Year 3: My full time indie developer life
Hi, my name is Kevin Giguère and I am the founder and sole member of Dragon Slumber, a video game development company. 2019 was my third year as a full time, professional independent game developer, making this the third blog post chronicling my experiences. If you haven't read Year 1 or Year 2, I highly recommend you checking them out and getting some context about my life leading up to this point.
It was also my biggest and busiest year thus far, headlined by the release of the much anticipated Tech Support: Error Unknown, my moving to a different city, attending numerous conventions and pushing to become more present in the local game development scene. I've had the opportunity to meet a lot of new developers, some of which have thanked me for writing these posts. I'm hoping this post will be just as insightful on the reality of independent game development as my previous ones have been.
I know that many readers will be very interested in the numbers and I don't intend to bury the lead, and a special thanks goes to my publisher Iceberg Interactive for allowing me to reveal sales numbers. Following its release on February 27th 2019 up to December 31st, Tech Support has seen 13,700 units sold, bringing in 94k USD in revenue. Of course that's before Steam's and my publisher's cuts of the profit, so I made substantially less.
You can't post an article about sales without a Steam graph
During Dragon Slumber's 2019 fiscal year ending in November, it has made about 31.6k USD in revenue. I have paid myself around 18.8k USD in salary for the year. I won't deny that it's significantly less than expected considering the amount of hours worked (averaging 10-12 per day, 7 days a week) and the release of the oft discussed and anticipated Tech Support. This also ignores all of the company expenses and taxes, including on my salary, and with the natural decline of sales, it'll be impossible to only rely on sales from it in 2020.
I ended last year's post with an important statement: accept your failures, learn from them and build upon them. I stand by that statement, but 2019 really seemed to pit itself directly against me in many ways out of my control. Still, I believe its important to analyze those failures and hopefully still learn lessons we can use moving forward.
You're right Martha, shit does happen. (Tech Support: Error Unknown)
Hit the ground running
The year started strong, with multiple ongoing opportunities bleeding over from the previous year. Tech Support was on its way to being released in late February and was building a lot of momentum from big preview websites like Rock Paper Shotgun and PC Gamer. The wishlist numbers were healthy and growing, and were promising very decent sales on launch.
While finalizing the game for launch, I was already planning for Dragon Slumber's next step. I had already met a third party looking to finance the development of new games for their platform, so a partner and I had started work on a game proposal to send them. Should it be approved, this would be a safe bet, since it would come with advances during development, providing short term income while still having the potential to pay out dividends for years following its launch.
I also had three additional projects in the works, on which I had different roles. First was Digital Rogue, my third person acrobatic action game, which I had set aside but was still moving forward from the artistic side. I had moved the programming aspect far enough that I wouldn't be needed until multiple visual elements were locked.
Second was a CIA management game, which I was making in partnership with a programmer friend. This one was meant to emulate Tech Support in terms of visual simplicity and focus on the management and storytelling aspects, along with providing an open ended experience for further replayability. I was mostly doing game design on this project, and planned to do some visual and UI design once the prototype had moved ahead sufficiently.
Finally was a business management game focused on product management and providing deep customization options for players. I also acted as game and visual designer on this title, along with taking on project management tasks.
I always intended to have as many revenue streams and opportunities as I could, figuring that if one didn't pay out as expected, my revenue could still balance out across the other sources. I didn't expect all of my ventures to pay off, and instead figured that once Tech Support was released and most of the anticipated most launch content was out, I could decide where my time would be best spent.
Moving to the big city
I was also in the process of moving from Quebec to Montreal, about 2.5 hours away. This decision was taken fairly abruptly in November 2018 to follow yet another opportunity with the promise of a decent payout. The moving date was originally set for late January, which would have left a month before the launch of Tech Support. However, reasons out of my control pushed it back a month to February 28th, one day after the launch.
Releasing a game a day before moving is never encouraged, especially when you're the only developer of the game. However, the move was made further taxing because as I soon learned, the opportunity I was pursuing fizzled out, making my actions meaningless. I had already signed which is very hard to get out of in Quebec. So in short, I was moving away from family and friends for the first time in 36 years, to live in a city where my rent and expenses would go up by about 50%, for nothing. Thankfully, my move was still getting subsidized, limiting some of my short term expenses, but it was still a hefty blow to endure.
My new city
Nothing is ever certain until a contract is properly signed and money transferred, a lesson I should have heeded before throwing myself into this process. I was pursuing this with another partner who took the opportunity for granted, and ended up taking a hit as well. We were both naive and it was a big, costly mistake.
The only silver lining was that Montreal is the Canadian hub for video game development, and so I endeavored to make the most of my presence by networking with other developers and try to build something out of this.
Supporting Tech Support's tech
In late February came the big launch and moving week. Amidst boxes of my stuff filling up my apartment, I had finalized Tech Support for the launch. Beyond last minute debugging, the last few weeks were dedicated to adding the new German and Chinese localizations of the game, made possible thanks to my publisher Iceberg Interactive's involvement.
I knew that the first few weeks following the launch would be hectic. We had spent a considerable amount of time testing the game, with one player logging over 150 hours prior to launch. Still, I had no illusions that the deluge of new players would trigger new bugs and other issues.
As I streamed myself playing and promoting the game, Tech Support was finally released on February 27th around 11am. For the first few hours, everything seemed to go exactly as planned. Sales were in line with expectations, and although a few messages were popping up on the Steam forums, it was nothing too severe.
One issue we had not encountered was specific to the Unity version I was using, which made it fail running on one or two specific versions of Mac OS, along with a conflict with some specific remote desktop software. Overall however, everything seemed to be indicating towards a successful launch.
And then they started to hit, a wave of negative comments which quickly lowered the rating of the game. From our early very positive rating, we quickly sank to mostly positive, on the edge of mixed. It all stemmed from the localizations of the game. As I discovered, although the English version worked great, the German and Chinese versions had a myriad of problems, from display issues to terrible translation.
I was devastated, especially considering the amount of testing and debugging which had gone into the game before it launched. But we had taken the localization quality for granted and since the procedural dialogues were such an integral part of the experience, we were left with few options as the reviews kept pouring in, sinking our ranking. My heart fell as the game fell under 70% positive reviews into “mixed” territory, the touch of death which abruptly tanked sales of a otherwise positively reviewed game.
I dealt with the situation as I could, responding to the steam reviews and comments diligently and solving early bugs as quickly as possible. Between bouts of packing boxes, traveling and later in the hotel room, I continued to respond to the forums and engaging with the community. The game launched on Wednesday, I left on Thursday, we unloaded on Friday and I was back to work on Saturday, the moment my desk and computer were back up.
I worked tirelessly for the following weeks, releasing patches regularly and showing active support for the community. Tech Support saw two patch releases in March which addressed several issues raised by players and mitigated some of the localization issues which plagued the game. I also started working on several additional modes to complement the main story. These included leaderboards for players to compete as the top tech support specialists and a zen mode which focused on completing tickets without story or the fear of failure.
These new features would ship in May, following a bevy of additional gameplay patches and bug fixes. By that time, the rating had managed to climb back into the Mostly Positive range, which did in fact directly affect sales. With the game being as stable as it would ever be, I moved on from the main development for Tech Support, but promotional support would continue for a few extra months.
Becoming a con man
PAX East fun with Iceberg Interactive
Going back to March, I was invited by my publisher to attend PAX East in order to showcase Tech Support as part of their booth. I always enjoy traveling and attending conventions and was more than happy to do so. This was also the first time I would meet the people I've been working with for several months in person.
PAX would be my favorite convention I would attend that year, in no small part because for once, I wasn't the only one taking care of my booth. That meant that I could roam around a little, take some proper time to eat and just generally be less stressed out.
Which isn't to say that I remained idle in any capacity, I did my best to help the booth out not only for Tech Support, but for the other games we were showcasing as well. I met with a few influencers and media people, answering questions and giving interviews. I also managed to get PAX streamer wgrates to showcase the game during the convention, one of many opportunities which would arise from my presence during a convention.
A week after PAX, I found myself thrust into Geek-It, a local convention which gracefully provided me with a booth. The attendance was much lower, which made it a welcome rest despite attending the booth on my own. It even gave me a bit of time to walk around and say Hi to the local devs, some of which I had already met at MIGS the year prior.
A month later, I was a part of the Caravan 2019, a weekend event which brought several Quebec developers together to share ideas, have a good time, party and showcase their games to various students. It was an opportunity I had been pitched by organizers from Quebec City, but thankfully they managed to “save my place” for the Montreal devs.
The Caravan especially fit into my networking objectives for the year and I met people from various government and organizations which can help with financing, though most were set up for people who start off with more resources than I currently have. Still, it was a great time and I would meet the people there repeatedly during the year, through dev events, local lunch and learns as well as different conventions in Montreal. I even got a hoodie with “Dragon Slumber” on the sleeve.
Announcing the MEGA MIGS 2019 during the caravan
Two weeks after the Caravan, I was flying to Atlanta Georgia for Momocon, an anime centric convention with a section catering to gaming. Tech Support was a finalist for an award so we felt it was a nice opportunity to pursue. The trip was fun, it's always exciting to visit new places and the event went without a hitch as well. Unfortunately, Tech Support didn't win an award, but I managed to have a nice one on one with Rami Ismail out of it. Since the competition was being judged by industry veterans and reviewers, I'm hoping the nomination will lead to new opportunities down the road for my upcoming titles.
Not quite the same as a convention, but throughout the summer I attended several lunch and learns hosted by the Gameplay Space, a dedicated co-working space for indie developers in Montreal. They regularly invited different industry professionals to provide insight for developers and help network. This could range from Unreal talking about financing opportunities, to new publishers seeking projects, to accountants talking about tax credits. These events would also help further networking opportunities.
July brought Comicon Montreal, where I had been invited by people from Loto-Quebec, the gambling commission in my province which also reinvests its earnings into various projects, including independant developers. Tech Support was amongst about 15 other projects set in a large open area, and got featured on the Loto-Quebec twitch page while they interviewed me.
I then did about the same in September for Dreamhack Montreal, where I was again invited by Loto-Quebec and again showcased Tech Support, which I knew would be the last time in a convention setting. The game had made its way and we had supported it appropriately, but it was now time to fully move on to my newest project.
Setting the sides aside
As I was gallivanting across North America showcasing my game, my other projects were moving along as well, though not always in the proper direction. From my hotel room during PAX East, I had to kill a game proposal pitch I was making with a collaborator. Creating the pitch document had taken an inordinate amount of time, and though it was accepted for the first phase of the approval process, I became concerned that my partner and I wouldn't be able to deliver on our promises, even if we won the bid.
I therefore got in touch with my contact and explained the situation. He was very understanding and encouraged me to apply again on my own. A few weeks later, I was sending a new pitch, which quickly crossed the first phase of approval as well, but was unfortunately quickly rebuked at the second phase and thus never yielded any results.
The CIA management game had also died out as my partner for that project decided to move to other prospects. Since it was set up as a side project, I opted not to pursue further development on my own at that time, though I still may sometime in the future.
Later in the year, the business management game would also be put on a hiatus and remains as such at this time. I still believe in the project and a lot of design work and visual research has already been made, but slow progression made the project untenable at this time.
Not everything was break however. In May, I was contracted to develop two math games for a learning platform, aimed at elementary school children. These had a specific curriculum, but the games themselves were fairly free in their design. I created both titles in a few weeks, from conception to publication using their API, shipping and approval. I already received an advance for producing the games, and will be paid on a bi-annual basis according to the amount of minutes played against all the games on the platform. Not the best paying job, but one of the titles did win an additional advance for being very well rated.
These were all just side projects however and all the while, I was already pouring myself into the development of a brand new game, something that aimed to be as ambitious as my first game Arelite Core. And something which would reuse some of the same assets as well.
Learning to command beasts
Tech Support was well appreciated by many players for its innovative approach, but it did suffer from a scope issue which forced me to charge a lower price. Worst still, its computer style presentation made it difficult to port the game to consoles,and with premium priced mobile games being a difficult sale, it made the reach I could have with it quite limited.
Therefore, I decided to build upon those realizations and make my next title larger in scope and more forward thinking with its opportunities. This would require a plethora of visual assets to match, but thankfully I own a large array of characters, backgrounds and animated monsters from Arelite Core, the first game I developed and published. Though the game had not sold well as a JRPG, the monsters especially were praised and could be reused in a different context.
I decided to create a card game, being a huge fan of the genre. This was after Slay the Spire launched to huge critical acclaim however and because I expected a wave of copycats to saturate the genre, I knew that I needed to avoid the pitfall of creating a roguelite card game. Besides, I wanted my game to include multiplayer, which would require battles to be symmetrical.
Armies collide in Beast Commander!
I settled on an RPG called Beast Commander, a game where you build a team of beasts and set them off to fight against other teams. Each beast has their own specific set of cards and unique abilities, allowing players to build strategies around their party structure. Players might choose a beast with emphasis on card draw for instance, along with a beast one which can upgrade its cards for a strong late game swing. Another had strong base attacks but requires its own unique resource to use, yet another used status effects liberally.
My goal was to make every beast feel unique through the way the player used it and to offer natural synergies with other beasts rather than hard coding them. Because I was including multiplayer, the metagame was given a lot of consideration, to give the game the opportunity to evolve as players prepared different card combos.
I started working on its design in April, balancing it with all the conventions and other development I was doing at the time. I started by spending some time on the visual presentation, wanting something that really popped even at an early stage. Since the Arelite Core monsters were 2d sprites, I took inspiration from various 2.5D titles and settled onto an elegant presentation.
The card game itself took some time to design, with the first iteration leaving me underwhelmed. I had used one of my previous card game designs as the foundations for this version, which had limited the gameplay options and left combat a mostly mindless affair. After consulting with a Magic the Gathering pro player friend, I changed the core design to provide more opportunities to “break the game”, intending to make battles more exciting and encourage players to explore new combos.
The game would evolve significantly over the course of the summer, seeing at least three major revisions which added and removed numerous gameplay elements. Ten different beasts were created early on, each chosen to provide a breadth of gameplay styles and I kept updating the cards and stats to adapt to the new rulesets as they came along. Adding more content was futile at this stage, as it would only increase the amount of scrapped work when I made modifications. In time, the card game became really fun, featuring in-match drafting and card upgrading, and focusing on playing a lot of cards.
For the overarching single player progression, I had originally intended to blend a visual novel with RPG elements, taking a cue from the Microprose's Magic the Gathering game. After spending time fleshing out the story and designing the experience however, I became concerned that it wouldn't be strong enough to stand on its own, which brought me back to the design phase.
I pivoted towards a strategy game instead, taking inspiration from games like Civilization and Age of Wonders, where the card game would be the setup for battles. Players would still interact with characters, recruiting them and taking on quests, taking an innovative approach. I started work on a prototype in Septemer as I continued testing the card game at local test night events and even a testing session in a school in Chicago.
Unfortunately, though early testing had yielded positive impressions, the broader gaming audience were generally less enthusiastic. Beast Commander had its fans, but the general sentiment was well below my expectations. Despite the tutorial in place, it was difficult for many players to adapt and understand the ruleset with the limited amount of play time they had. Testers rated the around 6.5 which although not critical, was well below what I was aiming for.
I also knew that having the card game on its own without the single player experience as a wrapper made it difficult for the average gamer to connect with Beast Commander. This put me in a predicament: I was already working on a single player experience, so maybe over time, I would be able to win over players with a more complete experience. However, it also felt like a risky gamble to continue on the game and just hope for a turn of fortune.
The Dalthor banner really came out well!
In late October, I finally decided to put the game's development on hold, despite having reserved a booth at the MEGA/MIGS convention in November. I still attended and showcased the game, but the reception only cemented my resolve. The convention wasn't a complete bust however, as I got in touch with several new opportunities which I am pursuing at the start of 2020.
In the meantime, I was faced with the same question as in April, what game should I dedicate myself to developing, one which would be console worthy, have a scope which can justify a high enough price tag but which I can focus on developing mostly by myself. I turned back to my research until finally, a light went off.
Let there be light
2019 felt like the year of the giveaway, especially with the Epic Store trying to get a foothold on the market. Qube 2 was among the titles I redeemed, which I played through in a fairly rapid fashion. It made me realize that perhaps a room based first person puzzle game could be developed fairly easily and would fit within my gameplay centric skillset as a designer.
Following Beast Commander's hiatus, I started to play other popular FPPs, breaking down their individual puzzle mechanics and understanding how they used a limited number of gameplay elements to produce increasingly complex challenges. Most of these also kept an elegant but fairly spartan visual style which felt within my reach.
I started designing some mechanics, settling on allowing the player to interact with light in numerous ways. Without a couple of months, I had settled on a new visual style which would emphasize light and look properly flashy. I had already worked on Digital Rogue which gave me some ideas of how to approach it, but I also looked to Qube 2 and NaissanceE which had a lot of very nice looking environments through camera effects and lighting rather than assets.
Spoilers: The game completely changed visual style in early 2020, so don't get too attached
Since a game like this would require at least 100 puzzle rooms and an additional number of hubs and corridors, I quickly started work on a level editor which which would allow me to quickly create and test levels. Additionally, I ensured that the editor could work on my phone, which allowed me to continue working during the christmas holidays and while travelling. By the time I returned home, I had managed to create over 20 maps for the game, a mix of hub worlds, tutorials and full fledged puzzles.
As 2020 begins, the game remains unnamed but development is ongoing. Once the visuals are polished enough, my goal is to start testing the prototype at local events, followed by getting a publishing deal and bring in income as soon as possible.
But although this is the last gaming project I worked on for the year, one more obligation plagued me and I feel it's important to cover as its something starting indie developers might not put a lot of consideration into.
Death and taxes
Until November 2018, Dragon Slumber was a registered business, which in the eyes of the government made me akin to a contractor. Legally, I was Dragon Slumber and filed only one set of tax reports. I then incorporated, making the company distinct from me as an entity and completely changing my corporate potential and obligations. I now have to file taxes separately (which costs considerably more than before), but I also now have access to additional funding sources such as government tax credits and grants.
So once my fiscal year was over, I sought to apply the few things I had learned throughout the year to help maximize my income. For instance, as the owner of the company, I can choose to pay myself through a salary or through dividends, both of which will have tax ramifications. Because I live in Quebec, I also have access to tax credits which reduce how much I pay the government. However, this is only applicable on salaries paid, not dividends. But then choosing to pay myself a salary also means I pay additional taxes on that salary. The end result is maddeningly complicated and further exemplifies why there's an industry dedicated to tax credit application.
That's of course just the tip of the iceberg, but suffice to say I spent several miserable days trying to wrap my mind around my corporate obligations, the tax credits and financing I could apply for, their limits and just generally understanding where and how to spend my money. I contacted several firms, dealt with accounting and at the end of the process, I found myself moderately more knowledgeable, but also very much overwhelmed. Video game development this is not.
One issue I found myself fighting against was Dragon Slumber's comparatively low revenue for the year, which made it difficult to gather the interest of tax credit filing companies, since they tend to work for a percentage of the tax credit received. I also had to figure a lot of accounting details relating to paying salary. Needless to say, I've made a few mistakes and even had to pay some fines.
As of the start of 2020, I'm still figuring out a lot of those realities, though I'm in touch with people who should be able to help me on some aspects. Regardless, I've had to figure out most of these details on my own, another reality of having a low income. This is a challenge many indies will continuously face, the inability to properly compensate for their weak points, and having to deal with obstacles themselves, even if they're not the best suited person. It's why I've chosen the projects I have thus far, to capitalize on my strengths and avoid needing external resources as much as possible.
But 2019 was more than a year of development, it was a year of trials, a year of rejections and a year of broken promises. I had been a game developer for 7 years, with the last three doing it full time, and I was starting to feel the weight of it.
There is a taboo in discussing the mental and emotional strain of work. As I try to establish business relations and build Dragon Slumber into something properly sustainable, there can be the perception of weakness and instability. Every year, I hesitate to put too much out in the aether, knowing that I likely have more to lose than to gain. Still, I think this deserves to be said and understood, especially by aspiring developers.
2019 was outright the worst year I've had emotionally in my whole professional career. It was the year that simply did not want to come together. It started with the relative disappointment of Tech Support's sales, and my stroke of bad lock only seemed to worsen over the months as projects failed and rejections came through.
One concern many have had about my work pacing is the risk of me burning out, but truth be told, I rarely felt overwhelmed by the amount of work I needed to do. By setting a realistic timeline, I always could tackle the workload without too much trouble, especially when dealing in fields I was comfortable with like programming and design.
This year was different. As the failures multiplied, most of which were out of my hands, that feeling of powerlessness kept creeping in. Tech Support had brought in enough for the short term, but failed to function as a long term source of income. The lack of a game launch planned for 2020 exacerbated the stress. And then the pressure of the administration of a corporation became greater than I could have possibly imagined.
In the midst of everything, in September, I finally was offered something I had been looking forward to for several years: a dog. Although I knew I couldn't afford one on my own, I was generously donated a lump sum of money specifically to get one, something I'm very grateful for. And almost immediately, I realized how much I had underestimated the toll of taking care of a dog. I wouldn't be exaggerating if I said my productivity went down 30-40% in those first few months, and remains at about 20% lower than it once was.
She's three years old, very active and super smart, she even made her own game by folding some blankets
It came at a terrible time, the lowered ability to work at a time when I felt like my back was against the wall financially was devastating and only added to the despair. Taking breaks to take care of her, playing with her, making sure she's happy, was always a source of extra stress and it took a while before I properly connected with her.
Over the following months, I managed to get back on top of things emotionally and we now have a schedule that both she and I have managed to “agree” upon. I still don't know if getting a dog was a good idea, but I've done my best to give her a comfortable life, while acknowledging that I do need to put in a tremendous amount of hours to get everything else working.
So, to sum up 2019 in numbers:
- 1 – Games released
- 2 – Games contractually shipped
- 4 – Game development proposals I've sent out
- 9 – Games I've actually worked on
- 6 – Conventions I've attended
- 1 – Games I'm actively working on as I start 2020
In prior yearly recaps, I've underlined the importance of acknowledging and learning from your mistakes, in order to make better decisions moving forward. This year, I need to underline another critical lesson: sometimes you can play your cards exactly right and you'll still fail. There's always enough out of our control to make success a toss up.
I won't claim that I've always played my cards perfectly, but this year really did push the narrative of failure regardless of actions or skill. I've only recently discovered governmental programs which could have partially financed me during Tech Support's launch period for instance, but it's only applicable once you have a product ready to launch. Alternatively, a few opportunities were left out of my reach because they target 18 to 35 year olds and I'm now 37.
Not to spoil next year's blog post, but during my first week of 2020, one of my proposals was rejected and I got a cellphone bill for 250$ because I had to spend several hours on the phone with the government because of a bill of 700$ due to administrative errors I've made, which I still had to pay.
Still, onwards I continue. Already I have a good prototype for a first person puzzle game which I believe could see a proper measure of success, especially since it would be easily portable to consoles. I also have a series of other projects I'm working on, financing opportunities I'll pursue once the slots open up and keeping in touch with people which might be able to help me.
2019 made a miss of my life, and as I started writing this post, I felt like a shell of a man. Yet I realize that despite my constant frustration, I just don't want to give up. I don't love every part of being an indie game developer, but there's enough there to keep me coming back to take some punishment. It might be some dream chasing, but I'm just not ready to see Dragon Slumber rest in piece.
So my official lesson for 2019 will be a single word: “endure”. Endure the hardships, the perceived injustices, the unfortunate happenstances. Endure doesn't mean to lay down and take it, but it builds on previous lessons. Remain active, continue learning and push through the challenges. Success doesn't come overnight for most. To all the devs out there, there can be many, many dark times. But, if you give up, it'll all be for nothing. Endure, be relentless and make the best of every situation.
What will 2020 bring? No doubt many more hardships which will be out of my hands. All I can do is work hard and work smart, producing the very best I can. And hope that somehow, this time, it'll be enough.