Don’t tell John O’Neill that the gaming industry is in trouble. As the founder of Cary’s Spark Plug Games, he’s busier than ever. That being said, he knows where the pain is coming from.

“We don’t take a lot of hints from other industries that run consumer campaigns,” he said. “Coke spends a bunch of money on research and development but also on public relations and marketing. We need to realize that product development starts with marketing. “

I caught up with O’Neill, who I’ve known for a few years now as I’ve tried to build connections between the Triangle gaming scene and the Triangle tech startup scene, on a break after his panel last week at East Coast Game Conference, in its fifth year in Raleigh, and its third at the Convention Center downtown.

This year’s ECGC drew 1,200 attendees from all over the world, a 20 percent growth from last year. Spectacular considering the industry, locally and worldwide, is in a bit of a prolonged rut (lousy earnings at Zynga, slumping sales, firings at EA), one that now has pundits waiting for the release of the PS4 and new XBox as the next potential upswing.

But the panel O’Neill moderated was one of the most honest — and thus most fascinating — panels I’ve ever witnessed, as four current and former independent mobile game developers discussed mistakes, failure, lessons learned, and how to survive.

Tom Jackson talked about how Foursaken Media’s first games did very well, but then the company started looking at the massive successes of Angry Birds and Fruit Ninja, and just knew they could make better casual games. They did just that, and those games bombed.

Lesson learned: Foursaken went back to doing what they did well, making the kind of hardcore games that had worked in the past. New York Zombies followed and future games started doing well again.

They also realized that the casual games were taking much longer to develop, so with the pivot they reduced their development cycle time. It’s much easier to recover from a failure, Jackson said, when you only lose a couple months of development time.

Josh Fairhurst from Raleigh’s Mighty Rabbit Studios, echoed Jackson. They assumed that their Saturday Morning RPG title was going to be a huge success. But while it was a critical darling, it produced a financial result way below their expectations. The takeaway: Sometimes great games fall flat, sometimes terrible games make a bunch of money.

It’s a total crapshoot.

Fairhurst warned the crowd, most of which were either in the industry or students wanting to get into the industry, to assume your first title is not going to do well. Have a plan for the future, for what’s going to be reality. He also advised them not to be super-passionate about the game – don’t make the game of your dreams. In this, he described what we in the startup world call the minimum viable product.

Finally, he added, start thinking about money from the get-go. If you make a great game, you deserve to get paid for it. And if you want to do this with your life, you need to find a way to sustain it. It’s not exploitation if you’re charging a fair price for what you’re making.

However, first you’ve got to get the game built – a reminder from Adrian Schmettau, formerly of Lab Rats Studio. They planned to get their title, Muse, done in three months and wound up spending a year and a half on it. The scope was way too ambitious for their team of four, and at one point they had grown to a team of eight. At the end, Muse would had to have done exceptionally well for the company to survive. Moral: Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.

While getting the game sold is a dicey proposition at best, getting started is also getting harder, due to a contraction in available money at the outset.

Mighty Rabbit, Lab Rats, and Gale Force Logic all came out of Durham’s Joystick Labs, and while each of them credit Joystick for their existence, and several success stories came out of Joystick, it’s investment model ultimately just wasn’t sustainable.

Kickstarter, on the other hand, has because dangerous, based on the number of companies, including game developers, that have raised substantial amounts of money via Kickstarter but have so far failed to produce a product, leading in some cases to lawsuits.

If you’re going to go the Kickstarter route, agreed the panel, it’s best to have some name recognition and a couple games already on the market. Even then, it’s likely you can raise $5,000 – $10,000, which isn’t much.

While it seems that the growth in mobile is in turn making it harder for smaller shops, like the ones that dot the Triangle, to stand out, the truth is that it’s always been this way. Mobile and social have made games easier and cheaper to produce, but that doesn’t mean an easier path to success.

Says O’Neill: “In gaming, especially in indie, you’re so hyper-focused on the content side that you forget about business — marketing, selling your game. Passion blocks the business logic.“

And while mobile is a new and exciting place for gamers to publish, it shouldn’t be the only place.

“Mobile stores are like a yard sale,” he said. “There you bring a product that you bought at a premium price and you sell it at a low price to get rid of it. Mobile gaming never had a premium price. So you shouldn’t just be focusing on mobile, or for that matter PC or console. Get on as many platforms as make sense.”

In the end, what matters is not whether or not you’ve got the next Angry Birds, but whether you survive.

“Your games aren’t you,” said Fairhurst. “Don’t take bad reviews or failure personally. Get back in it.”

Just make sure you have the resources that allow for that.

Editor’s note: Joe Procopio is a serial entrepreneur, writer, and speaker. He is VP of Product at Automated Insights and the founder of startup network and news resource ExitEvent. Follow him at @jproco or read him at