Being the Best Unsuccessful Indie

If you want to go only by the numbers, stop reading this post. My company, Iterative Games, ran a $5,000 Kickstarter that was barely funded (thank you again backers) and then sold only 3 copies of that Kickstarted title ‘Contract Work’. Mistakes were made. I had to go back to a day job in the cubes and took a 6 month hiatus to recover from burnout. You’d be better off reading about the one guy who made a bunch of money, right? As it turns out, maybe not – allow me a couple paragraphs to explain why:

I recently discovered this article on Survivorship Bias (thanks Jay Margalus), examining logical errors we make when we focus only on successes. The famous example goes like this – during WW2, allied brass wanted to know where to add armor on bombers to improve survivability. They examined bombers that survived combat and decided to add armor where those bombers had been shot. Logical, right? It took brilliant statistician Abraham Wald to point out their error; they were examining survivors, not victims. The areas not shot in the surviving bombers should be armored. A simple yet important example of the danger of survivorship bias.

I’ve also been considering “The Myth of Lone Genius”, as explained Austin Kleon in his book “Show Your Work”. The myth is that a few individuals appear with superhuman talents and without any outside influences, create masterpieces released with great fanfare. “The rest of us are left to stand around and gawk in awe at their achievements”. The problem? The ‘Lone Genius’ teaches us nothing – you either have it or you don’t. Kleon supports instead the concept of ‘scenius’, a model where great ideas are birthed by a group of creative individuals who develop an ecology of talent.

Thanks for sticking around. Now you’re familiar with survivorship bias and scenius, here’s why I think it’s important for unsuccessful indies like myself to share our experiences: by contributing information about our failures, we can increase the chances of others in our scenius succeeding. With todays tech, it’s never been easier or faster to share & collaborate. And those of us yet to succeed have the best perspective on how to help our peers; the fellow student can be a better teacher than the professor because they relate to our situation.

Don’t underestimate the power of sharing your experience. Consider the 4 minute mile, a feat once considered physically impossible. For 9 years, the record stands at 4:01.4. On May 6, 1954 Roger Bannister finally breaks it with a time of 3:59.4…and within 2 months his record is broken, at 3:58! Within 5 years, two other runners will break that mark. The task did not become easier, but once it was done, it became easier to repeat. “Once we can actually see ourselves doing the impossible, our chances of pulling it off increase significantly” (Steven Kotler, The Rise of Superman). By simply telling the story of overcoming your obstacles, you increase the chance for others to do the same, and vice versa. If you’re willing to be honest, you don’t have to sell a million copies of your game before you can contribute. You’re not a genius, exactly like the rest of us.

And while we’re being honest – openly sharing and receiving is HARD to do. It can be scary to tell everyone that you spent over $1,500 in marketing to sell 3 copies. But sharing that information helps everyone else, a little ‘Demon’s Souls’ type marker that warns other developers ‘Here, there be dragons’. I know the indie game scene can feel like a zero sum game where you ‘lose’ sales to your fellow indies. But when we view it as a co-operative ecology, successes increase the pie for everyone. The latin root of Competition (competere) means to strive together. We compete to bring the best out in all of us.

So let’s help ourselves out. Don’t let the numbers discourage you from sharing – we’re right there with you, and we’re all striving together to build better games and better lives in our scenius. Let’s all be the best ‘unsuccessful’ indies we can be.

To wrap it up, here’s a few small things that have been working for me:

  • Personal A/B/C testing – when I’m not happy with a feature, I’ll build multiple quick versions instead of iterating, then pick the one I like the most. It frees me mentally from the fear of ‘losing’ a version I like and opens up crazier experiments.
  • Curating Facebook content – I’ve been selecting games and ideas I like and sharing them on the Contract Work Facebook page with a few thoughts of my own. Engagement on these posts has been 2-3x times better than just regular development updates.
  • Friends help friends – My friend Rob Lockhart introduced me to his artist Pui Che who helped me finish an art piece as part of my Kickstarter rewards (personal recommendations always feel best). It’s been a very productive collaboration – the final piece is amazing and it’s inspired my development and provided new ideas for the Contract Work Universe.

Contract Work Art Book Cover by Pui Che