OCT. 1, 2015 • The arrival of smartphone app stores and crowd-funding options for raising capital have given independent developers a wealth of options to develop and publish content on their own during the last eight years. Yet acquiring and servicing consumers is a critical competency that cannot be taken lightly. Observing the laments of developers who fell short of their aspirations after finishing their games, last August Leonie Manshanden and Tim Ponting launched IndieDevKit, an online resource to connect indie developers with information and service providers that can boost the prospects of their new games.
Manshanden owns SouthPaw Strategy, a firm providing full marketing, operational and business services. Prior to that she was vice president at Irrational Games. Ponting is the director of Renegade PR and once worked at Activision Inc.
While IndiDevKit is a work in progress, already the site has a strong selection of informative guides covering legal, operations and marketing. There are also interactive wizards for budgeting, localization and promotion. A growing list of expert service providers is available, as well. DFC went to Manshanden to better understand the reasons behind launching IndieDevKit and what are the plans for this resource in the future.
DFC: What was the situation that led to the creation of IndieDevKit?
Leonie: Tim and I have both been in the industry for a long time and have worked very closely with developers for many years. In recent times, we’ve observed an increase in developer engagement with the operations and business side of the industry simply because the tools to self-publish are more readily available.
However, a lot of developers don’t know what they don’t know when it comes to issues outside of the development process, they are often unsure about where to start and what to do. There is no solution for them to acquire expert knowledge – besides trying to become experts themselves by trial and error, or by hiring expensive consultants.
We believe passionately in the ability of developers to self-publish, but we also believe even a great game doesn’t sell itself and that expert advice is desperately needed. It very much pains us to see anecdotal information and non-expert content being absorbed, which often sends developers down a wrong path.
That’s why we decided to team up and digitize our knowledge, which allows us to make our experience accessible to all studios, even those bootstrapping.
DFC: How many people work behind the scenes on the IndieDevKit site?
Leonie: Four people have been and still are critical to the site’s development, performance, design and content. We also work with a number of freelancers in various roles and we’re very grateful for the help of many experts in their fields to vet and contribute to our content.
DFC: What resources does IndieDevKit provide?
Leonie: We provide downloadable guides on a variety of marketing and operations subjects, at prices between $5.00 and $15.00. We also have interactive wizards that we are testing under a ‘Pay What You Want’ model. Topics covered by the site range from operational guides on Legal Basics to specific marketing and communication documents such as Anatomy of a Modern Press Release. We have built interactive tools, for example a Budget Wizard to help studios get started. We have also compiled resource lists on the site to help developers collectively save time.
DFC: How is IndieDevKit funded?
Leonie: IndieDevKit is self-funded by myself and co-founder Tim Ponting.
DFC: What in your previous career experience prepared you for this new developer support role?
Leonie: My co-founder and I have been on the frontlines for well over 200 game launches. We both have extensive experience in key decision-making roles at major publishers and developers, but in addition to that, have experience working with smaller independent studios as consultants. After his time at Activision, Tim has been director of a PR firm that specializes in games and I have been consulting studios in relation to their operational and marketing needs.
DFC: The IndieDevKit site only launched in August, but what is your feeling on who is using the resources between mobile developers, browser developers and small PC studios crowdsourcing their projects?
Leonie: It’s hard to say exactly, but we’re probably 40-40-20 on PC, Mobile and Console respectively. Regarding funding we’re seeing a lot of funding combinations between self-funding, crowd-funding, grants and studios pursuing VC or publishing deals.
DFC: How many indie studios have signed on so far?
Leonie: We’ve had about 4,500 unique visits so far. About 18% of those used the Wizards and just over 1% made a different purchase.
DFC: What has been their feedback so far?
Leonie: Very positive and encouraging. People appreciate our transparency and methodical breakdown of various processes that aren’t necessarily explained elsewhere. For instance, most developers have been told that it is important to be able to explain your game in a sentence. But no one explains to them HOW to summarize your game into one sentence. Our messaging wizard guides them through that process, which they very much appreciate. People also confirm and highlight our concern that we have a lot of work to do in terms of educating developers that they need this kind of information. A developer who recently came to one of our talks said (paraphrasing): “I can’t believe my mates are downstairs spending their money on merchandise [at the trade show], they should be buying these guides.” I think this comment illustrates the work that lies ahead of us.
DFC: How are the needs of an indie developer creating freemium content for the PlayStation network or Xbox Live different from other platforms? Do they get extra assistance from the platform holders?
Leonie: IndieDevKit is a platform agnostic site, meaning that we try to focus on content that will help game developers be more successful whether they’re on console, PC or mobile. In essence their needs are the same on every platform. That said, I think selecting the right platform for your game can be enormously important. In the case of freemium content, the platform eco-system is so important and specific that I would recommend any developer to focus on building out one platform really well before you even start thinking about other platforms. Which one is the right one for which game really depends on the game, the team and the marketplace.
DFC: What is the current landscape for game developers to self-publish their titles? What are the opportunities, and what are the perils?
Leonie: We’re obviously very optimistic. The barrier to entry has never been lower; cheap tools and software are readily available, online distribution channels are easily accessible and there are various funding options. That said, it’s certainly not easy to be successful and it requires hard work.
We hear a lot of concern around the quantity of titles in the marketplace, which is indeed daunting but solvable and “within your control” with a great product and a well thought-out marketing process.
What’s more concerning to me is the fragmented media landscape making it very time-consuming to generate awareness. And time is usually something that developers don’t have.
DFC: How are vendors and service providers chosen for inclusion on IndieDevKit?
Leonie: We have a limited list at the moment based on our own experience. However, we are receiving suggestions daily, which we treat as nominations at this stage. We have plans for a community-based approach to these recommendations in future.
DFC: Service costs to developers from providers on IndieDevKit are supposed to be transparent. Do you have any influence on how expensive those prices are?
Leonie: We are only in control of our own pricing which we post throughout the site, even for our consultancy services listed on the Hire Expert Help Page.
We feel like everyone benefits by having an idea of what it would cost them to hire expert help. Sometimes it’s less than people expect, taking away a barrier to entry, sometimes it’s more, but knowing that in advance helps avoid surprises and allows people to budget for it.
The pricing of vendors listed on our Vendor Page is beyond our control. But we still try to give developers an idea of outsourcing costs, for instance our Localization Wizard allows developers to estimate localization costs for their game. We’ve analyzed the costs per word, per localization type, per language with the help of a like-minded localization firm and after checking it against some competitive quotes for real games made by our clients, we can say that we are within a very acceptable margin of error.
DFC: Similarly, how is expert information vetted? Do you put out a call on specific topics or wait for submissions to be pitched to you?
Leonie: Our content is written by an IndieDevKit co-founder who picks up the topic most relevant to his or her professional experience. Once we have a draft that is representative of the end product we send it to other experts to vet it – for instance a practicing lawyer and a general counsel in the case of our Legal Basics guide – to a few developers to make sure it suits their needs and lastly to a few people who aren’t in the industry to make sure it’s understandable and readable.
DFC: Please explain how your monetization model works. Some guides are available for free, others are downloadable for between $5 and $15, plus there are wizards that are pay what the user decides. What are the criteria for placing material into each of these categories?
Leonie: We pride ourselves on transparency so we wanted to make sure that this is reflected in our pricing as well. It’s really quite a simplistic approach. The guides are $15.00 each except the Announcement Checklist, since it is so brief. For the interactive wizards, we are currently testing a Pay What You Want model, partly because we are still testing out some of them, partly because we want there to be no barrier to entry.
DFC: What are the mistakes indie developers usually make when they try and go it alone?
Leonie: The most common mistake in general is to start thinking about marketing and communication when it’s too late. Most of them choose to believe that it is not relevant until they’re getting ready to ship the game, but at that point they might not have the community built up, they’ve missed long-lead deadlines or they might have to deal with surprising events that stand in the way of their success. Another common mistake is that developers don’t know how to message their game. They find it hard to prioritize features, or try these shotgun approaches making their messaging very confusing and hard to follow. It’s also happened more than once that a developer overlooked a key feature, just because they were too close to the project.
DFC: Although English can be considered the primary language of independent development, there are plenty of studios working in non-English markets and the number of them is growing. What are your plans for localization in other languages?
Leonie: Although we do have a list of features that we’d like to add in a second development phase, currently we do not have plans to localize the site into another language. We are self-funding IndieDevKit, so we’ll simply have to take things one step at a time. Our priority for the next phase is creating additional content and automated tools that will help developers save time and will prevent them from missing opportunities. Once we get past that, we’ll start thinking about platform enhancements such as companion apps and plugins into existing planning software. Past that, we’ll be exploring new markets.