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3 months ago I released my first game - was it worth quitting my job to go indie? (+ detailed earnings report)

by Armaan Sandhu on 05/15/19 10:23:00 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.

 

(This is a post I shared on Reddit a couple of days back. You can read the original post here)

I wrote a couple of posts on Reddit about quitting my job to go full time indie, and then another announcing the release of the game 2 years after that. The game, Rainswept, was released on Feb 1st (I worked on it alone, while contracting out the music)

Getting straight to the important question - Was it quitting my job worth the risk/ Did it work out?

Yes - but it might not work for everyone. The game wasn't a hit, and in fact performed a bit lower than expectations. But I can get by on this. One of the major things to consider that makes this work is the very low cost of living where I live.

 

The numbers

Before I get into that, let's discuss the fun stuff. Here are the numbers (1st Feb - 6th May, 3 months since release)

 

Total units sold: 1249 (Steam - 978; GOG - 271)

Gross income: $12,248 ($9,736 + $2512)

Net income: $6422 ($4955+$1487)

(The game is priced at $11.99)

 

Net income is the exact amount that finally reaches me after withholding rates, Steam's/ GOG's 30% cut, returns, lower prices in different countries etc. Yes, it's almost half of the gross income.

I find 55% of the gross income is a good way to calculate how much I'll be earning for each month's sales.

I'll now focus on only Steam's sales and data, as their reports go into much more detail, is the major source of my income, and is also what most devs are interested in I'd imagine.

On a monthly basis, this is the split:

 

February (release month)

Units sold: 711

Gross income: $6793 (incl $100 recouped Steam direct fee)

Net income: $3966 (incl $84 recouped Steam direct fee after VAT)

Also:

1st day: ~165 units; ~$1500 (gross)

1st week: ~507 units, $4618 (gross)

I was initially quite disappointed with the first day numbers as according to my research from that time, to reach my 1 year target (4k copies) I needed to sell 500 copies on the first day. That would then equal to 1st day x 2 = 1st week units (=1000) and 1st week x 2= 1st month (=2000 in first month) and finally 1st month x 2 = 1st year (=4000 in first year)

Since then I've learned that this formula doesn't always apply, at least not for smaller games that have a longer tail and depend highly on word of mouth, discounts and sales. In any case, I'll learn more about this as time goes on.

 

March:

Units sold: 161

Gross income: $1771

Net income: $988

Daily avg sales - 5

161 units is 22%, or almost quarter of the 1st months sales.

 

April:

Units sold: 94

Gross income: $1029

Net income (estimated): $565

Daily avg sales - 3

94 units is 58% of March's sales, so the earnings are nearly further halved going into the 3rd month from the 2nd month. It is also 13% of the launch month's sales. I'm hoping that this is where the graph stabilizes, and that the coming months maintain the same number of sales as the 3rd month (except when discounted for sales, of course)

 

I also released the game on itch and gamejolt a month later, but the sales were depressing, around 20 in total. This despite the game being featured on both those stores, and the demo I released in 2018 getting about 12K downloads. It would seem those are good platforms for demos/ free games, but perform terribly for paid games/ full releases.

 

Surviving on this income

So I've made about $6420 in the first 3 months, and I expect to earn at least $500 per month going forward, from Steam alone. Considering upcoming console ports for the game + discounts and seasonal sales, I expect the number to be safely above that.

How can I get by on this, and how does this work out for me? As I mentioned above, low costs of living in my country help tremendously. During my time as a junior architect, my starting salary was about $220. (I also earned anywhere between $70-120 every month from selling random t-shirt designs on Redbubble) During that time [during job, before game] my monthly expenditure was less than $150 (including rent, food, parties, everything) Of course, with no family to support etc I could afford to live in what was pretty much a dump (which I shared with my friend)

Once I quit my job, I moved in with my parents for the duration of the game's development. I'm now planning to move out and live on my own again, this time my monthly expenditure shall be double of what it was before (as I'm moving to a bigger city which is also more expensive) Going by everything I've often heard, I'm guessing this still counts as a very low cost of living (do correct me if I'm wrong and if this is infact normal monthly expenditure wherever you live)

 

Traffic sources

I think discussing the source of traffic during this period is also important. Here are the major sources:

Feb - 66k visits | March - 16k visits | April - 13k visits

  • Other product pages - 43% (Feb) | 47% (Mar) | 37% (Apr)

Discovery queue - 38% | 43% | 35.4%

New releases - 4.2% | 1.5% | ~

More like this - 0.5% | 2.2% | 2.15% <----- needs to do better

  • External website - 17% | 7% | 9%

Google, other, reddit about 5% each; review on RPS about 0.09%

  • Tag pages - 9% | 17% | 10%

New and trending - 8% | 11% | 9.92% <-------I don't understand this one. Never caught the game trending (maybe I missed it) but how is it a source 3 months from release?

 

Main takeaway: The discovery queue is a MAJOR source of traffic, and I'd be dead without that. Only yesterday I read this blog that talks about what factors affect a game's appearance on the queue, but it seems there's not much you can do to help that other than be a popular and appealing game with positive reviews.

It would also seem that I wasn't affected by the October bug that killed discovery queue as a source of traffic for many games? I'm not sure.

 

Wishlists:

At the time of launch: ~3300 (Created the Steam page on Jan 2018, so the duration here is about 1 year)

During Feb (release month) ~4400

Current total wishlists 10,101 (3 months)

Conversion rate - 4.9% (below Steam avg of 14%, expecting this to change with discounts and such)

Main takeaway: wishlist numbers explode around release time.

 

Upcoming plans

A couple of days ago, I went through this excellent blog in an attempt to optimize my Steam page, and mainly improved my short description and prioritized my tags (read point 5 in the link - order matters) I also discovered steamlikes.com - a website that shows you which game's "More like this" your game appears on. At the time, I had 13 likes, and all games except Virginia were relatively unknown, or weren't released yet. My major aim was to get on Night in the Woods' m.l.t list, as that's a huge game with a lot of similarities, and I'm sure players of that game would be interested in this game as well.

After optimizing my tags (a good mix of popular and unique tags, ordered properly, with similarities to NitW's tags) I was thrilled to find that my game now does appear on NitW's m.l.t. The likes have now moved up to 16. The website seems to update slowly, so this number might still go up.

 

But mainly, my traffic from More like this has gone up slightly in the past week from 11 per day, to 28 per day (or 49 visits/ 1.5% per week consistently to 73/ 2.1% last week) I expect this to slowly continue to increase as well. (The discovery queue blog mentioned above does say that Valve has been reducing the importance of tags recently, so maybe this could've been even better a few months back)

Edit: I also plan to get the game ported to consoles (talks are under way), sell game related merchandise, and start a Youtube channel to not only earn through it, but create a presence that comes in handy for the next release. Multiple sources of income of that sort can be very helpful, but of course, take time away from development itself (which is why I didn't start a channel for my first game, but I think I can take some time out for it now)

 

Things that worked for me

Here's the things I did that made sure the game wasn't heading towards total obscurity:

 

  1. Demo - Released the demo of the game on itch.io and gamejolt.com a year before the game's release. This got massive amounts of traffic, downloads (12k as mentioned before) and helped me build a small following over the year. The demo was one hour long, left on a cliffhanger, and ended on a Google form that asked players their opinions about the game, and collected emails for a mailing list. This had about 500 responses by the time of release. I'm not sure if these followers converted directly to sales, but it helped me get my twitter etc off the ground, and there was talk about the game.More importantly, the game was covered by media outlets (PC Gamer, apart from a good few others) and also Youtubers. It wasn't huge, but there was some talk about the game, and that's huge. It helped me get out of obscurity.

  2. Maintaining a Twitter presence - Although I don't have a huge follower count (above 1000 now, a bit less during release) I feel maintaining a good twitter presence is super helpful in creating an image of your studio that only helps your game. It's not a big source of sales, but that's where I've caught the attention of many major journalists, devs and where I've made most of my connections. If not directly, then through these influential people, Twitter helps in spreading the word about your game, and in building a community around it. This Twitter presence will come in especially handy when I move on to future projects. It can also help build an image/ identity for the studio, which further helps in making your studio/ game stand out among the crowd.

  3. Posting on reddit, facebook pages and forums - this has only been helpful in spurts, but seems to be most effective in creating a snowball effect during major events (game release, trailer release etc to get the view count moving up)

  4. I also maintained weekly/ monthly updates through devlogs and newsletters. Basic stuff, but it stops your game from sliding away from people's attentions.

  5. I also feel that the theme/ concept of the game helped it catch people's eyes. It's a Twin Peaks inspired murder mystery detective game dealing with themes of love, relationships and unresolved trauma. It's a story that I'd always wanted to tell, but these themes were also the reasons a lot of reviewers approached me. People have also called the art style eye catching. This is basic, obvious stuff (a decent looking game that sounds interesting) but it's worth thinking about when planning a game. Is it just going to be an excellently made game, or is it going to be that and have thematic pull? There's a blog about this (I haven't read it myself, planning to read it soon for my next game) which I think talks about similar stuff: http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/RyanClark/20150917/253842/What_Makes_an_Indie_Hit_How_to_Choose_the_Right_Design.php

 

Things that didn't work

Leaving the quality of the game itself out of this, I think the major things that hurt my launch week was the lack of coverage by streamers, youtubers and major press. The demo received much more attention from Youtubers than the full game release. I sent keys to about a thousand websites, many of which had been interested in the game/had covered it before (such as the release date announcement) but completely panned it for the release itself.

PC Gamer wrote a couple of articles on the game (release date, demo etc) but skipped the actual release. Rock Paper Shotgun was the biggest site to cover the game (which was awesome) along with a bunch of other great outlets, but it didn't have the intended effect (possibly because many of the reviews came up a couple of weeks after release)

I feel that if the game had received the expected amount of attention during release, the effects could've been exponential and sales could've been much more. I suspect that most outlets were caught up with reviewing other games (even in Feb!) and even though I sent the keys a couple of weeks in advance, maybe sending it even earlier would've been better (that, or being a recognized developer)

 

Conclusion:

So, considering everything, has it all been worth it? For me - hell yeah! Sure, sales wise/ financially speaking it's more of a middling success than a hit, and I need to work hard to keep making money from this to support myself. I'm also a bachelor, but once I have a family of my own, I'll need to earn a lot more to support them. But apart from that, and considering the present, I was able to leave a job and routine I completely despised, for something I love. I'm now able to immerse myself completely, everyday, in art and in my passion. I love being a part of the game industry and working and living on my own terms. There's risks and relative uncertainty but it works out as I'm comfortable with such situations.

Releasing this game has allowed me to travel out of my country for the first time (For EGX Rezzed, London) where I met other devs, showed my game on a Rock Paper Shotgun stream (an absolute dream for me) met some great people, devs, streamers and even made a few friends!

It's "changed my life" - not to a degree that it does to the big, famous indies, but I'm grateful for what I've had regardless. Now I'm preparing to move out of my parents house, out of my small coastal hometown to a big, fast-paced city and getting ready for a new phase in my life. I also plan to learn programming and start working on my new game soon (cannot wait for it!) while I hand this game over to be ported to consoles. I have zero regrets about switching my career, but yes, I did have favorable conditions in which to make this shift.

 

Hope this data has been useful! I scoured the internet for numbers of this sort leading up to and even after release, so I'm happy to be able to share some of it myself - good thing Steam now allows you to share data! 


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