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I Am the Cheapest Bastard In Indie Games

For 25 years, we have sold ultra-low-budget retro indie RPGs. Our graphics are lousy, and they will stay lousy. In this indie biz deep dive, we share a bunch of budget and sales numbers to show how accepting our limitations helps our business succeed.
A Queen's Wish screenshot. Note that I use game art that I like to look at. This is necessary because I'll be staring at it for years, and I don't want to go mad.

A week ago, I put up a blog post called "Why All My Games Look Like Crap." It really blew up. A lot of people read it. Some were highly supportive. Others took precious time out of their days to let me know I am a gigantic, gigantic bozo.

Thanks to all! When you're trying to get attention for an upcoming retro RPG indie game, there's no such thing as bad publicity.

Basically, my blog post said, "Some people like my art, but I am still super-bad at art. Always have been. Fixing the problem costs time and cash, and I don't have any of either to spare. So that's why our games look bad."

I got a lot of questions about this. Good questions. Why can't I afford art direction? How much does art cost? Why don't I do this or that smart thing? So that's why I'm writing this. I want to answer the good questions.

So I am going to say some stuff about making and budgeting video games and why I am a bozo and why I am cursed to be a bozo forever. Along the way, I'm going to explain to you the whole indie games biz, from soup to nuts. If you like indie games, I think you might find how I survive interesting.

You see, I am the cheapest bastard in indie games.

I don't have this much money. And, please, I beg you, support and the good work they do.

I've Been Doing This For 25 Years

Some people really get annoyed when I bring this up. It's as if having long experience and a huge body of work gives my words some sort of weight and my advice some value.

Well, it does. Do you realize how few people have turned a good profit for that long in this blood sport business? I am rarer than a unicorn made of bigfoots!

The indie games business is hard, one of the toughest there is.

Why Is It So Hard To Make Money In Indie Games?

What do you think the going rate for the best indie games ever made is?

Did you guess 'Free'? You're right! Go to the Epic Game Store every week and they'll hand you the best indie games, games way better than mine, for free!

That not enough? Join the Humble Monthly Bundle. For just $12/month, they'll send you 6-7 games every month, plus you can also download over 60(!) games in their "Humble Trove." They're good games.

So the competition is intense, and you can never ever match your superiors on price, ie free. That makes for tough business, friend.

Award-winning. Critical darling. Huge hit. Free. How do you plan to compete?

So How Can You Survive?

Simple. You provide something nobody else can ever provide. Something cool and distinctive that people will rather pay money for your game than get someone else's for free.

Consider me. I'm an OK programmer. I'm not good at art and visual stuff, and I haven't been since I was a kid.

But I can write well. I make good settings and stories, my spelling and grammar are ok, I make addicting game systems, and my systems and stories blend really well. THAT is the product I sell.

I'm in the business of selling Jeff Vogel games. And just like Van Gogh couldn't paint a Renoir, or vice versa, nobody else can make a Jeff Vogel game. Larian Studios is a great company with great resources that makes great products. However, no matter how hard they try, they can never make a game one of my fans will mistake for one of mine.

Fortunately for me, there are people who really like Jeff Vogel games, and only we sell them. So we have a business.

However, that's not all it takes to stay in business. I can get people to buy my games, sure. But I need to turn a profit.

That is why I need to be the cheapest bastard in indie games.

You can find a dedicated fan base for any imaginable art style. That's indie games, baby!

Let's See Some Numbers

I got into this kerfuffle talking about how my games look ugly, and I'll get back to that. First, though, let's look at budgets.

Our next game is Queen's Wish: The Conqueror. We spent about 20 months on it. For it to have a chance to pay for the time we spent creating it, it needs to make, after Steam and and Apple and and Kickstarter take their cuts, about $200000 US.

(It will take years for the game to earn this money, but we'll be earning money from back catalog at the same time, so it evens out.)

Why that amount? Because that is what long experience has told us we are most likely to get. Low-budget high-text, thinky RPGs don't become giant hits, but we have a loyal audience, so we'll get decent sales.

Then we take out, say, $60000 for business expenses and insurance. Then we spend X dollars on art (the key factor we are discussing here). We use what is left to pay our salaries (to get baubles like food, clothing, and shelter).

So our earnings for 20 months of hard work is, let's say, $140000 minus art expenses. Keep your eye on the ball.

Twenty Months? That's Not Very Long To Write a Game

No! It's not! Whenever I ship I game, I immediately begin the race against time to write another game before our bank account runs out. Twenty months is actually an unusually long time for us, but Queen's Wish is an all-new games system and engine, so it needs it. I normally need 12-14 months.

By the way, for people who asked me why I don't just learn to do better art myself, this is why. To learn to do better art, I'd need to spend at least 6-12 months. (To think it takes less is insulting to artists.) I just don't have the time to not be writing games.

I made the frames and button background for this interface. It was years before someone say, "Um, Jeff, are you sure this isn't a little too green?"

So Back To Art

After I wrote the last blog post, a lot of people wanted to make sure that, "Oh yeah, pal. No matter how bad your art is? It's WAY worse than that." The most common complaint I got is that there is no unified style and color palette. My art looks like it was cobbled together from like 20 different artists, blended together imperfectly by my nonexistent Photoshop stills.

Well, I've got news for you. Our art WAS literally cobbled together from like 20 different artists, blended together imperfectly by my nonexistent Photoshop stills.

Here's the thing. Many people don't notice this. Some notice, but it doesn't bother them. But for skilled artists and people with an eye for this sort of thing, looking at the icons I use makes their faces do this ...

Hello darkness, my old friend.

Sorry about that.

How I "Art Direct"

When I do what might laughably be called "art design", my first step is to cobble together any floor/terrain objects that will function. I pull art from old games, from, from sites that license icons for cheap, from anywhere I can get icons that will function. I use Photoshop trickery to make it blend as much as possible.

Eventually, I will reach a point where I need stuff that I can't use online resources for, stuff that needs to be custom-made for how I want the game to look. Then I go to freelancers.

I pay for bespoke art for terrain types with different looks that need to fit the engine, like tables and statues. Also, for terrain that I have my own unique formats for, like walls and doors and gates.

My artists work very hard to make sure the icons they do blend well with each other and look great. They do awesome work. Then I defile it by mixing it in with all the other weird stuff I find. If anything looks bad in my games, blame me! Seriously!

Doing the art this way costs around $40000. That leaves $100000 of earnings. For 20 months of work, that's pretty thin, but I'll live with it. I'll make up for it with the next two games in the series, which will take a lot less time to write. (Plus, eventually, remasters. I will be squeezing pennies out of Queen's Wish for literally decades.) So it's fine.

So that is where the weird mix of styles in my games comes from. Suppose I wanted to have unified art, all one style guide, all one look, everything done from scratch to give the game one pure look. I'm not a total idiot. I know it's possible. This is why I don't do it ...

This is a literal screenshot of the first computer game I ever owned.

Here! Have Some Hard Numbers!

Queen's Wish is a big game! Five nations and biomes! A surface and underworld! Multiple sets of furniture, all kinds of environments. The game currently has, to make the different regions look distinct and give enough visual variety, well over 1000 terrain icons. (An icon here is defined to be a 48x48 tile. Some terrains require multiple icons. Each wall type, for example, is assembled from 60 icons.)

Now suppose I do all this from scratch for the game. I need to hire freelancers. So I have to assemble a team of them that work in the desired style, that all make art that blend well, that are available and reliable, that are willing to commit to a job this big, and aren't too expensive. (If you think this is easy, you have a lot to learn. Assembling this team takes a lot of my non-existent time.)

So I hire Fredrika Freelancer (F.F.) for short. F.F. charges $25/hour.

(That’s a really fair price. If you’re paying less, someone else is going to hire her away from you. On the other hand, many freelancers charge $50/hour or more, but F.F. likes me and gives me a break. She probably lives in a country where the U.S. dollar goes farther. If you live in Brooklyn, I can't afford you.)

I ask F.F. to do, say, a stone pillar, about 20 pixels wide and 70 pixels high.

She builds it in her 3-D program. Textures it. Shadows it. Sizes it properly. Renders it. Sends it to me. I request some changes. She makes them. (I'm really easy to work with. I almost never ask for more than one round of changes. Believe it or not, freelancers tend to really like working with me.) I get the art. This probably will take about two hours.

So, if I'm lucky, I get this pillar done for $50. Yay! One terrain type down.

999 more to go.

But for Queen's Wish, I want 4 different pillars, to give distinct looks to four different cultures. Suppose on opengameart, I find a set of public domain pillar icons that basically work. They aren't great, but they function. If I download them, I save $200.

$200!!! That's folding money! You know how much money that is? That's enough money to buy 200 donuts! WITH SPRINKLES!

But That's Not All!

So do a little math and tell me how much money I'll need to shell out to get all 1000 terrain icons done, how much money will be chipped out of my $140000. And then remember that's just terrain! Then I need creature art, and an interface, and portraits, and color paintings, and sfx, and item icons, and ability icons, and ...

RPGs are art-intensive!

Are you seeing why I go cheap whenever I can? Freelancers charge money because they DESERVE it. They are talented people in a hard job. But they are selling the art ala carte, and I'm too much of a doofus to be able to afford too much of it.

To art everything being done from scratch with a unified style and a consistent, pleasing color palette and all the other good things artists like, if I'm lucky and get a lot of charity and really scale back what I want, I can easily end up spending $150000. Again, I can't do it myself. I'm a writer, not an artist, and RPGs absolutely need certain sorts of assets.

So here is the math: Doing art the cheap bastard way, I spend $40000. Doing it the good way, I spend around $150000. 150000 – 40000 = 110000

So to justify the extra art cost, I need to sell $110000 more worth of games just to break even. Remember that number.

We should be grateful that indie games have expanded what a game can look like and still break through. It wasn't like this a decade ago. 

Or I Could Hire An Employee

I don't have to use freelancers, of course. I could hire an artist full-time for 20 months. Suppose I do a big search and find someone whose style I like and who wants to work for me. How much will that count, taking benefits and taxes into account?

Many who are unfamiliar with this industry are surprised to find that artists are some of the highest paid people. Good, reliable artists are rare! Check out this site, for salary estimates.

If I'm lucky enough to find a good artist who wants the job, with bonuses and benefits and so on, I might be able to get him or her for $150000.

If I'm lucky enough to find a good person, with bonuses and benefits and so on, I might be able to get this person for $150000-180000.

(LOL! This is probably way too low, especially if I want the person to live in Seattle so I can work with them face to face, which I do. I will be paying under the median at this rate.)

I don't want to do this. I'm an introvert, and one of the reasons I got into this business was so that I could work alone. But I'll do it. For the Sake Of Art. You, the customer, deserve it. I will never let you down!

Again, my cheap bastard art is $40000. If I hire a full-time art director/artist, I need to increase sales by $110000-140000.

Where Does the Extra Art-Buying Money Come From, By The Way?

So can I even spend the extra $110000+ to begin with?

I don't have that much cash on hand. Nowhere near. To launch this project, I need to take a bank loan or raid my retirement fund. Then, if I don't break even, I'm in big trouble.

OK. I Need To Increase Sales By $110000

I know. This blog post is a long slog. Here's the punchline! Remember, most indie games are sold at deep discount now. After the store's cut, I'll probably average about $8 a sale.

To make that $200000 I think I can earn, I'll need to make about 25000 sales. For an indie game, this is a LOT. But give me a few years and let me luck into a Steam daily deal or a Humble Bundle and I can manage it.

But to break even on my all-new art project, to earn that extra $110000, my still very low-budget indie turn-based-retro-word-heavy RPG needs to sell about 40000 copies.

That increase may not sound like so much more, but it is a LOT. Ask any indie developer. 40000 copies is a HUGELY aggressive number. (So is 25000, but, again, I have an established fan base. Every sale I get requires more work than the sale before it.)

That is just to break even. If we don't hit that number? We can easily lose the entire business, poof, all sacrificed for the sake of a nice, unified art style.

And that is why I need to be the cheapest bastard in indie games.

All my best art direction is done when my eyes are covered with slices of cucumber.

But ... But ... I Thought Indie Games Made You Rich!

Yeah. Sometimes you get a hit. Then you get a pile of money. Then you hire a bunch of employees and make a real company. Then one of two things happen. You write a new, expensive game and it's a mistake and fails and everything explodes. Or you keep writing good games and grow until GiantMegaCorp gives you hundreds of millions of dollars for your company and you fly free and take a big vacation and buy a Tesla and realize you have no idea what to do with your life.

However, most indie developers are like most small business owners. We're humble folks scraping by and doing what we can.

That is why I am writing these too-many words. If you want to have a small business or make a living as a humble artist, I have kind words for you, because I really want you to succeed.

The Inspirational Ending!

I got yelled at a lot for the previous article. It was basically a massive expression of contempt at me for being such a hack that I was content writing such ugly games.

(And if you want to get Extremely Mad Online and dunk on me more, it's cool. Whatever is fun. Shine on, you crazy diamond.)

But here’s the thing! If you want to be a game writer, or creator, or small businessperson, you should find my story to be inspiring!

I write games so ugly that I am showered with contempt, and yet I make money! I’ll have a full, lifelong career! If I can have so many flaws and still succeed, you can too!

Figure out what you are really good at doing. Sell that. Make your dream real. Get it out the door, whatever it takes, whatever corners you have to cut. If you’re better than me (and who isn’t, really), you have a chance.

Good luck!


I am writing these blog posts to get attention to our newest game, Queen's Wish: The Conqueror. Coming Wednesday, Sept. 11! You can also follow me on Twitter.

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