It was 3 years ago when the term “Indiepocalypse” blew up overnight. Because 3 years before that, Steam Greenlight launched. It took a while, but in September 2015 it was suddenly becoming clear that the massive deluge of games hitting Steam wasn’t a fluke.
The number of games released tripled from 2013 to 2014. Then almost doubled again in 2015. We heard about Airscape, which sold about 150 sales on launch, and innumerable games like it. And then we heard the predictions about what was to come. The warnings. The lamentations.
“If you are thinking of quitting your AAA job to go indie, you probably missed the bus by 3-4 years at this point” – Jonathan Blow
Well, we’re 3 years on. The indiepocalypse isn’t happening. It happened. It’s over and what happens after an apocalypse is of course the post-apocalypse.
There is a persistent belief that nothing much has changed and all you have to do is make a good game, market it, and stay persistent. I’m not quite convinced.
Just make a good game
This one pisses me off because it’s a tautology. If a game sells well, that is taken as evidence that it’s good and if a game sells poorly, it’s not good. This is circular. It’s survivorship bias.
I see good games failing all the time and the same reasons given for why those games failed can be applied equally to huge hits.
If Undertale came out today and it flopped, they would simply say “it has crappy art. No wonder it failed”. If Dead Cells had flopped, they would say “people are tired of roguelikes.” If Celeste sold poorly, they would say “pixel art platformer is a saturated genre.”
Just market it
I consider most of the advice on marketing to be total garbage unless you are already successful: start a website (no one will ever find it), write a press release (no one cares), post on reddit (woops, totally against their strict self promotion rules).
Yesterday's reality: your game will sell "about zero" copies.
Today's reality: actually literally truly honest to God zero copies. pic.twitter.com/OXveBBFQ7E
— Golden Krone Hotel (@GoldenKroneGame) May 9, 2018
Only restricting ourselves to the decent advice (i.e. promoting your game to the right influencers), well that stuff is massively harder than it was only a few years ago. The market being flooded is only the start. Consumers have a ton more games vying for their attention, but so do journalists. So do streamers. Their inboxes are absolutely slammed with hundreds of emails on a daily basis. One thing I did while promoting Golden Krone Hotel is search for journalists who had reviewed traditional roguelikes before. I quickly noticed that, while Dungeons of Dredmor (2011) had 18 reviews on Metacritic, I couldn’t find a single new roguelike with any Metacritic reviews. It seems that niche games that could easily get press attention a few years ago can’t get any now.
Even if you do catch the attention of the press or a large twitch or youtube personality, there’s no guarantee you’ll get any sales out of it.
Aztez had five years of positive press coverage and a respectable Metacritic score of 81%. It flopped hard.
Just keep going
Even so, I admit that building a reputation is probably the best tool indie developers have at their disposal.
Consider Into the Breach. A turn based tactics game with middling pixel art played on small grid and with permadeath? I don’t think Subset Games would have gotten the attention of anybody if it wasn’t for them having made FTL as their previous game.
Containing My Burguning Schadenfreude
So how bad can things get? Do small developers still have a shot by keeping at it? Those questions brings me to Keith Burgun.
It all started some years ago while trying to find a podcast. I enjoy listening to podcasts and for some reason it’s super hard to find a consistent game development podcast. My favorites tend to close up shop as soon as I start listening. Keith Burgun had a podcast called Clockwork Game Design. It was fairly consistent and it was one of the only podcasts to focus on design specifically, which I liked.
Over time though I started to get annoyed. I disagreed, vehemently, with practically everything Keith was saying. He hated “classics” like Go and made an unconvincing argument that new games are always dramatically better than older ones. He said “reading” (as in reading your opponent in games like poker or Yomi) wasn’t a real thing. He tended to categorize any game other than the kind he was making as a “toy” instead of a real game. Finally, he took a massive dump on the entire genre of roguelikes and called them Skinner boxes. That was really strange considering roguelikes were the only kind of game Keith had made and it really set me off because I was working on one myself.
Reader, I was ready for the schadenfreude. This guy was attacking the things I liked on a fundamental level and my stupid monkey brain wanted to see him fail. I’m not proud of it.
But then something unexpected happened. On a whim, I decided to play the last game designed by Keith Burgun and I loved it! Auro is one of my favorite PC games. Ever. It’s tightly designed, easy to learn, beautiful, deep, and really compelling. I don’t put a lot of hours into any single game these days and I’ve clocked over 100 into Auro. The worst thing I can say is it has a few bugs, but I still recommend it to anyone.
I realized that I can strongly disagree with someone and still acknowledge that they’re great at what they do. I became very curious about his next game…
So here we are. Keith Burgun’s latest game, Escape the Omnochronom!, came out last Thursday. ETO is ambitious. It’s designed to be a combination of two genres that I don’t recall ever having been mixed: roguelike and MOBA.
Take a guess then. How well do you think ETO did in its first 72 hours on sale?
While you’re pondering that, a quick diversion into estimating sales on Steam.
Valve doesn’t publish sales data. We had SteamSpy, but it’s sort of defunct now. We had an ingenious way of finding exact player counts using achievements and that was shut down. We’re pretty much left with one method and it’s actually not too bad. It’s called the Boxleiter Method and it goes like this.
One piece of data Valve does share publicly is review count. Even better is that those reviews are guaranteed to be from people who have bought the game directly on Steam (and not through say a heavily discounted bundle), something SteamSpy couldn’t suss out.
Since a certain percentage of purchases will leave reviews, we can simply multiply the number of reviews by a certain factor and come up with an estimate of units sold. That factor appears to be roughly 50 or 2% of players leaving reviews. Remember, it’s just an estimate but it tends to be a fairly reasonable rule of thumb
If a game has 1 review, it most likely has not sold more than 50 copies. The factor should be much lower in the beginning, since your voice counts for more when there are few reviews. If a game has 20 reviews it has probably sold about 1,000 copies. 200 reviews means 10,000 copies. If a game has 10,000 reviews, it’s sold half a million copies and has almost certainly made millions of dollars. So on and so on.
I would go even further and tell you my personal rule of thumb: if a $10 indie game doesn’t have over 300 reviews, it was probably a financial failure. That is it hasn’t provided the equivalent of what someone could make in industry in a single year.
(300*50*$10 – Valve’s cut) = ~$100,000
And that’s rather conservative because it doesn’t account for discounts or multiple developers or development cycles longer than a year. Add all that in and 300 reviews probably means minimum wage or worse for all those involved. Remember Aztez, a game two guys worked on for seven years? 71 reviews.
Is this normal?
Using reviews as a proxy for sales, how many reviews do you think Escape the Omnochronom! has generated in its opening weekend (which could account for more than 10% of its annual revenue).
Is it a smash hit with thousands of reviews? Or is it at least on the way to a nice break even at 300 reviews?
Keep in mind Keith has 1500 twitter followers, over 6000 youtube subscribers, 43 patrons, and a popular podcast. He’s written a well received book on game design and his games have been played by thousands if not tens of thousands of gamers. His last game had a fricking 91% on Metacritic. This is what we talked about earlier: keeping at it. Building a reputation and amassing a following.
But also remember something else. It’s 2018.
Do you have the answer yet? In reviews? Sales? Dollars? Actually it doesn’t matter what units you chose. Because to a first approximation they’re all the same.
- Zero reviews
- Zero comments on announcements of the game launching
- One curator, who has depressingly enough not even played the game
- Two comments in the entire forum section
Things have been asymptotically approaching zero. Now we’ve arrived. We’ve arrived at the worst it can get because you can’t sell less than zero. An experienced game designer with multiple shipped titles and a moderately sized following shouting into the void and getting no response whatsoever….
I guess that’s the new normal, but something about that doesn’t seem normal to me at all.