Manufacturing Alexes: The Secret of Indie Game Success

Alex approached me, wild-eyed, at an IGDA meeting one night. We had never really carried on a complete conversation, but we were acquainted with each other. On this particular evening, Alex had something very important to say to me. Judging from his expression, i could only surmise that the Russians had bombed Princess Diana.


What’s that, Alex? Archduke Ferdinand is stuck in the well??

But my predictive powers had failed me. i was wrong. When Alex opened his mouth, with a little foam forming at the corners of his lips – possibly rabies, i thought – it was to say the following:

“You have to play SpaceChem.”

He wasn’t kidding. Alex was just making a game recommendation to me, but the fervour with which he said it made me know he was serious, and that my family was quite probably in danger if i didn’t listen to him.

“You have to,” he said. “It’s BRILLIANT.”

He went on to describe SpaceChem as this smart little puzzle game that had you, essentially, programming solutions to problems. It sounded right up my alley. i couldn’t speak for the other people in our little group, but Alex wasn’t being selective with his recommendation – he was spraying it like a gatling gun, hoping to take a few of us out in his frenzied fire. Okay, okay. i told him i’d check it out.

When i got home after the IGDA event, there were incoming tweets from Alex. “Did you try SpaceChem yet??

Fatal Attraction

The Power of Christ Compelled Him

i didn’t buy SpaceChem that night. i didn’t buy it after i met one of the developers in person at a conference in Seattle. i didn’t buy it until months and months later, during the Christmas sale on Steam.

But in the end, i bought SpaceChem. Sight unseen. And i bought it because of Alex.

Alex was an evangelist. We used to reserve that word for Protestant Christians who, by feverish word of mouth and big revival tents pitched in the desert, would win people over to their cause. Today, tech companies like Adobe have carved out actual job descriptions for evangelists to ballyhoo their brand message worldwide.


SpaceChem can HEAL yeh. Be HEALED-a!

As an indie gamer working on a new title, i’ve been thinking back to Alex’s recommendation that night. i want guys like Alex to run into a crowd of people at an IGDA event and rant about how amazing Spellirium is. But that’s impossible, right? Alexes happen because someone tries your game, and likes it a lot, and decides to tell other people about it. It’s a grassroots thing. It’s like a game or a video going viral. You can’t exactly manufacture that kind of thing.



Spreading Your Seed

i’ve read some articles and have attended some lectures that purport to teach you how to generate virality, and they all came off as hokum. (Matter of fact, i think i’m GIVING one of those lectures at GDC this year) But i’m a bit of a dreamer, so i decided to do a little legwork to find out how Alex, this usually mild-mannered and affable fellow i’d see at IGDA meetings, caught SpaceChem Fever.

After my lazy-ass sleuthing (Columbo could have saved SO much time with Twitter and Wikipedia), i pieced together this timeline of events:

  1. SpaceChem developer Zachtronics Industries emailed Valve to try to get the game distributed on Steam. It didn’t happen.
  2. Zachtronics handled their own distribution and began to sell the game directly on their own website.
  3. Zachtronics (presumably) emailed a number of game industry publications about SpaceChem. One of these was Rock Paper Shotgun.
  4. Then-RPS writer Quintin Smith reviewed SpaceChem, calling it “an incredible game”.
  5. Valve approached Zachtronics two days later, and agreed to distribute SpaceChem on Steam. Fancy how that happens.
  6. Quintin wrote another SpaceChem article, in which he said this:

    Anyone who hasn’t yet tried the demo should physically drop what they’re doing to do so immediately. Yes, even if it’s tea. I don’t care if it’s tea and you’re drinking it directly above your child.

  7. An impressionable Alex read that article, was infected by Quintin’s ridiculous enthusiasm, and downloaded the demo.
  8. Agreeing with Quintin’s assessment, Alex stormed up to us at the IGDA meeting, and attempted to infect us with his enthusiasm.

28 Days Later eye scene

Note: it helps that Zachtronics is behind Infiniminer, and that Infiniminer inspired Minecraft. This is analogous to AMPAAS overlooking Cuba Gooding Jr. for his performance in Jerry McGuire one year, and then giving him the Oscar for Snow Dogs the next.

Snow Dogs

“I’d like to thank Dog … ”

(i don’t mean to say that SpaceChem is the game equivalent of Snow Dogs … i only mean that Quintin may have felt that in addition to building a brilliant game, Zachtronics deserved a little more attention for their general briliance, Infiniminer included.)

This all confirms something that i learned about the indie game dev scene a few years ago at GDC. i was getting tired of listening to the Casual crowd year after year – same speakers, same topics, same takeaways. i had never sat in on the Indie Games Summit because i mistakenly thought it would be a room full of students sharing tips on where to find cracked copies of Maya. It wasn’t until i actually broke down and attended the Summit that my eyes were opened.

It was there that i learned the secret to Indie Game Success.

The Secret to Indie Game Success

The indie game scene is a club. If you’re in the club, you get certain opportunities that you wouldn’t have otherwise – namely, you don’t get to attend the parties. So getting into the club somehow is the first step.

What’s so great about the parties? The parties are where the indies rub elbows with the games journalists. (And let me be clear, because i absolutely hate that designation: there’s a vast difference between a reporter exposing genocide in Malaysia, and a college student complaining about the drift mechanics in the latest Mario Kart game. In most cases, journalists they ain’t. But i’ll use that term here for ease, if nothing else.)

Call of Duty

There’s a massive difference between reporting from inside a war-torn country, and reporting from inside Call of Duty.

Here’s the thing about those journalists: they’re the king-makers. They are the love that covers a multitude of sins – and by “sins”, i mean complete lack of a marketing budget, a lousy distribution plan, and no localization strategy to speak of … all the bush-league errors that we indies make because we are, quite literally, three guys in a garage, and the garage is rented.

i’ve become convinced that it’s the journalists who make the most successful indies fabulous amounts of money. That’s partly because games “journalists” have this characteristic penchant for hyperbole that you don’t find in mainstream media. You’d never hear Roger Ebert say “OMG n00bs I JUST SAW HOWARDS END AND UR GONNA FILL UR PAMPERS OVER THIS ONE”, but it’s not out of place in a games magazine. If Roger Ebert ever told me “get ready to drop motherfucking TEA on your baby’s FACE because Tree of Life is AMAZING”, i’m sure my impression of Tree of Life would be higher than if Ebert hadn’t said anything. And i’m sure Ebert’s silly enthusiasm would be infectious, and i’d HAVE to run up to a group of people and scream “GO SEE TREE OF LIFE RIGHT NOW OR i’LL SHANK YOU IN THE KIDNEYS!!”

Roger Ebert

Listen to the man. Ebert will mess you up.

Games journalists are the vehicle by which mainstream gamers hear about (what they think are) worthwhile indie titles. They have an incredible amount of power. That’s how Ponycorns made the rounds. i never would have seen the same amount of success with that game if the journalists hadn’t run through the streets with it impaled on a flaming stick.

Take This, Brother – May it Serve You Well

So the secret, once more, if you want to be a successful indie developer:

  1. Get in the club.
  2. Make something excellent.
  3. Buddy up with journalists and convince them to talk about your game as enthusiastically as possible.

THAT’S how you manufacture Alexes. Organic word of mouth is great, but the effort you’d need to expend to personally seed enough people with infectious enthusiasm to make that fire catch is immense, and it’s probably an impossible task. You need a firestarter log. You need to spray butane on it. Games journalists are made of butane.

Spellirium is a great game, so i’ve got that hurdle out of the way. Now i just need to run up to a group of games journalists at a GDC party and splatter my enthusiasm all over them … Alex-style.

1 thought on “Manufacturing Alexes: The Secret of Indie Game Success

  1. UnSub

    It’s a good observation, and it’s also a big barrier to getting your indie game known. If you don’t have RPS to advocate for it – and perhaps the case of Infiniminer versus Minecraft is suitable here – then your game can easily fall under the radar.

    … and it is only going to get worse as more indie titles are released (if you accept “the future of PC gaming is indie!” hypothesis championed from a number of sources).


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