Making it as the little guy: How small-time game devs hope to succeed in a crowded market

Tribble Troubles, a new game by Vegas-Based studio Scary Robot Games, hopes to gain success by making use of a recognizable name. (Screenshot used with permission of{ } Scary Robot Games)

LAS VEGAS (KSNV) - What do you when you’re just one guy, and you’re trying to make it in an industry that uses teams of hundreds to create products that can cost millions to make?

Runaway success is certainly possible, as is well-known by anyone who’s heard fans that can’t get enough of Five Nights at Freddy’s or Undertale – both games that were made by a single person.

Success doesn’t come easy, however. Yet there is no shortage of aspiring indie developers, so new resources such as the upcoming Indie Game Business Online Conference hope to give the little guys a shot at making a mark in the gaming world.

One of these aspiring developers is Dustin Adair, a Las Vegas-based game developer and founder of Scary Robot Games.

Dustin originally worked as an animator on shows such as Battlestar Galactica and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. But as outsourcing drove down the costs of computer animation, Dustin started spending nights and weekends trying to figure out how to make it into another industry: video games.

“I was actually animating Master Chief in Halo 3, and at night I would spend all night trying to see if I can make myself a video game,” Dustin said.

For Dustin’s first game, he worked with artist Daniel Thomas to create a one-on-one poker game on iPhone called Poker with Bob. The game achieved a decent amount of success on the app store, and still ranks in the top 100 casino games on the platform.

“At the time, [it] was very novel,” Dustin said. “I'm proud to say it ran 30 frames a second an iPhone 1.”

But Dustin’s initial success wasn’t long-lasting. The increasingly-crowded mobile games market meant that his later games, such as the recently-released Volley Village, haven’t always brought in the money that he needed to make a living off of the business.

“It's been an up-and-down roller coaster,” Dustin said. “I've had some successes had some failures, and the beauty of it is, I've been able to reach back to L.A. and still get the occasional animation work to subsidize the game development.”

Dustin’s far from the only game developer to face problems getting people to play his games. It’s an issue often seen by Larry Kuperman, a games industry veteran who now serves as an organizer for the Las Vegas branch of the International Game Developers Association, a group that helps local developers network and learn more about the industry.

"If you don’t view games as a business, it’s only going to be your hobby,” Larry says.

Larry knows something about getting games into players’ hands. For a decade, he worked as a sales manager for Stardock games, and he currently works as Director of Business Development for Nightdive Studios, a company known for re-releasing and remastering classing games on modern platforms.

“I do a lecture that I've repeated in several places -- both that at universities at the IGDA -- on the business of games,” Larry said. “I always start off by asking how many people have taken development classes. A whole lot of hands go up. I ask how many people are taking classes for game design, and that gets all the rest of the hands. Then I say, ‘how many people have taken business classes, how many people have taken classes on contract law and how to negotiate a contract?’ Not a single hand goes up.”

But today, the business side of gaming is getting more accessible. Along with joining local IGDA chapters, game devs can take advantage of resources such as the Indie Game Business Podcast, hosted by marketing expert Jay Powell.

“We basically try to educate developers, because there's not a good place to go as a developer to learn about business,” Jay said. “So we bring in speakers --like, Larry's been one of our speakers – to talk about a lot of the topics that get covered in these bigger conferences to kind of make everything more accessible to the world.”

Dustin has taken to promoting his games at some of these major conventions, such as San Diego Comicon. It’s there that a chance meeting gave him a break that he hopes will launch him to further success.

He’s now working on a game based on the Star Trek franchise. Well, part of the franchise.

Just tribbles, really.

“David Gerald, the actual original author of The Trouble with Tribbles, walks by my booth, looked at my video games, and casually said ‘you know, I could see you making a game for me based on tribbles.’ And that was it,” Dustin recalled.

It was a short exchange, butt Dustin knew that a recognizable name could give his games an audience that otherwise would never even glance his direction. So he didn’t let the encounter go to waste.

“It was a couple years’ worth of trying to lock it down, and I finally managed to make that happen.

Now, Dustin’s working on a game called “Tribble Troubles,” which he describes as similar in design to popular indie games such as Downwell, Spelunky, and Super Meat Boy.

The game is only in the prototype stage, but Dustin says it’ll involve guiding a tribble through a series of environments while dodging traps and monsters, including another creature he managed to secure the rights to: glommers, a tribble-eating predator seen only in Star Trek: The Animated Series.

“According to Paramount, the animated series is canon, so I'm totally using it.”

The game will be the first he releases on PC. He hopes he’ll be able to get the game published on consoles as well.

“With tribbles, because of the built-in audience, there's no reason not to shoot across the board,” Dustin said. “I am licensed for Xbox. I am licensed for PlayStation. I am licensed for Nintendo, but not for the Switch yet.”

Licensing a known product is a powerful tool to get your game seen. Larry, who's made his fair share of licensing deals at Nightdive Studios, says the secret to landing a license is simple: just ask.

"Never be afraid to just ask, because the worst they can say is no," Larry says.

One way to seek out these licenses is to head to conventions -- but that’s not an option available to everyone.

“One of the problems in the industry is that the people that need to be at GDC, Gamescom, and the other big shows, simply can't afford it,” Jay said.

Jay hopes that’s a problem he can fix. He’s created the Indie Game Business Online Conference, which he sees as a way to get developers in touch with the bigger industry without having to incur travel expenses.

“We have brought together the business side of the bigger conferences like Gamescom and GDC and E3 and all of these, but you don't have to travel.

The conference, which will be held July 17 and 18, has brought in attendees from around the world, including representatives from companies such as Paramount Pictures, Microsoft, and Bandai Namco.

“It opens it up tremendously to smaller studios, more remote studios, that sort of thing, but it still brings in all the publishers that they need to talk to,” Jay said.

For those who won’t be attending the conference, both Larry and Jay have some advice that could help get them off the ground.

“If you're starting your company, and you're able to get one employee beyond yourself, look for somebody that knows the business,” Larry said. “If you can't find an employee or a partner to help him run the business side of things they find a company that provides outsourcing of those services.”

“You have to start marketing your game immediately. We get a developer that comes to me every single week, and they say, “what can we do to market our game? It's launching next week and we have no budget. I'm like, ‘Nothing. You can send it to some streamers and hope they like you,” said Jay. “Marketing is mandatory now, and a lot of developers don’t want to look at it.”

As for Dustin, he’s regularly streaming the progress of Tribble Troubles on Twitch and hopes to have the game finished at the beginning of 2020. He hopes that the upcoming conference will help new game gain the audience it needs.

“The business side is always a challenge for me, so having this conference and being able to make contacts with publishers, and advertisers, and PR, and services like that, is gonna be instrumental to making sure that the game gets out there to the biggest audience,” Dustin said.