Puzzles By Joe | One Man Gaming Company Success Story

These days, mobile games are a hot topic. If you’ve turned on the TV in the past few months, it’s impossible to avoid a commercial featuring Kate Upton riding on a horse, encouraging you to download a game on the App Store. But one Atlanta-based indie game developer, Joe Cassavaugh, is sticking to his PC Casual Game roots and has created a following with his game like no other: Clutter. The Original Un-Hidden Object Game has allowed Cassavaugh to work for himself and collect $150k in royalties in this year alone. We recently spoke with the man behind Puzzles By Joe to see how he does it and his advice for others.

In 2004, Cassavaugh began working at iWin as a developer where he created the successful Mah Jong Quest trilogy. However, “at the end of 2009, I decided the time was right for going indie for two main reasons. The tools existed where I believed I could do a fairly large, complete game for the PC Casual Download space on my own and I was unhappy being a hired-gun and just working on other people’s ideas,” he recalls. “I could easily support one-man-year of development, so it was an easy decision to give it a try. Basically, I knew I would regret it if I didn’t do it.”

After speaking with his wife, Joe decided to create a HOG (Hidden Object Game). “The core idea was that it would be nonverbal match (matching two objects instead of finding an object from a list of words) and that it would be replayable. Standard HOGs are treated like movies, people play them once in about 4-6 hours and then move on to the next game,” he explains. “Also the Clutter-idea was ‘good enough.’ By that I mean, I knew that I could do many, many variations within the general mechanic. It was obviously a mechanic that had both depth and width to it, which is why each of the 5 games has added something new and different to that basic mechanic of matching two visual objects.”

As anyone who’s chosen to go it alone will tell you, well structured strategies across time allocation, development, business, and marketing are imperative for success. “I specifically chose my target market so that I didn’t have to worry about marketing. I was lucky enough that the first game, though not a huge success, did just well enough to warrant a sequel,” continues Cassavaugh. “With the sequel, I learned about ‘the franchise effect,’ where the later games are free marketing for the earlier games. Although the 3rd and 4th game did really well, it was obvious that the PC Casual Download market was shrinking, so I had to start thinking beyond the next one or two games. I spend about 20% of my time now in the business/marketing end of things: improving my website, supporting direct sales, prepping for a Facebook Ad campaign, prepping for a Steam launch, and always looking for other distribution channels.”

Cluetter Screenshot 2
Screenshots from the Clutter Game

Clutter Screenshot 1

“The majority of my customers come from the distributor sites like Big Fish Games, who pretty much own the HOG market, iWin, Game House, Wild Tangent, etc. As I’m not allowed to have a link to my website in my games, I brand the Puzzles-By-Joe strongly so that anyone can find me if they bother to look. I’m not great at engagement, but my audience is passionate and each release on Big Fish does better than the last one and bumps up sales to the earlier games. Clutter IV reached #6 on Big Fish. For #3 and #4 I had about $1000 in pre sales directly from my website.” Interested in checking out the most recent iteration? Look out for Clutter V by Cassavaugh.  It will be released beta this week, and will be fully released by the end of July.

Cassavaugh has been able to seek out different, diverse distribution channels by keeping his, “eyes and ears open and never hearing the word ‘no.’ GameHouse turned down the first Clutter but accepted Clutter II and beyond. Wild Tangent, after turning down 1, 2 and 3, accepted #4,” he says. “I got in a box-product at Walmart because of a person I met at a local meet-up. All 4 of my games have been sold in Walmart in collections of Hidden Object Games (6 or 10 on a CD), which earns me $4000 per game. Also, I connected with a distributor that had connections at AT&T and Verizon all because of a phone call with the CEO of iWin. Offhand, I asked him if there were any distributors I was missing and he mentioned a company called Exent. That channel has brought in almost $30k in just a year and a half.”

“I’m always willing to share my story, including financials, because I don’t think enough indie devs. do that and it’s important for people in any discipline to have accurate information to base decisions on,” continues Cassavaugh. “My net royalties were $146K last year with two of my games having initial launch months of around $40K. My passive income per month is around $6K and I’m launching Clutter V at the end of July. I should be bringing in at least $150K this year and I continue to find new distribution channels for all the Clutter games.”

The Clutter creator says that Atlanta’s exceptionally strong local development community keeps him sane. “Although I’m a nerd, I’m a highly social nerd and working by myself out of my home is not like working in an office,” he says. “I’m more productive at times, but I miss the social interaction and collaboration that working in an office provides. Being part of the GGDA, the IGDA, attending SIEGE, and the meet-ups helps keep me energized and provides ample fellow developers to bounce ideas off of. Having companies like Hi-Rez, Tripwire, Kaneva, Games That Work, and Cartoon Network that are actively involved in the dev. community is a huge plus. It’s also nice to see the Georgia legislature keeping game developers included under the same bills/laws aimed at attracting the film, television and FX industries to Georgia.”

Be sure to check out Joe’s thoughts on the future of mobile games.