Those who get into indie game development for the first time often look at the huge market that game development really is. The video game industry is larger than both film and music industries combined. Many getting into game design feel that it would be easy to get a small piece of that pie. The truth is, it’s not that easy.
So, do indie games make money? Indie games do make significant income. At the bottom 25% of games released, they make less than $300. The median income for indie games is slightly under $3,800. The top 25% of games will make around $35,000.
If you are hoping to get a small piece of that pie, then I want to take a deeper look into these numbers.
How much money do indie games make?
While the numbers above are a bit shocking, I do not want you to eliminate the idea that you can make a living in this industry. While we know that the several games that meet that AAA category drive the averages up significantly, those outliers that fit in the top 5% of games released average an income of $1,474,063.
You must keep in mind that many large projects or some of the most successful indie games were in development for years and by more than one person. In fact, we know that some of the most successful indie games, including Firewatch and the recent sensation, Valheim, were both made with around five people.
Even though they made significantly more than the average income, when you start splitting the money between even a handful of people, it becomes less impressive. For those of you interested in doing game development for a living, the question quickly becomes, how exactly are you going to make enough money to sustain yourself?
How are indie games marketed to help them make money?
The vast majority of indie game developers do not have a significant marketing budget. Ads are generally quite expensive and competitive to get into. It may still be viable for the mobile platform, but if you are working on a Steam title, then your best option is investing time.
Here is list of ways to market an indie game:
- Actively participate in Subreddits that relate to game design.
- Regularly publish YouTube videos that contain unique game mechanics
- Use YouTube to create Game Dev Logs
- Create content that inspires others
- Participate in game jams, post your work to develop a following
- Post progression logs to sites that support game designers
- Work with other indie developers to produce valuable content
- Post your work to art related sites (such as ArtStation)
- Publish press releases that are unique and/or add value to the reader
- Contact gaming news or indie game publishers about your game once you have something to show
- With a 5-10 minute demo, consider contacting a publisher to assist with marketing campaigns
- Consider Kickstarter as a funding and marketing method after building a following
If you look at this list, notice that those towards the beginning are devoted to helping build an audience. Once you have the audience, the work become keeping it or using it to help you move forward.
Keep in mind that news publishers, game publisher, and Kickstarter care nothing about your project until you have something to show. In addition, I would encourage you to avoid Kickstarter unless you have at least a small following that you are confident will support you and your project once the campaign is up.
What are the best platforms to help indie game make money?
In my mind there are not that many. Keep in mind that releasing on smaller platforms may hurt you in the longrun.
If you are building a game for the PC, your best option as an indie developer is going to be Steam. We know that through their seasonal sales there are a lot of games purchased and gamers are willing to take a chance on many titles.
It costs $100 to publish a game on Steam + 30% of your video game sales. This is a pretty small price considering the amount of exposure you may get and the handling of downloads, updates, and sales. Doing something on your own sounds nice, but the vast majority of gamers will not seek your game out.
Apple and Google Play
The mobile game went from being a gold mine about ten years ago to being overly saturated. That being said, there is a lot of games that have pretty poor quality. A good quality mobile game can still be successful. We also know that this industry is continuing to grow among the older audience.
Itch.io and Game Jolt
Itch.io has done a really good job of publishing web-based games. It has really grown in popularity for the game jam community as well.
Less familiar with it, but Game Jolt has a similar web-based platform you can publish to.
Web-based platforms are great if you are primarily concerned with getting plays, not as concerned with making money as most of these platforms lend itself best to free to play games.
Can you live on the money that indie games earn?
Game designers can survive on indie game income, especially if you are confident you can build a game that is of good quality and spend time marketing your project.
However, the most successful game designers I am aware of in the indie scene generally have other side projects going on. For example, Game Dev Underground, whom posted daily YouTube videos talking about indie game news and development practices.
You also have people like Thomas Brush who have weighed in on this topic. Thomas Brush is among the most successful indie game developers. He has made hundreds of thousands of dollars on some of his most recent title. He easily fits within the top 25% of earners with his titles. However, even he acknowledges it’s no guarantee, and probably unlikely if you have never built a game before (see below).
Ultimately, indie game success is not guaranteed. The majority of games fail, and the median income for indie games is very low for the amount of time spent. I think the most advanced game designers would say there was a bit of luck involved.
That being said, if the decisions in your game are made from a commercial standpoint, you do have a good chance of also making some money from your project. It will not be without a lot of hard work and dedication to your project.