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