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An analysis of Big Pharma's sales results

by Tim Wicksteed on 09/15/15 02:41:00 pm   Featured Blogs

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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.

 

First a little background in case you've never heard of me. I'm Tim and I run a one-man-band studio called Twice Circled. I recently released a game called Big Pharma and this article is an analysis of its sales results.

This is a graph of Return On Investment (ROI) against time. That is, net revenue (after storefront fees, tax etc.) divided by total cost of development and marketing.

When the graph hits 1 on the y-axis, that means the game has broken even. Now some analysis.

What the graph means for me

First a little summary of what that graph is showing. It’s saying that at this point the game has returned 5x the original investment put into it. That is really, really awesome.

There is a final catch though. That number (5x) is when it reaches my publisher, so there is still one more cut that has to go out before it reaches Twice Circled. Even so, I’m happy to say that: off the back of Big Pharma, I should be able to self-fund the next title that Twice Circled puts out.

This is great for a few reasons:

  1. Yes. I get to keep all of the money next time. But that’s not the only reason…
  2. I don’t have to plan the fundraising part of the next game’s development into the process. This is a necessary, but deeply annoying part of game development that I'm looking forward to skipping. Essentially, you have an extra stakeholder to design for: the publisher. Before getting started you have an extra person to 'sell' the game to in addition to your existing stakeholders: your customers and the press.
  3. I have full control of the schedule of the next game. Now I’m not saying for one second that having a publisher onboard for Big Pharma wasn’t incredibly useful and I learnt a lot from the process. However it did add some additional stress and complications. I’m looking forward to having the ability to say: “OK, we need to invest more time into this part of the game. Yes it will cost us another £7,000 of development time but I think it’s worth the investment” and know that it’s just my money I’m risking, not somebody else’s. In case it wasn’t clear from what I just said, I’m saying that I would much rather risk my own money than somebody else’s. Crazy? Perhaps…

What the graph means for Early Access/Beta

Look at the beginning of the graph. It shows that Big Pharma broke even on its development costs after just 6 days in beta.

I have to be honest; this astounded me at the time. Not because I’m painfully humble but because I was under the impression that early access and betas were starting to become dirty words, that gamers were, quite rightfully, becoming sceptical and cautious about purchasing them.

I knew we’d get a few sales, I was expecting around a third of what we actually got. My predictions were based on the incredibly positive reception the game got when we took it to shows like EGX and Rezzed (UK) and by the number of people who subscribed to my newsletter. I knew my die-hard fans would be keen to jump on board, but I was surprised by how many others were willing to take the plunge.

So all I’m really saying is, early access and beta are not yet, dirty words. Developers, let’s make sure we keep it like that.

What the graph means for Steam

OK, I don’t think Valve/Steam are going to be too worried, but the graph does demonstrate that it’s possible to do a successful launch independently of Steam.

Just before the Steam launch we had a ROI of a little over 2. That was great. It wasn’t enough for me to fully-fund my next game yet, but even without the Steam launch, I believe the trickle income provided by the game probably would have gotten me there eventually.

What’s this mean for the industry? Well, it proves that it is possible to market directly to consumers. It proves that, while a storefront provides an array of useful features (I love the way Steam handles updates for example), it’s not a 1-stop-shop to selling your game. You can, and indeed need, to market independently too. See addendum for more information on what this meant for Big Pharma.

Of course at the far right end you can see the result once we finally hit Steam. Within a week we had doubled our total sales during beta and covered the cost of the additional spend during the beta period (you can see the graph actually tails down for a bit as we spent money adding new features during beta). Clearly, Steam* should still be a big part of your launch strategy.

* I should mention, we launched on GOG and the Humble Store simultaneously with the Steam release so it would be unfair not to credit some sales to these platforms. However they only totalled around 5% of total sales over the launch period.

What the graph means for premium games

This is a really simple one – a few years ago people were predicting premium games were on the decline due to the “rush to the bottom” and the onset of variable pricing in games (F2P etc.).

I’m not making any argument of F2P vs Premium here, just adding an extra data point to the analysis. The graph shows that it is still definitely possible to make a healthy profit on a premium PC game, at least in the strategy/management sim genre.

Finishing up

So that’s my analysis of the Big Pharma sales results. For me, the experience has certainly debunked a few myths. Most notably in terms of the sales numbers that are possible outside of Steam and on an independent early access.

I also remember how frustrating it is during the planning stages of a new project, trying to obtain sales data from recent games, especially for smaller titles. So hopefully this article can serve as an extra data-point.

For more information on Big Pharma, check out the official site.

An addendum on “marketing”

To finish I just want to include a quick addendum on what I mean by “market” as in “marketing a game”. People throw this word about all the time (me included) without explaining what they really mean in actuality.

In the context of Big Pharma, marketing means doing regular video blogs throughout development, going to shows, trying to garner press interest in the game concept around announcement time, taking part in interviews, blagging your way into speaking gigs so that you can namedrop your game at the beginning of the talk, sending out lots of emails to Youtubers and streamers, taking part in streams, responding to public feedback via the official forums during beta, doing the odd tweet, designing the game to be fun to stream/watch, theming the game to make journalists give it a second look and not to mention paying for a truckload of Facebook and Twitter ads.

Now I’m hardly an expert at all this, it’s hard to know what works and what does not, but altogether this created the result you can see in the graph.


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