How much will your first indie game make?
The above question has been flying around a lot the last few weeks and it is one I get asked quite often. The hopes are that a first game will earn you tens of thousands of dollars, but realism (and Andy Moore) says it’ll more likely be either nothing or not even a thousand dollars.
I’d say it’s unknowable. Going indie commercially is always a bit of a gamble & while I’ve seen it work out for some people, I’ve seen it fail horribly for others. Going indie commercially means that besides knowing how to make good games, you know how to sell games and how to run a game studio or company.
In that aspect, Vlambeer is also meant to help Jan Willem & me support ourselves financially. Since we’ve been faring well, we thought it was time to return the favor and hopefully inspire others. Back in 2011, the two of us at Vlambeer teamed up with friend & Dutch developer Laurens de Gier to organize a seminar for students following a Game Design & Development course.
The course was a three-week course which students could pick amongst several other seminars that month. It was called ‘Monetize that $hit‘ and we described the thing as a seminar in game design, game business and business in general. Students were required to sign up as a team that could fully produce a game, so at least the competencies of programming and design needed to be available in the team. Teams were also required to pick a ‘business guy’ and think about how they would get or produce any missing things – music and sound effects and trailers and the like.
When 15 students arrived on the first day of the seminar, we told them a short story. Our very first title – the title that financed Vlambeer – ‘Radical Fishing‘, was created in a few weeks. The game, after some negotiations, earned us exactly ten-thousand-and-one dollar. We basically told them everything they wanted and needed to know, sometimes referring to a talk by the same name I did a few months earlier.
We explained to them that the goal of the seminar would be to recreate that: students had to design a game, produce it and get to serious negotiations with any interested party. All of that had to be done within the seminar, or they’d fail the course. Failing the course would negatively affect their chances at passing the year, so that was anything but an empty threat. This seminar was going to be high stakes and that’s exactly how we needed it.
They’d have some additional time to iron out the kinks in terms of negotiations, and if they managed to sell the game, they’d get a ‘good’ grade. Failing to sell, but getting at least to some stage of negotiations would yield a ‘satisfactory’ grade.
We offered students a chance to walk out of the course with a ‘satisfactory’-grade at that point, just to make sure we only had motivated students. When nobody walked out, we started. Well, actually, we offered some pointers on sponsorships, compact feedback loops, some tips on negotiations, press, contracts and legalities. Besides that all we did is tell the students to start and to ask us anything.
The teams worked on their games for a few weeks. Then they polished, reached out to press and media and they negotiated with interested parties. Amounts that were discussed during the seminar started to show a divide – some of the games were talking thousands of dollars, some of the games hadn’t received a single offer.
When the dust cleared, things looked reasonably well. The above game, High Vaultage, sold for $5000, although they had some minor costs and ended up with a figure around $3.5K. Several other games didn’t sell, so we asked those students to reflect on why the games hadn’t sold. One of the teams had an art style that simply didn’t work out for sponsors, which is a story we’re quite familiar with through the original LUFTRAUSER. One of the teams had only one negotiating partner and lost them trying to negotiate. In the end, all of the commercially failed projects offered concise and realistic reflection on why the game didn’t sell, so we scored them the minimum for a passing grade.
In the end, the average selling price was $1600. One of the teams is forming a studio of their own, working on an amazing cowboy game as a potential first project. Several other students are still seriously considering starting independently after their graduation.
Sometimes, your first indie game is Fez and it sells over 100,000 copies. Quite often, it’ll make you no money at all. However, depending on the quality, your understanding of the audience and your ability to pitch, negotiate and sell, you should be able to make some money. Basically, how much your first indie will make is completely dependent on you, your game and the general situation at the time. You don’t control all the variables, but you do – in a significant way – influence quality, your pitch and your visibility.
As far as I’m concerned, that’s the only sensible thing to say about it.