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How much do indie PC devs make, anyways?
by David Galindo on 07/24/10 11:39:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

So how hard is it for a relatively unknown indie dev to break into the PC gaming industry? Much has been said about the Xbox Live Indie Games service, the iPhone App store, and various other platforms indies can jump off into, but what about good ol' fashioned PC gaming?

Today I'd like to share my experiences selling a recently released indie game called the Oil Blue, mainly because I think sales transparency among indie devs is so important right now given the increasing difficulty of building a successful PC game (more on that in a bit).

 

 

Relatively Unknown

While I've made freeware games over the past ten years or so, I haven't actually gotten serious about breaking into the commercial game industry until a year or two ago. My first two commercial games, ShellBlast and Spirits of Metropolis, were hardcore puzzle games. The games got little to no press, mainly because I didn't try very hard and didn't quite know what I was doing, and made less than $300 apiece over a year and a half. So with The Oil Blue, a management/sim game, I was largely marketing my first major indie release to both players and the general media (my own website gets about 300-400 unique visits a day, usually off of the downloadable freeware games). 

Production on the Oil Blue started back in November with just three people: myself, an artist (Sara Gross) and a music composer (Jonathan Geer). Work on the game was completed in May, went into beta testing in early June and released on June 22nd. The budget on the game was small (about $500-700) but the game itself ended up being a bit larger than I had anticipated, taking 5-8 hours to "complete," though the game itself can be played for an indefinite amount of time. Here's the general descriptor:

"The Oil Blue is an indie action-sim that has you drilling for oil in the world's oceans, selling barrels of oil on the market, and exploring new islands once you completed objectives set by your employer, the United Oil of Oceania company. Set in the ocean in the near future, the world's dependency on oil has grown to an even larger amount. It’s up to you and a crew of men to travel the ocean, find abandoned oil drilling islands, and reclaim them for the United Oil of Oceana company.

Once you land on an island, you have a set amount of days and oil barrels to make during your stay. Fire up those old drilling machines and start making oil underwater, watch the oil barrel market and sell at the highest price, repair machines and do it all within the time you’re given…or the UOO will boot you off the island for a better crew. Sell more barrels to achieve higher ranks and perks, upgrade your machines, and conquer the ocean!"  


Back in November one of my primary concerns was that the general public had little to no knowledge of ocean oil drilling to begin with. I wasn't modeling the game realistically (in fact, I did little to zero research on oil drilling at all) but I knew that the focus of the game might hurt me a bit. Who the heck would know, or care, anything about ocean oil anyways? 

 

Oh.

Of course, we all know what happened in the Gulf with one of the largest oil spills in history. Suddenly everyone was going to have an idea of what ocean oil drilling was, for better or worse. 

But that's the main question that I wasn't sure I had the answer to: would this controversy actually help my game at all, or hamper it from being taken seriously? The game itself has no oil spills or anything of the sort, and in fact was set in the future. But no matter what the game was actually based on, I knew the general idea- ocean oil drilling- was going to come across loud and clear no matter what I did. 

Honestly, I think it hurt me more than anything else. Not only was I an unknown dev emailing blogs and sites about my game, but I had an ocean oil drilling game that, on paper, was probably capitalizing on the tragedy of the Gulf and really, how good can a game like that be? Certainly another indie game capitalized full force on the Gulf news, and with my emails coming after that game got press, few blogs took me seriously or wanted to report on another game with similar yet wildly different themes. 

I have a good feeling that was the reason why my game was rejected on one portal, despite the fact that I already have a game set up on their service. GamersGate picked up the Oil Blue, but few others (the few that there are) responded to me at all. 

 

 

Reception and Feedback

The one thing I'm really thankful for and in fact helped tremendously was the Indie Games exclusive preview that was posted in early June, which opened the door to game reviews on a few mainstream review blogs since I wasn't a complete unknown now. The reviews were very positive and enthusiastic, with reviews from Jay is Games, About.com and Gamezebo

Still, I had a hard road ahead of me. I submitted a game trailer to Gametrailers.com with a general descriptor, though I knew from experience that they actually write their own captions on trailer descriptions. Still, I was a bit surprised to see this: 

 



A ton of negative feedback was posted in the comments and the trailer itself stayed on the front page for the weekend. I thought it was kind of hilarious and probably got the trailer a lot more views than it ever could get on its own, but at the same time I knew that a lot of media sites/blogs thought the same thing Gametrailers did: this is probably some lame attempt at a quick cash in. Out of the thirty five blogs I emailed review copies to, only four or five checked out the game, which was a reasonable amount for a small unknown game like this one. I was hoping that 1up, Giantbomb, Destructoid or another website known for reviewing indie games would pick up the game, but no dice despite my emails. 

 

Game Sales

It's important to note that I'll only be sharing my personal website sales and not sales from portals, but these sales are a really good indication on how I'm doing right now overall (I'm also giving away a small game with the purchase of the Oil Blue on my website only thru August 31st, which helped tip sales towards my website.) 

The game was released June 22nd at $14.95. So far, in the thirty days that the Oil Blue has been released, I've sold 122 copies of the game, making $1,645.43 after royalty payments to BMT Micro.

 



The demo on my website alone has been downloaded 1,865 times, giving me a conversion rate of about 6-7% if I don't include portal sales. That's a very strong conversion rate that I'm really happy with, though obviously I need to get a lot more downloads to see how that number holds up. Out of the people who bought the Oil Blue, 85% of them were completely new customers who never bought my previous commercial games. 



Above is the sales graph provided by BMT Micro with spikes coming at releases of new reviews, though now over the last week I've been having some zero sales days (which for some reason isn't charted on the graph). All the forum threads I've started everywhere are now off the front pages, there hasn't been a new review in two weeks, and I'm starting to see how I'm selling the game just off of my own traffic. The result is less than great.

But, I have been issuing new review copies to more websites, and I think that should help me a bit more in the weeks to come. The game was pirated on July 2nd (quite easily since the game is DRM free) but I don't have any reason to blame slower sales on that fact alone. Certainly it doesn't help, and I hate that it's out there being torrented, but the game will sell when I get more traffic going. All I can do is shrug my shoulders and carry on.

Something that really depresses me is the decreasing number of portals that would carry a game like this. Reflexive have closed their doors to distributing games, and RealArcade has shut down as well. I remember submitting my first game a few years ago to RealArcade and having a response in a few days, but not just a rejection letter...a letter that outlined why they didn't accept my game, what I should try to do in the future, and wishing me the best of luck. That's a heck of a lot more than I can say for such distributors like Greenhouse who must have me on their ignore list (of course, they're still in business and RealArcade is not, so what do I know?) 

There's also something I like to call the "Steam factor." A good number of people have told me to let them know when my game is on Steam so they can purchase it, but very few people realize just how difficult it is for games to be accepted onto the Steam platform. And while Steam did download my game at the start of this month I haven't received any feedback, which could really only mean that they're not interested. And as far as portals/distributors go for indie devs, that's pretty much all there is. 

 

 

Final Thoughts

I think overall the game has been a good, solid start for my team. I plan to do a sequel to the game sometime next year, and I think I'll be far enough away from the Gulf Spill controversy that it shouldn't hamper the game's promotion like I believe it did to the Oil Blue. Plus I have a number of games in the works that are a bit more traditional and should appeal a bit more to a larger audience in the months to come.

I hope that this post gives new indie devs some ideas on what to expect for their first major indie release, or at least be somewhat interesting to people wondering just how much PC indie devs can make these days. Certainly there are a lot more successful indie devs out there than myself, but so far it's not a bad start to what I hope can be a career that pays the bills.

Good luck out there!

----

You can find out more about the Oil Blue and download the demo here

 


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Comments


Roger Haagensen
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That Gametrailers description was way off line, you should have complained because if I was the editor there I'd kick whomever wrote that in the ass, really uncalled for in my oppinion. If the trailer gave them that impression then it's the fault of the one that made the trailer for the game.

But as I assume you did that and made sure to convey what the game is about I kinda doubt they even saw the trailer fully. (!)



As to piracy, well, if they pirate a cheap indie game, then they'd probably be to cheap to buy it even if it wasn't pirated, I doubt most of those pirating it played it to the end or even liked it that much. (did you check the comments they made?) a few may have enjoyed it, and they probably ended up buying it in retrospect. Which is a best case scenario really when it comes to piracy.



As to Steam... If the game is stable and otherwise well made I'm sure it'll end up on Steam, however as it's a indie game that is kinda floating under the radar compared to others it's probably way at the bottom of their small games list, so your hopefully somewhere in their low priority backlog. (I assume they do a internal review of it at some point, and will probably contact you back if there are any issues?)



I see there is a gameplay trailer too. Maybe a mix of both and showing all parts of the interface as much as possible. (stats screen etc.) And add a voice over explaining things briefly, maybe based on the description you quoted on the top of this article could be used in the narration, as just looking at the two trailers it's just all "click click click" which does not explain the premise of the game really, so a narration would help.



If you don't want to do the narration yourself I could probably do it (I got some accent being Norwegian and all, but the voice would probably fit and it's deep enough to give that "slightly smokey rumble" sound, alternatively a warm female voice would do the trick too. Since I'm an amateur I'd be happy with a free copy (if possible) and being credited for narrating in the trailer, it's only a paragraph or two so not that much work. And in respect to a sequel, if you want some voice stuff for that I'm sure we can work out something mutually beneficial there as well.



I don't see any obvious way to contact someone here on Gamasutra so if you want to contact me (just to flap your lip or to discuss audio recording/editing or ideas, or whatever else) then just go to http://EmSai.net/ click Contact in the menu and fire off a message and I'll email you back.



I did quite a bit of voice work on http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_City_Beneath and a couple addons in case you are wondering.

Georgina Bensley
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"As to Steam... If the game is stable and otherwise well made I'm sure it'll end up on Steam"



That's *really* not how it works, and that's the exact point he's making.



A lot of customers seem to think that Steam is an open marketplace; it isn't. A game can be stable, well-made, profitable, and created by a company rather than a tiny garage indie group, and still not get onto Steam. They carry only the games they personally want to carry. Lots of games get in. Lots of games don't.

Roger Haagensen
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Georgina, Ok! Now that is just silly. Don't they realize how much extra sales they are missing?

David even said that somebody would have bought it, if it had been on steam, that's one sale right there. The steam folks are fools to even ignore a single extra sale. There must surely be many games on Steam that sell as much as or less than The Oil Blue...!? Or is their focus quality only? I'm pretty sure there are quite a lot of games that kinda suck on steam as well!

Paul Eres
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roger, the problem is that the process it takes to get on steam costs time, which is money. it takes several weeks of negotiations (if not more) to get a game on steam. the steam people aren't willing to do that just for a single sale. it's not like you just drag and drop a game onto steam and it's on there, it takes an amount of work to integrate a game with steam, and a new developer with steam.



but yeah, steam doesn't let even very very good games on there, for no clear reason. there are a lot of games you'd fully expect to get on steam but which were rejected. they also allow games on there that you'd expect to be rejected if quality were their only concern (very unpolished games). it's a bit of a mystery how they choose which games get on there and which don't.



my own email to them about my game immortal defense didn't receive a reply, even though it's sold thousands of copies from my own site and has nothing but positive reviews whenever it's been reviewed.

Paul Eres
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as an aside, mrchubigans, could you also mention how much shellbast hd has made for xblig? i'd be curious about that.

Jasper W
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What does a gamasutra article do for your sales? =)

David Galindo
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@Jasper- it certainly doesn't hurt! :)



@Paul- SBHD never made enough for MS to cut us a check ($200 I believe?). Still, we're going to try and give it one more go as we've learned a lot with that game.



@Roger- Like I said, Steam is going to be a hard shell to crack. I fully believe that if you're not an IGF winner or won a major indie competition at some point, you're not going to get through to them. That's the way they do business, and it sucks for indie devs, but what else can ya do.

Paul Eres
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@mrchubigans - it's a shame that shellblast hasn't sold more, it's an awesome game. i think it and blocksum are my two favorite indie puzzle games.



still, those are fairly good sales for the first month for the oil blue. it took me 3 months to reach 100 sales with immortal defense, so managing it in your first month is very respectable, especially considering it wasn't covered by many sites.

driver 01z
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Thank you for writing this - I am just a consumer but I find this stuff interesting, I like to know how it works to have a few people make a game available. Anyway if one of your games shows up on PSN with trophies in the future, I will try it, the trophy system is a must-have for me for some reason I don't fully understand (and Steam achievements aren't quite good enough for me since they don't all compile into a score/level...) Anyway I wish y'all luck.

Matt Hackett
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Good stuff, thanks for sharing.

Megan Fox
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Very interesting, thanks for writing that up

Daniel Green
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Just curious do you use testers before you Market a game as an indie dev or do you just test amongst yourselves and a few close ones? I'm curious about what's involved in becoming a pro tester. Anyone with info please contact: danny_smiles@hotmail.com

Please no spam/ flames/ trolling :)

Matt Lindquist
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I'm downloading the demo now. I will say that I think the launch video kind of sucks. I couldn't really tell what the game was like from it and what I could tell looked sort of boring. My only other comment would be to wonder about price.



I know there's a lot of debate about how much indie developers should charge for their games, but I can say with confidence that for me any game that breaks the 10$ mark has to meet a higher level of scrutiny. It's a strange thing that 5$ difference would even matter, but somehow there's a psychological effect that kicks in. My recent pay-cut certainly doesn't help you in this respect (and given the economy these days I'm sure I'm not alone...)



Unknown games or anything I'm not really sure about have a much harder time getting my money at 15$ than at 10$. Again this is just me as a consumer. I have no idea what the best price for your game really should be from a financial pov. It may very well be that you're better off starting at 15 and lowering the price later on to boost sales.



Anyway, enough babbling from me. I'm going to give the demo a shot now. Good luck!

Matt Lindquist
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Just a quick update, played the demo and loved the game. I can see why it didn't come off well in the video, but the gameplay is excellent and the production levels are through the roof. In any case I convinced myself to part with the 15$. I may regret that later on in the month when I come up 15$ short on groceries...but hey, who needs food when they have oil?



Mmm...oil...thick and delicious.

David Galindo
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Hah, thanks for all the support everyone! And yeah Matt, I am indeed learning the fine craft of trailer makin', and I guess Ive still got a ways to go. :)

Elwood Blues
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introductory note: please consider this a constructive comment, although it may seem very destructive at first. Seeing all of the other positive comments above I may come out a little assholish but I do not care.

The Oil Blue.. what's wrong with it? why it's not really making money? Well, consider the name first: it sounds completely boring and well.. blue. Who would want to play a game which makes a person feel blue?

Next, what is the point of the game? to rig for oil, but in essence, to make money. Wait, does it sound like a job? YES IT DOES. Actually a very boring job, get oil, get money to get more oil, rinse and repeat. We all have jobs dude, don't try to add more job for us!

Next, screenshots. What you've got going on there? I googled your game and lo and behold: a blue & violet something. Looking at them is like reading Fifty Shades of Gray without any sex in the book. The screenshots scream BORING!! at me every time I look at them.

And what's up with that price?? how did you come up with so much money for this game when it's clearly in the below 5 category?

The trailer is a horror.. a few buttons to press or turn, weird music, stockmarket news.. Get as much oil as you can, that the fkn OBJECTIVE? As a good person I wanna save&care for a whole wide world and you give me an option to GET OIL? And you're baffled that the game doesn't sell or that Steam guys didn't pick it up?

Ok, ok. perhaps I am criticising too much. Try to think of it this way: even if this game was a turn-on for guys, which it is not, how would you get girls to play your game? currently it's a complete no-go, i.e. no-funking-way. Reframe yourself dude.

When I think about a oil drilling game I DO think about disasters, destroyed life, ugly looking water, emergencies, etc. I want to PREVENT these things from happening and remedy/save living things from the actions of careless drillers. OR if I am a really nasty player, I wanna spill as much damage and destruction while making A LOT of money (in the game) so I can see how beautiful is the world of goo that I unleash upon it!! So I'd make it a balance game where the player has to do this and that which prevents the disasters from happening and can go the way of Sith to wreak havoc on the damned planet. Make it an interplay of 2 advisors, a shrewd moneymaking Gargamel and a beautiful princessy Gaia who give you advices and try to push you down their respective paths. Let the players see the result of their actions, let them make a desolate location into a nice piece of lang and a beautiful location into a completely destroyed habitat. Give the play the POWER that comes with money.

P.S. DON'T MAKE A SEQUEL PLEASE.


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