Game development is a really nice job, at least when you’re an indie, not a cog in an AAA crunching machine. You can sit in the comfort of your home and have no expenses for commuting, office rental and eating out, at least that’s how i imagine it to be. But the real question is – can you earn a living wage by doing it?
You can read a lot on indie game developer hardships these days. Things are looking quite grim – Steam is not showing too much love for indies, some are afraid the subscription models will start to be a to-go model in selling video games, accessible game engines are making games easier to produce and that makes for a stiffer competition – it’s really hard for your game to be discovered. I’ve seen too many good games with lousy sales numbers because nobody know that they actually existed. A lot of devs are wondering is it really worth it anymore? Is it possible to live by making good games with niche market or do you need to strike gold with new Nuclear Throne or Minecraft? We’ll leave aside the marketing part of the story – you all know it, start as early as possible and build a community, preferably with your own brand if you released games before.
And now, let’s delve into the cold, dark world of numbers. For this analysis, i will be using some Numbeo statistics. According to them, cost of living for a single person in capital of Serbia is around $500 (without rent, which is around $200 for a small flat). It may be a bit hard too look at those numbers objectively, but i don’t know how i would survive with a salary of $500. Realistically, you need $100 for bills regardless of the flat size (if you want flat cable internet, cable TV and a cell phone subscription. Heating, electricity, water and garbage disposal have to be paid) so you’re left with $400, which is enough for you to eat (strictly at home) and maybe spend $50 on leisure. Forget about savings, driving a car and going out.
When i take my family in consideration, the math is following, to live relatively comfortably and maybe spare a few dimes on the side, you need about $2,000 for a three member family (for easier calculation, let’s presume that your SO has no income). That amounts to $24,000 a year. If you are selling your game for $10, Steam takes 30% and you are left with $7. Now, you probably think “Wow, only 2 grand to live comfortably with a family? What is this dreamland you’re living in?” and yes, Serbia IS a cheap country compared to most of the European countries and that is all fine, but my country has no tax treaty with US and it makes a lot of impact compared to other more expensive-to-live-in countries that have tax treaty with US. So, i have to give another 30% in taxes to the US. So, i’m left with meager $4.90 if i’m lucky to sell the game at full price.
But that’s not the end of taxation, i have to pay some taxes in my country too. If i earn up to $23,000, i don’t pay any income taxes, but from $23,000 to $45,000 i pay 10%, and over that i pay 15%. Let’s say i managed to earn more than those $23,000 a year and i have to pay 10% of income tax. That means i need to have a net profit of $27,000 to earn a nice living wage for me and my family. To make a net profit of $27,000 i need to sell around 5,500 copies of the game at full price. That’s quite a number.
Now, according to this article, the average game on Steam will sell about 2.000 copies and make $12.500 in revenue in its first month. The average game will make $30.000 in its first year. I’m not quite sure what do they mean by “make”, but i guess it’s the revenue. So if you’re from around here and make an average game, you’ll be left with around $15.000, which is around $1250. A fine salary that most of the people living here dream of (average is around $350-$400) and it’s ok if you’re living alone and have no family to support.
But, lest we forget the cost of making the game itself. Unless you are a multitalented person that knows how to program, draw in 2D, model in 3D, rig and animate, design sound and make music, you need to spend some money to pay someone who does any of those better than you and has the time to do it. Until now, i spent around $4,000 on Rick Henderson. Sure, there’s some stuff like assets which are one in a lifetime expenditure and some of the art made will be left unused, but i need even more to finish the game (reason why i’m making an IndieGoGo campaign), so if all went perfect from the start, i think i would need minimum $5,000 to make a game of this caliber. So let’s readjust the figures. I no longer need $27,000 but $32,000 net profit so i have some money to invest in the next game, and that translates into 6,500 copies of the game at full price.
How did the others do?
How some of the similar games fared on Steam? I will use the data from the big Steam leak from last July in this one, so some data may be a bit off, but not too much i presume. Taken into account will only be some games of a newer date, since older once basically guaranteed sales once they were on Steam.
Super Hydorah – This fantastic game sold only 2,073 copies. It was already selling for a year when data leaked, so i presume it didn’t sell many more after that. But the price was a bit high i must say, €20. If it did sell 2k copies at that price, that’s cool, especially considering it’s a one man game.
Starr Mazer DSP – Still in early acces, but sold a nifty 5,500 copies for 10 bucks a pop. Nice, but their press kit says three of them are making the game, and paid artist is doing graphics.
Drifting Lands – Not really your usual shmup, but fits the genre. 8,275 copies for €18,99. Also, at least two guys work there, but probably more, so it’s not much of a success.
Steel Rain – We’re getting into five figure sale numbers. A whopping 10,440 sold games, full price €9,99, but there’s almost two digit number of people in their studio, so i’m not sure how successfull this was.
Monolith – 10,880 copies sold by three guys. Price – €7,99. Great success if you ask me. I suppose they sold a decent number of copies since then too.
Super Galaxy Squadron EX Turbo – 25,940 at €8,19. I suppose a lot of those copies sold at a discount, and as far as i can see they happen pretty often. Now it’s on sale at €2,99 so i guess that’s closer to median sales price. There’s a lot of them there, so i can’t even presume how many of them took part into making the game actually (and reaping the profits).
Sky Mercenaries – Made by PolarityFlow, team that also made Steel Rain. 30k+ copies, regular sales price €9,99, pretty good.
Steredenn – These guys kicked ass. 50k+ copies made by only two of them plus musicians and a pixel artist which probably had their fixed cut. At €12,99, hell, even at half the price, this game made a small fortune for them.
One game it’s like to point out to is Star Saviors, game that sells for €0,99 and has sold 300k+ copies. I haven’t played it but it’s not my cup of tea regarding rendered graphics, though i must say it looks like it feels good to play and makes me wonder of the pricing policy and what is right to do.
I didn’t take into account games like Ikaruga, Mushihimesama and Crimzon Clover, they’re quite specific and have their own audience. Bear in mind all these developers live in countries which are more expensive to live in than in my country, but also have tax treaties with the US to some extent.
When i take all things into account, i didn’t move my point of view too far. I still believe that you need to have a top notch product (compared to few years ago, where you could be cool if you have a contagious game with maybe not so good graphics) to even scratch the surface. You need to start marketing your product as soon as possible, build a community and be involved if you want to have a crack at selling your game in a decent number of copies that will enable you to live nice until you launch your next game.