What Is My Game’s Sales Potential?

Make It Big In Games community member, JefferE, posted the following question in the MBG forums:

What I’ve always struggled with that I’d like to hear your slant on is how to judge if a game is worth producing. That is, you’ve got an idea, you think its a good one, but how do you go about judging the sales potential? There are very few resources that I’ve found that publish stats on game sales. For a very simple example, you’ve got a Match 3 or Hidden Object game (ala Big Fish Games style). How do you find out how much potential that has? What’s the ‘average” return on a game like that if it sells bad, good, or is a hit? Is it $1K – obviously no one would produce them, is it $10k, $50K, $100K? Basically, how do you go about figuring out if its worth even starting a project – beyond dreaming, right sizing, and just going for it?

How Much Money Your Successful Game Makes

How Much Money Your Successful Game Makes

This is a great and basic question that all Indie game developers struggle with. If you are a “professional” game developer working at a big publisher and thinking of making the leap to Indie or a student trying to decide whether to hire on at a publisher or try it on your own, this is a nagging question. Well, I’ll get it over with an tell you right now, there is no simple answer to this question. I have tackled this question before in a 2006 MBG post entitled How Much Money Can Indie Games Make, and even thought the market has changed a lot in the last three years the answer is basically the same. So, click back, brush up on that article, then read the rest of this post.

The main thing that has changed since I wrote that article in 2006 is that there are a lot more options for making money now. In 2006 your only options for making money were large publishers, the rapidly consolidating casual portals, or XBLA, which was already out of reach of most Indies. Today, we have added iPhone, gPhone, Facebook and other social networks, Flash game portals, Mochi Ads, Google Adwords, WiiWare, PSN, XBLA via XNA, Yahoo Email games (announced yesterday), Nintendo DS if your game is great, a new generation of publishers like Zynga, SGN, or ngmoco, and more that I have either missed or have not been announced yet.

The plethora of potential outlets, distribution points, and publishing partners and the type of games and audiences they serve are the reason there is no simple answer to this question. As an Indie game developer that is going to spend your own money to make a game, it is extremely important to decide which market you want to tackle, and that really comes down to what game you want to make. I believe it is incredibly important to only make games that you are passionate about. All game development gets hard, and when the going gets hard, the only thing that will get you through it is passion.

I make games that I want to make, and find out if there is an audience later. Trying to come up with a forecast is not an art or a science, it is an exercise in futility. Back in the day after Dynamix was acquired by Sierra we did have to work with Marketing and do the prediction dance, but it was rarely correct, and the games I believed in the most like The Incredible Machine got terrible forecasts. So, I still just made the games I wanted to make, and sometimes I had to threaten to quit to get a Green Light for a game.

If you don’t have enough passion for the game you are going to make that you are willing to quit your job to get it done, then you probably should not try to make it. If you are trying to make games as a business and you don’t care about the content of the game and are only looking for the money, there are way better ways to make a living. Just go code Java for a bank or hospital. I’m not trying to be harsh here, just realistic. There are millions of potential game developers around the world, and most of them are passionate enough about what they are doing to sleep on the floor and make very little money to “make it”.

With that in mind, there are some things you can do to increase your chances of success. For instance, don’t send an edgy Flash based zombie shooter to Big Fish Games or don’t send a cute waitress game to Kongregate. Instead, decide which portal/distribution/partner’s audience would best match your game, make your game the best it can be, and find out if it has an audience.

Any one of these distribution strategies can provide a modest to above average living if you create a great game. But, it is important to remember there is no “average” sales of a product. The averages are created by most games making nearly nothing and the ones at the top taking in most of the revenue. If you make a business plan based on averages, I strongly urge you to get into a different business.

-Jeff Tunnell, Game Maker
Make It Big In Games
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cc photo by yomanimus

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=781603342 David Marsh

    I could not agree more about deciding what kind of game you want to make, and then figuring out how to make it happen. I have worked at so many companies where the sales potential is the driving force behind everything, and the game is almost an afterthought. It certainly quickly evaporates any passion you had for the project when you realize that it's really nobody's game.

    • http://www.makeitbigingames.com Jeff Tunnell

      Game always need a champion. Even in huge corporately driven license products, one or two people have to have a vision and passion for a game, or it will not succeed.

  • jgostylo

    Holy crap this is insightful! And I mean that statement to not be taken sarcastically.

    Having broached the idea of “I will just publish and distribute my own damn game” I have always run into the reality that even coming close to being effective takes more money than I am interested in putting into it. You almost have to use some sort of established portal. Your 'big hit' will always do substantially worse in your hands than a portal that really knows what they are doing unless you are a hard working savant.

    The other thing I like is Jeff's discussion on averages. It is the same for every product. The number one product in the field will command the lion's share of the return. Sports is like that on crack. Think of all the people that love to play football. What percentage of them play in the NFL? I would say 99% of people that love to play football pay someone for the chance to play on an organized team let alone get payed to do it. Hell, even in the NFL the pay difference between the star receiver and the backup tight end is very significant. You have to be the best at the niche you are filling and the only way to even start that is to be passionate about it.

    So I agree with Jeff that the answer is you have to ignore game ideas you are not passionate about and go with ones you are. This passion actually becomes more important after the game is complete because whether it is very different or looks the same as a host of other games, you are really going to have to sell people on it and demand it gets the coverage it needs to succeed.

    • http://www.makeitbigingames.com Jeff Tunnell

      Thanks, jg. It is nice to finally be on the same side of an argument :)

  • http://www.subreal.net timaste

    Great advice!

  • http://www.redthumbgames.com joshuadallman

    Some of the biggest indie games of the past year didn't give a shit about how much they would make. They were labors of love and it shows through in the quality of the final product. World of Goo, Crayon Physics Deluxe, Cave Story… any indie would kill to get the kind of publicity and sales these games have enjoyed. And yet the sales of these games could never be guessed at prior to their release. Make what you love and love what you make. There's no better recipe for success than that.

    P.S. On the “a lot more options” front I just wanted to add a few: Flash-based Virtual Worlds like Webkinz, scratch-card POS publishers like Cherry Credits, free-to-play microtransaction publishers like juggernaut Nexon, and finally web-based 3D games like InstantAction, all of which are emerging platforms for 2008-2009.

    • http://www.makeitbigingames.com Jeff Tunnell

      Nice additions to the revenue partner list.

  • http://www.ferranpons.com Ferran

    I'm agree with the article but when you're making a game that you want to make, what do you do to make your buseness plan? How can fit your game in a business plan? Always thinking that you are trying to start from scratch and you haven't got enough cash to take too much risks.
    I'm asking this because I'm evaluating if it's possible to start my own business without dying in the attempt.

    • jgostylo

      I believe the answer to this is the same as investing. You are making one game. That is a very high risk business plan. It is not something I would ever put money into unless I had total control or really loved and believed in the person. No diversification, all your eggs are in one basket. Possible payout lies between losing everything and total market saturation with odds pointing towards losing everything. The risk is mitigated by the passion you have for the project and your experience. You will do everything you can to make sure your baby flies. If you are not willing to do everything then your chance of failure skyrockets.

      A real business plan for games would include playing the averages but if you want to claim that then you need to have enough games to statistically justify using an average. I think that is what being a publisher is all about.

    • http://www.makeitbigingames.com Jeff Tunnell

      I have written some posts about that. Here is the one that best describes an answer:

      http://makeitbigingames.com/2006/02/five-founda

      Basically, you right size your life to lower expenses, you don't quit your day job, you find partners to help you, and you build a portfolio of products that eventually allows you to quit your day job.

      • http://www.ferranpons.com Ferran

        Thanks Jeff and jg!

    • http://www.ferranpons.com Ferran

      Thanks Jeff and jg!

  • http://blog.gambrinous.com Colm

    Nice post. I have to agree with 'make something you are passionate about' – especially for a small indie game it's the only thing that will a) get it done and b) make it any good!

    As for the money there's no harm in researching how much the hits and flops have made in your market. For casual flash games at least there's quite a lot of small developers who have shared this info – gives you a bit of a ballpark idea of what you are getting into.

    • http://www.makeitbigingames.com Jeff Tunnell

      I absolutely agree that doing as much research about how much money an Indie game can make should be on your list. You will find a few anecdotal snips of how much a game can make. I have even thought of making some sort of site feature that can track these snippets of info. My answer to the question is that based on my experience and all of those snippets you can get “there” from “here”, but trying to make a business model for it won't work.

      • http://www.redthumbgames.com joshuadallman

        To add to the anecdotal snips comment, it's important when you're reading such pieces to recognize the difference between a “case study” and a “break-out game.” NPR, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, mainstream gaming press (GameSpot etc) are all likely to feature break-out games, but written in a way to give the impression that they're average case studies. When a flash game gets fought over by publishers for the right to take it to XBLA / PSN / WiiWare, that is definitely a break-out game. When a middle-of-the-pack game / developer talks about their game, sales, and the experience of releasing it, that's a case study. Oftentimes people read a piece – like how much some of those first iPhone games made – and think they're case studies of average games, instead of the break-out games that they are (and I don't mean Arkanoid!).

  • http://www.thestillofthenightcausesastorminthemind.com Jeremy Alessi
  • http://har0ld.com Harold

    I can't wait to listen carefully to the numbers breakdown of World of Goo at the GDC (how about the sales directly from the website?). I hope 2Dboy are gonna delivered like they did with their game :)

    Anyway, thanks Jeff.

  • http://www.gameproducer.net Juuso

    Very niec article Jeff

    here's some sales statistics to get some info what's selling:
    http://www.gameproducer.net/category/sales-stat