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The Unsustainability of Starting in Independent Game Development
by Matej Jan on 02/09/12 04:56:00 am   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.

 

You know what gets me down? The fact that it’s hard or impossible to start from zero, make games, sell them and earn enough to cover your next one.

It all comes down to this graph from an interesting survey on iOS gamedev:

“What is really interesting to me is that developers do seem to generate more revenue over time (on average). This should be encouraging if you really want to make games, but your first game was a flop. Fear not! 50% of developers who have only released one game made under $500 on that game. However, the more games developers had released, the more per-game average revenue they seem to generate.”

Fear not? This looks motivating, but it really is scary as shit. What it means is that what I’ve always dreamed of — starting from zero, doing what I love and slowly making my way up — is impossible (unless you’re lucky and you hit a jackpot app right off the bat). Why so? Because it’s impossible to make a game on a $500 budget. It’s still hard to make a game with a $5,000 budget, which is as much as you can realistically expect for each of your first five games, but at least we’re getting somewhere. If you’re really frugal, you might be able to live on it for 4-5 months in an European capital. Or move to the third world and get twice as much time to make your game with that money. Or live with your parents.

It just doesn’t pay off enough. If you want to make games for a living, you have to start off with something else to get the initial savings up and have a big enough reserve, to get you through the first few releases that probably won’t cover your expenses. And that fucking sucks!


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Comments


Weston Wedding
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It's kind of funny how that graph gets spun into something encouraging. Oh, cool, I just have to be starving and homeless for several years and then I get to be able to rent a small apartment eventually (unless I owe people money for the first 9 games)

Christer Kaitila
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I wanna be a rock star but my first album was only bought by my friends and family. Should I quit after making only one album or keep touring and marketing for years and eventually fill stadiums?



I wanna be a famous painter but the one painting I made still hangs in my Mom's living room. Should I give up after only one or paint another 500 over a period of years until galleries fight to sell my art for big bucks?



Oh the arrogance of youth. You gotta put in your dues in ANY artistic field. The average poseur musician, artist, author or sculptor all accept the above graph and gamedevs should too.



Remember the "overnight success" of Angry Birds: it was after they made FIFTY ONE unpopular games over a period of eight+ years.



http://dailyartifacts.com/52-times-is-the-charm-for-angry-birds

Matej Jan
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This is enlightening. I actually understand this deeply in relation to art as you say (music/paintings/etc). That's why I spend my evenings slowly illustrating stuff, getting better at it and eventually I can start selling prints - but as a side thing, there's just no way for it to actually pay off at the start.



However, for game development, I guess, since I earn my money with programming, I also looked at it from this perspective. All the coding our R&D studio does brings in money. That's why I found it a bit disappointing that you can't do the same with gamedev. What I'm saying is, if you're out of school and need to start earning your living, deciding to make games from scratch is a very hard place to start.



But yeah, from the gamedev=artistic field standpoint it makes total sense. I've been doing this as a hobby for about, what, 15 years now? I guess I should have thought more about the business side of things while it was still just a hobby and prepare more for a smoother launch.

Daniel Dwire
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I really like this sentiment of "paying your dues". It's something that seems to get lost in the glare of runaway successes like Angry Birds and Minecraft. This may be these developers' first huge success but they usually have DECADES of experience preceding it.



And lets be honest, your first game probably isn't going to be very good.

Tynan Sylvester
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Those statistics don't mean what you think they mean.



They could occur without any changes to any individual developer's earnings over the course of their career.



The ones that make very little money back mostly quit. Those that are successful continue to make a second game. Repeat five times and you get this graph, even if every individual dev made the same revenue on every game. Pure selection effect.

Matej Jan
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Thanks, this makes total sense! At first I was interpreting the raise with all the knowledge you gain ... in the meaning that just by putting out your second game, it has no more likelihood to earn more, but because of all you've learned in the process and the things you do different/more of, that's why your numbers go up. I'm sure there's some truth to that, but, actually, the selection effect makes much more sense as to why this graph is as it is.

Simon T
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Remember that this is graph for specifically the iOS market. You can't assume that Steam developers, for example, follow a similar rule. And Tynan is right, the data is biased.

Evan Combs
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If you are going to start from scratch you really can't be only a game developer. In fact it really almost has to be your second job that you do when you aren't working at Wal-Mart or wherever to pay the bills.

Tora Teig
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This is interesting, and well spotted Tynan. I guess it's hard for any company to start up, there are so many expenses and all that time working for free and no guarantees. You have to give it to the ones that sacrifice so much and live their lives economically unafraid to envision their dreams. And it's uphill all the way as well.



It's great to see initiatives like Kickstarter giving the more occult (or for Double Fine - the already popular) ideas an opportunity to show what they've can do. It's inspiring!

Matej Jan
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That's exactly why I'm so looking forward to finally seeing Indie Game: The Movie - it's about just such dreams and getting them fulfilled. Well, and having quite a journey getting there.

William Ravaine
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My personal take on this: screw the doom and gloom about how costly and hard it is. Doing your own games beats the hell out pf working working on someone else's game at corporate . Going indie will however require you to work on some of your fears, especially the "omg I need monies" one, and have a bit of a sound plan and strategy in place.



I think the trick is in a smooth, gradual transitioning from full-time employee to full-time indie. You don't just quit your job and start from scratch on a game right away, unless you have a lot of cash stashed away. Your chances of living off your first title are quite slim, and making a decent game will take a lot of time and effort (you can count on 3 to 6 month minimum for a small mobile game for a decent shot at relative success).



Instead, you should consider the following step strategy.

- Find a part time / contracting job to keep these bills paid

- Start developing low-risk, small-scope projects with a quick development cycle such as tools, components, plugins or extensions for existing software/communities. You can maybe kill 2 birds with one stone, and develop+sell components that you will use in your future dream game.

- Once you have built up a reasonable monthly revenue from these small projects, you can start dropping the part time job, and split your focus between the small projects, and starting on your game project



Well that's how i'm doing it at least. So far, so good.

Matej Jan
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Good advice! I think I'm actually following in your footsteps! :)



I ported our game from iOS to XNA with an automatic Objective-C to C# translator I made along the way. It seemed like a cool programming thing so I recorded a video about it and suddenly people wanted to know if they can buy it. So I created a webpage for it and it's actually bringing in more cash than the sales of the ported game. That's not to say it sells a lot, since the port was a total flop, but it's still something (and much more sustainable as it keeps selling).

Matej Jan
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:O BTW, I thought that ladybug looked familar. In the last months I was outsourced for a Unity project ... Guess what code I'm now used to seeing all the time:



FingerGestures.OnFingerDown += FingerGestures_OnFingerDown;

FingerGestures.OnFingerMove += FingerGestures_OnFingerMove;

...



:D



This experience, seeing people buy small code packages for $50, was what made me think I could do the same. But when I replied earlier I had no idea it's exactly you who inspired me into this. Crazy small world! :] Cheers!

William Ravaine
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Haha small world indeed, Matej ;)

Matej Jan
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Thanks for all the replies so far, everyone! I'm preparing a longer article about the experience with our first game, so I'll share some more concrete stuff/numbers when it's done.

Christer Kaitila
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Don't get too discouraged. YOU CAN DO IT! With a positive attitude and another 5 games, I am confident that soon you'll be making decent money. More importantly, you have a wise plan to sell middleware you've made that solves problems other devs might also be having. You are likely to make more money from tools than your first few games. This safety net backup insurance plan will save you from ruin, will leverage your r&d by selling your work "twice" and is how almost all gamedevs got their start. In a "hit driven" market, making a game that sells well is equally likely as writing a top 40 radio hit. The rest of us fund our dreams by writing coding books, middleware tools etc in the same way as wannabe rockstars give music lessons. Keep at it. Never give up!

Matej Jan
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Opening this blog on Gamasutra was one of the best things I've done lately. Breakdance McFunkypants? I am 100% I've heard of you before, sir, although I have completely no idea from where. Maybe because I like bboying as well and I'd remember if a coder would have such a nickname. :) Props on the nike freeze ... and the beard :D It's now memorialized on a completely useless project http://indiebeards.tumblr.com :) And thanks for all the positive thoughts. Really, it means a lot!

Carl Chavez
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One way to gain experience and money and also build your code and assets libraries is to do a few advergames or marketing apps for media companies. They can make you enough money to pay for an apartment for a few months so you can work on your own games instead of working for others.

Matej Jan
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You mean something like this?

http://www.facebook.com/collegium.mondialtravel?sk=app_7146470109



Yeah, we're doing it. :)

Luis Guimaraes
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More games equals more visibility, which is THE main reason startup small studios have a hard time at beginning: lack of visibility.

E Zachary Knight
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What is interesting about this information is that it mirrors almost exactly what I put in my business plan. I had planned out a total of 12 games before I could make enough to work full time at it. Most of the money came from revenue from multiple games.



Howevr, because that is how I am expecting things to go, I have not lost any faith. Let's just see what happens.

Matej Jan
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How far along the 12 games plan are you currently? Any experience to share about how it turned out so far?

E Zachary Knight
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Not far at all. I have only recently been working on this and my game development has been in my some what limited spare time. As soon as I have data available I am more than willing to share it.



Also, plans have changed a bit since that business plan and I ma thinking about rewriting it. But again, I am still not banking on any single game to be a success.

Jeffrey Crenshaw
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Let us know how it goes, this plan sounds very reasonable.

Steven An
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Yeah I don't really know of anyone that just went full time into game dev right from the start. In all the success stories I've heard, people did game dev on the side for years and years before being able to make a living out of it. So..it ain't easy. And that's why it's so important for you to love it!

james sadler
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The thing is that you have to see that this is for the iOS market and not for the other platforms. The iOS market is insanely flooded with startups and experienced people who release games so often that the audience doesn't really have a chance to discover the unknown developers. If you really want to make money right out of the gate don't focus on Xbox Live Indie Arcade or iOS, or even Android. Most of the game son those platforms are free or a buck and there is little audience there willing to really pay for a quality game. Aim for steam, which is a discussion all its own, or something else where there might be a chance of making money. Find a nice genre that hasn't been completely exploited and make your game with that in mind.

Matej Jan
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I like your advice and I also have my personal unexploited genre that I want to pursue: it's games focusing on creativity. I wrote about it in 2008 in my business plan and last year kind of revisited it and even made a nice chart/video about it. You can see it here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gipwah_7Ysk



Certainly there's been Minecraft in the genre lately, but there's so much left to explore and not just like all the voxel free-roaming mining things that popped up after it. It certainly does inspire me that it was so well received. I wish I started doing my own ideas in creativity filled games back in 2008 as well. :)

Jeffrey Crenshaw
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I for one found this graph motivating. I never expected to be successful and famous from one game launch, but lately I've been fearing that it could never happen. I know Tynan makes a good point about how interpreting the graph differently tells a different narrative, but the narrative I like is that if this is your destined career and you still with it, there are bright times ahead :).

Matej Jan
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For any of you coming back to this post later, Owen Goss, the author of the graph emailed me with an interesting insight into the data:



"You (and your commenter) are right: the increase in per-game average revenue could be a result of those making money on early games continuing to make games. However, I think what's most likely is we're seeing both effects at play here. That people get better at their craft the more games they make, but the more successful you are, the more likely you are to keep making games.



However, the survey only surveyed active game devs on the App Store. So we're not seeing any data from people who made a game, then gave up. This means the data *should* be less skewed by the selection process, as we're not seeing revenue from people who aren't still making games. If we had people who had given up in the data, then it would be much more difficult to make assumptions about the data. As it stands, I believe my assumption is most likely slightly more correct than one about selection process."


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