My Indie Game Iterative Design Strategy – A Business Plan

“I do not think there is any thrill that can go through the human heart like that felt by the inventor as he sees some creation of the brain unfolding to success.” – Nikola Tesla

As folks have discovered my ‘Play as a Dragon’ project, I’ve had a frequent question arise: ‘What’s the plan?’. This post aims to answer that question, but also provide a bit of value to fellow indie game developers that might be considering how to build their business plan; it’s a live document and will be added to/modified as I develop my strategy further.

Here, I will summarize my iterative game development strategy with a series of questions I asked myself starting out:

  1. What is ‘Releasing a Game Iteratively’?
  2. What are the ‘Phases of Development’ for my Dream Game?
  3. How does it work financially?
  4. What does my ‘Business Plan Document’ look like? (You can download a copy of mine here!)

What is ‘Releasing a Game Iteratively’?

First, I start with the Wikipedia Definition of Iterative and Incremental Development as the foundation for my strategy.

The basic idea behind this method is to develop a system through repeated cycles (iterative) and in smaller portions at a time (incremental), allowing software developers to take advantage of what was learned during development of earlier parts or versions of the system. Learning comes from both the development and use of the system, where possible key steps in the process start with a simple implementation of a subset of the software requirements and iteratively enhance the evolving versions until the full system is implemented. At each iteration, design modifications are made and new functional capabilities are added.

Wikipedia Definition of Iterative and Incremental Development

Now that you know the basics of Incremental Development, I’ll introduce the way I’ve modified it for my game development process. I’m releasing the same game, just doing it many times over as it is built out (under different names!):

The Phases of Development

I’ve divided my next few years of game development into three phases, each with a different purpose. In Phase 1, I focus on building the core gameplay loop and make the ‘Setting’ (i.e. the world the player adventures in) extremely linear and simple with a story to carry them from one goal to the next.

Phase 1: Perfect the core gamplay loop using player feedback and testing, gain ‘release experience’, gain a following of people interested in the concept, and build a ‘brand’ around ‘Dragon Gameplay’.

Ultimately, Phase 2 and 3 are my dream game. I’ve loved playing as a dragon ever since I did so in the MMO called Istaria (or back then, ‘Horizons’.) In that game, you could play with friends as a dragon, craft a lair, and fight baddies. It always seemed so much more interesting than playing as yet another Elf or Dwarf in every other MMO.

However, lets be real. As a solo game developer working part time on this, there’s no way I can construct my dream game right off the bat; I can however, build it in Chunks. Those chunks can eventually come together after years of effort into the dream game, but until then I have to build a way to financially sustain myself and to gain enough actual experience in the industry to make it a success (not just for myself, but for the people I share my precious game with; I want them to be happy with it!).

This is where Phase 1 comes in: If I make a very simple, linear world it takes vastly less time and brain power than what I ultimately want to do and gives me time to perfect the core gameplay loop and gain the much vaunted ‘Just release SOMETHING’ goal.

Phase 2: Use the credibility built in Phase 1 to start a Kickstarter and fund myself until I can take all the content from Phase 1 and forge it into the first half of my dream game, build Assets for the Asset Store (to help sustain myself financially), start streaming a lot more so folks can get to know me, and feel comfortable committing to a much longer development time before release knowing that I have several releases under my belt.

Phase 2 is where I put my experience in procedural content generation to good use. It’s where I take the Core Gameplay Loop hammered out in Phase 1 and build a new sandbox world around it; a world where the player can build a dragon lair, interact with factions, and maybe even raise baby dragons to their hearts content. It’s also the phase I am hoping to really start pushing towards custom content. Phase 1 relies heavily on assets from the asset store to get off the ground, and while I do my best to modify those assets to be unique to my game (new color schemes, alterations to models, etc.) I really can’t spend the months required to really build my own content. In Phase 2, I could potentially use funds from Kickstarter to build out a line of custom and heavily modifiable dragons. Whether that is by doing it myself in Blender (I’ve made things in Blender before!) or by commissioning someone experienced to do it (lets be real, getting a specialist’s help is probably the smart way to go).

Phase 3: Multiplayer. I think devoting an entire phase to a multiplayer implementation of the result of Phase 2 is necessary to have it truly succeed. I would love to see players creating stories or ‘Clans’ with their friends the same way I did back in the Istaria days.

The third phase is really pretty simple; multiplayer. From everything I’ve researched, doing it right really takes a lot of time. This is why I separate out Phase 1 & 2 as ‘Single Player Only’. That being said, I think it’s also an excellent idea to go into Phase 2 with the mindset of ‘All of this should be made multiplayer ready, for Phase 3; there’s a lot I can do from the beginning that will save an enormous amount of time and effort for multiplayer implementation’.

As you can see, dividing my dream game up into many smaller games like this provides an opportunity to learn so much from players and fellow game developers/testers along the way. It lets me put something into the players hands as soon as possible; The Dragoness: Burden is the very first release, and the absolute roughest. But it’s also something in your hands, as soon as possible.

How can I make this Work Financially?

This question has several answers, and all of them work together; think ‘Sum is Greater than the Parts’. A quick list of my financial strategy:

  1. Selling Game Assets: Sell Assets on the Unity Asset Store. The key point here is that the Assets I sell should be things I make specifically for my own game, but have wider use! Two for one. I already demonstrated the viability here to myself by making roughly 50$ an hour in previous years when I sold Assets. I think this could be a good source of revenue in the absence/in support of folks donations.
  2. Affiliate Linking: Use Affiliate Links to the Unity Asset Store to gain a small tip for referring folks (doesn’t add to the cost of the Assets!)
  3. Partnerships: Humble Bundle Partnership (Mostly useful for when you are streaming and someone wants to tip you while also buying a game).
  4. Donations: Via either my Ko-fi, or through Itch.io once my game is up. I keep the funds from these in a separate account titled ‘Funds for paying for game development’ just to make sure I can account for/show that they go to the right home. 🙂
  5. Independent Remote Work: I am a software engineer that specializes in Machine Learning and so I often am able to get paid employment remotely for this work. This website will also serve as a portfolio for folks interested in hiring me for smaller short-term projects.
  6. Kickstarter: I am always hesitant to get funded through this method if only because I respect peoples time and money, and so I only consider Kickstarter if I have something I can demonstrate/prove myself with. Once I have a few releases under my belt I think I will tackle this (and especially once I have a few goodies I can give folks for the tiers).
  7. Streaming: I think people like to get to know content creators and a powerful supportive effort for the rest of this list is just letting people get to know you. It could be playing the game I am developing, or playing random games, or just showing off a workout routine. In combination with this, I think creating ‘highlight reels’, compilations of funny moments and cool interactions can go a long way.

My Business Plan at a Glance

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