Our copywriter, whose name is also Artem, but Kulakov, talked with Artem Kotov about what it’s like to release a game independently, whether game development needs more business or more creativity, and why it’s so important to do something for free.
Artem from INLINGO: I went on YouTube and watched gameplay of your Defense Zone game series, and they don’t look like indie games at all — even your very first games look as good as AAA projects. My immediate question is: who is Artem Kotov?
Artem Kotov: I got into development at the end of 2012, the same time I released the first Defense Zone. I spent a year on the development itself, and I made the serious decision to go into it in 2011. Before that I worked in system programing, and started doing games after I bought an iPhone 3GS. I installed several Tower Defense games on it and realized that game development was what I wanted to do.
I was really interested in developing a strategy game, but that’s incredibly complex and time-intensive, so I decided to focus on the Tower Defense genre. And the rest is history.
And do you plan to return to the strategy game idea later, with more experience and a bigger budget?
So here’s the current situation: I released a new project, Modern Defense, which is a hand-drawn game based on Defence Zone 3, and that’s what I’m busy with now. Defense Zone 4 HD is already planned, and it’s going to be even more interesting than the other three parts. We’re going to incorporate all the players’ wishes regarding the previous games. It will be something new, something in contrast to the freer second and hardcore third installments.
As for strategy games — I follow other projects, and what I’m seeing is really cool.
But it’ll stay a dream for now, because I’d prefer to do a simple strategy game without too much complicated stuff, that’s what I’m interested in. But there’ll be the immediate question of profit. A simple game will earn us zero profit, because it would really just be a project done for fun that won’t make us money.
Of course, if I had a stable source of income and nothing to do, I would do a project like that, but the game industry is in a terrible situation right now. Lots of studios are closing, so, right now probably isn’t the time for a strategy game.
About studios closing: after the release of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice it seemed to me that nobody would have anything to say about the death of indie development. But here you are saying the opposite. Are the guys at the closing studios just people who have overestimated their own capabilities, or they are pressured by external factors?
It’s pretty interesting right now. Judging by what’s being said, the reason is mostly a shortage of professionals and intense competition. It’s hard to find your niche. A lot of projects in all different genres are entering the market today. When I released Defense Zone, how many competitors did that game have in terms of graphics and gameplay? One or two in the whole Play Store. That’s why the game found its audience.
And now they just steal the concept and make Defense Zone clones. And in general, a lot of high-quality cool games are showing up in every genre now, you’d kill yourself trying to outdo them all. You have to create something even cooler to get noticed.
Additionally, however cool the game you made is, you still have to promote it, which costs a lot of money. And this is more than just buying players to gain positioning in the game stores. But luckily for me, my game reached its position organically from the start, and I never bought traffic.
And so how do studios survive? They can take a risk by picking a new genre, but you can’t just hope for blind luck. Studios close because they develop things that aren’t popular and waste resources on experiments instead of focusing on what they can do well. But indie studios, by definition, are basically always releasing things that aren’t popular. But you have to go into it with at least a slight expectation that the game will succeed.
I see. You say you don’t like to work without careful planning. How often do you end up having to work without any hope of success or profit?
Well, that’s pretty much the whole story of my new project. I thought that everything would be much better with Modern Defense HD, but it’s pretty tragic right now, although it’s still chugging along and maybe things will get better. Yes, tragic is really the word I would use, but it doesn’t change the fact that there’s nothing to do but keep working.
Actually, everyone’s situation is different. The most important thing is that you should always know that you won’t die of hunger if something goes wrong. You should always have a plan B: a source of income, parents, a wife.
Of course you can take risks when you have an additional source of income, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll succeed. It doesn’t work for 80-90% of those who try.
If you make the decision to do something, you should focus on the work and put everything else aside — social media, sometimes even communication in general, like I ended up doing — and then you’ll be able to start moving in the right direction, but to get 100% results you have to be ready to pay any price. This could be anything in your life, your family, your health, your social life, living where you are used to living, etc.
The most important thing is to remember that there are no friends or enemies, only feedback. If you experience something negative, it’s not a bad thing: you’ll know what not to do in the future. But after the first failure, most people will think: “I probably should never have done that, I guess it’s not for me.” The truth is that you’ll only get it right after 100 tries.
Not everyone can do this, but sometimes that kind of stupidity and stubborn streak can be helpful. At the same time it’s important not to forget that you can beat your head against the wall a thousand times with no results to show. And I honestly don’t know how to define that line. But you have to try, in any case.
And one more thing: I don’t draw. And in the process of development, I choose only artists with extensive experience. I don’t care about the price — even when I was just starting out in development I understood that I can’t count every penny, and quality is the most important thing. And it paid off in the end.
You mentioned that every indie developer should have an additional source of income. What about you, If I may ask?
I am my only source of income. I had savings back when I was just entering the industry and retraining, and I put everything at stake. I bought a Unity license, and even tried to do advertising.
So, at the very beginning I spent about $5K, $3K of which was the Unity license.
My thoughts at the time were something along the lines of: I’ll do a project and it’ll be like my portfolio, then I’ll take that and get work in a studio.
But what happened was that when I released the game on iOS (if I remember correctly, the engine was called Cocos2d, and it was written in x-code), where everything was ugly, messed up, and awful. And I realized that I should also make a game for Android to capture both platforms. And I really didn’t want to learn Android programming.
And suddenly I saw Unity 3D multiplatform, with the most glamorous explosion effects, and got really inspired. I studied everything, rewrote my code for Unity, made the particles prettier and juicier, and everything immediately changed, it was finally interesting to look at. I was happy. And if I had stayed on Android, I would not have succeeded. I only have one thing to say to those who sit there on the same old engines: guys, it’s a dead end. Although, to each his own. Unity 3D also has its minuses, but I’m not aware of them.
Unity allowed me to expand directly, even working alone.
There was no sense of uncertainty as such, like, what if I fail, or what if it just doesn’t work out. Basically, I understood that I would work somewhere in any case. A lot of people are afraid of giving everything they have and charging headlong into a venture — they don’t want to face disappointment, but we only live once, so you really just have to try!
Certainly. And how long does it take you to develop a game from scratch? For example, your latest game.
We spent about a year developing it with the artist. The game was redesigned because it was based on Defense Zone 3. At some point, we figured that making a carbon copy was a bad idea, and decided to change the game mechanics a little and combine new elements.
We were working on one version, then we tried something else, and didn’t work every day —that’s why I say a year. But if I had known what the game should look like from the start, it would take 6 months. That’s plenty of time to get it all done.
But you’ve got to take into account that everyone works at different speeds. For example, there are long-term projects that are written over several years. I guess it’s a special kind of person who can drag things out and work like that. I’m the kind of guy who’d rather dive into and do everything in one day than drag it out for a week. It won’t come out well if I drag it out.
But deadlines are always a problem, and you never know how things will go. You know, I watched this one interview recently, and I followed the guy’s advice and started a day planner. I make a to-do list and cross off the completed tasks. And it actually helps, I get a kind of pleasure and a sense of completeness. It’s because all these notifications don’t work anymore: bug tracking systems, Trello, Jira, everything is beeping and it just becomes useless. But a piece of paper, you can hold it in your hands, you can’t just ignore. But all the apps in my smartphone sit there with little red circles showing me unread notifications.
What about distribution? It seems to me that everything comes down to that now. Even if a game is good and a lot of money was spent on developing it, it can end up going totally unnoticed. In your opinion, as an indie developer, to what extent can you compete with AAA studios in this sense?
No one can compete with them. Studios can spend $10,000 a day on advertising, their apps will be in the top featured and it will pay for itself in just a few days, so who can compete with them? How could an indie developer spend so much money on advertising?
That’s the question: how can an indie developer get their content to users in such conditions?
By finding a publisher and signing a contract.
But it’s still not that simple. If the publisher has already released a similar game, your game might be a cannibal for theirs. And in that case, they’ll just take your idea, create their own project from it, and say: “Sorry, that’s not gonna work, bye.” And that’s what anyone would do.
The question is not about doing the right things or morality, it’s about money. Publishers will do what’s profitable. Don’t think we’re all so honest.
And the second point: if the publisher has never published this genre before, they simply won’t know what to do with the game. They don’t have an audience for this genre. For example, if a developer specializes in match-3 games, and you offer them a Tower Defense game. Half of their audience are middle-aged women, they’re not looking for emotions from my game. People play my game with sweating hands. I see comments like this: Finished the first level, damn, my hands were sweating! And these middle-aged women don’t need that, they play games to relax and calm down. When my wife tried my game she got really nervous: “Enough, I don’t want to play this anymore!” And she opens her match-3 candies, and don’t even think about coming near her for the next half hour until she’s back to normal.
And so the thing is that if you give a publisher the wrong genre, you won’t get 100% effectiveness from it. But if he publishes similar games, your game will be a cannibal. This is where you have to compare the games and see just how different they are. Maybe they have different settings, for example, space and fantasy — then the games will complement each other.
But even in this case, it’s more profitable and reliable for the publisher to create their own game without having to share half the income and extend the contract with some indie developer, who might respond to you today but get sick tomorrow, or even go off somewhere and disappear. So it’s a double-edged sword.
So it comes down to luck and who you meet.
It’s still not only about luck. If the publisher publishes your genre and your game complements his, then it’s important for you to be a conscientious developer, not some I-don’t-give-a-flying-fuck type of guy. And if it all fits together, it’ll turn out great.
And if you personally reach out to consumers on social media?
All people do on social media is waste their time. You can get feedback there, but I don’t think it’s a particularly effective platform. I may not have it right, as I’ve never released projects through social media, but I have talked with people who have.
But wait, look, I watched your stream on YouTube, thought it was a cool game, and now I want to install it, so that’s one more download for you.
Maybe, yeah, maybe.
So it’s not your main distribution channel?
Correct. All I do is publish my game on Google Play. As for buying traffic, everything is complicated now, and it just isn’t a profitable decision for us.
Okay, let’s switch gears a little. You’ve already said that your family is behind you, but do you ever run into the issue of not having your pursuits seriously? By people you know, for example?
It’s all about how you feel about it. You should always remember that nobody cares about you or your problems. They’re just interested in seeing how you solve them.
Why are you making a game? To make your family or friends happy? They’ll always have something to say. But if you do it for no one but yourself, you will be absolutely unaffected by this.
Of course it’s impossible to immerse yourself 100% in work and isolate yourself from everyone, so you just shouldn’t focus on whether they support you or not — it’s not their job. Don’t make excessive demands on others and don’t expect anything from them. Then you won’t have to seek out approval and will be able to work in peace.
Let’s talk a little bit about localization. Tell us how you came to the decision to translate your game into the maximum possible number of languages, and why?
To attract as many players as possible. My game doesn’t have a ton of text, so it’s not all that expensive to translate it into 20 languages, and it’s a one-time expense.
Plus, Unity supports the fonts of all the languages I’ve localized into, so there was no need to come up with anything extra. The only problems I ran into were with button size in the French and Vietnamese localizations.
Did you look at the differences in profitability between the game with and without localization? Relatively speaking, did any indicators change for the better after localization?
Oh, you mean how profitable is it? I don’t have the exact numbers, but the comments I read every day, well, half of them are in English and half are in every other language imaginable. And we can come to the conclusion that since comments started appearing in languages I had added just added, there’s definitely growth.
There was one player who asked for Hungarian in the comments. I loaded the XML, ran an update, he updated the game and commented back with: “Thanks!” People see that there are comments in their language and are much more willing to download, and it generates trust in the product as well. Even if the game has bugs, players won’t be bothered by them, because contact has been made, and player loyalty is higher when the language barrier is broken. That’s really cool.
Otherwise, players can be picky. It’s just like in a family. We forgive relatives for things we would never forgive other people for — It works the same way here. Us versus them.
And you should use all the tools at your disposal. If there is a way to make a player’s time spent in my game more comfortable, I make it happen.
In any case, indie development is an entry to the market, which means it’s a business. When did you realize that what you do is a business and that it was time to say goodbye to the illusions you had before? Since there’s this widespread romantic belief in the myth that developing a game is a simple thing.
Yes, I had a moment like that. I had illusions, fantasies, I was imagining epic battles and had no idea what the future held.
But, I think it’s actually a good thing when you know nothing at the initial stage. You don’t hesitate, you charge forward without any fear. The programmer who balanced my game was always saying about my ideas: “I don’t know, no way, it’s too difficult”, and I was like: “Come on, I don’t know, I just really want this! Let’s try.” And he would say: “Okay, we can do it like this and like that.” And it turned out really cool. And if I had had all the knowledge he had, I would have given up on the idea myself.
And then there was another situation: when I started work on DZ3, where we had decided to do everything in 3D. We made this huge, fantastic map and were then faced with the fact that a standard smartphone just doesn’t have the resources to run it. We had to reduce polygons, which made the quality drop, and everything just got so ugly. And that’s when I kind of stopped functioning.
Come on, what the hell, I did so much work, everyone was shooting at each other, a machine gun on a jeep fired at a rocket shot out of a rocket launcher, it was so awesome — and then suddenly it was all dead in the water.
But I had to do something. I had to go back to 2D, even though I spent 1000 bucks on the 3D map (while I could have done it in 2D for 200), and redo everything all over again and stay away from 3D for a while. 2D is there for me, it’s simple and comfortable and gives me everything I want. Maybe it’s just not time for me to get into 3D yet.
You always have to be flexible and be looking for alternative ways forward. I didn’t give up game development after all that, as you can see. You should accept failure as a fact and, like water, look for another route. Then you won’t lose sleep over your failures. Just accept everything that doesn’t go right as feedback and as a lesson in what not to do.
Let’s talk about volunteering. Have volunteers worked on your project? How do you work together with them? And is it worth it?
My musician friend Alexander Yakovlev wrote some tracks for Defense Zone 3 for free, since he was putting together a portfolio at that time.
But a lot depends on the individual volunteer. Alexander is already an experienced musician in his genre. And if you are working with a newbie volunteer, you’ll have to teach them, and you’ll probably just end up wasting a lot of time.
A case from my experience: when I started developing DZ2, I needed to create new units. I knew a volunteer who could draw them, but he wasn’t experienced enough. In the end, they didn’t fit the final version, they were wrong. But we used his work as sketches for more professional artists. Professionals do their work without unnecessary effort, and tend not to waste time on the creative part.
And volunteers work in a much more interesting way. They can bring their own flavor to a project, something new, because they need a good portfolio to impress clients.
All right, let’s wrap things up. Can you give some basic advice for future developers? Steps to take at the very beginning.
Understand why you are doing this. Some people do projects for money, others for fun. I don’t mean that creativity can’t earn you money, but developers with that kind of view don’t really care about money and how financial turnout.
I think it’s important to find a balance and earn some money from what you do regardless.
But it is better to choose profitable genres. For example, if you make a puzzle game and sell hints. Do you expect the player to pay for their stupidity? Pay money to prove they’re an idiot? No one with an inkling of self-esteem would want to do this, and they definitely won’t want to share that they bought hints.
The best advice I can give is to play the genre that you develop in. Play Tower Defense if you develop Tower Defense games, play shooters if you develop shooters — you’ll know all the nuances. You should learn all the pluses and minuses of each game, and know your audience.
I’ve played strategy games and Tower Defense games all my life, I grew up playing hardcore games, like Battletoads. In general, I know what it’s like to try hard and then see that win screen, it’s the best high. That’s the point: the harder players try, the more they relax in the end.
I also love what I do, and didn’t think too much about how much I would earn as I was getting started. I just made the game as cool and interesting as I could.
And be honest with yourself. If your game is shit, you should realize that. It’s normal, it happens. Throughout the game industry this happens. If you develop a game that’s no good, everyone will still see it, and then they’ll write about how it’s pointless, it’s boring, etc.
Some people try to buy reviews, but most still don’t take this cheating route. My game has a 4.7 rating in the store, and it’s honest. Because if you make a good product, it gets a good reaction.
You also have to focus on your audience and filter out others. There will always be some people who just won’t get into the game and they’ll say: “I tried the game, I didn’t like it. I can’t beat it, I’m done, goodbye.”
And most importantly, why I mentioned different types of people first, don’t do this if your main goal is to earn money.
The first question you should ask yourself is: why do I need all that money? If your answer is to buy a yacht, then you’re misleading yourself. Your priority is to buy a yacht, not to develop a game.
But if your answer is that you don’t know, that’s a perfectly fine answer. I don’t know why I need it, either. I spend them on my basic needs and work, that’s all. Screw money. When you get your first paycheck, you start throwing it away on whatever, but the euphoria eventually ends and you just do your thing.
So if money is the goal, not a means, then you’re doing it wrong. You should be trying to make a good product that people will love using.
For example, I made an educational game for kids, I made an app for my own kid, and it’s now free in the app store. But why did I make it? Just to do something good for people. My own kid learned multiplication tables in three days of playing it.
So answer this question for yourself: what kind of games do you want to make? Projects like Defense Zone for the money? Yes, you’ll earn money, you’ll have a project that you have to maintain, but you won’t be satisfied.
Look for what you really enjoy — this is very individual.
Think about money as a renewable resource. Your game should be a source of income.