Perception of indie developers is mixed and dictated by what the media choses to cover. In this article I explain that you don’t ever hear about 99% of games, most games make between $300 and $2000, that only the top few percent of development is financially sustainable.
The word “indie” is becoming an ever more controversial term, with a meaning far more complex than it was a short while ago. Over the last year, the term has been embraced as a useful term for marketing, most noticeably in the news when EA made the mistake of releasing an “indie bundle”. This has had the effect of watering down the traditional meaning with some good old fashioned “money grabbing”.
The greatest thing about indie developers is how experimental and proprietary everything is, but you can also argue the worst thing about indie is the great successes. Nobody saw Minecraft or the Humble Indie Bundle coming. They are without doubt, moments of genius. I don’t think that even their creators saw such huge sales coming, yet the huge profits they have earned have attracted a lot of attention. This kind of news spreads fast, because everyone is interested when there is loads of money involved, and unfortunately this type of news has been the fuel that has brought the term “indie” to many ears.
This is bad news, because when people hear “indie” and “stupid amounts of cash” so often in the same sentence, they start to build the logical conclusion that the two must be related. Unfortunately, when an indie game sells a more normal amount, nobody cares, very few people write about it, fewer pass the news around.
This is a problem because a huge number of people think being an indie is an easy way to make money – make a mediocre game, get it on steam, add a Portal art styled DLC, add a Super Meat Boy character, and then sit back and watch the cash flow in. Get Markus Persson on the phone for advice on how to spend all this cash. Damn, why didn’t I think of that?
The truth is, indie games make much less than you think. Dependant on platform, the average revenue for a one man project is in the region of $300 to $2000 dollars. Thats for the entire lifetime sales of a game, rather than per hour (as in Minecraft). For the vast majority of developers, being an indie game developer is not even close to sustainable.
David Galindo wrote up some interesting figures recently, detailing his first 2 games earning $300 a piece, his third doing better with $4500. He also details his media battle when being received as capitalizing from the Deep Blue disaster. In his own words, “I have to ask myself: given the time I put in to make that money, was it worth it?”.
Streaming Colour have a great survey on selling on the Apple Store, and although their data is starting to age, it gives a great insight into what you can expect. Median lifetime revenue for an app made by one person on the Apple Store – $519. 80% of developers share 3% of all revenue. Read this article right now, I cannot begin to summarize all the valuable insights in contains.
One of my personal heros, Joost Van Dongen is on the list of guity individuals who made a little too much money and started to lead people to believe you can actually make money from making indie games.
I will stop listing articles here as you get the idea, and Pixel Prospector already have a pretty good list.
If the impression that indie developers are money orientated isn’t enough, it doesn’t help when developers under the spot light such as Phil Fish, shortly after winning IGF goes on to insult all of Japans game industry. Then later on twitter, makes some poorly chosen remarks, which I won’t repeat on my blog for fear of destroying my page ranking. Admittedly, I haven’t seen his “Indie Game the Movie”, but the reviews I have heard suggests he victimizes himself, and in one review is to be believed, blames a lot of his problems on a perfectly decent guy.
There is some very discouraging content in this article for a lot of indie developers, but I still believe I (and plenty of others) can make a sustainable living from developing games. If you plan your projects well, don’t start a project that is too big, and test your game ideas and make sure they are good, you can make great products and succeed, just don’t expect to make the next Minecraft, get any response back from Steam or for the Humble Indie Bundle to even run the binary you sent them. It is unlikely anyone is going to do that much for you so be ready to promote and market yourself. micromacro