9 common elements of a successful (indie) game project

By checking my own games projects and games created by other developers, I spotted 9 common elements that many of these projects had (or should have had…). Here’s my list of 9 items, in no particular order. If you cover 7-9 of these, I think you greatly improve your odds of a creating a fine product, in comparison to having only 5-6.

#1 – Scope
Indie game devs need to think about the scope of the project. I know all game projects start small, and they then have the danger of growing into huge gigantic several year taking projects. Watching the scope is important. Splitting the game into episodes, using procedural content, user generated content, not getting too attached to creating huge asset piles (artwise, graphicwise) all need to be considered. Scope is important. Too small, and game is too simple. Too much and it’ll becomes too big mess to handle.

#2 – Money
Money can fix many things. I wasn’t too thrilled about having budgets, but at later age I think it might be good idea to have some sense about what range you are willing to take. Is it 10 bucks, 100 bucks, 10 000 bucks or 100 000 bucks gives some rough idea what will be possible and what won’t be possible, saving you precious time when you need to consider different features.

Money can also be used to cover areas you are not good at, which in return might save you a lot of time.

As a sidenote: it’s perfectly okay to go with zero budget too. The worse the graphics, the greater the story when your game becomes the next hit…

#3 – Time
Very important. If you don’t have time to make games, then your chances of making games drop to zero. Here’s a post about 100 ways to be more productive. It’s from year 2008 and still pretty valid if I may say so.

#4 – Skill
You need to be skilled in something. I’ve always thought that being a skilled in programming is the most important part, as I believe programming is most work. With new and easier to use tools, I see that graphically talented folks have more opportunities to create fine games.

Besides these, a solid understanding of game design is a pretty good idea in case you plan to make the game any fun. Understanding some fundamentals just simply makes decision simpler, when you have some more understanding on why something is or isn’t fun. (Book of Lenses is a good starting point by the way).

#5 – Motivation
If you are not motivated to create your game, it shows. Motivation is hard thing to have. One simply gotta be willing to spend countless hours doing something, working in the dark. It’s persistance.

If the work you do is fun, no matter what is the final result, then you probably are in the right track on this.

#6 – Momentum
I’ve noticed that if I don’t work on my game for some time (let’s say 2 weeks, for example when having bit of summer holiday), it’s always harder to come back. When I eventually come back and continue, things are fine again. It’s just that keeping up the momentum is important. You don’t finish a marathon by sitting down every few hundred meters. You gotta keep pushing, keep going and keep the momentum going.

#7 – Twist
I like to believe that fine indie games also need something unique, something different. Some sort of twist that makes them different from what we’ve seen earlier. I don’t know what that might be, but if there’s something special in the game, it makes a good story. And who knows, maybe even a fun experience too.

#8 – Release
Second most important part of the puzzle (#9 being perhaps most important). By releasing your game, you’ve reached something truly important. Continuing from here gets easier. If you plan to do multiple releases, that’s fine (and recommended too).

By doing release (or releases) you make your dream come more true.

#9 – Polish
Perhaps the most important part of a successful indie game: polishing. It’s the hardest part: fixing nasty bugs, adding features, honing features, changing things, getting rid of some of the bad stuff, getting better art, getting better sounds, spending tons of hours into very many things…

… and then you really have something great in your hands. And perhaps others see it too.

If you have some items to add to this list, please feel free to comment the blog post.

Juuso Hietalahti


  1. Great post!

    Yeah I was going to add marketing too but was beaten to the punch by Arto. Another one is *Experience*. Not the same as skill. Each subsequent release will teach you more about making a great game and marketing it so that hopefully you’ll do better each time. Also with experience comes *Contacts* who can tell you loads of cool shit and help you out.

    I’ll also add *Runway*! Without enough money to pay your living expense (this is separate from cost of game assets), you can’t finish the game in time. Really you need enough money for 2-3 games in case the first few fail (hate to say this, but they probably will fail in some way).

    Bet I think of some more after posting this comment…

  2. There are some nice “workarounds” for some of these:

    #1 — Recycling assets. You can relatively cheaply reuse assets with small changes (color variation, different scales, etc) if you plan for it. It’s a good way to extend the scope of the game. It will be noticed, though, but not frowned upon that much if the game is good enough.

    #2 — Work with students and other people who need experience more than actual money.

    #3 – #5 — Use the right tools. I.e. don’t build your own engine (unless you already have one ready or almost ready). With good tools you can get stuff done faster and concentrate on the actual *game*. This means you’ll need less time and concrete progress breeds motivation.

    #5 & #6 — Get out there early. Post screens on forums as soon as you can (but not too early, a couple of boxes on a black background don’t tell much). You’ll probably find at least some people interested in your project. Having people actually waiting for your game can greatly boost your motivation and help getting back into the project after a break.

    #7 — Don’t fret too much on this, it’ll come either naturally or not at al. In my opinion a contrived twist is worse than no twist at all.

    #9 — Get beta testers. Get some on very early. Friends are often good to some point, but in the end you’ll need to have the game tested by strangers. Other game developers can offer you more intricate feedback but you should never rely on them alone. Developers don’t see the game as the public does.

    I’d also add some points:

    #10 — Pricing. Correct price is very important. Cheaper is not always better, as the price is often viewed as a metric of value. Know your market. $1 games are fine on iPhone (though they rob you of one of the most powerful marketing tools: the sale), but probably viewed as sub par on PC. Consider flexible pricing.

    #11 — Availability. Indies have a lot more flexibility here than big publishers. You can offer pre-orders, beta versions, multiple platforms, etc. Try to get the game into as many places as possible.

    #12 — Marketing. This is very, very important. It’s more important than most indies seem to realize. A good game no one knows is worth less than a bad game everyone knows. Marketing is hard, especially when you’re working with small budgets. Post about the game to places where people frequent: popular forums, blogs. It’s hard to get noticed if you don’t have any reputation yet, but if you’re active enough, you’ll slowly get some. If you’re not interested in marketing, try to find someone who is.

  3. #10 – Established player base / fans

    That helps for polish as players are much better than you are telling you what you are doing wrong. It helps for motivation as you already have people expecting something from you. It can help for money if they believe enough in you to support you.

    Of course it means you need to already have done something before but hey… Can’t always get it “right” the first time. Put Minecraft in the hands of a total stranger and no I don’t think you get the same result. Not to remove anything from Minecraft at all. But if you already have some fan base it means you probably have a lot of points from your list. But sometimes “doing it right” just isn’t enough. Even Notch mentioned luck about the success of Minecraft.

    Of course there is the possibility of a “first shot hit” or “can’t learn anything from previous experience” case but those are probably exceptions.

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