Sharing revenue information is hard, not sure why that is, I guess it’s something of a status symbol and telling other people opens you up to a range of comments and remarks that are not always what you like to hear.
Having said that, I just read the latest issue of the dutch Developer magazine Control, and it was full of information on a bunch of other Dutch indie developers are doing project wise. It somewhat inspired me to create the below stats and information that comes along with it.
This goes back to the first year of me starting Orangepixel, and as you can see in the stats, a startup doesn’t make much money. I never used any investments from other people, I just quit my day job, and started living off my savings and working my ass off.
The stats show revenue made, it’s not all pure profit, but as a one-man dev working from his own home, I don’t have a lot of overhead. It also shows euro’s, not dollars (add like 10% to have the dollar figures, or use XE.com to calculate it).
I mainly hope this helps inform other developers hoping to go the same route. The times are different tho, and it will be harder to make a name for yourself. There are some do’s and don’ts at the end of the article, so please also check those out.
Mobile gaming in 2005
So in 2005, only business men had smartphones. There was no iPod Touch or iPhone, there was no Android, and nobody wanted Windows mobile. Mobile gaming was done on “feature phones” running crappy J2ME java versions and no 2 devices had the same J2ME support. So testing your games required a LOT of devices from different manufacturers.
Even with these odds against it, I loved the idea of mobile games, and I decided that was what I wanted to create.
Distribution in 2006
To sell mobile games in those days, required a large network of partners. Distributors, websites, and partnering with device manufacturers for on-device installs. I had made a bunch of games during 2005, so in 2006 I was growing my network. Learning the business side of things, and “forging deals” which was mostly boring work getting contracts going, and eventually chasing my revenue shares.
Advert-gaming in 2007
These days having advertising in your mobile games is pretty normal. But it started back in 2007. Up to that point 99% of the mobile games were sold. No advertising was shown, for a few simple reasons: small display screens, bad connections and hardly any “always on” data connections. This was changing tho, so slowly the new concept of having advertising in games started. Games would be distributed for free, containing advertising, and the developer would get a cut from that advertising.
And it worked pretty well for the early developers jumping in. I think I suddenly started making $3000-$4000 a month just from giving away games for free with advertising in it.
Work for hire, advert gaming, and rise of mobile games in 2008
Besides doing my own games, I had also been doing various work-for-hire games for other companies. In 2008 I got a deal for doing 10 games in 10 months (!!) which was a lot of hard work, stress, and money. My own, ever growing catalogue, of games were also making nice money combined with the new advert-gaming model, this was a great year to be in mobile games.
Also a lot of cool stuff happened, things like the first joysticks (remember the Zeemote anyone?) or weird ideas like the Nokia N-gage. All signs of mobile gaming becoming something more, but also great business opportunities for a small indie dev who could rapidly support new gadgets in his games and strike some fun money-upfront deals and be included in marketing efforts of such companies.
At this point tho, a lot of people were moving onto iOS and Android.. while I was “stuck” working on the work-for-hire contracts. .. so 2009 happened
Jumping to the next big thing in 2009
The feeling that J2ME was coming to an end started worrying me…
I started learning Android. Mainly because I had the feeling it would be big, I loved the concept, and it used Java which was the smallest step from my current work environment to this new smartphone era. However it required a lot of time learning new stuff, and a whole new market that was pretty young. My “fan-base” was mostly still using J2ME devices, so I had to start from scratch.
Most money coming in was revenue from existing J2ME games.
Searching for direction in 2010
The new iOS and Android platforms had people searching for the break through games. Devices that had tilting, touches, trackballs, rotation, gravity.. all these features, and along with every other developer, I wanted to try them all for my games. The result was a lot of weird, funny, sometimes interesting, sometimes terrible, games.
Stories of “hit games” started popping up all around. Developers making millions with funny games that I could re-write in a week.. I was searching for direction.
I created some fun game concepts: mini-plane, a Flappy-bird like game 5 years before flappy bird. And Mini-army, a remade “snake” game that has also been redone 4 years later by the guys behind Tiny Tower.
Both games did nice, but nothing as big as those games a few years later.
Reinventing myself in 2011
The struggle to create games that other people would love was getting to me. So early 2011 I started working on “Meganoid” a game that was just pure what I wanted to make: pixel-art, extremely challenging, fast, and old-school. However: I wasn’t sure people would buy such a game?! So I added some advertising and gave the game away for free on Android. The creation of the game had brought me back to what I loved about game-development, so that was a reward on it’s own. The game did great, advertising brought in well over $10.000 in a year or so, and the iOS release and later a paid Android release added a bit more to that.
Mean while I also used this year to teach myself the whole iOS stuff. Android was growing, but it wasn’t growing as fast as I needed it to grow. iOS was the place to be on, so I bought my first ever Mac (mini), an ipod touch, and started learning how mac’s work, how xcode worked, how the whole Apple developer stuff worked, and how iOS worked.
I ported my last few games to iOS, with mixing results as is the case when working on a new platform: you’ll run into bugs, you’ll improve your game engine, and you’ll improve your games.
Creating games in 2012
This year was just: create game, release game, create game, release game, repeat! I think I created at least five games released them on Android, iOS and later in that year also Blackberry as they supported Android versions. I also dabbled a bit with HTML5 stuff as I always love the concept of games running in HTML5, and I had a feeling they might finally happen (I’m pretty sure this was the time of Chrome(OS) talks surfacing).
I also used the later part of the year to get personal finances in order so that me and my girl could buy the house next-door. Anybody buying a house knows how much struggle that is and how much energy it can take, imagine buying a 2nd house.
(note: don't think it's a huge mansion. We had ~80m2 living space, and now a bit over 160m2 which is slightly bigger than normal in the Netherlands)
Renovating and creating my biggest games ever in 2013
This all happened while I was working in the middle of a renovation. We were turning two houses into one, so around me there was drilling, hammering, dust, noise, coldness (heat turned off due to renovating). A lot of planning and arranging stuff for the renovation, and the first half of the year, I was tearing stuff down in the old house in my down time.
Weirdest year. ever.
Taking a little breather in 2014
Thanks to the success of Gunslugs + Heroes of Loot, I could take it a bit slower in 2014. Releasing Groundskeeper 2 in Q1, and a silly free game during summer, and that was it. I did port a bunch of games over to ChromeOS, branching out into that new market as one of the first indie games (I think?).
Also focussing efforts on porting stuff to the Ouya, and mostly just building some business connections and doing some business deals on the side.
I did start work on Gunslugs 2, but pushed it further and further so that it was released early 2015.
I also decided to really start looking into getting my games on PC, and then most interestingly: Steam. Learning some new tools, starting a Greenlight for Gunslugs 2, having it greenlit in time for a February release, and thus having to learn the ins and outs of Steam.
Continuing the pace in 2015
Which brings us to this year. I released Gunslugs 2 back in February on all the platforms I support these days: Android, iOS, ChromeOS, Windows, OSx, Linux, Ouya, FireTV.
I also did a Greenlight for Heroes of Loot, which was greenlit pretty quickly, so I readied up the PC version, improving it in the control department, using all the stuff I learned from the Gunslugs 2 launch to make sure it was a smoother release, and then learning some new stuff there for the next release.
Alongside I have been doing some business deals left and right, which is basically getting your current games distributed/sold/making-money in other places like special hardware deals, special shops, and even things like bundles.
I’m on track for the same financial results as 2014, with one more game being released later this year: Space Grunts. Which will be my first turn-based game ever.. so that’s gonna be something.
I now also officially including a PC release for all of my new games, so added that as a new platform, and simply hope my games will keep doing good enough to keep this up.
The two failures
There are various things I would have done different, in hindsight.. which is always easy. But there are two things that I think could have been world-shocking if done different:
1: Not having the guts to continue work on RumbleX.
Round 2006 I started RumbleX. A platform for leaderboards and achievements with player profiles, forums, message-boards, avatars, and more. Other developers started using it in their games, and I personally used it in all my games.
This was back in the J2ME days, long before iOS took over, and long before services like Openfeint, Gamecenter, Google Play became the norm. I feel kinda stupid having abandoned the service when I jumped onto Android / iOs back in 2009, especially knowing that services like Openfeint made millions of dollars selling to companies. It would have meant going all-in tho, and leaving game development to others.
2: not jumping onto iOS sooner
What can I say about this one. I was late to the party. I’m pretty sure I could have scored something big in those early days. I’m trying to never ever leave a big new platform ignored.
The small victories
Luckily I also had some good business decisions in those ten years.
1: starting in mobile games when nobody took it serious
Let’s face it, only a few years ago people started looking at mobile games seriously. Before that everybody laughed at it. Big developers and publishers said it was garbage, couldn’t have real/fun games, and was to be ignored for ever.. They are all struggling to get their mobile games noticed now tho.
2: picking the right horses to bet on
From the first advert-gaming services, to supporting new platforms like Ouya and ChromeOs. I feel like having a good track-record of picking new interesting platforms. In the public eye these platforms might not seem interesting, but for a developer there is more to just having your games on those devices. You also get noticed by companies and other interesting businesses where money can be made.
Ten years of tips
So finally, some tips I learned during this ten year ride of being an indie:
1: create YOUR games, not other peoples games
I wasted at least a year trying to create games I thought other people would enjoy, while not creating the games I personally love and like.
2: learn the business side of things, this is where you earn money
It all starts with creating the best game you can make, or better: create the best game other people could make. And getting that game known is done by marketing, but getting sales and money? that’s done by doing business. Smart deals with good partners.
3: sense new opportunities
I missed out on the early days of iOS, and I still wonder what could have happened when I was there earlier. My problem was not owning or knowing about Mac and Apple hardware. Probably even being biased against the whole Apple scene.. on a personal level: that’s fine, on a business level: that’s stupid. It was a costly investment in hardware and time, but it would have most likely payed off a lot more if I was there earlier coming from J2ME mobile games.
4: don’t limit yourself platform wise
Be everywhere. Today’s development tools allow you to release on many platforms with very little ease. So be everywhere. Some of my games on some platforms are only making 5 bucks a month, if that. But if I don’t release there, it will be 0 bucks. More importantly: brand recognition, be everywhere and get noticed.
5: work hard and a lot, and enjoy
There’s very few days that I don’t do “any” work at all. It might be just replying to emails for a few minutes, but every day I do some sort of work-related things. It’s part of owning a business. Luckily for me, I am at my best and most happy when I work on a new game. It relaxes me, it makes me happy, that part of it never feels like work.
6. Volume and The long tail
Games have a long tail, good games have an even longer tail. The more games you have, the more long-tails you have. That’s where most of my income comes from. When I release a new game, there is usually a sale-spike. With some luck this spike pays for most of the development time and investment costs the game needed. Think music, art, marketing, things like that. The long-tail is where you usually earn your money.
This long-tail income grows as your volume of games grows. The more games you have, the bigger the chance people actually try out multiple of your games. So don’t expect to make real money from 1 handful of games.
7. Go all in
Commit. Commit to your game, commit to the quality of your game, commit fully to a platform. commit. Always commit to making your game look and feel the same as something you would personally throw money at, and be honest about that.
When supporting new platforms, really commit. I slipped up once or twice on this one. But make sure your game is as perfect as it can be on the platform you release it on.