Before going further we need to cover a few basic facts of marketing. You are
probably just one person. You will be competing against giant Hollywood games
studios. So to have any chance at all you need to make sure of three things:
- Basic quality. Your game needs to look better than games that can be downloaded
for free. If it just looks the same, why should people pay for what they can
get for nothing? The same goes for bugs. And length. If you are asking for
money, people will compare your game with other games that they could buy.
A short game, an ugly game, or a buggy game will fail. Simple as that.
- What's so special about your game? There are thousands of games out there,
and a lot of them are free. Why should someone pay for your game? If you can't
answer this simply and convincingly, your game will not sell.
- Distribution: to make thousands of sales you need to reach millions of people.
And those people need to trust you. Just having a web site is not enough.
The best way to reach people is to find an established games publisher to
distribute your game. If you can't find a publisher to take you on, ask yourself
whether your game is really so special. Most independent game makers admit
that their first finished game is not as good as they first thought. But the
next one is usually better.
How many copies could you sell?
You can't expect to sell as many as the latest EA games of Ubisoft blockbuster,
but you have one big advantage: you don't have their costs. So you can make
a profit on much lower sales. Even a small publisher needs to sell around ten
thousand copies to break even. As an independent developer, you can make a comfortable
living on half of that.
50,000 - 100,000 sales worldwide is a big hit for a small publisher in any
genre. 150,000 gets you in that month's top ten games chart. Only about 30 PC
games of any kind ever sold a million. (If we include games on consoles then
the number is higher.) Myst is the best selling adventure game ever, and sold
between 4 and 9 million copies (I have seen different figures from different
sources - possible some numbers included sequels or console versions).
The most recent complete figures I have are from 2003, from PC Data, courtesy
of justadventure.com. The appendix has the full numbers, and the previous two
years for comparison. The games that sold the lowest numbers were more successful
in previous years. The key points are these:
- Every single game sold at retail sold four thousand copies or more worldwide
All of them. Yes, even the bad ones. Not all of them sold that many in one
year, but they all sold that number in two years or so.
- About forty percent of these games sold more than ten thousand copies. One
in three of these was a new title, not just a "safe bet" sequel
or TV spin-off. So there is hope for brand new titles. The biggest selling
title sold over 100,000 copies.
- Remember the economics of the video game market? Four thousand copies over
two years is enough to live on, assuming that your costs are minimal. If you
get your game into the shops, you are pretty much guaranteed that level of
sales or higher. But has any amateur games maker done this? Let's look at
some case studies.
Gilbert Goodmate (2000)
Daniel Nilsson and friends
made Gilbert Goodmate, a game in the classic Monkey Island style, and released
it in the year 2000 at a selling price of £29.99. 1,400 people downloaded
the demo before the release. According to this
publication, the PDA edition of the game has been downloaded 6,939 times
by April 2004, at a price of £ $19.95 (about £12) a time. In other
words, the PDA version alone made around £80,000 gross. I don't know the
PC sales, but based on interviews and other evidence I would guess it sold over
ten thousand copies.
Gilbert Goodmate had very good sales. How did they do it? First, they spent
a long time getting it right, then testing and improving. They produced a quality
product. And they got an agent, Clearwater Interactive (in the UK) who found
publishers in different countries. They took the time to get it right.
So did they make a ton of money? Er, well, actually no. According to an interview
they started with an investment of $ 380.000 to pay for several people working
for several years. This is much less than most professional games, but a lot
more than any amateur game. It would have needed around 40,000 sales to break
even. By the time the game was ready, the investors got scared. According to
Nilsson and co. had to form a company in order to get the investment. When the
game was ready, the nervous investors changed the name of the company (from
Prelusion to Global Minds), and declared it bankrupt. This allowed the investors
to keep every penny of any sales, but it meant Nilsson and co never saw a penny
The moral of the story is that the initial investment was far too big to guarantee
profits. If they had made the game on a much lower budget it could have been
a huge financial success.
Dark Fall by XXv Productions (2002)
was made by Jonathan Boakes, who developed it at home, and was adopted by the
Adventure Company. Hardcore gamers loved it (possibly influenced by the knowledge
that it was a one-man production) and gave it high scores. Other games reviewers
called it "sub par" and "repetitive" and gave it low scores.
According to Metacritic,
the average score was 68%. Dark Fall sold around 40,000 copies worldwide (extrapolated
from the 18,000 sold copies in the sample used in the appendix of this article).