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How To Get Insanely Rich Making Videogames09:28 AM -- Tue March 22, 2016

I got an email the other day, not so different from many questions I have been asked over the years. It comes from an aspiring indie, and the details are always different, but the core question is the same: how can I make money making video games? So I started writing an answer, and it got wordy as I tend to do, so here it is for public consumption:

How To Get Insanely Rich Making Videogames*

I only ever worked for a game company for about 9 months at the end of my college years (I would've continued, but they folded!). After that, I had savings to keep me living (very very very very cheaply) for a year or two, so I decided to get in there and crank out a game. I ended up having it published by eGames, and this got me the money to keep going for a while more, while I built up my own website of games that I sold direct to consumers, and still do. I was all-in on indie game development, no side job.

But this is not a story for today. It was before 2000, and the market was unbelievably different. What I did will never work today. In those days, there were people making very good six-figure livings just selling games direct from their website, which is no longer a remote possibility. Everything is done through app stores now and only the top few games on each app store make any real money. It is a nearly impossible market to survive. I was very lucky to be in at the time I was. It just worked out, and even then I was on the absolute brink of bankruptcy right before Growtopia, as the market changed around me. I had calculated my budget and literally would have to decide which of my utility bills to pay if something didn't change within the next 3 months (Growtopia launched before that 3rd month!). I rode a few other waves along the way, making Flash games for sponsorship, and then later flash games for a specific company for pay. Those waves petered out very quickly, and if it weren't for the great luck of striking gold with Growtopia, I would've been done as an indie, forced into a job bagging groceries or flipping burgers.

It is all doom and gloom, sadly - there is no realistic chance to succeed as an indie today. It happens, sure, like it happened with Growtopia or Flappy Bird, but these are the 1 in a million smash hits, and you can't operate your life on the basis that you'll be 1 in a million. You need to plan to be within the middle of the bell curve, and have contingencies for the low end of it. And in the present day, the middle of the indie bell curve is probably around $1000/yr. Statistic completely made up by The Hamumu Institute For Not Learning. It's not a liveable salary, for sure. So what can you do to make it in an industry where the norm is total failure, and the glut of quality games is only growing?

Nothing, really. There isn't a way to survive it except to be one of the smash hits. If the average is not liveable, then you can't live with the average. Which doesn't mean you can't do it, it means you have to do it on the side while something else is sustaining you. Then when you find that smash hit, you can quit your day job and be happy, but until then, it's just hard hard work.

I've never been willing to do that, because I know, from working at a game company, that my energy is completely sapped by a day job and there's nothing left to work on my own project. I know it from Growtopia too - I'd love to be doing other things, like entering 48-hour contests, but my brain is all-in on Growtopia. There's no creative juice left to make something else. I am just a TV and video-game zombie once the work is done. So I have been blessed with unbelievable luck, and coming from a privileged background, to be able to get away with being truly indie the whole time, and just scrape by until I hit the big time with Growtopia.

Brief aside: If you don't like my completely made-up statistics, here's a handy bit of info from Gamasutra: "Fifty-seven percent of indie game developers (including both solo indies and members of indie teams across all pay ranges) made under $500 in game sales." so I was doubling the reality! That article is interesting reading: 6 Key Points From The 2014 Indie Salary Report.

Anyway, while I definitely counsel that you need to have a day job, that it's just not possible to make it otherwise, I do have a strategy to offer: the only way to get one of those smash hits is a huge dose of luck. But luck isn't magic - it consists of being in the right place at the right time with the right game. So my formula for success is very simple: just keep making - and FINISHING and RELEASING - games. The benefits are many:
  1. Each game you release is one more chance at happening to be in the right place at the right time. If a smash hit is one in a million, then once you release 2 games, you're down to 1 in 500,000. And besides, hits are relative - I would've been ecstatic with two orders of magnitude less income than I got with Growtopia. That broadens the range of 'success' by a whole lot. If you have a "hit" that makes you $50,000, that is certainly enough to keep you going for at least a year (or two or three, depending on your location and lifestyle). Just to be clear, $50,000 is not easy. It's still deep into the very skinny nose of the bell curve, and getting worse all the time as the market gets more and more flooded.

  2. Each game you release, you get better at the art of making games. You will do better every time. Not every game will do better - some will flop completely (Mia's Happy Day), while some will catch fire (Robot Wants Kitty). But every time your skills will improve so the quality level will rise, and you'll be inching up that bell curve. You start at the bottom, you know, not the middle.

  3. Each game you release, you get better at knowing what works. Which means your "random" shots at the right time and right place get a lot less random. We made Growtopia knowing that a multiplayer game based on sandbox creativity and social interaction would do well. We did not know how well!

  4. Each game you release is one more game by you, so one more chance to catch a customer who might be interested in your others. Each one boosts up the others. Or it does if you retain ownership of your work and people can see your name and logo on the game! Selling out to a publisher isn't always ideal.

  5. Each game you release is an income stream. Many streams forge a mighty river. In theory. The streams do dry up over time, so you need to keep adding new ones, but I still make money (pennies) from games I made in 1998-2000. That's a long long stream, and with enough games, it adds up to pizza money. That's better than ramen money, anyway.

  6. Each game you release is the phrase I used to start the descriptions of each of these numbers. I wrote this one as a joke but I do want to add a real point: I said "release", not make. A game you don't polish to completion, and release to the public in a way that will actually reach a decent crowd (which today means an app store), might as well have never been made. Releasing is all that counts. Everybody's got the Greatest Game Ever half-made, it's the person who finishes and releases the Mediocrest Game Ever that makes money. And all those benefits I enumerated above, you don't get those without releasing your game. You don't even get notably better at making games until you release games. Because finishing is the hard part, and it's where all the lessons come in. Well, except for the really painful lessons you get after release, when people start to say what they think of your work!
So you are pretty well guaranteed not to get rich quick making games, and you're nearly guaranteed not to get rich in the long term either, but there's a chance. Most importantly, if you keep at it - which means keeping it funded with an alternate job - there's a very good chance that it can become a nice side business. In a decade or two of constant effort.

Just as a final note to help you picture the path to success, Growtopia was (based on quickly scanning my website) my 67th released game, released in exactly the 20th year since my first released game (SPISPOPD!). That's a whole lot of games and a whole lot of years, and I consider myself far beyond lucky that I was able to keep myself afloat for all that time before I finally had that success. Don't rely on luck though - get a real job, you bum.

* You won't.
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Hamumu Revumu: Prototype 1 & 209:03 AM -- Tue February 2, 2016

Prototype 1 & 2

TL;DR: The first one is insanity. The second one is insanely awesome. Infamous-style "superhero smashing up a city" free-roaming 3rd person action games, with tons of leveling up, and a funky little bit of very original stealth.

Kombat Kuality: Both games use roughly the same control scheme, which is sensible and quite playable. It's fun to run around chopping guys up, and your power level is significantly over 9000 - you can literally sweep through an entire crowd of enemies and leave them all chopped in half, or pick up a tank and throw it. The difference is this: in the first game, everything happens at such a ludicrous pace, and so much junk is being thrown at you from every direction, that you can die in the blink of an eye, or completely clear a battle without a scratch. You can be juggled by tank blasts until you die with no chance to escape, or you can dive bomb everybody and level the whole block. You never know until you try, and it is pure chaos and luck. It's pretty fun, but also very frustrating.

In the second game, all of that is cleaned up into gaming bliss. You can still mow down a crowd of guys, and you can still take massive damage, but it's understandable and expectable. The chaos is controlled, the feel is polished, and it is fun.

Story Stupid? The storyline continues on fluidly from the first game to the second, and while it's a little hand-waving just to get through the gameplay, it's also quite interesting and brings up some real philosophical issues. I actually spent a while thinking about the big issue that comes to play in the first game, which I daresay qualifies as a notable twist. It's definitely a video game, not a Russian novel, but I did have Real Thoughts while playing! There's also an element of sucking up peoples' memories as you play, to get little snippets of information building the bigger picture of what this world is like. Some of that is silly, and most of it is extraneous (I didn't need to get the memories of 50 different people who all think "wow, what we're doing here is pretty evil!"), but it does build a world beyond just you smashing up mindless drones.

Wrapid Wrap-Up: Prototype 1 is a questionable game. It's so utterly chaotic and just crazy that I can't even compare it to another game. It's kind of like a Ludum Dare game gone way too far. I couldn't put it down until the end mainly because I just couldn't stop wondering how this ever got released, and had to see the next level it would take things to. It's very buggy, in small ways like weird physics issues, and it's obvious that that's because they just let everything fly and couldn't possibly control everything. It's manic mayhem and I've never quite seen anything like it. You can jump up and down on top of a building until it collapses.

Prototype 2 is amazing. It's one of the best games I've ever played. It's all the ideas of Prototype 1, but smoothed out and polished down into a shining jewel. I think there are a lot of people who don't like this game for how it reins in the insanity of the first game, but I love it. The frustration is gone, but the slicing and dicing and car-throwing remains. It is a beautiful work of art. There is literally one criticism I came up with while playing: there are basically no boss monsters to fight. It's glaring enough that it seems like they ran out of money or something. The final boss could easily have transformed into a massive towering beast, but (spoiler I guess) it remains a human-sized thing for the entire fight. And prior to that, there's only one fight I would really classify as a boss fight (against a big beast), but it turns out to be super simple to defeat, and turns out to be just a regular big enemy you see later on multiple times. Not often, but it really loses the "big boss" punch. Luckily, the regular gameplay is so awesome, you're okay without the bosses.

I bought the RADNet add-on for Prototype 2 (which adds barely anything, but I'll take any more Prototype 2 I can get!) and will be starting over on hard difficulty one of these days. I can't wait to get back to it!
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Hamumu Revumu: Dead Island10:57 AM -- Wed January 20, 2016

Dead Island

TL;DR: Fun action surviving the zombie hordes and leveling up!

Gameplay Gist: Well, you run around a zombie-infested tropical resort, bashing in skulls (there are guns eventually, but even then, you mostly beat things with a stick), finding and crafting better weapons, and leveling up and increasing various skills. In a way, it's just a dungeon crawler with a coat of tropical zombie paint over it, but the nature of zombies and the modern technology changes things in various ways. It's definitely all about completing those quests.

Kombat Kuality: Thinking back, I'm not sure why I enjoyed this as much as I did. The fighting is actually pretty awkward. There's also an advanced control scheme available where you can directly aim your swings, but I tried that for about 30 seconds and turned it off. It's bad. Anyway, it's all quite simplistic without that - you just take your swings, aim for the head, and step back before you get bit. That's how it goes for the entire game, with just a few alternatives like dashing in and tackling a zombie, or triggering your Rage Mode to go nuts temporarily and punch their heads off. There are also special situations, like tossing a propane tank into a crowd and shooting it, or the various special types of zombies you have to handle in a different way. Somehow it just never got old even though I can't think of anything super interesting about the combat. You're always listening for that roar in the distance that tells you there's trouble.

Story Stupid? It's alright. The whole thing's a bit of a comic book as usual, but you're one of the very few people who are immune to the zombie virus, and you're trying to be a hero by helping people who are trapped in various places in the resort. Of course there are human villains and a government/military conspiracy, and a super-zombie (everybody loves those!). Pretty much everything you expect from a zombie story.

Wrapid Wrap-Up: I had been hesitant to get into this game from off-hand comments I had heard about it, but when I gave it a shot, I was very pleasantly surprised and totally hooked. Like I said above, I'm not entirely sure what the appeal is, but somehow it just works for me. Trying to collect items from all over, making forays into different areas, trying to combine quests so you don't have to make too many such forays, combining junk into super weapons, and clocking dead people in the head. It's just fun. There is enough variety in the situations and packs of zombies you encounter that you're constantly having to change up your strategy and pulling different tricks, and being surprised pretty regularly. Like walking around a corner face-first into an suicidal exploding zombie. The danger level is always just enough to keep you on edge and looking out for the energy drinks that are strangely scattered everywhere (and more strangely have a magical healing effect). I liked it all so much that I played all the way to the end, and then I started up Dead Island: Riptide almost immediately.

I did make the mistake of trying the new punching-focused character in Riptide, and I have to say I gave him a shot but I need to set him aside and try somebody else, or I think I might end up hating the game. Getting in close enough to punch a zombie is not fun. But other than that, my note on Riptide so far (a couple hours in) is that it's just about the same game, but improved in every way. Lots of really nice tweaks to spice it up.
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Growtopia 201607:40 AM -- Sat January 9, 2016

Where is Growtopia going in 2016?

You may have noticed the massive new update in Growtopia yesterday (or you haven't noticed it's massive, since many of the items are undiscovered...). In total, there are 29 new items added. Previously the goal for an update was around 10 items, but we did an update every 2 weeks. The new plan moving forward in 2016 is to do a single update each month, released as close to the 1st of the month as possible (this month was a problem because Apple shuts down for the holidays and we were transitioning from the every-other-week updates), so that each month has a 'theme' of its own, one major update which contains things you may not find right away, or may not even be obtainable right away (such as Carnival, Comet, or Locke items), so that as the month goes on, you piece it all together. There's also of course some items and changes to whatever holiday happens to occur during the month (Anniversary Week, in this case. Happy 3rd birthday, Growtopia!).

So what is the big idea here? We got more items this month than we would get in a typical month - on average there'd be 2 updates in a month, which would be an expected amount of 20 new items. But it was also easier for me to do. By doing a single big theme (Steampunk this month) instead of two smaller ones, it's much easier to make a variety of items. Previously I'd have to stop myself - "Oh, that's enough Adventure items for a pack, I have to move on to the next theme". And oh mama were there so many themes!! But now I can go crazy and put in all the things I'm thinking of. Or maybe not - there are actually a lot more potential items for the steam system, and I think I'll be adding them every so often, making it more and more functional. Maybe one day you'll be able to program your own games inside Growtopia, on a steam computer. Anyway, this new system of 1 big update per month allows each update to be fully fleshed out instead of just dipping your toe into a theme.

The other big benefit is that each update can be very meaningful. You're not going to see a month of "assorted random items". This month we introduce the powerful new steam technology, next month it's... well, you'll see. But it's an entirely new gameplay element again. I know what I'm adding in July and that's fun and different, and I have one other big idea definitely to come this year. I can't promise I have (or will come up with) 12 big game-changers like steam machines, but I do have a lot of big ideas, and if there isn't something game-changing in a month, at least there will be a big meaty update!

And the last benefit is just for me: even though it's more stuff for you, it's still less work for me! And it's more fun. I get to work on the crazy ideas I enjoy tinkering with instead of spending so much time cranking out basic items for biweekly updates that there's no time left to experiment. And my real secret hope in my heart is that this more focused work will give the time in between updates to actually set my brain free from Growtopia, and spend a minute thinking about anything else. Who knows, maybe enter a Ludum Dare again one day even? It would sure be nice.

So you can look forward to a single large update each month from Growtopia going forward. At least until we figure out why that's a terrible idea and switch to something else entirely!

Bonus: here's a screenshot from an upcoming update, you figure it out:
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Hamumu Revumu: Oceanhorn02:37 PM -- Tue November 10, 2015

Oceanhorn

TL;DR: A modern Zelda clone! Cute.

Gameplay Gist: Top-down action-adventure. If you know Zeldas, you know this - you travel from island to island, and on each one you encounter a dungeon, during which you gain a new item that lets you do something new, then you have to beat a boss using this item. You can then move on to the next dungeon, or go back to earlier places to use your new item to reach various bonus items you couldn't get before. I didn't realize until I wrote that how Metroidvania-ey Zelda games are.

But this has all the other Zelda stuff too - when your life is full your sword shoots, there are little bloopy enemies that look like Zelda enemies, your life is made of heart icons, there's a little tune for secrets (although it seems to play at all the wrong times in this game), you smash pots and chop grass for gems, dungeons have regular keys and a master/boss key, bombs and arrows are a major element, etc. All sorts of little touches ripped straight out of Zelda. Intentionally though. This is an homage more than a rip-off.

Kombat Kuality: The combat is not great. Like older Zelda games, it's basic and not super compelling. It's also super easy. Mainly the enemies are just there because running through empty dungeons to get to each 'puzzle' would seem much more dull.

Story Stupid? You bet. It's right out of Zelda, just the most basic Macguffins to pull you along to collect all the pieces of the Triforce (not called that in this game, but yeah, that) and reach the final boss. It's a little bit compelling, in that there's definitely a sad feeling to the whole thing, like this is a run-down world that is sort of falling to pieces, and everyone you meet is the last of their tribe or something similar. But no, not much of a plot.

Wrapid Wrap-Up: All in all, I was honestly quite hooked. In hindsight now, I say the things I wrote above - not super interesting, nothing compelling about the gameplay, the puzzles are as mindless as in any Zelda (the definition of a puzzle is basically "you have to recognize that you need to use a certain item", as opposed to anything you truly have to figure out). But like any Zelda, those little rewards and cute animations keep you hooked. You just have to know what the next new item will be, and you get a thrill out of completing each dungeon, even though it feels equivalent to successfully moving the beads around on one of these:

You know? Like you solved a puzzle made to challenge an infant. But it's still solving something, and triggers that endorphin hit. So I'm hard-pressed to "rate" this game. I don't have anything great to say about it, but it was a very polished work of art, and it did its job as a game - hooked me in and kept me playing non-stop to the end. So why don't I love it? I don't know. I did when I was playing it, but that was a month ago. I guess you should play it. It's a nice game. Just don't expect anything groundbreaking or life-changing. Just some simple fun.
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