Dan Cook to Indie Mobile Game Developers: Stop Shooting for the Moon

Insights & Best Practices

September 30, 2015


min read

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Daniel Cook[/caption]Dan Cook thinks outrageously successful mobile games are uninteresting.And after making games for twenty years, first at Epic Megagames and currently as the Chief Creative Officer at Spry Fox ? he's seen a lot of games. His insight into game development and marketing is legit, as it's born of his own successes and failures across an entire career and many different platforms.Sure, he says that if your studio makes 10 to 30 million dollars in profit on one game, you can probably afford to keep making games. But most indie devs don't see massive one-hit success like this. In fact, some reports show that one in four mobile apps are only used once, then discarded.Even the seemingly successful games tend to only either make enough to cover development cost or simply break even.So how do devs stay afloat? By focusing on making a string of small hits instead of swinging for the fences, says Cook.Most indie developers tend to focus on one game at a time. However, Cook thinks devs should see the game business like managing an investment portfolio by making multiple games (and investments) at a time allowing the successes to pay for the almost definite failures.[caption id="attachment_10406" align="aligncenter" width="900"]


Image via Spry Fox[/caption]Prototype, prototype, prototypeNo one wants their game to fail, though. One way to ameliorate that possibility, says Cook, is to prototype lots of little games at the same time. Prototyping first (then finding a theme and market fit later), helps guarantee that the game you eventually release is built on a foundation of fun and mechanically interesting game play.

"We almost always have four or five games happening at a time."

Cook likens the process at Spry Fox to small strike teams who go off and iterate on a prototype, keeping the timeline to around two to four weeks. Once a team gets about 30 minutes of a game made, they start sharing with other teams, letting their co-workers play test."A key idea here is that we have lots of these going on at once," says Cook. "We almost always have four or five games happening at a time."Over time, Spry Fox has built up a sort of funnel of game development with a ton of little prototypes on top, a few bigger (in terms of time spent on developing them) games in the middle, and one or two out in the wild (the bottom of the funnel) being sold and played by consumers.Indie developers can learn a lot from this approach."Instead of having one grand idea, have lots of little ideas," Cook says. "Prototype them first. Select the ones that are best, and then start working on those."

"Live your life, be creative, work at a sustainable pace and take care of yourself"

"Write what you know" still matters...and so does differentiationAll developers are not created equal. Some are fantastic at art, some at networking code and others are talented at creating fun combat mechanics or challenging platforming levels. Finding the best match to your own unique skill set is key to creating games that have a better chance of success, since what makes a game different and interesting is what you put into it.According to Cook, chasing the market is a chump's game."If you're really excited about making an MMO that's like World of Warcraft, well, there is in fact World of Warcraft out there already, right?" he says, "You may just be throwing yourself against that wall and getting crushed."Already established success stories define the market. You don't want to end up competing with the very people who created the market itself.Be like a cockroachCook likens his company to the resilient bug that will probably outlast all of humankind. Spry Fox wants to survive even when it knows that only a small number of its games will succeed. By creating multiple titles at a time the group can rest assured that if a project fails, the company doesn't die as well."It's like, 'Oh, we had this great idea. We put some time into it. It died. Okay, that's not a problem. We have some more ideas. We try those. It's not going to kill the company,'" he says.The takeaway? Make sure you don't put all your eggs in one basket. This can free you up to try lots of creative ideas without the pressure of financial ruin coming in on the single project your team has put all of its resources into.As Cook says, you don't want to end up 12 months into a project and realize it's not working. Instead, you need to remember that game development is a marathon. You need to take breaks, work reasonable hours and avoid the crunch."Live your life, be creative, work at a sustainable pace and take care of yourself," he says.