When first getting into game development I had big goals. Most every game developer makes the mistake of thinking their idea is something small only to realize that the project is going to take significantly longer than you had anticipated as you get into it. For every successful project, game development or other software development venture I have started, there are probably twenty that have been started and killed before every showing anyone.
70% of all indie games are commercial failures. Of the 30% that are considered successful, only 7% of those games will generate enough revenue to fund a second project.
This means that you really have to work at indie game development and transition your mindset from hobbyist to business if you really want to generate money on your project. Also, success is defined a little bit different for a lot of people. For someone just getting started, it’s okay to just want your game to be enjoyed by a few people. However, I think this can only last for so long. At some point having your hard work turn into supporting you is most of our goals. Let’s look at how we can make that happen.
An example of a successful indie game
Swords N’ Magic and Stuff is an example of an indie game that has done indie game development the right way from the very beginning. Early in development Michael Kocha, also known as Kindred, started releasing content of his game. What started as simple dev log postings and Twitch streams turned into a fan base that was excited about the release of the game.
The game in the first month of release generated a net of $71,855 and was continuing to generate significant revenue in the following months. Kindred had mentioned that he felt there were some issues with the release. I think most indie game developers would love to have that kind of success.
It did not go without a lot of hard work. Game development is hard. In fact, if you came here for encouragement that you were going to be successful, the odds are that you probably won’t be. I wrote an article on the difficulty of being successful as an indie game developer that you may be interested in checking out if you need a little discouragement in your life. It’s hard. Really hard, but not impossible.
I believe that Kindred’s success was not so much the title itself. It’s not the first low poly 3D game I have seen. It looked nice, seemed to have decent gameplay. It was definitely the amount of time he put in to connecting with potential fans. He built his fan base before releasing his game. With over 1.1 million YouTube views, he was able to take that fanbase and turn it into a successful indie game steam launch.
An example of an unsuccessful indie game
Meet Eli from Treefall Studios. Eli had built a game that was moderately successful on the Wii U. He has less than 1000 subscribers on YouTube, roughly 900 followers on Twitter. It is not a huge following, but to be fair it is an average, perhaps “modest” following.
Eli tells the story of how he had people following him on social media encouraging him to release his game that was moderately successful on Steam. What ended up happening is really what I would expect any game in the same situation to happen. It didn’t do very well. In fact, Eli only made about $20.00 off of his Steam release within the first week, the prime time for sales.
So what went wrong? Eli mentions that he used a similar strategy that he used on other platforms. In Steam’s case, there are so many games being released daily, it is fairly unlikely to have a game show up out of no where and perform well. It is similar to a copy of your game being dropped in the ocean and hoping someone comes across it. It just isn’t very likely.
The problem here is likely the marketing campaign. Eli makes the claim in his video that he performed better on other platforms with the same marketing plan. However, Steam is a bit different due to the shear number of games released on the platform daily. If you are curious about marketing a game for Steam, I would encourage you to read an article I wrote on what game marketing is and how to do it.
Do indie games on steam make money?
Steam is widely considered the industry standard for releasing most indie games. There are other platforms, but more than likely if you found yourself here, your goal is releasing your first title and Steam is generally the best option for most in that situation.
According to VG Insights, over 50% of all games released on Steam will not make more than $4,000. This is a dreadful reality and a bit scary if you are considering pursuing this industry. I would also argue that a good portion of that, most in fact, probably do very minimal marketing efforts on those projects.
The 1% of games released on Steam make over $7,000,000. Again, it is safe to say that most of these are not indie games. It is probably a more realistic number to look at the top 10%, which is around the $200,000 mark. These are high quality, well marketing video games that fit into this category. Many have publishers, but there are a good portion of those hit that mark that are not.
How to increase your chance of success with an indie game
There are many ways to increase your chance of success. To be successful you really have to be more than just a great designer. I wrote an article on what it takes to be a great designer. More than that though, it takes a business mindset. These are a few things that I try to live by in any form of software development. I believe it is critically important to commercial indie games.
1. Plan Your Success (Have a Road Map)
This is an area that I think is often overlooked. I love new projects myself. The problem is that as you get more than a few weeks in, it becomes less of a passion and more of a grind for me a lot of the time. However, I have had some successful projects in software development over my time as a programmer. Those successes started with a road map.
This road map has to be a realistic plan of how you go from starting your project to releasing it. It is the road map of going from point A to point B. In my personal opinion for game development, this should be part of a game design document.
2. Stick to the Plan
I believe people make a mistake when they develop a plan, feel like it is a good path to success but then begin to drift away. Admittedly, I do this often. I know what I NEED to do. It is considerably different from what I WANT to do.
In any form of success I have had, the success has come after executing the plan I had set early on. If I don’t deviate too much, I find success to be much easier to achieve.
Of course, there are times where the plan has to change. Though, I would only do this if and when it makes complete sense to do so.
3. Schedule in Marketing
I cannot speak about how critically important marketing your game is. I believe this should be 30% of the time you invest into your project if your goal is to make significant money from your project. If you need a little guidance on how to get started on this, I wrote a guide on how to market your game.
4. Release when the Market Demands It
In every project, there comes a time where investing more time into a project begins to eat away at your revenue. Each developer goes through this. They have a project that is “almost complete”. In most peoples eyes, the bugs that remain are not game-breaking. They would be overlooked by the average player. But the developer sees them as glaring problems.
When you have worked a project for a considerable amount of time, you will see the things that most people won’t. It is at this moment though that most developers should take a hard look at their project. At some point you have to push it out the door.
We know we don’t want to be the developer that make unfulfilled promises. However, when marketing your game properly, you hopefully have been authentic with your audience. Those excited about your game will have looked at enough of your marketing material to have a pretty decent understanding of their purchase. It won’t go without those criticizing it, but I want to encourage you to push the project out the door when it makes sense to do so.
The statistics show that for every successful indie game, there are at least 4 or 5 unsuccessful indie games out there. However, I spent the majority of my working career up to this point doing something that paid the bills, but didn’t follow my passions or my own dreams.
For the last nine years I have been following my passion. The money isn’t the same, but I would not trade it for anything. For those of you that want to be in this industry and have a strong drive to do so, it is possible to be successful with a lot of hard work. There are thousands of people doing it.