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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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