Monday, November 20, 2006

so you want to be indie developer

So you want to be an indie developer huh?

Well, it’s not all sun and fun in the indie developer realm. In fact, it’s hard. Damn hard. In fact, it’s so hard, that I think you need convincing how hard it is.

So let’s get down to some science*

Actually, let’s get down to some probability theory!

So before we can start analyzing probabilities, we have to give ourselves a goal. So what should that goal be? Well, why not make it an interesting one. Our goal as set out, is to make one million US dollars (because that’s the currency most of our games will eventually be sold in).

A million bucks worth of sales of our game. Can’t really be that hard can it?

So let’s start off by defining the factors that affect our game and its ability to get us to our first million (after all, once you’ve made one million, the next one will be a cakewalk right?).

Factor 1 – Concept (Choosing the game)

This is the first important factor. It determines for instance, how we sell the game. It also determines WHO we sell the game to. That is a really important factor, because this part actually determines our target audience and hence we can guesstimate from that the potential size of the market.

So we need to choose a game, where the target audience is vast. It has to be as big as possible if we are going to hit out target. So let’s start off by deciding that our target audience is PC. This is rational, given the number of PC sales worldwide and the estimated 140 million* already out there. Plus we know that making games for consoles is hard.

So seeing as we are trying to maximize our potential audience, let’s go one step further and let’s make a game that targets as many of those as possible. Which means low end 2D only and using a software renderer, none of that 3D hardware requirement madness.

What else do we need to think about here? Oh yeah, the GAME! Well, that’s easy. Let’s take a mix of whatever is selling right now and outdo it. Basically, we will trawl through the most popular games of this type and make a game that fits in nicely with them.

So what’s the million selling game idea?

Well, after performing extensive focus tests* and extensive research* we came up with:


Yes, taking the large audience for tycoon games and mixing them up with the huge audience for “diner dash” style games. We are going to revolutionize the industry by melding two top selling themes together. Maid Tycoon (MT for short from now on), will blend the management aspect of tycoon games, throw in the micro-management of diner dash style games. Mix it up with a female friendly theme (maid service) and we’re all set!

I think we hit that one out of the ballpark! But we’re not done yet. The next important factor is:

Factor 2 – Production (Actually finishing the game)

So the next important part is actually making the game work. Of course, everyone knows this is the easy part. Basically, take whatever idea it is, write it out in fully descriptive text (it has to be ONLY text for this to work) and make sure each and every detail is laid out, as everyone knows “failing to plan is like planning to fail”. Of course, we should use the latest production processes. So lets expect that we need pair-programming, extreme scrumming. I think basically we can take this factor as a given.

Factor 3 – Marketing (making sure everyone knows about it)

Ah, now we get to the fun part! Of course you knocked the ball out of the park again with the production, so we know we have an AMAZING game. In fact, lets make sure that whenever we talk to anyone about the game, we remember that word AMAZING. I think it sums the game up quite nicely.

So, with marketing, we need to basically get everyone buzzing about our game. So of course we schedule some advertising. Maybe do a few interviews. This should actually be really easy!

We can factor the costs in later, but for now, we can assume that the marketing will be AMAZING-ly easy.

Factor 4 – Sales (convincing them to buy it)

Wow. It get’s even easier. Of course everyone knows about our AMAZING product. We knocked the ball out of the park with our marketing efforts. Sales are the easiest part, because they are just a function of how AMAZING our marketing was.

Running the numbers

Ok, so here is the scientific bit. Here we will analyze the type of numbers we need to look at in order to secure our first million.

Let’s start with some initial “guesses” at values.

Ok, the target audience if we count the number of PC’s is approximately 140 million. Let’s be a little conservative and say that maybe only half of those can actually play games at all. So we have around 70 million capable PC’s. Ok, so lets say that roughly speaking, around half of those are English speaking and have a connection to the internet (our game is download only, so we max out our profits, don’t want to waste time on the middle man).

So we end up at around 35 million PC’s that can play our game. Not bad. So we can use that as our target audience.

Input 1 – Target Audience 35 million.

Ok, we now have to look at the game itself. If we made a “perfect” game, we might hit our target audience just right, but we don’t want to be foolish. Let’s go with the idea that our game is about an 8/10, 80% of 0.8 of what it could be if it were perfect. This might lose us some sales, but we can live with that.

Input 2 – Game Quality 80%

So we now have to look at marketing. It’s a well known rule of thumb that you generally are going to hit 1% of any market with marketing. So lets mark that marketing down with a figure we know.

Input 3 – Marketing 1%

And now we have to think about what has happened. We’ve marketed our game, so now we have to convert the sales. We might as well apply the 1% rule; everyone knows that it works for sales too!

Input 4 – Sales 1%

Then the final part, profit!!! Yay! Ok, so let’s assume an average profit of $15 per sale. Seems reasonable from a $20 sale right?

Input 5 – Average profit from a sale. Let’s assume $15 per sale.

Ok, so let’s try and map out some “what if” figures for what we know so far.

So the estimated sales for our game are:

35 million * 80% (0.8) Game quality * 1% (0.01) Marketing * 1% (0.01) Sales * $15 (how much we are going to make from a sale) = 42,000 dollars.

Erm, hold on a minute? How is that going to get us anywhere near our million? Surely I must have made a mistake.

So ok, let’s start doing some “toying” with these figures.

First up, I must have made a mistake with the marketing. We have an AMAZING game remember; surely people will want to know more about it. So let’s tweak that value a little.

Hmm, let’s say that we can actually hit 5% of our target market. Let’s see how that looks.

35,000,000 * 0.8 * 0.05 * 0.01 * $15 = $210,000

That’s starting to look healthy, but it’s still not exactly getting us near our target value. Maybe I should just assume we actually made the perfect game. How does that do?

35,000,000 * 1 * 0.05 * 0.01 * $15 = $265,000

Nope, something is still definitely wrong. So wrong in fact, that somehow the logic must be flawed right? I mean, it takes up to 20% conversion for marketing to actually hit my target profit!

So what’s wrong with the model?

Nothing is wrong. Yes that’s right, absolutely nothing. Ok, the figures might be out, but essentially the problem is that fundamentally, well, let’s just say that you shouldn’t be looking at indie development if you want to do it to become a millionaire.

Getting serious

Ok, so my scenario is pretty stupid, but honestly, it’s not like we haven’t seen plenty of people saying “how much can I make” often enough. What this proves is that essentially developing games as an indie you would be well advised to consider your motivations. I’m not suggesting you can’t make a reasonable living. I’m not even saying it’s impossible to become a millionaire doing it. I’m simply saying that the chances are highly against that happening.

What this exercise should tell you, is that you had better get your head straight about why it is you want to get into indie game dev. Financial aspirations seem to be a very BAD idea if that is what’s driving you.

For myself, I do it because I like to be creative. With less than zero skill at art and relatively minor skill in music, game development is my best shot. Plus it happens that the medium is one I really love, having spent a good part of my life playing and making games.

I read a great article about one of the guys from Capcom about doing Steel Batallions. To paraphrase him, he went to his bosses and said “Look, I know we wont make any money with this thing, but think about it, this is the ONLY time we will ever get the chance to make a game like this”.

Thinking of it that way is brave, but it also is inspiring. Doing it because you only ever get one chance, one chance ever, to really make your mark. I applaud the sentiment.

So, fellow would-be indie, may I suggest humbly that if you are thinking of becoming an indie, forget the monetary aspect of it. It really is peripheral to the joy of creation. It is the creation of something that stands for who you are and what you believe that should be your driving force. Please consider this when you get locked into the debate over sales and marketing.

* Well, when I say “science” I mean in the shampoo or cosmetic ad kind of way.
* Focus test involved asking the woman next door.
* Reading Zzap! Magazine issue 14

This post was part of the ‘So you want to be an Indie Developer?’ blog project. You can find the other entries via these links:

Cliffski's blog
Lemmy and Binky
Reality Fakers
Bone Broke
Game Producer
They Came From Hollywood


  1. papillon5:33 pm

    ... if I didn't have so many other projects in the queue I *would* now be thinking about a Maid Service game...

    Of course, being me, the maids would be adorable anime girls with short skirts.

  2. Dang it, Phil, I told you NOT to tell people about my next game before I'd announced it!

  3. It makes me depressed to even think of the words "target market" or conversion percentage when thinking of a game I would want to spend time developing. I guess that puts me in the category that would never make more than enough to get by in the world of indie games, but I think I could live with that if I ever took the plunge.

  4. the best one of the bunch.
    Zooba has a solid grasp of the dark reality of indie and pro game development.
    it can be depressing at times but it's good medicine to take now and again.
    thanks for keeping me grounded mate.

  5. I just love how you want to discourage other would-be developers from making games, it means less competition for you ;-)

    Seriously though, I still have financial aspirations. And yes this is my chief motivation. I've made only 3 games in my life (what I would consider complete) and i've made enough to buy myself a couple of pizza's (literally only around 50 bucks more-or-less). But this has not daunted me one bit.

    Just because monetary considerations are not your own doesn't mean you can tell someone else they can't do it. What a person needs to know is that there's alot of work involved and that they need to go the distance if they ever hope to achieve any success of any kind. Otherwise you can treat it as a hobby and not as your profession, which means that it doesn't matter if you get critical acclaim, monetary compesation, or mass public consumption. Because as a hobby you're just doing it for the fun of it, however as a business you're trying to treat it as one which means you're intent on making money no matter how small or large.

    Of course probably 90% of the indie-dev community will disagree with me, and probably almost no one that isn't part of this community will even read this so my point is probably moot.


  6. My intention wasnt to put anyone off Keith, my intention was to wake them up to the fact that for the most part, money isnt the best motivation.

    I agree that you shouldnt give up aspirations of making a living and being professional, but that you should actually do things professionally, including thinking about your estimated sales revenue.

    The fact remains true to a good extent that you need multiple very good titles selling reasonably well to make a living at it. I very much doubt that any single title will ever make enough profit for an indie to do it fulltime (unless incredibly lucky).

    I know its not the most positive message, but it is at least a little realistic?

  7. Realistic is the fact that you have to learn to program first because nobody will do it for you. Realistic is the fact that at the point you feel like quitting is the point you need to force yourself to continue. Realistic is the fact that it will take about 6 months to a year to do anything decent and almost that long after that to see any decent money.

    Aspiring indies do not need to be told by me that they can't become millionaires or that they can't make the next half-life/doom/etc. Reality will settle in once they're doing it. If i'm building something and it's too much work for me, and I quit, that's reality. However, it's important to note that all is achievable if you don't quit. People shouldn't be telling aspiring indies it's terrible and they have no hope of success -- that is unless they don't want competition. This isn't about being positive, it's about not being negative to discourage people. If they have what it takes, they will find out, if they don't, they will find out that too.

    Note i'm not telling anyone to say that you will make a million bucks on your first game, because as you say that's not realistic, however don't be running the numbers to PROVE to them they won't be making much.

    Your numbers aren't even necesserily bad, but I think you should have done it from the bottom up. If they do just this, they *could* make x amount of dollars, but now you want to make more, so you add this. You make it higher quality, you add more polish, potentially you could make up to this amount of money.

    Actually 42k dollars a year is not a bad living, I would be perfectly happy with that, but to tell me I can't make more is misleading. You have evidence of guys making 6 figure incomes and yes built on more than one game, but they are making it and they are financially independant. That is as good a motivation as any. Of course passion is a good motivation as well. Maybe you really want to make games badly, however, in that case it would be more like a hobby, this is not saying they don't/can't/won't make money as well, it's just if you don't care about the money, then do it as a hobby and release your games for free.

    Sorry for the huge comment. It just irks me that indie game developers actually do this to others and worse than your blog post. I think we should be supportive and even mentoring to the next generation (of indie game developers not that age has anything to do with it :-)


  8. Thanks for the reply. But I have to disagree with you.

    I think it's important that people get into indie development knowing the facts. My "facts" were obviously made up, but they illustrate a point I think.

    If you want another take on this, check out Steve Pavlina's old article about multiplication factors affecting revenue.

    Mine was intentionally a bit negative, mainly because I thought the other guys might be a bit more positive (actually it did end up that the overall mood was a bit down, apart from the introversion guys i think).

    I'll redress the balance in a future blog though.

  9. Wow. And here I appreciated Zoomba’s realistic take on indie game development…lol

    Keith, I knew Zoom from way back and he’s said things like that to me when I was a “youngin” and it brought be down. I almost took offence to it even.

    But I do realize he was right and he is right. 100% so. None of the other articles take this stance because it’s a hard stance to take but Zoomba’s does and it is valuable knowledge we can all learn from.

    Instead of thinking that he is trying to deter you from game development take what he says as another piece of the puzzle that you, I and everyone need to hear. It’s another facet of game development that I for one think should be expounded upon by other indies as much as possible.

    Ps. “Realistic is the fact that you have to learn to program first because nobody will do it for you.”

    Not really….It’s would help. Sure. Speed things up a bit I suppose. But it’s not necessary.

    “Actually 42k dollars a year is not a bad living, I would be perfectly happy with that…”
    until you were married, had a kid or 3, etc etc etc etc etc