For several months I’ve promised to write a retrospective about the release of my first game “Drew and the Floating Labyrinth.” But then it was released on Steam, on IndieGala, and available during the Steam summer sale. Then I was working on my second game “Unfinished – An Artist’s Lament,” which took longer than expected, but has now officially been released for one week. This gave me a lot more perspective to write about, and a year after the first game, I think now is the time to write about it from a functional point of view. This summarizes in-depth time and money spent and made for my first two indie games as an indie developer, which were not necessarily successful, but hopefully helpful for others wondering how their experience in game development may go.
- Initial Setup – What I Wanted To Get Out Of It
It’s important to know a brief history of Dust Scratch Games and why I started making games. I’ve tried making several games before, but traditional methods would take months to make a prototype, would not be as good as I’d hoped, and the tools and libraries I was using would quickly become outdated and un-playable on modern operating systems. Only after being introduced to Unity3D had I seen a modern game engine, with an interface that allowed quick development and testing, allowing you to spend time on elements you actually wanted to spend time on. Today, engines like these seem standard, like Microsoft Word instead of a traditional DOS text editor.
I could now make and finish games, but it was clear I didn’t have the skill to make high-quality 3D models or overly complex gameplay interactions (I’m fully aware how, but these were special talents grown from experience, time and patience, which I have not yet fully invested in). Being an avid fan of animation, especially unusual animation, I knew 2D animation was virtually dead in American cinema. Couldn’t it be done for games? Not just 2D animation in 2D games, but in 3D games, such that any and every game could use 2D animation should the artist desire. I am sensitive to seeing poor 3D attempts, I think because of the motion seeming to perfect and yet without personality. I suspect that it may be possible still by simply re-writing 3D animation data to include specific keyframes and ignore interpolating between them automatically. But another method would be to simply draw on flat surfaces, and have different perspectives active based on the camera’s position, an extension to early 1990’s pseudo-3D games.
I had tried it, and it worked. For the first time in my life, I had made something I thought was beautiful, something I was proud to show. It was possible, and yet it had never been done before. I initially started work on “James – Journey of Existence,” with James being the temporary character I used to test my method I called “3D Cel Animation” and a story influenced from ideas developed over the past decade. I even put it on Kickstarter. While I got some small press, comments suggested lack of confidence due to mediocre initial animation, and confusion to gameplay and story in fear of spoilers. Ultimately I shifted to smaller, simpler games that I could complete mostly on my own. I knew I wouldn’t make money, but wanted to show that this style of visual was possible, hoping that others would try it and improve it. I wanted to play a 3D game with 2D animation, but since they didn’t exist, I had to start by making them myself.
- “Drew” – Development Time
Several prior months of testing showed me subtle ways to improve and implement 2D animation in 3D space. I was lucky to be able to do this as a student through University research, although to date nothing has been accepted for publication. Having a prototype drawn character from “James,” I could implement him quickly in a simple 3D plat-former for a game development class. That I was able to show a game so early when others only had concept art and documents, left students and professors speechless. I would take that summer off, no classes or work, to focus entirely on finishing this game.
In terms of full-time work, “Drew” was worked on from May 2014 to August 2014, a total of 4 months. Technically, including initial concepts and prototypes would make it a total of 8 months, and getting familiar of the animation method and game engine would stretch it to a little over a year. Over a month of full-time work was spent on animating the two characters in “Drew,” 6-8 hours of non-stop drawing every day. The rest was spend on making over 60 levels by hand, without an implemented level-editor (stupid, I know), with 1-2 levels per day. Some time was spent on implementing a menu and fixing bugs, but the menu (and lack of customizable controls) were clearly in the back of my mind. I wanted to finish my first game and release it before class started again in September, and hoped it would catch someone’s eye.
- “Drew” – Cost
Unity3D has both a free and paid option. After I started, the free version now supports all features from the paid option, paying is only necessary for strongly profitable games. All the same, I took advantage of a student deal and paid for the professional version. Similarly I paid for a decent desktop computer. I also paid for contest fees and convention fees. I will not be too specific here for these elements, because ultimately they were all unnecessary costs, and more for me than for the game.
It would have been possible to complete the game myself for free, but wanting it to be better, I hired a musician who had contacted me earlier for the license to use pre-released music, no work required on the artist’s part. I hired a sound-director who found me two voice actors for the minimal game cast. Both were a giant help in improving the game in ways I could never do. As an estimate, total voice acting costs were roughly $800 USD (an agreed amount based on suggested fees from online agencies), music costs $550 USD, with an additional (roughly) $100 USD to well-known musician Kevin Macleod to fill in the game with extra sound (his music pieces are really free, but there was an option to pay through a different usage, which I did simply to give the guy some support). This comes to a total of roughly $1,400 USD. Yes, I could have tried to hire friends for free, but I have a personal motto to always pay for any work provided to me, it’s the least I can do. I also like to pay flat fees, and keep all profits that come, all the risk for all the reward, this is solely to retain full control of pricing and release (I still don’t know if I would ever release the game for free, but if I did, this way I wouldn’t have to ask for anyone’s permission or feel guilty).
And thank you to the people who have contacted me in the past. It was nearly impossible to find friends available to help me with music and voice acting, let alone capable of it. As for why I didn’t hire animation teams or programmers? I’m not made of money, and animation can be especially time-consuming and repulsive to most people, so being somewhat capable of these elements, I did them myself.
- “Drew” – Kickstarter and Social Media
When I first started with “James,” I released a Kickstarter campaign in December 2013 for 45 days. I planned to release it earlier, but held off until I could make a demo I was satisfied with. The goal was low ($5,000) to what I thought I needed for minimum of hiring people to improve the game (my first released game cost under $2,000 after all). Costs would cover hiring people to improve the game in ways I couldn’t. I made it clear the I intended to finish the game regardless of the campaign’s success. Ultimately this failed at under $400 from 25 backers. Common comments were that the promise of the idea were overshadowed by ugly animation (which I described as prototype only) and poorly-explained gameplay (it was a story-based adventure game, how was I supposed to describe it?). Some even suggested the campaign was clearly a scam, that it didn’t make sense to raise money to pay people to help make my game (wait, what? Isn’t that why almost all Kickstarters are run?). Revealing a final design of the character near the end of the campaign didn’t help, those who did support the game were mixed as to whether or not it was better. The final strike was a random hurtful blog post weeks after the campaign ended at an attempt of humor, made with WordPress and tagged with my full name, such that anyone who Googled me would see that rant on the first page. It may not be easy, but for this reason alone it is worth incorporating your business as a separate entity, in hopes that you won’t be singled out like that. Now I was determined to rewrite my identity on the Internet by releasing a game just to make sure that one post wouldn’t show up anymore.
My second Kickstarter campaign was for “Drew.” The game was mostly finished. The campaign was in July 2014, and asking for $1,000 in 30 days. This was purely for translation of the text of the game to other languages. Ultimately, this ended at a worse spot as “James,” with under $300 funded and 16 backers, despite being clear in what the game was and certainty that the game would be released within a month of the campaign’s end. A handful of people still seem to ask for Spanish, French and Russian translations, but those cost money, and the failure of this Kickstarter and lack of audience is why my games are only available in English. I’m sorry.
Kickstarter seems too easy to make a campaign for, with a generally intuitive interface to edit and make your page. I noticed that some running campaigns look suspicious, like mobile games with an average of over $100 per contributor and only a handful of people funding it. I didn’t tell any friends or family of my campaigns, so maybe that was part of the issue. In the last few years, giant names in various industries are using Kickstarter to fund their projects, purely to see if there is interest in it. I agree with that, and think all companies should use methods like these to ask their audiences what to make. But the intention to give a chance to unknown artists unable to get funding anywhere else is lost. Not to mention, of the dozen campaigns I personally have contributed to, only 3 have fulfilled their promise, others are long past their due date. Crowdfunding seems to have lost its shine for all of these reasons, and I don’t think I would do it again without a large audience of fans aware of me beforehand. Services like Patreon seem the new trend, but no one is going to pay me every month to make a game once a year (at least, I hope not), and I don’t like subscription plans to begin with.
As for social media, I made Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Google Plus, Youtube and IndieDB plans. Facebook shut down their company pages for personal pages only, and I haven’t updated it since (it didn’t get me many followers anyway). Twitter has me over 2,000 followers, most of which want me to read their stuff instead of reading mine (I’m following more than are following me, that’s a sign). Google Plus gets updated 2 times a year, it seems better than the rest but I just don’t use it enough. Reddit is by far the best place to get attention and views, but they try hard to remove spammers. IndieDB is a good idea, but hard to get news to their front page (they keep most of your posts to your local account), and I still have more followers for “James” then for “Drew” there despite “Drew” being released, and now I no longer use it. And while all of these help keep some form of contact between you and an audience, most people following me aren’t die-hard fans, and my accounts with these sites are really just there to say my work exists.
- “Drew” – Self-Promotion and Conventions
It’s not easy to do self-promotion. I tried. Social media only does so much. What you want is for other groups or influential authors to talk about your project. Sadly, most of them aren’t easy to get a hold of, and those who were simply weren’t interested. IndieGameMagazine is the only website who would always be willing to write about my games, sites like indiegames.com, twodashstash, killscreendaily and kotaku have also mentioned by work in previews or with other games. I’ve contacted several other sites, without reply. Only the smallest of blogs would write full reviews after the game’s release (for which I am thankful someone has). After all that work, these sites didn’t make a dent in sales or interest, either because my game hasn’t caught fire or because the reading audience was too small, maybe both.
I also went to several conventions, for which I will write another detailed blog post soon. These include Pax Prime, ConBravo, Stage Select Gaming Expo, and others. They vary in size, location and content, but also had very little impact outside their world, aka the online stores I put my game on. These are great for interaction, finding flaws in the game, getting feedback, and self-confidence. In short, don’t pay much for a convention table, more than $500 total travel and registration is too much, and you will probably not make your money back.
- “Drew” – Steam, Desura, IndieGameStand, Humble Bundle, and attempts at others
I submitted my game to Steam, which could only be done through Greenlight. “Drew” was there in June 2014, and didn’t get passed until February 2015. The game was released before then and in different bundle deals, which helped. When on Steam, they require a direct-payment banking option, and living outside the US causes tax issues that may require business expertise for indie devs to work with. Otherwise, it provides a great toolset, great feedback data, and resolve issues within days. You can’t ask for better than that.
Desura was the biggest indie store you could find (until they died a few months ago). They were fairly easy to get on, although they required promotional assets through an archaic editor. They were the first store I was on. IndieGameStand came soon after, and despite a smaller audience, their improved interface and PWYW-promotional options made it a great choice. Both Desura and IGS allow Paypal payments to developers, which is easier for international and dynamic businesses. I also tried Humble Bundle, which only considers submissions to their store and bundles if you make a widget to sell their game using their tools. I did make the widget, and haven’t heard back from them since. I also contacted stores like GOG (which personally reviewed my game in a few weeks and politely turned me down), and Greenman Gaming and GamerGate (which never got back to me). I applied to all of these before being approved through Steam, which definitely makes a difference as to whether or not they accepted me.
In its first weeks, “Drew” sold nothing. 0. On Desura and IGS. That wasn’t a late update in their website, that’s what it sold. It didn’t help that these sites needed a few weeks to finalize your store page before making the game officially available, making the exact release date difficult to predict. Only after being in a bundle a few weeks after release did sales pick up outside of bundles thanks to awareness. In total I’ve sold 8 on Desura, and 14 on IGS (outside of PWYW sales, but matching the Steam summer sale helped get more. Desura had died around this year’s summer sale, which is why IGS has gotten me more sales today than they did). Note that these stores usually have a minimum payout level, which these numbers weren’t close to reaching. On Steam, to date the game sold 122 copies, 45 of which were outside the Steam summer sale that saw the game 75% off. The Humble Bundle widget has still sold 0 even now, annoying considering how much they warn you to backup your servers in case of a large surge in audience on release day, and their widget requires just enough work to update that I took it away. Interestingly, I temporarily had the option to pay me directly with Paypal and I would send a direct-download link through email, and this sold a few copies, which was better than the widget: I took this off because of my poor usage of their API, but this suggests a strong want to be able to pay the developer directly and just receive the game, free of DRM and user accounts and obtrusive software and websites. Something to think about.
Desura got the most reviews from gamers at first, averaging at about 7.0/10.0 from users, split by people thinking the game was at best a 5.0, and others fighting to defend the game as being unique. IGS only has a couple reviews to date, which are much more kind. Now, Steam has the majority of reviews for my game, and without showing an exact score, my rating remains at “mixed” with 25 reviews split directly down the middle with positive and negative reviews. I wrote an initial review of my own game upon its release knowing no other site would do so, and my own score of 6.0/10.0 seems very much a good representation of my customers at large.
In summary, I’ve sold roughly 148 copies of “Drew” across different outlets, making about $400 back considering sales below retail price.
- “Drew” – Contests
During development, I became aware of contests for indie games around the world. My game wasn’t great, but it was unique, and I thought it deserved attention for its animation, or else its story and unique perspective on gameplay. This Promoter Calendar page was priceless in helping find most of those contests.
While most games probably don’t stack up to award winners, you might feel better about submitting when seeing which games have won in the past. But the submission list seems to double every year, making it harder and harder. Most of these cost money too. Generally, anything free to submit to is worth trying. Otherwise, I’ll specifically mention to look for any Microsoft-sponsored contest (they prefer games that cater to their hardware and operating system, but their prizes are high), IndieMegabooth (not a contest and not cheap but the best chance at getting a good spot at a major game event), IndieCade and IGF.
I’ve submitted to all of these and more, and all have turned me down or haven’t gotten back to me. I will say that IndieMegabooth started with good intentions, but have grown so much that they are in danger of being corrupt, as well meaning as they are. IndieCade turns out to be about the spirit of play, and couldn’t care less about story or art, and many of their submissions are not video games at all, so do some research before submitting (they did give me feedback on my submission, which was appreciated but also very harsh). I submitted to IGF as a student game for a cheaper rate, and did get a “honorable mention,” the closest thing I have to an award and the only mention of my game on major websites. Their feedback was also encouraging, it’s strange that they gave me some recognition when I figured they to be the biggest and toughest competition.
- “Drew” – Indie Bundles
So I hadn’t made back the money I spent on the game through normal sales. A this point, I wasn’t even on Steam yet. This is where bundles came in. It’s a fantastic business idea: put your game on a well-known site’s weekly bundle, selling your game for pennies when purchased with a group. In most cases, some profits also go to charity. You get exposure, and might make a few thousand out of it. And gamers won’t feel regret paying pocket change for a grab-bag of games to try.
Humble Bundle is the biggest, but after making a widget they never got back to me. The only sites I used were IndieRoyale, Groupees, IGS’s PWYW deal, and IndieGala. IndieRoyale was convenient as part of Desura, but is now defunct. IGS’s PWYW deal requires time to set up a date, but focuses on only your game, and lets you choose the charity for part of the proceeds to go to (I ultimately did poorly than most games, but no harm). Groupees put me in their “Build a Greenlight” bundle, and I was greenlit on Steam during that time. However, I was the only game in the bundle offering a key (through Desura), making me wonder if this was really one of those infamous “vote for me and I’ll give you a key” deals. I intended buyers to get the promised Steam key through Desura as described on Groupees’ FAQ page, but disappointed feedback will make me cautious about using their site again. IndieGala can’t be contacted, but they contacted me right after my game was released on Steam, and got me the most money so far. Best of all, all of these sites accepted Paypal to send payment, an easier process to direct bank deposit.
The money I got from IndieRoyale was $540USD, IGS was $227USD, Groupees was $399USD, and IndieGala was $1,058USD. This comes to a total of $2,224USD from bundles.
However, this also means there are over 10,000 activated Steam keys that were purchased for under $0.10 each for a $7.99 game. I did all of these within 8 months of the game’s release, probably not good for early buyers. I noticed forums mentioning they had already purchased my game in a previous bundle when seeing a new one. Several mention getting multiple keys on purpose, and giving/selling them away across the Internet. For an unknown game and developer, I feel this was necessary, but perhaps I overdid it. It was one of the main reasons I dropped the price to $4.99 a year after release, and I’ll try not to rely on these in the future.
- “Drew” – Profit and Sales
Let’s recap: I spent $1,400 directly for development. I made $400 back from sales, almost all of which came from Steam. I made $2,224 from participating in bundle deals. That’s a profit of $1,224. Over 10,000 copies are owned by someone thanks to those bundles sales, about 148 of which were bought outside of those bundles.
I did better than I thought, but not as well as I hoped. Considering the money I spent to contests, conventions, etc., I realize most of that work in promotion made up less than a dozen sales, the rest were purely discovery on the Steam store page.
- “Unfinished” – Summary
“Unfinished – An Artist’s Lament” was expected to be smaller than “Drew,” and perform worse. It took longer than I thought, at 5 months part-time work alongside post-graduate work. When I posted it on Steam Greenlight, I was surprised to get passed a couple months later, before the game was done. From that, although I intended to make the game alone, I spent $800 to an eager musician for custom music, taken from the profits of the first game.
In one week, “Unfinished” has sold 160 from Steam, for roughly $430USD return. That already beats the lifelong sales from “Drew” outside of bundles. “Unfinished” is also available on IndieGameStand where it has sold 5 copies. Also on MacGameStore:
I have no idea how much it sold (they need me to request a report to find out), but there is one review so far, so I expect it at least matches IGS. (Update: three weeks after release, I found it has sold 4 copies on MGS, less than IndieGameStand sold in its first week.)
I spent little work with advertising or promotion. No contests yet either. A couple smaller sites did write about the game, not all of which I contacted, suggested a good game will get press without any help.
I’ll also mention Steam Refunds: these were recently offered after “Drew,” too late for those gamers to know. With “Unfinished,” about 5% of buyers refunded the game. The weird thing is that the game is sitting at 8 positive reviews and 1 negative. But I (and my friends) think “Drew” is the better game. The refunded gamers left feedback that sounded like negative reviews. If these had been on the store page, my rating would be more believable. But because they got their refunds, there was no reason to keep their anger on the page. This seems like a huge unforeseen side-effect of Steam Refunds. I like to be transparent, so I put negative reviews on the discussion page, but most won’t notice until it’s too late. The general kind feedback might also have to do with the game’s story and themes, who knows.
I still haven’t made a profit on “Unfinished,” but one or two bundles would fix that. Even Humble Bundle reached out to me asking to make a widget again, suggesting it might be of interest to them. That won’t be for some time, but it makes me feel better. The only real lesson I learned here is that promotion didn’t do a thing of difference between the two games, and store appearance and game idea can mean everything. As for new indie studios, I didn’t make nearly enough to afford payroll to anyone, and have no idea how others survive. Maybe I’m missing something…