Making Games, Being Indie, Making Ends Meet?

I recently came across an interesting read concerning the sales figures for a number of indie games developed by our friends at the Indie Gamer forums. I thought it was worth sharing since it’s not often you come across this kind of data, and of course we’d all like to know how our neighbors are doing.

The thing that really stands out are the sales figures for two companies. Both have been in business for years. Both have a number of games available. Finally, both have a fairly clean, attractive web presence. However, their fates diverge.

The first company, Positech Games, produces such gems as Democracy 2. These games have been well received by the community if you can trust Indie Games and I’m told have a strong following. Anyway, in 2008 Positech Games managed to net $189,423 in direct sales! This was accomplished by selling roughly 10,192 copies (of Democracy 2 I imagine) at $20 a pop.

The second company, Puppygames, is the maker of retro shooters such as Titans Attack and Droid Assault. According to Game Tunnel Titans Attack was ranked 4th place in the “Action Game of the Year” category, wow! Sadly, in 2008 Puppygames was only able to make $11,993 on the basis of 1,073 sales. How could this be?

The first lesson I draw from this is having a compelling web presence is a necessary but insufficient condition to commercial success. This seems plausible since I know I’d be less likely to part with my money if the site was unprofessional. Still, looking professional and making highly polished games isn’t enough to succeed.

Second, from the indie gamer forums I’ve read that Puppygames has a problem generating traffic to their site. These guys are making great, gorgeous games, but they’re shooting themselves in the foot because they can’t generate enough eyeballs. The lesson then is you can’t simply be a great artist or developer you also need to be a top-class marketer. If something like 5% of the people who try your game will go on to buy it, and I think that’s a high estimate, then you need to drive hundreds of thousands of people to download your game if you want to be a commercial success. Clearly this isn’t possible if people can’t find your site or don’t know how to purchase your game.

Finally, I think that the divergent experiences indicate that while there is clearly a market for Democracy 2 it’s less clear that a market exists for Titans Attack. It’s hard for any creator to have to acknowledge that his creation isn’t appreciated, but if you want to make money as an indie I think it’s absolutely essential to adopt that sort of objectivity. Should Puppygames make another retro shooter? From a business perspective I would say no, that they should use their demonstrated talents to create something different which strikes a better balance between their personal taste and those of the larger community.

To put a bow on all of this, my take is that feedback is more important than ever. For anyone just starting out it’s essential to start and think small in order to spread the risk across multiple games and gain the necessary experience needed to navigate the marketplace. Maybe now’s the time to start making a game a month until you hit on a truly stellar concept. By that point, hopefully, you have the means and experience to correctly develop and market your great idea. What are you guys doing to be successful?

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