Amir Rajan, indie game developer: “Don’t go for the general public, find a niche in the market and make something that they would love”

October 5, 2018

Leaving a ‘real’ job in the corporate world to fulfil your childhood dream is never easy, but if there’s anyone who can tell us how to do it, it is, without a doubt, Amir Rajan.

In an App Store where it would seem that only the big companies and their mass-market games could survive, Rajan has managed to find a niche for his independent, alternative games. 

Before starting, few would have put any money on him, but the success of titles such as A Noble Circle and A Dark Room has shown that there are still people prepared to pay for independent mobile games.

F2P Campus (F): Why did you choose to make a career in the video game industry?

Amir Rajan (AR): Actually, I think it’s the same story for many developers: they want to get into programming because they want to build videogames. So, when I was very young, I had my first computer and it was one of these kinds of things where I played a video game and I wanted to learn how to make [them].

So then you learn how to program and what happens is that, as you get older, you find that making videogames is not something that you can make a career out of. Your parents say, ‘No, you have to think about your future and eventually get a real job, and pretty much any artistic endeavor in itself has a lot of risk’.

I guess that’s what happened to me. I went to college, got my degree in computer science engineering and then joined the corporate world for six or seven years. I was almost 30 when I realized that I was tired of that corporate world and I decided to quit and go back to game development.

That’s how I started out and then I was very lucky to be able to continue doing what I love.

F: In your opinion, why choose free-to-play or free-to-start as a business model?

AR: I think that one of the beautiful things of this day and age is that we’re in a world with a distribution model where I can create something from absolutely nothing. All I need is my computer. Digital media is a wonderful opportunity for small developers to reach a very wide audience.

And, in that way, it just makes sense to provide an opportunity to see what the game is and see what can be accomplished. People also get to know who I am as a person without any kind of up-front commitment and then they have the option to purchase or support me after the fact.

I think that it’s been something that many people had a hard time getting used to, but it just makes sense in the longer term. 

F: Is there space in the market today for these indie and made-with-lots-of-love games, with all these gigantic companies offering free games that they want you to play every day?

AR: I do think there is. A part of that comes with smaller companies and developers putting much more emphasis on very specific interest, niche gameplay. Instead of trying to cast a wide general net of ‘XYZ racing game’, maybe concentrate on very a specific interest for a very small group of people.

And again, in this day and age we’re able to do that because we have access to, literally, the entire world. So, finding the small percentage of people that like a very specific style of game is pretty doable, and the larger companies would never pursue that kind of business because it’s not profitable to them, but for a small developer it makes a lot of sense. 

F: What could indie developers learns from the big companies to make their game better?

AR: One of the things that the big companies do very well is the polish of the game; everything from the graphics to the storyline and the testing. The general quality of the games tends to be much better.

Another thing that big companies do very well is they use objective analysis instead of emotion to determine if something is a success of if it has failed. I think as an independent developer, especially in an artistic medium, you start letting emotions take over and it’s important to look at the big companies who are not so emotional. Being like that is bad in some areas, but is key to making decisions. 

F: What’s the key to survival in the App Store today?

AR: Unfortunately, one part is to be very, very lucky. The other part is to be true to who you are and concentrate on finding that specific identity; focus as tightly as you can on that identity and finding people who appreciate that identity.

F: Did you expect a text adventure game for mobile like A Dark Room to end up being such a success?

AR: Never in a million years would I have expected that. And that goes back to that aspect of being lucky. I think one part of that was being in the right place at the right time. The other part I think was that A Dark Room was released at a time when people had forgotten that you don’t need all the technology and graphics in the world to build something that can connect with another person.

F: What advice would you give to someone making their first steps in the industry?

AR: Build something very small, approachable and true to who you are. Also, expect failure in the sense that that’s essentially what the reality is. You’ll learn from those mistakes and then you can make a moderately larger thing, but you have to start small.