The Secret to Success as an Indie Solo Developer

Joe_Cassavaugh_c

Of all the great talks I saw at this year’s Casual Connect in San Francisco, few left me as inspired as the one Joe Cassavaugh, the creator of the Clutter series, gave: The Secrets of a Moderate Success: An Indie’s Tale of The Long Tail. He was everything I set out to be when I started developing my own games: a one-person game studio. Joe’s a programmer who made his own game from beginning to end, solo — art, design and all. And the best part? He’s made a living from it.

One of the quotes from his talk that stuck with me was this: “What’s good about a moderate success? It’s repeatable!” He figured doing a sequel in half the time, that made the same amount of money, would be worth it.

But once the sequel came out, he found out something surprising. Clutter II not only made more money than the original Clutter had, it boosted the sales of Clutter I. Coming out with a sequel to a moderately successful game made both games more profitable.

Clutter_I

Charlyn Keating: I’m excited to talk to my new hero. I’m curious. Why did you decide to make a hidden object game?
Joe Cassavaugh: I’m actually not a fan of Hidden Object games. I prefer replayable puzzles (like Free Cell, Sudoku, Mah Jong). But Hidden Object was the largest market segment, so I wanted to make something for that demographic. I had spent three years making puzzle games that didn’t sell. I like having an “audience.”

People in games say it’s hard to find the “fun” in a mechanic. But I think it just takes time and the right person. I think I can take any genre and make it simple and fun for the casual audience (without just doing “gamification” tricks like Candy Crush). I think I could do a Mario-like side-scroller game and make it different. I think I could do a 3-ball match and make it interesting and different (and not just brain-dead like Candy Crush). That sounds arrogant, but I actually think it’s true.

So I picked HOG and made an “Un-hidden Object” game to try to please that crowd. When I left iWin I had a taste for big design and I didn’t want to just code someone else’s ideas. I focused on what I could do by myself. That’s how Clutter started.

It amazes me that you would pick hidden object games as something you would do yourself. They are traditionally so heavy on art.
I used the Hemera Photo Objects collection. Art wasn’t a problem (especially with the replayable aspect of it).

Did you expect it would take a year to do Clutter?
I thought I would finish Clutter in six to nine months. But I moved to Atlanta, had issues with artists…and I increased the scope a little bit as well, the more I dove into it. It took just over one man-year.

Designing is always ongoing and I pretty much rapid prototype everything. Hassling with an artist always feels “slower” because it seems less productive. I don’t really plan/design more than very, very high level. It’s organic.

Clutter_I_minigame

I’d only give Art 10-20% [of total development time] because I didn’t put a lot of time in it (and that includes picking 72 pictures to use in the game). Another 20% on choosing objects and dealing with issues there.

In the first game,  I used an artist for the attic arch, the coin game and the clock backgrounds, I did all the buttons and all the interface work because I couldn’t get enough from [the artist] without driving myself crazy with the process. (At the time I blamed him. But now that I’ve dealt with more and more artists, I take a little of that blame on myself).

Take us through the money path of Clutter. You said were expecting it to either flop or hit. But the reality was in between, correct?
Right smack in between. It made $50K after 15 months. [It dropped] to around $500 a month trickling in. Not good. I was not happy. First month was fine, second month wasn’t. Once I saw the long tail drop.

ClutterI_Revenue

After 3-5 months, I thought it might do $40-$50K total. So I reasoned that Clutter II would be worth doing. I figured if it did as well, with less work, I’d be happy. So I added Ana and a trunk, told a different kind of non-story, and cranked it out.

Did you give any thought to starting a new IP instead? Sometimes it’s hard to stick with projects long-term, even projects you’re passionate about. Especially if the initial success is disappointing.
Not really (other than maybe a Mah Jong). The choice was between Clutter II and working full time again in Atlanta.

Oh, easy choice, then!
Overall. But I did hedge my bet. I worked part-time 24 hours per week while doing Clutter II, which is why it was released a little over a year later (even though it was just six man-months of work).

Clutter II is built on top of Clutter I (so is Clutter III). All minigames, all mechanisms, just get extended. Like in Clutter II, I added Dragging and Stars.

Clutter_IIThe idea was to put in half the amount of work, and make the same amount of money?
Yes. [I figured] $50K Man Year = Bad. $50K Man 1/2 Year = Good.

But then the magic happened.

Clutter II was free marketing for Clutter I. So although Clutter II has made $58K itself (in 13 or 14 months), it’s bumped an additional $30K to Clutter I sales. It’s actually $78K total for C1 now, and almost $60K for C2.

They see Clutter II and go to that link on Big Fish. They see the link to Clutter I and play that too (if they’ve never heard of the game). Free marketing…and they feed each other. And for whatever reason the long tail is more than just doubling the original.

Clutter Cumulative

Now it looks like $100K Man 1/2 year = very good.

After 15 months [after Clutter I was released], I was at a trickle of $600-800 per month. (And that was a steady slide, from $1200…$1100…$900…etc…

Now, my last four months [after Clutter II] were $3100, $4700, $5300, $4400. (There seem to be some extra promotions that happen because the game has stuck around being as productive as it’s been).

Combined

A lot of indie developers who make mobile games would be jealous of those numbers.
Mobile is a much different beast. But mobile is also a much “smaller” product. If anything is responsible for Clutter’s semi-success, it’s that it’s a very full game. People play regular HOG’s for about 4-6 hours and move on. Most people seem to play Clutter for more like 10-20 hours. (And even then, they don’t always move on).

The people that love the game seek out my website, and in comments or in my survey, they say that. I have one comment to share (it’s my favorite from people who’ve played the game):

Dear Joe,

I wanted you to know that your Clutter game changed my life. I’ve always had a hard time keeping my room clean as well as the kitchen. After playing your game virtually non-stop (I loved it so much), I began to employ your suggestions and they’ve stuck with me for over 6 months now! I make my bed every day and I never miss the opportunity to correct something that is out of place.

With all sincerity I thank you so much for taking the time to make that game!

Michelle

Wow! She really took it to heart.
Yep. I feel sorry for her family…having to deal with someone who got empowered for the first time. (I’m half-kidding on that).

It’s funny, but I have the feeling when I’m playing Clutter that I’m actually getting something in order. Something accomplished. I’ll bet your audience loves that feeling. (Although I still don’t make my bed.)
I think you don’t have an empowerment problem.

LOL…OK, two quick Clutter fan questions. Who’s Leon?
Leon is just a “Business Guy” from the Hemera Photo Objects. I liked his smile and originally he was called Kent Clarkson before I thought of the Ponce de Leon connection.

I wonder if he knows he’s “famous.” Second fan question: Where did you get your inspiration for the minigames?
The minigames come from all over. The coin game is just pentomino variations. One of the things I do well, I think, is use the computer to provide interesting variations that are harder to do with physical puzzles. So for instance, the coin is just a packing puzzle, made more interesting by having disjoint pieces. (It’s hard to do disjoint pieces in the real world.)

The clock game is a variation of what I call “rule-based” manipulation puzzles. Usually I just start exploring a space and make it better.

The memory game was just so I could include a memory game. I actually have many, many, many more minigames ideas than I can possibly create. So I really just look over old ideas and follow what interest me in the moment.

What’s next for you?
Clutter III: Who is the Void? is just about in first hour playable.

If I had funding and knew I could get an audience, I would do an “Unlock the Room” or “Exit the Room” game that’s been popular off and on these last few years.

Next year, if I get enough breathing room from Clutter III, Minigame Madness, and Clutter IV, I’m hoping to do a mobile game — possibly called “IQ” — that’s all manipulation puzzles (like my clock mini-game).

I also plan to transition to a magazine thing I want to try (possibly when I go to Unity). If the Minigame Madness sells at all…then I’m hoping to do a thing called “Joe’s Puzzle Magazine” that’s 90% minigame based, and put out a new one every three months.

It’s actually creating new minigames (and doing it well) that jazzes me. And I love playing around with an interface until I feel it’s better than how others have done it. (The slider-picture puzzles are an excellent example of that. Everyone else does a select and swap, and it’s too much of a chore for the player. Did you notice how easy it was to do the picture puzzles almost without thinking?)

(You can download Joe’s games, Clutter: The Un-Hidden Object Game, and the sequel, Clutter II: He Said, She Said, at Amazon, Big Fish and iWin.) You can learn more about Joe Cassavaugh at Puzzles by Joe.

Author Photo--Charlyn KeatingAbout the Author: Charlyn Keating is equal parts business, creative and tech. She brings proven success in online marketing to the app and games world, helping you level up so you can earn the players and profit you deserve.

 


Sign up for more Tips + Techniques delivered straight to your inbox, free!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *