Independent game development in 2015: a conversation with Arnold Rauers of Tinytouchtales

Independently developed or “indie” video games — games created by small teams or individuals without the financial support of a publisher — have become an integral part of the gaming landscape over the past decade. The rise of digital distribution on the traditional PC and console markets, as well as the proliferation of smartphones and their accompanying app stores, have allowed smaller developers to sell directly to consumers and have largely negated the need to produce a physical product.

As a consequence of these market changes, indie titles now compete with big publisher backed releases for gamers’ dollars — and often succeed. “Minecraft”(2009) for instance, an independently developed title originally created by Swedish game developer Markus “Notch” Persson, is one of the bestselling video games of all time and was purchased by Microsoft for $2.5 billion in 2014. On mobile platforms, “Flappy Bird” (2013), a mechanically simple game by Vietnamese developer Dong Nguyen, became a sensation in early 2014 and was reportedly generating $50,000 per day at the peak of its popularity before it was abruptly removed from Apple’s App Store.

For every story of outrageous indie success however, there are thousands of independent developers who toil in obscurity but still produce interesting, innovative titles. One such developer who has managed to carve out a niche for himself is Berlin-based game designer Arnold Rauers of Tinytouchtales — the company behind “Card Crawl” (2015), a solitaire-inspired dungeon crawler.

“I started working [generally] in games in 2011, but as of 2014, I’m independent,” he said.

Before becoming an independent developer, Rauers worked at larger game companies as an interface designer for mobile games, most notably on the free-to-play title “Pearl’s Peril” (2013 – present). After getting started in the industry, Rauers soon realized that it was feasible for him to make his own games after he discovered the game creation tool Stencyl, which, according to its website, allows developers with no coding knowledge to create games.

Rauers said that Stencyl’s accessibility appealed to him.

I discovered the tool in 2012, I think, and from then on, it totally took over my mind,” he said. “I always had the desire to create my own stuff, but I was blocked by my inability to program. Once I discovered [Stencyl], it was pretty clear to me that I had to start [creating] my own [games], and since then, I have worked to save up money to pursue this goal.”

Rauers said that before beginning to develop “Card Crawl” in August 2014, he released eight independently developed titles that never quite took off. 

Rauers used savings he accumulated during his three years of working for large game companies to support himself during the seven-month-long development of “Card Crawl,” as he had quit his job to work on the project. He also enlisted the help of artist (and Rauers’ former university professor) Max Fiedler and sound designer Oliver Salkic. Initially, both Fiedler and Salkic worked for free in exchange for a share of the eventual revenues from “Card Crawl.” Because “Card Crawl” was a hit, this arrangement turned out to be, in Rauers’ words, “a very good deal” for both Fiedler and Salkic, but was not without risks. As Rauers pointed out, “if the game had bombed it would have been a very bad deal for them”.

“Card Crawl” was first released in March of 2015 on Apple’s App Store, which Rauers described as a challenging marketplace to break into. Many players are only interested in offerings by large companies with the promotional muscle to publicize their games, he said.  

“The mobile market is super skewed towards the top, [toward games produced by these big companies],” Rauers said. “A lot of reports [say there are] about 10 to 15 games that make about 60 to 70 percent of all the money that is generated … There are a few games like “Clash of Clans” [2012] that make millions a day, and on the other hand, there are millions of games that make nothing a day.”

In this hyper-competitive environment, where even a high-quality game like “Card Crawl” may go unnoticed, “Card Crawl” has managed to succeed; Rauers estimates that “Card Crawl” has made roughly $75,000 to date across both the App Store and Google Play.

Rauers attributes a good deal of the success of “Card Crawl” to his promotional strategy, which was comprised of maintaining a development blog and regularly posting about the game on social media. He also stressed the importance of having a contact at Apple who helped him get “Card Crawl” featured on the App Store during its first week on sale.

“[A contact at Apple] is the biggest thing you have to have,” he said. “These days on the App Store, [it] is so crowded, and you have no chance of self-promoting a paid game in any kind of substantial way.”

“Card Crawl” also received a great deal of support from an unlikely demographic: board game fans, who were attracted to the game’s aesthetic and discussed it avidly online.

Beyond a solid promotional strategy, Rauers believes that his game’s success is also rooted in its niche appeal. He said that the so-called “goldmine” period of mobile gaming — when all potential players were up for grabs — is over and that it is now very difficult to compete with large gaming companies.

Despite these challenges, Rauers has found an alternative way to court the mass of prospective players.

“What you…should do is make a very niche game, where you try and innovate on something and target a really small niche of a niche,” he said.

Tinytouchtales, a small video game company Rauers founded, has followed this strategy closely in producing “Card Crawl.” The game combines a relatively complex card game with a dungeon crawler, a medley of genres that appeals to a very small, but very passionate, subset of the mobile games market.

The success of “Card Crawl” has enabled Rauers to continue working as an independent game developer, which he describes as his dream job. Tinytouchtales is currently working on a follow-up — though not a sequel — to “Card Crawl.” Rauers hopes that the new game will appeal to the same players who loved the original and that he will be able to innovate the established single-player/card game base. A more detailed announcement of the new game’s theme and mechanics is expected in early 2016.