The Finances of a Successful Indie Game
April 16, 2013 2:22 PM   Subscribe

"When we first started working on Dustforce, it was frustrating to not be able to find much data about whether indie game development is a realistic thing to do with your life." Hitbox Team helps remedy that for future designers in this article about the finances and sales of their game, Dustforce.
posted by gilrain (37 comments total) 38 users marked this as a favorite

 
For me, an avid participant in the frenzied consumer culture which surrounds the sales on Steam, it's interesting to see the numbers behind such a sale. Valve has said to the concerned that, trust them, the games which participate in the sales see a huge return in exchange for the deep discount... and at least this small team's experience bears that out.

And similarly the always-crazy-seeming deal of the pay-what-you-want Humble Bundle. Again we see how radical methods of digital distribution can hugely democratize an industry.
posted by gilrain at 2:33 PM on April 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


I haven't actually played the game but the soundtrack is really quite superb. I'm not even usually a big fan of chiptunes.
posted by kmz at 2:33 PM on April 16, 2013 [3 favorites]


Wow that's ...not a lot of money when you think about it. I wonder what that would come to on a per hour basis?
posted by The Whelk at 2:34 PM on April 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


I don't know, that's a pretty good haul for four people. That's something like nearly $100k each for the year. The problem is keeping the treadmill going, having to release a game that is at least as good as Dustforce every year, forever.
posted by mathowie at 2:37 PM on April 16, 2013 [6 favorites]


That's really, really interesting. I'd always wondered what the draw was for developers to go in on the Humble Bundle - the average prices are always so low that I couldn't imagine them making much money on an individual basis. But no: apparently the sheer scale of the sale makes it worthwhile, and people who buy Humble Bundles talk about the games a lot.
posted by ZaphodB at 2:40 PM on April 16, 2013


Super interesting; given the glut of games that pass into app stores and sink straight to the bottom, I hadn't expected them to make anywhere near that much. Nice to know indie developers are eking out a living -- even if not the most comfortable one.
posted by Andrhia at 2:41 PM on April 16, 2013


kmz: "I haven't actually played the game but the soundtrack is really quite superb. I'm not even usually a big fan of chiptunes."

I hear that. I almost never buy music but I did buy that one.
posted by rebent at 2:58 PM on April 16, 2013


Super interesting; given the glut of games that pass into app stores and sink straight to the bottom, I hadn't expected them to make anywhere near that much.

This is definitely interesting, but it's worth bearing in mind that Dustforce may be a special case. It clearly isn't one of those apps that sinks to the bottom, and was very well received by critics. Winning that grand prize had some far-reaching effects that really shouldn't be understated.

It's probably worth jumping back to that IGDA survey mentioned on the blue back on April 4. Ignoring all the gender issues, novice programmers can expect to make an average of $75k/year, novice artists $48k, and novice designers $55k. So these guys are doing really well for themselves by industry standards.
posted by Going To Maine at 3:01 PM on April 16, 2013


The problem is keeping the treadmill going, having to release a game that is at least as good as Dustforce every year, forever.

Worse, unlike being a novelist, where you can write a novel in your spare time [1] (and which is usually a one person operation as well), it's a full time job and unlike being a musician, you cn't earn money doing gigs in the time between games...

[1] Or, as Glen Cook proved, in the breaks between the cars sliding by on the assembly line you're working on.
posted by MartinWisse at 3:04 PM on April 16, 2013


This is definitely interesting, but it's worth bearing in mind that Dustforce may be a special case. It clearly isn't one of those apps that sinks to the bottom, and was very well received by critics. Winning that grand prize had some far-reaching effects that really shouldn't be understated.

Most definitely. They were approached by both Valve and Humble. They didn't have to knock on doors looking/begging for a deal. I suspect this made the going far smoother (and perhaps more profitable?) than it might be for most other indies.
posted by Thorzdad at 3:06 PM on April 16, 2013


That's interesting, thanks for the link. I'd like to see a similar post-hoc analysis from the 4 guys who spend $100K making a less-successful game. Surely that's the common case? Do they manage to eke out enough for ramen noodles anyway, or do they end up working at Speedway and living in Mom's basement?
posted by axiom at 3:07 PM on April 16, 2013


This blog entry on making World of Goo for ipad by 2d boy is also interesting.
posted by Sebmojo at 3:10 PM on April 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


Being in 4 different locations their personal income taxes will vary, but it looks before income tax they took $453,000 ($489,404 - $36k) then split it 4 ways, so for 18 the months of work each programmer was paid almost exactly the equivalent of the $75k Going To Maine quoted for a novice programmer.
posted by IanMorr at 3:12 PM on April 16, 2013


Keep in mind they need to be compensated for the very real risk of making nothing.
posted by helot at 3:28 PM on April 16, 2013


Yeah, but they aren't employees. They own the IP and the company.
posted by notyou at 3:28 PM on April 16, 2013


I think releasing a game every year to continue earning 100k is a little bit relative though....I make a quarter of that and live happily enough with modest means. Depending on their expenses and chosen lifestyle, they could release a game as good as Dustforce every 3-4 years and be making a living doing what they love.
posted by lazaruslong at 3:58 PM on April 16, 2013


Try having kids on a quarter of that, lazaruslong. It's fine when you're subsisting on frozen food and bulk soft drinks, as they said, but if this is a big-time success (and it's clearly what an indie-game success looks like), you've gotta also assume there will be some swings and misses, some games that don't fare as well for the developers. One of those, and you're sunk.
posted by incessant at 4:02 PM on April 16, 2013


They're not making $100K, though, it comes out to about $75K apiece, and it takes them a year and a half to make a game. They were living on $20K a year, and they were hoping to up their comfort to maybe $30K a year. So if Spire takes 2 years, they'll be about on-target with maybe a bit left in the bank.

It's a decent living, but one flop it's back to contract work.
posted by Peevish at 4:05 PM on April 16, 2013


mathowie: "I don't know, that's a pretty good haul for four people. That's something like nearly $100k each for the year. The problem is keeping the treadmill going, having to release a game that is at least as good as Dustforce every year, forever."

Actually, they've got some trickle revenue coming in. Looks like it's around 10-30 sales a day. At 10 bucks a pop, I'll take that. After a few years they'll have a portfolio and a brand they can import into Google Glasses or whatever the new hotness is. Even if their next game is weaker, they'll still have some revenue, possibly enough to cover the next year of expenses and the next game.
posted by pwnguin at 4:07 PM on April 16, 2013


It also seems like they didn't stop working on it after they launched. It sounded in the beginning like they'd start working on their next project right away, but instead they spent time adding features and porting to mac / linux after launch. That's gotta cut into their production cycle for whatever their next gig is.
posted by Phredward at 4:17 PM on April 16, 2013


lazaruslong: Depending on their expenses and chosen lifestyle, they could release a game as good as Dustforce every 3-4 years and be making a living doing what they love.

incessant: Try having kids on a quarter of that, lazaruslong.

I'd assume that this is part of what's meant by "chosen lifestyle".
posted by baf at 4:37 PM on April 16, 2013 [3 favorites]


Indie game development is like any other self-financed (or contest winning-financed, in their case) creative activity: there is a potential for unusually high financial reward, and the risk of not making a living wage is the cost of entry. Nice of them to share the details of their slice of the pie, interesting stuff.
posted by davejay at 4:38 PM on April 16, 2013


Actually, they've got some trickle revenue coming in. Looks like it's around 10-30 sales a day. At 10 bucks a pop, I'll take that. After a few years they'll have a portfolio and a brand they can import into Google Glasses or whatever the new hotness is. Even if their next game is weaker, they'll still have some revenue, possibly enough to cover the next year of expenses and the next game.

Ports, sequels, special editions...

And if they ever do need to take up contract work, they've got a track record of success.

Focusing on the $75k to $100k they've each earned off their hit ignores lots of other value and opportunity they've created for themselves.
posted by notyou at 4:42 PM on April 16, 2013 [3 favorites]


There's also the possibility of Kickstarter - with solid reputation, an inbuilt fanbase and a good proposal that's another jackpot they could strike.
posted by Sebmojo at 4:47 PM on April 16, 2013


And if they ever do need to take up contract work, they've got a track record of success.

Focusing on the $75k to $100k they've each earned off their hit ignores lots of other value and opportunity they've created for themselves.


I'd like to second this. Without knowing anything about their past professional and/or academic backgrounds it seems like their modest success would make them something of proven entities in the video game development industry. Even if one their future titles flops isn't this experience like a bright shiny gold star on a resume or in a portfolio? Being a desirable hire in a competitive field seems like a kind of insurance that I'm not capable of evaluating the worth of, but it feels like it's worth a lot.
posted by coolxcool=rad at 5:02 PM on April 16, 2013


Sure, good for the portfolio, but if the goal is to stay indie, that's cold comfort. No mistake, they did well for themselves. Chris Hecker often makes the point that the goal of an indie is not to get rich, it's to be sustainable - just make enough to keep making games. I just imagine how freaky it must be to know that each success comes with a deadline, "ship a successful game by this date or close up shop."
posted by Peevish at 5:38 PM on April 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


but instead they spent time adding features and porting to mac / linux after launch.

You mean, many of the people who bought the humble bundle? I doubt that was wasted time: the ported release came out shortly before one of the big sale cycles. That seems to be to be a cagey way to keep up the revenue stream, since it maximizes exposure just as it is expanding to other platforms.
posted by absalom at 7:23 PM on April 16, 2013


So they earned close to $100k after taxes spending their time doing what they wanted with no boss? Sounds pretty successful to me.
And bear in mind, This is a pay rise from their tough $20k year, and more than double what they hoped to earn.
Good on them.
posted by bystander at 9:06 PM on April 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


And I don't get the skepticism of the Humble Bundle. I rarely play games (as in, four or five times a year) but I will usually BTA on the humble and Indie Gala deals. Those sales definitely don't eat into their steam revenue from me, as it was always going to be zero, so they are cream.
posted by bystander at 9:08 PM on April 16, 2013


Glad they did well with this game, it looks great. If anyone is interested in more indie game postmortems, check out this huge list:

http://www.pixelprospector.com/the-big-list-of-postmortems/

Indie game dev is packed right now with sooo many games, it's really tough to stand out and be financially successful. Definitely a big risk. Easier once you've come out with a hot game like they have, it'll be much easier to get coverage for their next game.
posted by meta87 at 9:42 PM on April 16, 2013 [4 favorites]


"I haven't actually played the game but the soundtrack is really quite superb. I'm not even usually a big fan of chiptunes."

I love this music too and you just made me think to check and...YES...I own the soundtrack from one of the Humble Bundles. Sweet.
posted by straight at 9:51 PM on April 16, 2013


Speaking of humble, the postmortem can't really talk about the fact that Dustforce is a fantastic game. Very few indie game producers can hope to make a game that good.

(As a very challenging platformer, one of the best things it does is show you a leaderboard of the best times for a level, and also lets you watch replays of anyone's top time, which is both humbling and a great way to learn how to do better.)
posted by straight at 10:01 PM on April 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


This is a really interesting article. Thanks for posting it, gilrain.
posted by straight at 10:16 PM on April 16, 2013


I have to wonder to what extent small business is viable in America at all anymore. But then I'm quite vulnerable to flights of Marxist dooooooooom.....
posted by LukeLockhart at 10:52 PM on April 16, 2013


Wow that's ...not a lot of money when you think about it. I wonder what that would come to on a per hour basis?

It isn't about the money and it never is. Money is an accounting trick. They are living their dream making exactly the games they want to make.

If there was a job where I could slack off and smoke dope all day, read the Internet, play computer games, you'd be surprised how the money would not be a big sticking point in contract negotiations. Ssssh, please do not mention this to my current employer.
posted by Meatbomb at 5:37 AM on April 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


Wait, let me put that another way: how much per hour do you need me to pay you to live your dream doing exactly what you want to do?
posted by Meatbomb at 5:39 AM on April 17, 2013


It isn't about the money and it never is. Money is an accounting trick. They are living their dream making exactly the games they want to make.

I hate to be the poop on your dreams person, especially since I really like this ethos on paper, but sometimes it very much is about the money. Hitbox only got to make the game they wanted because their prototype won a pile of cash. They get to continue making games because their good product continues to make cash.

Provided that they got jobs that didn't require them to sign away the rights to published code, they might still be able to make games if they had full time jobs, but it will be a darn slow turnaround.

A friend and his coworker have just started up a game company using their savings. Like the guys at Hitbox, they are quite aware that they are on a timer until the money runs out, and that if they haven't become sustainable then they will have to go get jobs again. Money is very, very real. Good on Hitbox for being successful, and I hope my friend has the same good fortune, but it's by no means guaranteed.
posted by Going To Maine at 6:19 AM on April 17, 2013


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