After a hit game, indie developers struggle to replicate success

Today's blockbusters could be tomorrow's one-hit wonders


When Mike Bithell started working on Thomas Was Alone, his first solo game, he imagined three possible tiers of success. At the low end of the spectrum, he hoped the game would earn enough money so he could buy an iPad, because he'd wanted one for a while. If the game sold better than that, he would take his girlfriend on a vacation to Disney World. "And then the far flung idea, kind of, 'oh my god it'll never happen, but if it does, it'll be an awesome dream,' was a year's salary," he says. "I might actually be able to quit my day job and spend a year making any game I want."

It took six months, but the moment came — Bithell remembers the day clearly. It was New Year's Eve, and he decided to stay home and avoid any parties, just so he could watch the sales counter go up and possibly hit his self-imposed goal. The moment occurred almost exactly at midnight. "It was brilliant, actually," he says. "Fireworks going off outside, and me going 'I'm going to quit my day job!'"

Thomas went on to sell more than a million copies.

Bithell has become one of a growing number of prominent indie game developers known by name after releasing a hit game. New platforms like Steam and iOS have made it easier than ever for a single developer to create a successful game, and sometimes those games really blow up — developers like Minecraft creator Markus "Notch" Persson have become fast millionaires solely off of a single title. But after the elation of a hit game comes a sudden realization: you need to make another one.

"It's definitely easier to make games when no one is watching," says Bithell.

That kind of success can bring a new kind of freedom, where developers now have the time and resources to create their dream projects. Jonathan Blow created Braid, one of the early hits in the new wave of indie games, and it turned him into a millionaire. Today he says that he's spent all of that money building his next game, a Myst-style adventure called The Witness.

For others, that freedom and attention can make focusing on any one thing an almost impassable obstacle. Notch is the most prominent example, and his post-Minecraft struggles have been well documented. After distancing himself from the game, he went on to try other projects, like the sci-fi game 0x10c, which was never released. These days, after selling Minecraft to Microsoft, Notch has a new studio, but one that rarely does much actual game development, and doesn’t seem to really want to. "It’s like a daycare for us," he told Forbes of the company's office. Like Notch, other developers find it hard to settle on a game after realizing how it will be compared to their past work. "I have pretty high standards for myself," says Asher Vollmer, the designer of mobile hit Threes. "And I want to hold to them."

Vollmer says that he felt the pressure of Threes' success "pretty much right away" after the game hit number one in the App Store. He had planned to start working on a new game about a month after release, but found himself tied up with his hit creation for much longer — dealing with bug fixes and press obligations, traveling to festivals, and porting the game to new platforms ate up most of his time.

When he finally got the time to work on something new, his first post-Threes project was a real-time strategy game for the PlayStation 4 called Close Castles. And it was created to be very different from Threes. "I decided consciously after Threes that the worst thing that I could do was release another minimalist, abstract puzzle game on phones," says Vollmer. "Because it would be compared to Threes relentlessly, and probably not to its benefit. I'm pretty convinced that I'm never going to make anything as clean and tight as Threes ever again."

After announcing the game on the PlayStation blog, Vollmer has since put the project on hiatus — though he's careful to point out that it's not canceled. "I think there's still fun in it," he says, but adds that there are some fundamental flaws that may be a result of him having no distance from the game. It turns out that, for some developers, the near-unlimited freedom that comes with a successful game can be a problem for creativity. "I've never really had just one project," says Vollmer, "so when I sat down and had the freedom to work on just Close Castles, I'm pretty sure that was a mistake, because suddenly I had no distance from it ever."

With Close Castles on hold, he's currently working under a system that lets him focus on multiple projects at once. Three days a week he works on what he describes as a bigger, more ambitious game, one that he's assembled a small team to work on. And the rest of the week he plays around with smaller game ideas and also continues to work on Threes-related stuff; the day I called him, he had just finished working on a new bug that only affected people who had played more than 1,000 games.

But he also knows that eventually, if the prototype for his bigger idea turns out to be something worth pursuing, he's going to have to make a choice and decide to dedicate himself to the idea full-time. "I don't know how to do that," he says, "and I'm scared of getting attention again."

For Bithell, meanwhile, the decision of what to work on after Thomas Was Alone proved to be comparatively easy. He had an idea of the game he wanted to make, and he knew he wanted it to be something much more ambitious than the one he built his reputation on. "This might be the most money I ever have," he explains. "This might be the peak, financially, so this might be the one chance to make something that costs this much money. And I kind of have to try."

He started thinking about the next game about six months after Thomas came out, and work on it began in early 2013. It's called Volume, and it's a vastly different game. Whereas Thomas was a charmingly narrated platform game about rectangles with personalities, Volume is a puzzle-like stealth game about sneaking past guards using all kinds of high-tech gadgets. It's sort of like a more fleshed out version of the VR missions from the Metal Gear Solid series, and based on an early version I played, it's shaping up very well.

But while the pressure of his past success didn't deter Bithell from starting his next game, that doesn't mean he hasn't felt it. "Very quickly, the pressure starts to build, because you notice that when you put out a trailer, people are excited about it and talking about it," Bithell explains. "And the more I shared about Volume, the scarier that became, because it does get an inappropriate amount of attention because of how successful Thomas was. With Thomas Was Alone, no one cared."

It's also a much bigger production. Bithell developed Thomas by himself; the only other people to work on the game were the narrator and composer. But Volume has had around 25 people working on it, ranging from full-time coders to voice actors who only spent a week on the project. The cast includes big-name actors like Andy Serkis. Volume is three times larger than he initially imagined, and also a bit late; Bithell originally planned to launch the game in 2014. As he continued to work on it, his ambitions grew. And while a bigger project means bigger expectations, it also helps alleviate some of the stress for Bithell — despite the fact that it's still his name associated with the game, he's not the only one making it. "Distributing ownership also distributes the pressure a bit," he says.

Game developers are more visible to the public than ever before, and for indie developers with a sudden hit, that means that they're often suddenly thrust into the spotlight. Some handle it better than others — you only need to look at the abrupt cancellation of Fez II to see how challenging it can be to work under such scrutiny. "This is as much as I can stomach," creator Phil Fish said when announcing the cancellation. Nobody wants to be a one-hit wonder, but in the world of gaming, where it's impossible to predict the next big thing, maybe you just have to accept that.

"I have to convince myself that this game will be a failure, just so that I can not stress out about how successful it's going to be," says Vollmer. "I'm not in that state yet, but I think I need to be."