$143,000 from 3 casual download games made in 6 months

I went indie in 2005 and since then I’ve shipped 7 downloadable casual games for PC/Mac, worked on a Facebook game at Big Fish Games, done some consultancy work, and made a bunch of game jam games for fun.

Of the downloadable games, my first two were a flop. They have made $4174 over the course of 6 years! Two of the downloadable games were contract work for Big Fish Games, so I can’t share sales figures, but I can for the remaining 3 as follows:

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

Launched November 2006
Total revenue=$50,707
Units sold=13,787

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was the first game I made using BlitzMax. Early in 2006 I was approached by Alex Ahlund who had the idea to make a Wizard of Oz game because the copyright on the book had expired due to it being more than 100 years old. I was using BlitzPlus at the time but it was too limited to make commercial quality casual games (as my first two flops proved). So I spent 3 months learning BlitzMax and writing the Grey Alien BlitzMax Game Framework, which I have kept on improving up to the present day. Then I made the Oz game and we shipped the PC version on a bunch of major casual download portals. The Mac version didn’t come out until November 2008.

There was a big spike of sales at first, then revenue leveled out and remained constant for many years. Recently though I got it localised into many languages and re-promoted it on Big Fish Games and got it on some new portals and it has made a whole bunch more money (almost $10000). In fact it had its best month ever of sales in Jan 2012 – 5 years after the initial launch! Check out the graphs below (units sold and revenue per month):

Getting it localised, re-promoted and put on some new portals only took me 32 hours (I keep an accurate time log) so the extra revenue works out to be about $312 per hour so far. I’m still expecting a big royalty from another portal and I think that revenue will remain pretty good for quite a few months yet.

Previously all the royalties were from units sold but a couple of the new portals pay out based on number of plays and advertising and these alternative “orchards” of revenue have proven to be very fruitful.

Holiday Bonus

Launched December 2006
Total revenue=$50,206
Units sold=16,621

When I making Oz, I got a strong feeling that I should stop adding features and ship it so I could make a Christmas-themed game, so that’s what I did! My first commercial game (Xmas Bonus) was Christmas-themed but was a flop, so I took a risk by making making a similar game. However, I thought I could really improve on my first game and the sales figures speak for themselves. I was going to call the game Xmas Bonus 2 but a guy who worked for Oberon suggested the name Holiday Bonus and I believe changing it was good move.

I had to work extremely hard to get this game out on time so I crunched like crazy. I started work on 17th November and shipped the first build on 8th of December. I had worked a total of 191 hours in 22 days (approx. 3 weeks). I’m pretty sure that $50K for 3 weeks’ work could be called a success.

Although really only $31,600 came from the initial PC version and a Mac version that was released in Jan 2008 (for some reason BFG failed to launch it in December). The rest of the revenue came from localising it, re-promoting, and launching on some new portals for Christmas 2011 (like I did with Oz). This only took me 28 hours and has generated $18,000 so far and that number will keep on going up. At $642 per hour that’s the best money I’ve ever earned for effort put in.

Here are some epic charts:

You can see it spiking every Christmas and last Christmas was by far the best. Pretty amazing for a 5-year old game!

Also back in Dec 2011 before I localised/re-promoted the game I did a postmortem talk at Full Indie in Vancouver and talked about the long tail of games. You can watch it below:

It’s worth mentioning that I also worked with Damien Sturdy who ported the game to Unity so that we could sell it on iOS/Android. He did a great job and we both spent a lot of time on it, but so far revenue has only reached $541. Take note: self-publishing a casual game on mobile is REALLY hard! Also the game was ported to Xbox Live Indie Games by James Mintram but has not made very much money at all – still it was great to play my game on a giant TV via my console :-)

Spring Bonus

Launched April 2011
Total revenue=$42,210
Units sold=11,235

Spring Bonus is my most recent commercial title. After Holiday Bonus I made Fairway Solitaire and Unwell Mel for Big Fish Games as contract work. These games did very well and I also improved my framework. Then I spent 2 years working at Big Fish Games in Vancouver before quitting in Jan 2011 to go indie again. I had planned to get started on some “indie” games, but I needed to put some money in the bank and I needed to prove to myself that I could still make good games on my own. So I decided to make Spring Bonus (I’m a big fan of the Spring, and in fact my second game was Easter-themed but it flopped).

I couldn’t use any of the source code from Unwell Mel because Big Fish Games owns it, which was a shame, but I managed to improve my old Holiday Bonus code and got some great art and music made. I put the game together in a couple of super-intense months and launched it 7 minutes after my non-compete with BFG expired :-) I’m planning on doing a full postmortem at Full Indie in July, so keep an eye out for that (I’ll post a video on youtube). In summary, even though it has made the most amount of money in the shortest amount of time of the 3 games mentioned in this post, it wasn’t as successful as it could have been for a couple of reasons that I aim to correct with my next casual game.

All the sales figures below are for the PC/Mac (and localised) versions only. The game was ported to iOS/Android by Damien Sturdy again and was published by Hothead Games. It has done much better than Holiday Bonus on those mobile devices, but those figures are not public are not included in the totals above or charts below. Also it was ported to Windows Phone by James Mintram but unfortunately those sales have been very poor (worse than iOS/Android by far.)

Total effort expended

Total revenue=$143,123
Units sold=41,643
$ per unit=$3.44
Total hours=1122
Total expenses=$18,700 approx. (varies depending on USD/GBP exchange rate figure I use)
Total profit=$124,000 approx.
$ per hour worked=$110 approx.

I keep an accurate work log for every game I make and so the figures listed above are pretty damn accurate. Also I only log actual productive work, not farting around on Facebook or eating lunch etc.

People typically work about 2000 hours a year in North America if they work 40 hours a week and take 2 weeks off for vacation (whether they are productive 100% of the time during those 2000 hours is debatable). So it seems like I worked about 6-7 months in total making those games. Of course the reality was that after every game I was exhausted and had to take time off. Also the income from those games has taken 5+ years to arrive, so it’s not like I could really say “Ok I’ll bang out 6 games in a year and make $280K in revenue”, although it’s certainly nice to think that ;-p

Note that quite a lot of the recent revenue has been from pay per play/advertising etc. so the $ per unit sold is inflated. It’s more like $2.20 per unit from the casual download portals.

Conclusion

The 3 games listed above are by no means “hits” in the downloadable casual game space; there’s certainly plenty more room to increase revenue, which I aim to do with my next casual title by getting everything right based on previous experience. I know plenty of devs whose casual games have made them well over $100K without too much initial outlay on art etc.

When I began making casual games they were in their heyday. Then people started to say casual games were dead and many developers jumped ship to Facebook when they saw Zynga’s profits, and more recently devs abandoned Facebook in favour of social mobile games. The funny thing is, casual games are still selling fine whilst many devs are getting burned on Facebook and mobile (or selling their souls in exchange for evil IAP revenue). I’ve got experience with Facebook and mobile and I can say for sure that they are not easy markets at all! Therefore I’ll keep making some casual games to bring in revenue whilst I experiment with some more “indie”-style games for fun.

If you are thinking of making a casual game, please remember that my first two games flopped and that I didn’t make any money for about 18 months after going indie. It’s all about quality and the correct vibe. You need to spend money on good art and make sure that your game is well polished and fits into the genres that casual players expect. Many indies would hate to make casual games and even scoff at them, but I like many casual games and I’ve enjoyed honing my craft with them over the years, plus they have kept my family housed and fed for 7 years now.

I offer casual game design consultancy for a fee or percentage of revenue, so please contact me if you are interested. I can help convert your game from a flop into a success. For example, one game I helped with has made several hundred thousand dollars for the developers.

I hope that you have enjoyed this detailed post of my sales figures. I encourage you to share your own too! Please let me know your thoughts in the comments.

30 Responses to “$143,000 from 3 casual download games made in 6 months”

  1. FlashMush Says:

    Wow, really interesting perspective here. I’ve read a few stories of “success” or post mortems but none come close to the figures you’ll posting. On a side note just wanted to say I loved Fairway Solitaire, truly a great casual game. =p

  2. Jake Birkett Says:

    UPDATE: I just found out one portal was holding onto $2300 for the Oz game so that game has now made $53K and the headline should really read $145,000.

  3. McFunkypants Says:

    Jake, thanks so much for sharing your sales figures. I find them inspiring and encouraging. Funny how the “gold rush” to mobile has proven as much of a crapshoot as I’d worried it was. As a lover of casual games and indie gamedev with a few “failures” behind me, posts like these have a great effect upon my motivation. I hope to someday tell a similar story. Keep up the fantastic work! You deserve all your success and more.
    Kind regards,
    Christer Kaitila aka McFunkypants

  4. Jake Birkett Says:

    Thanks FlashMush, glad you liked Fairway Solitaire, I’m very proud of that one although of course it was a team effort with John Cutter (BFG) and Matt Laverty (art/animation).

    Thanks McFunkypants. Yeah some people are doing great in the goldrush but they are rare. I will certainly keep watching your story and hope to see good games and postmortem posts from you in the future.

  5. Leo Says:

    Wow! That’s really impressive Jake! Thanks for sharing that info. Posts like that gives us hope ;-)

    > I offer casual game design consultancy for a fee or percentage of revenue, so please > contact me if you are interested.

    I think I might do that. My game is currently nowhere near completion since the framework for it took much more time to develop than anticipated(as always) but once I have completed I’ll send it to you and you can take a first glance at it if you got time…
    But That probably won’t happen until in a couple of months(3-4)…

    Thanks again! That sort of info is really valuable and I think we all really appreciate you sharing it with us :-)

    btw. you don’t know by any chance how much a top#1 game on a portal like bigfishgames makes? it would really be interesting to have some sort of list to see how the games in the say top-20 charts are doing to get a feeling for what can be possible in this business.

  6. Celso Riva Says:

    Glad to see someone posting real sales and in particular being so blunt how irrelevant the iOS/mobile market is still vs desktop. There are hits on mobile of course, but so far my experience is the same, mobile are just an extra platform but nothing particularly interesting ;)

  7. Jake Birkett Says:

    Hi Leo, OK sure when it’s ready let’s talk again. Good luck with finishing it.

    A top #1 game on BFG can make several hundred thousand $ no problems.

  8. Leo Says:

    > A top #1 game on BFG can make several hundred thousand $ no problems.
    cool. Is that with or without the big percentage cut BFG takes?

  9. Jake Birkett Says:

    After their cut.

  10. Hima Says:

    Thanks for writing this, Jake! I didn’t know you make Fairway Solitaire. Its’ really addictive and is currently my favourite casual game. Kudos for making a great and addictive game :)

    I was wondering, Spring Bonus is on Big Fish Games also. If you don’t mind answering, I’d like to know if they have a problem with how you price your game on your website. Any general tips we should know before we decide to take that route?

  11. Grey Alien Games Says:

    Hi Hima, I programmed the original Fairway Solitaire back in 2007, not the new one that came out recently. Yes all my games are on BFG and they’ve never mentioned anything about how I price the game on my own site. As for general tips, there’s tons really, that’s why I do consultancy ;-)

  12. Hima Says:

    Thanks for the answer! I know that the new one is a reboot, kind of, but what I like the most is the game play , game design, and how tying a golf theme to a solitaire game. Very clever! :)

    Oh, by tips, I didn’t mean casual game design, but more along the line of what you should know when dealing with publisher, like the pricing I ask. But I understand if you’d considered that as part of the consultancy. Sorry if it sounded like I want your consultant for free. That was not my intention.

  13. Jake Birkett Says:

    Actually there’s some extra detail I think I should add. In order to make the Oz game I made a framework first and I have spent about 260 hours on that over the years. Also the Oz game had some match-3 code from my earlier titles although all the rest of the code was new, so there was some time saving there. Perhaps I could say the real time cost of that foundation was about 2 months.

  14. Jake Birkett Says:

    Hi Hima, I can’t take credit for the design, that was John Cutter from BFG. I programmed it and helped with some aspects of the design and did lots of polish etc. Yes I understand about what info you are looking for, I’m just crazy busy right now so don’t have time to type a lot – and yes that’s part of the consultancy. However, some of my past blog posts may help you or if you post a specific question I may be able to help with that.

  15. Leo Says:

    About your framework. I also write my own c++ framework and sometimes I have doubts asking myself if this is actually worth it or whether I would have been/would be better off using some existing game framework opposed to doing everything myself.
    So do you regret making your own framework? maybe you would have been more productive using some existing game engine framework?

  16. Jake Birkett Says:

    No I definitely don’t regret writing it for several reasons:

    a) I was new to BlitzMax and it was a great way to learn all about it. In fact I found bugs in BlitzMax and got them fixed.
    b) I only spent 3 months on it (and made a mini-game with it to test it out). Then I improved it with each game I made, so it wasn’t a lot of time (some people spend years and never ship anything)
    c) I like having exact control over everything and not having to make “workarounds” for other engines’ shortfalls.
    d) I sold 200 copies for $50 each and the customers helped find bugs and improve it
    e) People have been able to use my framework to make commercial quality games which is great!

  17. Jake Birkett Says:

    Oh and f) it was fun!

  18. Naughty Alien Says:

    ..this is very nice stuff Grey..its proven to be difficult to convince most of people newdays that mobile market, even huge and expanding, has not much to offer compared to PC/Mac world, not to mention way cheaper tools to have for such workload..having said this, which one of your titles, had shortest time in terms of reaching sales you pointed out ??

  19. Grey Alien Games Says:

    Spring Bonus was launched last April so it reached those sales numbers in 13 months.

  20. Leo Says:

    “c) I like having exact control over everything and not having to make “workarounds” for other engines’ shortfalls.”
    For me this is the main reason. If you do it yourself you know exactly how everything works and how to add new features and the whole framework will be geared towards the kind of game you have in mind and you don’t have to fight to getting some engine to do what you want it to do.

    May I ask why you chose the Blitz language over something like C++ ? Is it really that simpler to write games in it?

  21. Jake Birkett Says:

    @Leo: I started with BASIC on several computers then moved onto Assembly for several machines although mostly Amiga. Then Blitz Basic 2 came out for Amiga and I found it so easy and fast to make games I loved it. Then I used Delphi for 9 years for business software and did some C and C++ for DOS. Then I found out about BlitzPlus in 2004 and was intrigued from a nostalgia point of view. I liked it but found it limiting so got BlitzMax which is MUCH better. I do find it very fast to get ideas up and running and to maintain.

  22. Peter Says:

    Thanks – an interesting read. It’s nice to know that the old ways can still work :)

    I figure that immediate competition is (inversely) linked to the likely success of a game. So targeting niche genres and underserved markets can be good in the same way as targeting PC casual games when everyone else is doing mobile.

    Best of luck with future games!

  23. Grey Alien Games Says:

    Thanks Peter. Yep casual used to be crowded with devs and it does still have a lot of devs, but I think many defected to Facebook/mobile which is good for me.

  24. Marya Says:

    Hi Jake, how do you accurately track your dev time? Do you use software, a spreadsheet or …? TIA! – Marya

  25. Grey Alien Games Says:

    Just Excel. I have a simple spreadsheet with Date, Start Time, End Time, Task Type, Description, Auto-Total columns.

  26. John Tollison Says:

    On the first pass, this seemed encouraging, but then I realized that you’re producing about 1 game per yr, and averaging <$50k for that game = <$50k/yr as a game programmer. That's not encouraging. Couldn't you make significantly more working for someone else? Is the tradeoff really worth it?

    Also, Can you comment further on why IAP revenue is evil? I was seriously considering going this way with the game I'm working on, having power-ups that you could win slowly or buy quickly. (probably as a facebook game)

  27. Grey Alien Games Says:

    Hi John. Here’s how it really panned out: First 2 games made no money, so let’s forget that year of dev (mid-2005 to early 2006). After that I spent 8 months making 2 games and a framework that have made over $100K now (early 2006 to Christmas 2006). Then I did contract work for 2 years (2 games) which has made me quite a lot of money (2007/2008), then I spent 2 years as an employee at BFG (2009/2010), which was also good money. Then at the start of 2011 I made Spring Bonus which has made $45K now and since then I’ve mainly been working on Eets Munchies, which has yet to be released, but I suspect will do rather well. Also I haven’t worked full-time as an indie during that time, I often take breaks for family time or other hobbies. Look at the $ per hour for those games. Much higher than a $100K a year job at a company. So yeah, for me being indie is worth it.

    As for IAP, after spending a long time (>1 year) working on Facebook game and investigating the whole IAP thing in detail I have decided that it’s not for me personally. I think it changes the game design too much especially when you try to maximise revenue based on psychology etc.

  28. Issue #21 | iOS Biz Weekly Says:

    [...] $143,000 from 3 casual download games made in 6 months [...]

  29. Leo Says:

    What also shouldn’t be forgotten is that being your own boss is also worth something.
    When comparing an employee job with an entrepreneur job people tend to only compare the money each job makes. But being your own boss, the price of freedom. It’s priceless… IMO it’s worth at least another +100k a year when compared to a “normal job.”

    And one other thing if you make games like Jake does, your revenue keeps adding up over the years. So you can’t think in terms “how much did the game earn during one year(which is the time you needed to build it)”.No.
    It’s more like :”what does the game that has been created within one year earn in a lifetime ?” And then you get much higher figures.

    For example I wouldn’t be surprised if Spring Bonus- Jake’s latest seasonal game- would make him > 1million $ in it’s lifetime total(maybe even in the next 10 years if he’s lucky ;-) ).

  30. Sean Colombo Says:

    Jake: just wanted to say thanks for putting this post together. This kind of info is super-valuable for other early-stage indies!