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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).
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?
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.
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.
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.