Believe me: I am painfully aware that nobody’s watching right now. It is both wonderful and terrifying at the same time; the emptiness and the potential exudes a pressure all its own. VoxPop itself started in much the same way come to think of it: me staring at a blank word document for hours, drowning in silent, internal dread.
Gotta start somewhere though! And frankly, after spending the last couple months going around the country begging rich, old men for their money, the prospect of writing about traction and valuations is enough to give me a panic attack. That’s why I figured I’d talk about why I’m starting this company instead!
In case I ever forget, if nothing else.
I’m sorry, who are you?
I’m Charles Yu! Founder and CEO. I’m also independent game designer! Or at least a very convincing wannabe.
I think I’ve always been a gamer - Nintendo raised me more than my parents did, to be honest - which is why it should come as no surprise that I’ve wanted to be a game designer since I was old enough to know that somebody got paid to make them. I made my first games in power point – animating arrows to move across the screen and changing the presentation to a “Game Over” slide if the touched the mouse. By middle school, I’d moved on to Adobe Flash however, and by High School I had my own small projects in Unreal and Unity. I dreamed of the day I’d be making games of my own. My creative vision unbound by managers and pesky, inconvenient reality.
Looking back on these days, I often tell people that I’d always dreamed of being an independent game developer. Which is true – from a certain point of view.
Honestly, I didn’t know what an independent developer was for most of my childhood, but my mental image of a solo developer chasing a vision was always going to be fundamentally incompatible with the studio system. So when I got to NYU, I chose Game Design as my major (mine was the first year the program opened to undergraduates) and started preparing to meet that dream.
The first sign of trouble
I had every reason to be optimistic about my future prospects going in.
I was excelling in my classes. I had good relationships with my professors, most of whom were successful indie devs themselves. I even had a number of finished design documents and prototypes to get to work on right away. Then the last hurdle grew legs and smacked me to the curb.
In Senior year, we had this class called “Survival Skills.” Each week, the class would bring in new guests to talk about specific jobs in the games industry, as well as who to contact and how to get started. Practical stuff. Week 1 was “how to be an independent game designer.” The theme of the talk was essentially: “DON’T.”
One of my professors, who I would’ve considered a fairly well-known developer, challenged us to guess how much money they’d made in the five years leading up to their professorship. Their answer?
Hearing that number was like getting punched in the face.
I never thought I’d be rich, but I hoped I’d at least make enough money to eat.
I’ve never been one to give up on a dream though, so I decided to do some more research. You see, depending on how you define “independent,” indie devs account for $2 to $3 Billion dollars of revenue annually. Moreover, gaming personalities and game communities are increasingly calling for a change from what AAA studios offer. How could it be so difficult to make a living?
The answer turned out to be surprisingly simple: advertising.
In AAA productions, it’s not uncommon for more than 2/3 of the budget to be spent on advertising. The posterboy for this phenomenon would be Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. The game had a development budget of $50 Million, but an Advertising budget of $200 Million. This may seem extreme, but it’s actually relatively rare for a AAA game to cost less to advertise than make. Many, many others also have advertising budgets exceeding 100 million.
Indie devs, meanwhile, just don’t have that kind of money. Solo developers especially. Instead independent games live and die on word-of-mouth marketing, and whichever Streamers or Let’s Players just happen to decide to pick them up. This is why indie games that do make it big are often massive (Minecraft, Undertale, Stardew Valley) but the others end up colossal failures. Even successful independent titles feel this pinch though; games like Owlboy and Niddhog were successful in their moment, but had very short tails on their sales numbers.
What independent developers need is a marketing engine. One which can level out this volatility and make it easier to make a stable living as a developer.
Now, on to the company
Which brings me to why I created VoxPop. The finer details of this system can be saved for a later date, but that’s fine because the star of the show here is our business model. The profit-sharing model gives users a percentage of every sale they enable. Whether they are seeding files, recommending games, or getting their friends on board, gamers earn a share of every dollar they get someone to spend.
How does this help independent developers? First and foremost by incentivizing the word-of-mouth marketing they rely on. Getting gamers and Streamers to take a stake in your game means they have a financial incentive to promote it. Especially smaller Streamers who may have trouble monetizing their channels.
More important than that though, is that devs can adjust the percentage of each sale reserved for incentives. Let’s say the default percentage reserved for users is 10%. If I want more eyes on my game, I might jack that up to 20%. Suddenly, everybody stands to earn twice as much for promoting my game! I can even print promotional codes to offer to specific Streamers – “Hey, most people are getting 20% of each sale, but if you recommend my game, I’ll give you 30%!”
Essentially, developers can use the profit sharing to run a promotional campaign even if they have no money to invest up front. This system is even, to a certain extent, self-correcting. It’s true a less popular game may have less purchasers, but it will also have fewer seeds and less people recommending it, meaning users have an incentive to find and pickup overlooked gems.
To anybody who read this: I thank you. I, and everyone else at VoxPop, am hard at work trying to staunch the bleeding so many indie devs suffer through. I fell in love with this games, and this communities spirit – I want to do whatever I can to help keep it alive.
Future updates on this Blog will likely be more business-oriented or technical, but I feel it’s important to put a story to us. We don’t want to end up looking like the blank, corporate goons we’re fighting, do we?
Thank you all, and please, stay tuned!