According to GameAnalytics, 95% of indie games are not profitable, and 80% of indie games operate at a loss. That’s pretty simple math. Your indie game has a 5% chance of being profitable.
Gone are the days when an indie game on a popular platform was a promise of rockstardom. These days, you can thank your lucky stars if your title just manages to break even. Why? There’s an ocean of reasons for failure that your indie game could sink quietly into.
This is my list of the top thirty-three reasons why indie games fail.
1. Your game sucks
Plain and simple. No offense.
If the reviews for your game are mostly negative, or overwhelmingly negative, you should question the output. Has anyone external actually told you that they absolutely love your game? Do you really love your game?
You may think this is extremely obvious, but you’d be surprised. Several indie devs choose a VR “success simulation” over reality. They refuse to look the ugly truth in the face.
Your game may suck because it was poorly crafted or because it’s artistically unappealing. Either way, marketing a crappy game can be a surefire sin that sends your indie title to the failure underworld.
Advice: Try again.
2. Your game is an orphan clone
While this could be one in a cluster of reasons for why a game sucks, it also deserves a spotlight of its own.
Gamers know that there are different kinds of clones. There’s the Evil Twin; an extremely hardcore version of a popular game or genre. There’s the Comic Clone; a parody of a popular game or genre. Gamers, who are generally open to diversity, can show love to all sorts of clones and offshoots.
Except an orphan clone. If your game is an uninspired mimic of a game or genre whose time has past, you’ve just birthed an orphan clone. Heck, it may even be well designed. But nobody really bothers with an orphan clone.
Advice: Add a sprinkle of originality.
3. You didn’t create a community around your game
Or, rather, you didn’t create your game around a community.
One thing that all successful games have in common is a community. A community that will test, play, critique, support, and promote your game. Your hype squad. It might sound hard, but success won’t happen without it.
Some indie teams try to take on the world in one fell swoop. What you really ought to do is build your community, one member at a time, with respect and gratefulness. They’ll conquer the world for you.
No community = no indie game success. Period.
Advice: Build a solid community, one supporter a time.
4. You didn’t consider crowdfunding
Crowdfunding can help you build a community and fund your game’s development at the same time. Of course, like all over-trodden paths to success, it’s not as smooth for the ones who follow.
You’ll now find lots of dissuasion about crowdfunding. Kind of like how people say making an indie game isn’t as lucrative as it once was.
The truth is that things seem to change more than they actually do. Follow the same old stencil model for crowdfunding and you’ll get what’s coming to you. Think out of the box, however…
Advice: Leverage your community for crowdfunding if it seems worthwhile and feasible.
5. You didn’t create a pre-launch marketing plan
One persistent illusion about success in general is that it happens overnight. Just think about it. You hardly get to witness the arduous journeys that indie teams undertook on their way to profitability. That kind of stuff is usually reserved for a movie or a documentary.
Without transforming into a prima donna, make yourself the protagonist of that movie. Don’t just dream about how you’ll promote your game when you launch. Go through the tough motions that will kickstart your indie game to success.
Have a solid plan for marketing your game before you launch. Or else.
Advice: Plan to engage your target audience before D-Day.
6. You didn’t create a launch marketing plan
Go HAM on your social media posts, shoot press releases to the seven continents, and spam that famous streamer to play your game. Leave no stone unturned, right?
Right. Only that’s not a marketing plan—you don’t need to plan that! That’s a spray-and-pray tactic that could literally worsen your game’s marketing appeal. No joke.
Your launch marketing plan should be both (1) an intensification and (2) an extension of your pre-launch marketing. At this point, you should be adding logs to a fire, not trying to spark wet matches.
Your launch marketing plan is probably weak because you didn’t have a pre-launch marketing plan. You might be doing too little, too late.
Advice: Know your target before you aim.
7. You don’t properly execute your marketing plan
There’s a fine line between planning and executing. You may be a meticulous planner but a lackadaisical executer. It’s entirely possible, just be realistic about it.
Don’t rest on your laurels after coming up with a marketing plan that everyone agrees is ingenious. Roll up your sleeves and start building on it. Make it stronger. You never know what awful twists the future may have in store.
If you’re really not confident about your ability to execute, try and recruit a friend or an agency that is. I hear you grumble. But you don’t need to find an agency with a long list of accolades. It could be a brand new agency, you’d be their first client, and they’d do everything to prove their worth. When in doubt, check with your community.
Fall into the trap of trusting your genius plan to the fates and you’ll live to regret it.
Advice: Make sure you possess or recruit the right talent to execute your marketing plan.
8. You didn’t find your Purple Cow
According to Seth Godin, creative advertising is less effective today because of clutter and advertising avoidance. People do everything from using ad blockers to mentally tuning out promotional materials.
We speak about marketing plans and promotions all the time. You should consider that these are just generic terms so that we understand the subject at hand. What you really need to do is find that one thing that makes your indie game stand out from all the rest.
Find your Purple Cow. Discover that je ne sais quoi about your indie game that will stop your audience in their tracks and command attention.
On the contrary, you can just be ordinary and uneventful. The sterling qualities of a flop.
Advice: Be remarkable.
9. You don’t consider third-party stores
Promoting your game through first-party platform marketplaces is a safe bet. Unfortunately, safe bets have the habit of returning low yields. Especially for indie games. Especially these days.
Consider navigating the more complex murky waters of third-party stores. Authorized, “double legit” third-party stores, of course.
Increasing your reach with third-party stores is just one extra cost-free way of getting your game in front of the right audience. Don’t totally rule out this option.
Insist on sticking to one outlet and your indie game may get smothered by the competition.
Advice: Expand your reach with legitimate third-party resellers.
10. You don’t fully leverage third-party stores
Don’t just dump your keys on the right third-party stores and expect healthy quarterly returns. If only life was so easy.
Be prepared to coordinate with your partner third-party stores and leverage their reach to support your promotion plans. This one effort is guaranteed to bring you good results. Be methodical, patient, and make it work.
Failing to leverage the reach of your third-party stores is like storing gold in a vault you never intend to open.
Advice: Leverage third-party stores to support holistic marketing campaigns.
11. You bundled too early
With the right tactical ingredients, you may be able to pleasantly surprise customers (and your pocketbook) by bundling your game early. Actually, you could even launch your game in a bundle!
But be warned. Unless you have some rounded experience and a few tricks up your sleeve, stay away from early bundling. As a rule of thumb, wait out at least the better part of a full year before placing your game in a bundle. The right timing is everything.
While bundling can get your indie game in front of thousands of new players, it also comes with the irreversible drawback of a steep early discount. Never bundle out of desperation. Always bundle with reason and purpose.
Advice: Bundling may devalue your game. Approach with caution.
12. Your game got smuggled onto the gray market
Ouch. Did you bundle your game too early? Were you sweet-talked into a community giveaway that went awry? Or did your game just go through a serpentine circuit and wind up in the wrong place?
Anyway, you’re dealing with a very frustrating issue. Those keycodes are out of your control. They will sell when they sell and the money won’t go to you either. The only thing you really can do is hope they sell fast. Can you figure out an engaging way to make that happen?
From the get-go, let your target audience know your authorized resellers. And, of course, be careful with your keycodes. A batch of keycodes in the gray market can have harmful side-effects for your brand and future promotions.
Advice: Cut your losses. Figure out how to mitigate gray market side-effects.
13. Your discounts are too stingy
Are 10-15% discounts really all you can afford to attract new players? Come on. Don’t be such a Scrooge! Fair enough, you should definitely be offering low discounts when you just launch your indie game. And if sales are going well then remain on course.
Still, sit down and crunch the numbers. You can probably manage to spend less on marketing and more on making your game’s price temporarily irresistible. That’s a win!
Stay close-fisted long enough and your target audience might simply have no interest by the time you slash prices.
Advice: Give before you receive.
14. Your discounts are too frequent
Aesop wrote a timeless fable called ‘The Indie Dev Who Cried Discount‘. Ever heard of it? Message me, I’ll send you a link. Anyways, the moral of the story is brilliant.
Offer a discount every two weeks and in less than two months no-one will pay attention. No-one. What were you thinking? How desperate were you trying to look?
Indie studios should approach sales and marketing like they’re one wavelength. A promotion is the crest of the wavelength. This is when you do everything to get your game in players’ hands. As the wavelength dives into a trough, create activities to get players playing your game. This will create word-of-mouth, drive conversation, and set up the next promotion.
Monitor your sales and marketing pulse like a physician or risk ending up totally out of rhythm with your target audience.
Advice: Read ‘The Indie Dev Who Cried Discount’ by Aesop.
15. Your discounts aren’t frequent enough
Scarcity keeps the price high, I know. And if your indie game’s sales are exceeding expectations, right on.
However, if you’re not hitting your sales KPIs it could be because you discount too infrequently. Maybe prospective customers find the price tag too high. Perhaps your sales partners don’t think your game deserves a feature promotion at its current cost.
Whatever the case, always remember that there’s a window of time in which your game will make the bulk of its revenue. Try and keep it top of mind while it lasts.
Don’t lose touch with your sales and marketing wavelength and blame it on spoiled customers.
Advice: Keep your indie game top of mind with regular promos.
16. You don’t have a post-launch marketing plan
Your indie game’s success will largely be defined by what you do in its first year. That’s English for “you should have a marketing plan covering your game’s first year”. Not marketing aspirations. Not dreams. A carefully crafted long-term plan.
The harsh reality is that things may go south. Perhaps you even have some contract work lined up just in case. The advantage of a post-launch marketing plan is freedom to turn your attention to other things with your indie game on cruise control. Perhaps you can even outsource that work.
Gear up for the long haul and increase your chances of reaping the greatest benefits. This will hold true whether your indie game is successful or a failure.
Advice: Failing to plan is planning to fail.
17. Your timing is all wrong
Don’t become the clown who does everything right at the wrong time. That’s funny. Indie game marketing is usually not.
Instead, train at becoming a detective of the times. Piggyback the right hashtags, echo the relevant memes, and wiggle your way into the zeitgeist.
This doesn’t mean you should become a fad groupie. But rocking the old fashion while others rock the latest fashion is often out of fashion. Just imagine it. There you are doing your marvelous Fall Promo while everyone else is celebrating Halloween.
Advice: Master the art of timing.
18. You still haven’t tried influencer marketing
In this case, you simply haven’t been paying attention. Twitch, YouTube Gaming, Facebook Gaming—the stampede at the game festival when that cosplayer showed up! Influencer marketing can turn soot into sugar.
Like David Kim said, Hollywood has been doing this for decades. And Hollywood knows how to make their sales. Influencer marketing in the games industry is a vibrant, evolving landscape. Make sure your indie game has a chance to graze on it.
You want eyes on your game so try and place it on what gamers spend over 900 million hours watching. Either that or you can dump your budget on adblocked PPC campaigns.
Advice: Tap into the power of influencer marketing to impact reach and sales.
19. You didn’t plan for expansions and DLCs
Kudos if you’ve had the good sense to stagger your promotions. But what exactly have you been staggering them with? Discounts, discounts, and more discounts? That’s more like daggering your promotions.
Special offers are the lifeblood of your promos. Done right, expansions and DLCs are some of the most special. Especially when they’re free.
If you’d made a long-term plan that was worth its weight in kilobytes, you would have identified the need for seasonal updates. Remember, stay in sync. An Easter Egg hunt, a new summer stage, an unlocked winter weapon—keep treats like those for your players!
While expansions and DLCs can be shameless cash grabs, indie studios should use them as intriguing updates. Don’t risk letting your audience get bored. Boredom is another cousin of Death.
Advice: Everybody loves a pleasant surprise.
20. Your game doesn’t have achievements
Now isn’t this a load of BS; achievements are just pointless gimmicks, right? True. There was even a time when Steam cracked down on achievement spam games. But in reality, that’s more like when they try to battle the onslaught of asset-flips. Clone doctors hate it, but quality and gamers favor it.
Achievements done well can add flavor and replayability to games with even the most basic mechanics. Your indie game may have missed the mark on commercial appeal, but there’s a tribe of achievement hunters who would love to play it anyways—provided it has decent achievements.
Ship a lovable but average experience that lacks achievements and you might be cutting a huge chunk out of your indie game’s saleability.
Advice: Use achievements creatively to improve saleability.
21. You don’t have a content strategy
There’s much more to a content strategy than regurgitating what you learned in social media school. Content marketing is your chance to shine. Don’t squander it on posting bland announcements about your latest bundle op or discount.
What you should be doing is sharing the experiences that your indie game creates. Players of the week, matchmaking co-op romance, snippets of your game—this is the stuff to embed in your content strategy.
You won’t break through the clutter with spiritless, lackluster content. Failing to break through the clutter is exactly how you fail.
Advise: Content is king, kiss the ring.
22. You overhyped your game
This article isn’t about finger-pointing so I refuse to call No Man’s Name. Suffice it to say that things can go terribly wrong when you overhype your game.
Some people respond to that with “Who cares? As long as my pockets are lined.” Me? I still call that a fail. Besides, events may not play out that way for your indie game.
You can easily tumble into a downward spiral of procrastination or coders’ block brought on by overhyped expectations. The worst-case scenario for an overhyped game is that your beloved community does a lot of negative promo. In the games industry, bad press is bad press. Your game could fail before it had a chance to succeed.
Advice: Be sure to exceed expectations instead of falling short of them.
23. Your game still sucks
Twenty-two points later and your game still sucks? You just don’t really care, do you?
If you’ve built a community, you’re not listening. If you’ve made a plan, you’re not executing. If your game sucked on day one and you haven’t even tweaked it till now, guess what?
Advice: Try again.
24. Your customer service is terrible
Did you think pre-launch is crunch time, and post-launch is vacation time? Got your Polynesian wifiless getaway all scheduled, huh?
That would explain why your Facebook response rate is so poor. Why that angry tweet with your Twitter handle racked up a dozen retweets. And excuse me, but I think someone squirted ketchup on your Metacritic page.
Belittle these things at your own peril. How convinced do you think a prospective player will be after stumbling upon telling information like that?
A happy customer is the one who evangelizes your game. An angry one does the polar opposite. Your terrible customer service can spell doom in an already saturated market.
Advice: Respect your customers, you owe them everything.
25. You handled a crisis badly
I will continue in the spirit of calling No Man’s Name and give you a dire warning. When you see crisis, grab the demon by the horns and handle it. It’s the smartest thing to do. The sooner you realize that, the better.
While a crisis threatens to destroy you, it also wields the power to lift you out of obscurity. Be courageous. Nothing good will come by slinking away into hiding and cowering behind excuses.
Advice: See everything through till the very end.
26. You’re not having fun
Making an indie game is your greatest dream. At least, it felt like that until you got into the business of it all. Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life? Yeah, right.
The real problem is that you’re not having fun anymore. You’re taking things too seriously. That might sound counterintuitive, but it’s often true.
Don’t lose that first flame, it’s the essence of your indie game. Money thoughts and creative thoughts usually take jabs at each other and that’s when fun starts to become tedious.
Dampen the mood and it will seep through into your indie game.
Advice: Sour sauce doesn’t sell. It has to be sweet and sour.
27. You didn’t/don’t consider publishers
Indie game studios have often badmouthed publishers. Think about it. You’ve probably seen a crowdfunding pitch where the devs made reference to the “corporate control of publishers” or something similar.
But some publishers are truly awesome. Have you heard about the publisher that vowed to support an indie studio despite poor sales? Imagine all indies had that kind of a buffer.
And while only 5% of indie games are profitable, a much higher percentage of publishers are making steady returns. They know what they’re doing. In fact, signing with a publisher could take care of most of the points on this list. You’d just have to fuss over your game. Yay!
Don’t judge by stereotypes, you’re bound to miss the shades in between.
Advice: Publishers can take care of business while you take care of play.
28. You put too much into too little
The easiest way to illustrate this point is with numbers. The following is a cursory, hypothetical scenario.
You raise $100,000 to develop your indie game.
Your goal is to develop a game that sells at $8.This means you need to push 12,500 units to break even. That’s a little over 1000 units per month in a fiscal year. Tough in today’s indie market, but doable.
Shortly after release, critics and the game community find your game to be worth $5. “It just doesn’t have enough content,” they say.
Your sales begin to reflect this and you drop prices to match demand. You succeed in selling 12,500 units.
Only, you sold most of them at $5 which means you’ve made roughly $62,500. You have to sell another 7,500 units just to break even.
What happened (in this slapdash tale)? You put too much into too little.
Your indie game might have cutting-edge everything but with no depth, it could still tank. If warmth and comfort is what you seek, choose fire over fireworks.
Advice: Choose content over embellishment.
29. You focused on the wrong technology
We celebrate when barriers are broken but sometimes that mobile game should’ve stayed mobile. Or at least, it would’ve stood a better chance at building a fan base on mobile before shifting to PC.
And if you have no clue how to program for multiplayer games, then perhaps your first game shouldn’t be a multiplayer. Or at least, recruit someone who is capable. Hey, just words of caution. No foul intended.
If the technology you’re focusing on can’t bridge the interaction between your game and your audience, you’re in trouble. Good ideas can morph into catastrophes with the wrong technological focus.
Advice: Crawl. Walk. Run.
30. You weren’t diverse enough
Diversity matters. The representational landscape is blossoming across the spectrum. Besides, white knights rescuing fair maidens from the clutches of dark magic is so cliché.
Of course, there will always be room for folklore. But this is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius! Formerly ostracized and marginalized groups of society are stepping out of the shadows and claiming their rightful places.
If the court of public opinion finds your game guilty of perpetuating some prejudicial trope, consider it in failure’s crosshairs.
Advice: Embrace diversity.
31. You haven’t tried transmedia storytelling
Why not? Gamers don’t play all the time. They read stories, comics, listen to music, and watch movies, too. (Or is that just me?)
Have you ever even considered how your indie game’s current IP could be expanded through transmedia storytelling? Have you done research on the programs and/or publishers that are out there to help you expand it?
Too often you only dream of your indie game growing into a huge franchise. What you need to do is figure out how that works. Charge into new territory.
Get your game noticed in ways that other indie studios aren’t even thinking about. Or stay in the tunnel and stuck in the traffic.
Advice: Widen the playing field if it’s too small.
32. You underestimated the bad, and overestimated the good
You may be one of the few who actually considered everything on this list up until this point. The problem is that your considerations may have had the wrong proportions.
Before the fact, it’s especially easy to shrug off doubts and concerns. You figure you’ll cross those bridges when you get there, and some heroic energy will carry you through. Deep down, you know you’re more talented than that other indie studio…
These sentiments are familiar. They’re usually what you feel right before a shoulda-woulda-coulda moment. Do you know why? You’re savoring victory before you claim it.
Advice: Don’t build castles in the sky. Unless you can make them float, of course.
33. You weren’t lucky
This is a tribute to those forlorn bearers of hidden gems. It’s a eulogy to those brave souls who weathered every storm the indie game development odyssey could hurl at them and held their own. While they may never know the joy they gave us, we salute them. We honor them.
After all, what is more indielicious than a game that no-one knows but is a solid 10/10.
Advice: Be proud. Fortune is a fickle god.