Keeping an independent studio running for years is no mean feat. Eastside Games has been at it for 6 years in Vancouver, Canada, starting with Facebook games and later moving to mobile.
Co-founder Josh Nilson is proud of not only surviving, but also standing alone. He doesn’t use the word “indie”, but rather “independent”, meaning Eastside isn’t owned or published by a larger studio. “I think it’s important that there are still lots of studios out there that are self-published,” says Nilson.
Being independent means following your own vision, and keeping a direct connection to fans. On the other hand, it also requires a lot of agility, and changing to suit the times. We spoke with Nilson to learn how Eastside’s latest release Trailer Park Boys: Greasy Money, has succeeded so far with over 2 million downloads.
To grow your game, love your customers
In the dawn of mobile gaming, players didn’t expect much from games or developers. That attitude has slowly reversed, and many of today’s top games have excellent customer service. Eastside is getting ahead of the trend in several ways:
Regular streaming on Facebook Live to stay in touch with fans
Immediately responding to reviews and in-game feedback
Starting all new team members with a week of community engagement
Seating the community team beside the design team
Accomplishing all of these tasks has meant hiring a lot of community managers — they now make up 10 percent of the entire company. But the investment is proving worthwhile for Eastside.
Streaming, for instance, may not attract massive crowds of viewers, but it heavily influences a smaller group. “It’s a great way for fans to sound off, tell you what they like or don’t, and show off their own streams. That’s how you build up all those small organic installs you need,” says Nilson.
Community managers are traditionally around the bottom of the totem pole, but at Eastside they’re more influential, joining design meetings and influencing the game’s direction. The studio is even considering whether community should take over some marketing functions. “We’re trying to figure out who does what in those areas. It’s interesting that those are blurred lines,” says Nilson.
On surviving another 6 years
“I think it’s going to get tougher for everyone. Not just for independents, for everyone, because it’s getting harder and harder to market. What you need to focus on is getting something unique in the story and leveraging your fanbase from game to game,” says Nilson.
Beyond finding ways to move your own player base around, Nilson advises finding other independent studios to work with. Cross-promotion brings in outside players, and developers or independent consultants can help with the razor’s edge balancing required to succeed in free-to-play.
Despite the challenges, Nilson hopes to remain worthy of Eastside’s motto, “fiercely independent”, forever. Greasy Money itself is a case study in why being independent can be better: the team chose the project because they liked the Trailer Park Boys, an iconic show in Canada. Later, it was almost canceled, after the initial project didn’t satisfy the team. But they were able to pivot to a new narrative structure. “Smaller studios can move a lot faster without a publisher who’s saying, we need a game like this,” says Nilson.