time investment before you will really see that investment recouped. Your time is valuable and you have to be careful how you manage it. One thing is for sure, I have lost a lot of sleep. I lay awake in bed thinking about Iceberg Frenzy. The only way I can see to get around this fact is persistence. It might seem like bashing your head against a brick wall at times, but stick with it long enough and you are likely to break through the other side eventually (I think I've only really scratched the surface, but this is something I commonly hear from other developers).
Probably the biggest disappointments can come from the financial side of things. As of the time of this writing, Iceberg Frenzy has been downloaded nearly 2,500 times (thanks in part to a fairly successful post in the r/indiegaming subreddit) and I've made a whopping total of $4.84 from in-game ads. I even expected this with my first title and it can still be disappointing. Double Fine can start a Kickstarter page for a game that doesn't exist yet and people will pay them over 1 million dollars, but I can't even get people to play a free game on a device they carry around with them everywhere. The problem here is just making that comparison in the first place. I'm probably never going to make the next Angry Birds or Minecraft, but that doesn't mean I won't be successful. Some people might look at my download figures for Iceberg Frenzy and think they are abysmal, but I look at them and think, "Hey, over 2,000 people have played my game! 2,000!". To me that's a big deal. The best I can do is try to make an even better game next time.
I'm really curious what will happen to my number of downloads once I update Iceberg Frenzy to a universal app that will work on iPhones and iPods, but I'm really ready to move on to the next thing. I would really like to finish the level design work for my long in development flash game, Laser Missile Bomb, but I also have plans for a small educational game for kids on iOS. Right now seems like a great time to experiment around on the App Store when I really have nothing to lose.