3 Lessons From Jon Shafer's Rise and Fall as a Indie Video Game Dev

Jon Shafer's indie game, At The Gates, made a lot of money. But in the end he messed up. Learn how, and how you can avoid his mistakes...

Inside this article, you're going to learn how a game dev successfully marketed their indie game. Got funded. Built an audience of diehard fans. Got gamers to buy his pre-orders for $50 bucks. But in the end, he messed it all up.

This is a cautionary tale about Jon Shafer. Shafer started his own indie game dev company back in 2012. By 2013, he had gotten funded for over $100,000 for his early access game: At The Gates.

And he was also making extra money from selling pre-orders. And what's crazy is, he was selling pre-orders for $50 -- for an indie game!

Learn how Jon Shafer was able to sell his indie game, At the Gates, for $50
Learn how Jon Shafer was able to sell his indie game, At the Gates, for $50

By 2014, his success was dying down. And by 2017, all he now has is a lot of angry gamers and an unfinished indie game.

Learn how Jon Shafer messed up his success as an indie video game dev
Then learn how Jon Shafer messed up his success as an indie video game dev

How did Shafer get so much success in just one year? And how did he lose it all just as fast?

Here's some insights from Jon Shafers story so you can get the same success with your video game -- but at the same time avoid all his mistakes so you don't fail.

Here's the first insight you need to know...

Indie Insight Number 1: Be Prolific and You'll Succeed

If you know Shafer, you'll know that he was the lead programmer for Civ V. And at first glance, you might think that this was the biggest reason why Shafer's indie game, At the Gates, was a huge success in terms of getting funding.

Maybe. But I like to dig deeper. I like to find the non-obvious reasons why some video games sell and some don't.

The real reason why Shafer's indie game was a success at first, was not because of his resume. It's because he was prolific at indirectly marketing himself.

Let me show you what I mean...

Before Shafer was hired on by Firaxis, he started off by modding Civ III and IV. He built a name for himself. Modders knew him by his name "Trip". Trip was one of the best modders for Civ III and IV. He also wrote a guide on how to mod Civ IV using Python.

Jon Shafer was prolific in putting out great content -- which helped him get a lot of attention
Jon Shafer was prolific in putting out great content -- which helped him get a lot of attention

This got him the attention of Firaxis, and they hired him on to help program Civ IV expansions, Warlords and Beyond the Sword. From there, he landed his role as the lead programmer for Civ V.

He then left Firaxis in 2011. But he didn't stop being prolific. He then started writing a devlog: JonShaferOnDesign.com. He also started a podcast with a friend talking about video game and board game design.

By 2013, he build a small audience of fans through his podcast and his devlog.

That's when he announced his new indie game, At the Gates. He already built an audience of diehard fans. And this how he was able to get funding so quick. This is why he was able to sell pre-orders of an indie game for $50.

Here's the insight I want you to learn here...

Shafer's success came to him AFTER he put a lot of free time into something. He did modding for free. He wrote a guide to help other modders, for free. He was prolific at just doing stuff.

This got him attention from Firaxis.

He then wrote a lot in his dev log -- for free, no pay. He wrote great insights about design and programming to help other devs.

And he was one of the first to have a dev log. Not many people were doing devlogs back in 2011. This was a reason why his devlog was a success.

He also spent hours recording a free podcast.

Again, he was prolific. Almost all of the stuff he did was free. He just put out content, and gamers and fans and people gravitated to that.

This is what I mean when I said he was "indirectly marketing" himself. While he was helping other people with his content, guides, podcasts, he was also marketing his name.

Gamers knew him. They trusted him. And when he was ready to launch his new indie game, gamers were hungry to buy it. Even for $50.

All his this extra, free work Shafer put in paid off. He got more and more attention from other sources. Other big name game devs started to support him.

It wasn't because Shafer was the lead programer for Civ V that got his indie game to become a success. It was because he was prolific. He put out content that helped people. He did it all for free. He didn't just sit in his room and code a video game.

His success was due to knowing how to market his talent by putting out as much content as he could -- for free.

And this helped him build an audience of diehard fans... fans that would help support him and his new indie video game.

But you'll soon learn about Shafer's downfall, and what made him lose everything he worked so hard to build up.

But first, let me show you another insight...

Indie Insight Number 2: Other People's Money is The Beginning of The End

Getting other people to help you fund your indie video game sounds like the intuitive thing to do. It feels like it's the only option indie game devs have. Without funding, there is no way a game can be made.

And so indie devs set out to get outside cash. They go to investors, they go to Kickstarter, they even go to publishers. They want outside cash so they not worry about the how they'll support themselves while they're making a game.

This sounds like an ideal situation, hey? You got all the money you need to help you support your life. You can code all day, and not worry about working a day job. You can build your game, and not worry about if you need money this week.

Spending other people's money sounds easy. But there's hidden catch. And Shafer realized this right away.

First of all, trying to raise funds is distracting. It will take away months or years from your life, and take you away from what you love doing: making video games.

In one of Shafers devlog entries titled, "Trials & Tribulations of Kickstarter", where he explains...

"Many people don't realize creators ultimately end up with a fairly small slice of the Kickstarter pie. You can immediately cut 20% off the top due to processing fees and failed transactions. Then there's the cost of fulfilling rewards, marketing (yes, it's important), both planned and unplanned contract work, licensing multiple software packages – the list goes on and on."

You don't realize how much of a drain raising money is.

And, other people's money is not free money. You do have to eventually pay it back. Investors expect a return. People who funded you on Kickstarter hound you and demand your game when it's past its due date.

And what do you do when you run out of your funding? Go back and ask for more?

The reason other people's money is recipe for failure is because you put all your focus how you're going to get money... and less focus on building a great video game.

Other people's money is NOT sustainable. You get addicted to it. And you need it in order to survive.

Shafer is learning this lesson hard. He ran out of money. That's why the game is still in development 3 years after its due date.

And now all those fans that loved Shafer, and trusted him, and supported him with their $50 bucks and Kickstarter money, are turning their back on him.

When you use other people's money, you lose all control over your game. Your funders and investors now have become your boss. They have expectations. And they make you do stuff you don't want to do.

This downfall will lead to insight number 3...

Indie Insight Number 3: The More You Tell, The More You Sell

Remember how I told you how Shafer was so prolific? He put out content, wrote articles, recorded podcast, written guides... all for free.

Being prolific is what got Shafer's indie game so much attention.

There is a saying in selling, that goes....

"The More You Tell, The More You Sell"

This saying is true, because it's people who talk most about something that get all the attention... that get all the rewards.

For example, Christopher Columbus "discovered" America. So why is it called America and not Columbia?

Because Columbus didn't believe that the land he "discovered" was a new continent. He thought it was India.

But Amerigo Vespucci, another explorer, talked about the "New World". He wrote about it. He published a famous letter, Mundus Novus, which he talked about the "New Word" and how it's a continent all on its own.

The more you market yourself, talk about your game, the more you sell
The more you market yourself, talk about your game, the more you sell

He wrote many more letters about this topic. For this, Amerigo's name was put on the new content, and not Columbus's.

You see what I mean? The more you tell, the more you sell.

Shafer was prolific. He wrote about game dev and design back in 2011. Not a lot of game devs did that. He put out hours and hours of a podcast. He was out there, creating content for free.

But here's the insight I want you to learn....

When Shafer ran out of his funding, and his fans realized that the game was going to take longer than expected, he stopped talking.

He quit the podcast around 2014. He stopped writing in his devlog. He stopped putting up updates on his Kickstarter.

He even got a job at Paradox recently.

Nobody knows if he's working on his indie game, At the Gates, or not.

You see what's going on here? I mean, I don't blame the guy. All that pressure from his fans, and money problems is going to put a lot of stress on you. It's hard to be "prolific" when you put in all that work, and see it all go down in failure.

I like Shafer. I believe he's a genuine guy. I trust he's a great programer. I'm looking forward to seeing what he does at Paradox.

Jon Shafer is back to working a full time job, no longer an indie game dev
Jon Shafer is back to working a full time job, no longer an indie game dev

But because he stopped being prolific, he stopped all his momentum. He was on his way to become a "Sid Meyer", where his brand of video games becomes a franchise.

He still can. But right now, because he stopped marketing himself, his indie game is on hold, and he's back to working full time.