What qualifies me to write this article? I have never sold a game, barely even finished any. But I have spent a lot of time looking at it from a production angle, and I thought I'd share what I've learned. Statistics on the Internet are unreliable, and any intepretation of them them are even more reliable, as everyone tries to get it to say what they want to believe. In any entertainment industry, it's even worse. Take this article and all others you find as advice, and above all, use your common sense.
Let's start with the bad news first...
Why you shouldn't quit your day job Poor income
I'm sure some of you have heard stories of indie game makers that make $100K off their game. Wow, that's a lot! Or is it..? You need at least 8 months to make a game worth selling. You often need to hire someone to do some other components of the game. You're going to split your profits with someone else.
And the truth is, a game with a lot work in marketing, gameplay, and polish makes only $10K a year, on average, with a lot of work put into marketing. That's even assuming that you're good enough to be taken in by a major casual game publisher. Only bestsellers make more than $50K a year, and the people who make them have a lot of experience.
To top it off, a fresh college graduate makes $40K-$50K a year in the games industry as a programmer or artist. Game testers with no technical experience make around $30K a year. It's a lot compared to spending a few years trying to make a game.
Many klikers create games that only appeal to a niche market. All the people you like may love retro games, but most people finding them boring and outdated. You will still get sales, you'll get rabid fans, but don't be fooled. Make something completely original, and you'll have an even smaller market, unless you get it right.
People love simple games. Poker games sell better than action games. The top games on Facebook are poorly designed, but easy to pick up.
If that's not bad enough, consider your competition. If you make a completely original game, you'll get away with no competition. But when you make a typical game, you have competition. Got a good platformer? Is it better than the best free ones? Is it cheaper than the cheapest one of the same quality?
Keep in mind that the original of any game always have the biggest advantage. There are lots of Counter-Strike killers, but they don't sell well. Same goes for plenty of games that claim to be better than the original. Most of the time, the game is worth more than the sum of its parts, and trying to replicate or improve on the parts doesn't always get you a better result.
The good news
It's possible! People can and do make big money from it. Tales of success are rare, but it happens. Bay12 Games, creator of Dwarf Fortress, posted $32K in donations last year. Games can and do have sales of above $50K.
Games also tend to sell well years after being finished. Some fade out to obscurity, some maintain the same sales as they did in their second year.
In addition, it requires almost nothing to create a game, but knowledge and experience. Once you get both, it becomes much easier.
Best of all, if you come from a country with low living costs, you can make more money than a professional.
To sell or not to sell?
Think of it like busking. You make about the same amount of money for more work, but it's some way to make money doing what you love. Much of the money you make is out of sympathy, because the unsympathetic ones will just pirate them.
You will need to work very hard to get there in the first place, because of all the amazing competition out there. You'll need to work harder to get people to notice your game and to make it look good.
Just like in any other line of work, it's a lot of hard work in the beginning. It gets easier later on and the amount you make is proportional to the amount of work you put into it.
This is why you're reading, right? You want to get as much sales as possible. Sales are a combination of marketing, polish, and quality. Quality is obviously needed, otherwise people don't care to buy your game. Marketing is needed to make people aware of it. Polish has a similar role to both quality and marketing, but amplifies the effect of both. With enough polish, you make a simple game look good, and looking good enough makes it easier to market.
There's a few business models to get sales.
Model 1: Demo, then purchase
You provide a demo which shows part of the game. The players who like it give you money for the full game. It's a simple enough concept.
Conversion rate means the ratio of sales to downloads. It's a standard used to judge sales. Most games will hover around 1%, and it's rare to exceed 3%. But then, some make it to 20% and above.
If it's too low, you should improve the demo. If it's high, you can spend more time on marketing. It's not a perfect method to judge sales, but it's widely used and it works much of the time.
Model 2: Free to play, pay for bonuses
Most Facebook games and online games use this method. You're free to play the game quite far, but it takes a lot longer to get further than if you played. Don't underestimate optional payment. Many people will pay $50 to hundreds for a game if allowed to choose how much they want to pay. Many of these games make lots of money, and it saves you the headache of choosing an optimal price.
Model 3: Donations
They give you money if they feel like it. There's a lot of people who are happy to donate to support indie games. Some will pay only $5 (or whatever minimum), some are happy to throw in $300.
It's an ideal business model if you wish to give your whole game away for free and don't want to scare away the people who can't afford it. It works far better when your target market is richer, though. It's even more ideal if your game isn't finished or if your game is very hardcore and has only a few very devoted players.
Some tricky people manage to combine a donation model with other models as well, by allowing the players to donate to influence the creation of some unprofitable feature, like improving the GUI and all.
Making a game worth selling
Make a good game. Better than your competition. You guys all know how to make games and what to make, so I'll leave this to you.
Marketing is how your customers know about your game. Don't underestimate this. You can have the best game in the world, but if nobody knows about it, it is going to flop. It's why original games sell better than clones that are technically better.
Many indie developers swear that you don't have to spend a dime on it to get it out. But these people also complain that people aren't buying their games. The trick is to make more money than you're spending.
Word of mouth
A player likes your game and tells his friends. His friends tell other friends. Many online games rely on this, rewarding you for inviting players to the game. Some, like Facebook games, even make it a requirement to invite friends. It's a favorite method among indie developers; some say you don't even have to pay to advertise your game if you do it right. Or you could do a limited time sale and hope your players tell their friends about it.
Advantage: It's free. And quite powerful if done right.
Disadvantage: It's very slow. It takes days or weeks to spread, unless you give them a time limit. It also fails if you don't have an exceptional game.
You put ads up for your game on various website, Google, Facebook, wherever. Ads can be surprisingly effective; I'm sure many of you have heard of Evony. Advertising on appropriate sites, like sites of similar games can bring you a lot of interested customers.
Advantage: Easy, wide reach. Great for mediocre games since there's no requirements.
Disadvantage: Can be very expensive, not as effective as other methods.
Sign up with a company like Big Fish Games or Reflexive. They handle all the marketing for you at a price. Some claim up to half the profits you make, but you're actually saving yourself a lot of hassle with it, and there are plenty of stories of people who profited more from this. Some will also offer suggestions on how to make your game better, or reject it completely if it seems hopeless.
Advantage: Marketing handled by an experienced team, huge coverage for your game, least work.
Disadvantage: They take a large cut of your profits, amd there's a possibility of rejection.
Your Target Market
I'm going to generalize here. There's exceptions to these classifcations, but this is just to give a wide statistical view.
These are people who play games because they have nothing to do with their time. They're most often hardcore players of games, so if you're making hardcore games, they're your main audience. They have little or no money, and some are willing to do menial tasks like clicking on ads 1000 times for money to play a game.
If they're your target market, you're best off aiming at lower prices. Smart game developers have used them as marketing.. there are a few who give a game to a kid for free if he tells all his friends about it. They can afford games, but usually when a parent pays for it, so lay it easy on the gore.
On the other end of the scale. They have much more money but much less time. They don't have as much patience for learning a game. They are willing to pay a lot more for things that skip grinding.
Not all are like this, though. Some have a lot of money, but are frugal with it. Some are also very hardcore gamers, growing up from the 80s when games were just plain sadistic.
The main point is that they have money, and are happy to pay good money for something they enjoy. To them, a $50 game is a better deal than a $250 haircut.
You know American Idol? People pay big money to vote for a contestant they like on the show. Most of the voters are people who dream of being on stage, but couldn't make it. So, they spend money to support the industry.
Game developers are a similar target market. Many are practicing hobbyists, who make bigger money elsewhere. They're highly sympathetic to you and will be happy to give some money to help you. It's one of the best markets, because they try and avoid piracy if possible.
They're a sizable market. One of the best ways you can earn something from them is to earn their respect. They're happy to follow you on blogs and Twitter, and pulling off stunts that they can't achieve will impress them greatly.
Rare, but often your best customers when things go wrong. Some are willing to fork out literally hundreds or even thousands of dollars for a game that they're bad at! You'll probably only find one in 5 thousand people, but they're very noticable.
The best thing you can do to attract them is to make your game as noticable as possible, like mass advertising. Give them a large sink to spend money on. Treat them well, and they'll be happy to tell all their friends, family, and everyone in their life about your game.
This is one of the toughest things and very specific to each game. Look at the image below and make a conclusion on what the perfect price is:
Here's some interesting things. Many of those games on there are about as fun as TDC's GOTWs. The prices are almost proportional to the amount of polish they have.
At first glance, halving the price of a game doesn't appear to double sales. One of the top profiting games is actually at the bottom of the sales list. But look at A GAM3 W1TH Z0MB1ES, at least the trailer. Would you pay $2 for that? There's also Who Did I Date Last Night, which is similar in quality to many TDC games.
Another common feature many of these games have is that they have a generous demo. The demo shows off most of the features. IIRC, Rumble Massage lets you use all but the highest settings for free. Generosity doesn't always make you lose money. Especially when they can just steal your product and much of the money is a form of donation.
But back to pricing.. look at it again. The statistics here are skewed too, because the games are sorted according to sales, not income, and overpriced (but more profitable?) games don't have high sales.
$1 games (or cheaper) are good for 'throwaway games'. Games that you expect to last less than a day. Games that may or may not suck, but you're just curious enough to try. It's like a piece of candy, what's the worst that can happen? A bonus is that you also get within the price range of hundreds of thousands of lower income people in Indonesia and Brazil and schoolkids, who can't afford $2.
$2, $2.50 is also a great price, because it's also almost nothing. But it's a piece of expensive candy. You don't expect much lastability from it, but you expect it to be fun. Normally doubling the price won't give you half the sales, so you make a profit here.
$5-$7 games are good for casual fun games. This is pretty much what good, polished casual games go for, like Diner Dash, Faerie Solitaire, World of Goo. IGF winners earn the most in this category. It's games that are really fun, but anyone could make. Too cheap to steal, not too expensive to think too long about buying.
$10-$35 are for niche or high quality games. Not polish, quality. It's for games that take at least a year to build from scratch, so there's little competition to them. These games will get pirated a lot.
$50+ are for top games that are unique in some way. Dominions is a rare indie game that seeps into this region. Otherwise, you need an AAA game to make it.
Of course, don't let this limit you. Evony, and many other MMOs regularly charge $30 and above standard for payment. Plenty of indie games have high prices too, but it's really up to yourself to decide the right balance for your game.
A final thing you should consider is piracy. Pirates are your worst competitors. They give out the same product, with similar or higher quality, and can easily undercut your prices. They are also illegal and immoral.
Try not to view them as just frustrating thieves, but as competition. You do have a moral advantage over them, but that's only going to discourage them, not stop them. One big discouragement from people pirating your game is how hard it is to find a pirated version. And as soon as someone pirates your game, it's going to be easy for future games to be pirated.
Keeping the price low is one way to discourage them. People don't really bother to look for a free version when they can get it easily with a small payment. High prices will discourage buyers and encourage piracy. At times, lower prices will greatly reduce your losses from piracy.
took about 2 weeks for james silva to make and he made well oer 100k with it so far. with 100k in the bank you could easily quit your day job. so long as you keep putting out games like that. which he does. SINGLE HANDEDLY!
"I ma3d a gam3 with z0mbi3s in it!!!1" is a very rare success story, like The Million Dollar Homepage. Everyone things they can make the next Z0MBI3S game, yet if you look at the statistics, very, very few games succeed with it. It's 'Susan Boyle marketing' - a game with a horrible name, looks horrible by X360 standards, but good sales. People download it for fun, expecting it to be crap, then buy the thing after how shockingly awesome the demo and title song was.
Quality and marketing. If James Silva is still making huge piles of money, it's because he has a marketing advantage now.
To quote James Silva himself: " It’s the type of thing that would’ve seemed like a really bad idea if you were trying to describe it to someone you wanted to borrow money from!"
So, don't compare yourself to Z0MBI3S. Compare it to the average, great, highly polished game out there that took 8 months to build and only earns $30K in the first year and $10K in the following years.
I've always leaned towards donations, main point being that I make games that I want people to play and enjoy, and very many are nice enough to reward a good playing experience or to encourage a sequel.
All very nice in theory, but begs the obvious question: So why haven't you made a shed load of money out of your own games already?
Donation-ware does have the added advantage that you don't need to make an online store, but it's going to be most successful if you focus on just one game, as some people will expect a return on their "investment" in the form of improvements and expansions (eg. Dwarf Fortress).
That's just it. There is no right theory to this. Nobody got it right so far. This article is a compilation of whatever theories I found on it. The only people I know who make a living off it are people who work long and hard on it, like Spiderweb Software and Bay12 Games. There's a few stories of people striking gold and cashing in big, but none of them repeating the luck.
"So why haven't you made a shed load of money out of your own games already?"
Good question. What do you when you find the location of a gold mine? Pretty likely I won't give it to just anyone unless it's false, or unless I sell pick axes.
And it is like a gold mine. It's full of hard work and backstabbing competitors, with too many people in a tight area. I'm staying far away from it. I'm much happier working 9 AM to 5 PM and getting paid 200K a year than working 9 AM to 2 AM for a measly 32K per year. Yeah, surprisingly, the telecommunications industry pays miles better the games industry.
So, what do you when you have a treasure map you don't intend to run after? You give it away. And hopefully someone would come back and give me a piece of the treasure out of goodwill. Wouldn't be the first time I got a free game from a TDC member, God bless them
I wouldn't say I have no experience with it. A close relative owned an online poker company. I do have an indie business plan which would break even at $900K profit after 3 years, but the profit/work ratio is worse than opening a restaurant or computer shop.
Fair enough. I wasn't trying to get at you (and it wasn't me who rated this article < 3 incase you were wondering).
Something else I was thinking - Would people pay/donate more for open-source games?
Obviously the Klik community is far too small for you to make any real money from it, but maybe a bit of "pocket money"?