A Year of Winter – Analyzing the release of a tiny indie game

On May 5th 2016, I released point-and-click game Midvinter on Steam and a few other platforms. One year later, I want to write down what I learned.

In 2015, I was working as a Senior QA Manager at a game company in Stockholm. It was a comfortable job and I learned a lot – but since I’m a painfully creative person, I felt like it was time to leave testing behind. After failing to find a more suitable position within or outside company, I decided to go indie. The reasons were many, and my sources of inspiration equally so. Either way, I started my solo indie company Talecore Studios. My savings would last just over six months if I was frugal, so that became my deadline. Oh, and did I mention I hardly knew how to code? I hardly knew how to code. Maybe I’ll write another post about that.

Six months and one week later, on May 5th of 2016, my little point-and-click Midvinter was released on Steam. I knew it wouldn’t be a title that earned me fame and fortune. I simply wanted to try my wings and see where they would take me.

Following is a breakdown some of the lessons I learned. Please note that I don’t claim that these are universal truths or anything, but hopefully they can provide some insight into the life of a solo indie developer.

  1. Getting people to buy your game is super hard, as many before me have already noted. To make back the savings I used up while working on Midvinter, I didn’t even have to sell that many copies compared to other titles in the same genre. To date, I’ve shipped just over 20% of that amount. In fact, I recently made more in one month of freelancing and teaching, than I’ve made from Midvinter in total.
  2. Small game platforms have been as good as worthless. When I was about to release the game on Steam, several other, smaller platforms contacted me and wanted to sell my game too. I agreed to several of them, thinking that more is better – right? In hindsight, they haven’t even made me enough money to justify the hours I put into reading the contracts. Even on Itch, where I thought it would be possible to reach people who like small, quirky indie games, have I sold no more than two copies – one to a friend who doesn’t like Steam.
  3. Some bundles are more or less scam. The offers to be included in bundles started showing up like flies to something nasty soon after I released the game. Some offered okay deals – and I signed with one of them – but some deals were so bad that it was frankly offensive. Midvinter is not an expensive game – the retail price is $4.99. Even so, some bundles would give me roughly 1-2% of that price per bundle they shipped. Nopedy-no thanks.
  4. An early bundle did not appear to hurt my sales. As mentioned above – one of the bundle offers (IndieGala, in case you want to know) was acceptable and I signed with them what some indies would probably call too soon after launch. It wasn’t even more than a few months later, in fact. According to my analysis, it’s doesn’t seem to have hurt my figures for full-price Steam purchases, though. It simply gave me a small financial boost when I needed it the most.
  5. Gnomes have surprisingly long tails. Even if my sales figures aren’t as good as I’d hoped, I’m still making a steady stream of money from Midvinter. It’s far from dead, from what it seems, and every Steam sale boosts the numbers quite a bit. I can’t say how long it’ll last, but for now I’m pretty happy.
  6. Sooo many people want to scam you into giving them free keys. This is hardly news to developers who are used to releasing games, but I’m shocked how many tried to get review copies for “them and a few friends”, or had “a large Steam community that would give great free promotion”. I’ll be honest – when I was stressing out about not knowing how I’d pay the bills for the next months, emails like that felt like a kick in the face. My cats don’t eat exposure, thank you very much.
  7. Marketing is hard. When I say hard, I mean super hard! Having no experience in the field what so ever, thinking outside the box and coming up with a smart way of marketing my game was incredibly challenging. Also, I had no previous contact with journalists, and few streamers were interested in showing the game. It is, after all, a short, slow and fairly linear puzzle/story game – not ideal for streaming or let’s plays. The screenshots aren’t that exciting either, I know that. The game is cozy. If someone knows how to market cozy, please let me know.
  8. Art takes a lot of time. Roughly two thirds of the time I spent developing Midvinter went to just drawing it. I don’t even see myself as an artist. Needless to say, I work with a freelancer now.
  9. Even a tiny title can get amazing fans – and they can help you. For example, I was contacted by these really talented people who translated and recorded VO for the game for nothing more than their names in the credits. There have also been people who, when they have met me in real life, have been almost star-struck because they enjoyed the game so much. Even if I’m not doing it for the fame, that’s the kind of things that make it all worth it.
  10. I got a lot of help from my friends, both in and around the games industry. For example, a former colleague put me in contact with Steam so I could bypass Greenlight. Others answered questions about running a company. Some simply liked and shared posts, which, as we all know, is super important too. Being part of something bigger than myself – a community of indies – made me sure I could do what I wanted. They would have my back.
  11. I did not build for mobile ports, which made the Android release much more tedious than it had to be. I had to redesign the UI, make it fit different screen sizes properly, etc. Nowadays, I make a properly scaling UI right from the start.
  12. It’s absolutely possible to make games without really knowing how to make a game. If I could make something, so can you. Go for it! You’ll learn along the way.
  13. I had an amazing time, and I am immensely privileged to have been able to make this leap. Not everyone can comfortably do this, for a range of reasons. I promise to try and help more people follow their dreams.

Thanks for reading! Now, go make games.