Inside Info about Grey Alien Games

secret
image by Aleera*

An Indie recently emailed me with a bunch of questions, and where possible I like to post the answers on my blog so that everyone can benefit from the answers. He asked some pretty tough questions and I don’t think I’m qualified to answer all of them, but I’ll do my best, so here goes:

1. Did you sell on your own site?

- Yes, I sold my first 4 games on my own site. However, I’ve only made $1000 so far because this is not my main avenue of sales at all, the casual portals are.
- I didn’t sell my last two games on my site, because Big Fish Games own the IP, I just have pages for them that drive traffic to BFG.

2. Did you do site-exclusive deals or did you publish to more than one site?

- No I didn’t do any exclusive deals, mainly because my games were seasonal and thus needed to come out on all the portals at once. However, BFG does give a higher % royalties for exclusives and much more marketing.

3. How did the sale figure look over time, long tail for example?

- The seasonal games spike every time the season comes round again, and then have crappy sales in between.
- The non-seasonal games have a big spike at the start as can be expected, but do seem to have a very long tail. Oz (which is 4 years old) still sells 100+ every month.

3. Was there a higher amount of sales first time (due to being in a “new games” list)?

- Ah, two question 3s! Yes of course all games sell way better at first due to the initial promotion. If they do well the portals keep promoting them, otherwise they focus on other new games and the sales will drop rapidly. Also with my own site, I got more sales at the start as that’s when I was more focussed on the marketing. Of course really I should keep the marketing going.

4. What price ranges was it in?

- Initially my games started off at $19.95, then the portal price wars dropped them to $6.95, and I’ve even had them sold at $2.95 once on BFG as a special offer. I dropped the price of all my games on my own site to $9.95 and $6.95 when the portal price wars kicked in, which resulted in a few extra sales, but nothing to write home about.

5. How would you judge a good price for the game, i.e lower price may result in more sales, have you figured out something here?

- Well if the market had no pre-defined ranges then you could try to figure out the sweet spot where the number of sales x unit price results in the highest revenue. But seeing as BFG (the biggest casual portal) is selling games at $6.99 (ignoring the Collector’s editions for now, which are $13.99), if you were to sell a casual game on your own site, it would be wise to match price. I wouldn’t go any lower, there’s no point as people will view your game as cheap and crap. Of course if you go exclusive on your own site first (and had a track record and loyal customers) you could sell it higher on your own site.
- If you are selling a non-casual game, then of course you can set the price at whatever you want. Many Indies are setting their prices at $19.95 or higher in some cases, and I say good for them.
- Of course if you sell on a portal, you can’t define the price.

6. Graphic-wise have you seen a difference in sales depending on the style of the art or screenshots?

- Yes. My first game had programmer art and did OK. The second game had much nicer pixel art, but casual gamers didn’t groove to it, and so I swapped to painted backgrounds and 3D rendered game pieces for my 3rd game, and that sold way more copies.
- Graphics sell games for sure, especially casual games. Casual games won’t do well if they look too primitive, or retro, or sci-fi.
- Spend a good amount of money on art, and you’ll see a good return (if your game is decent). I spent $2500 for art and music for Holiday Bonus and have made back over 10x that amount so far. These days I’d expect the art spend for a casual game to be 10x what I spent back then as a bare minimum.

7. My first game will be a action-based game. I’ll have singleplayer, but also support multiplayer. I feel that as a causal game the singleplayer part would work great (any Indie game portal), though for multiplayer my aim is more for hardcore gamers (Steam would be optimal), not sure if it is a question, but any comment?

- Most casual portals aren’t interested in action-based games (Reflexive used to be before Amazon bought them, and you can contact Arcade Town), especially multi-player ones that need to access the Internet. Steam certainly seems the way to go if your game is good enough.

8. How does the Indie-market look like for tactical action games?

- I don’t have a lot of experience in that genre, but I know someone who is making one of those games, and I’ll be watching with interest to see how well they do. Remember you are competing with AAA tactical-action games, and also a lot of the target market pirates games.

9. How about sales for Linux and Mac, do they increase sales a lot?

- For me, Mac conversion rates were double those of PCs and so it was definitely worth converting my games to Mac. I’ve heard others report the same and in fact some people have got a ton of Mac sales, especially after being featured on apple.com. I didn’t convert my games to Linux, but I’ve heard of some people doing very nicely from Linux sales, and others not doing so well. If it’s easy, you may as well try it.

10. When using blitzmax is there any specific performance or technical limitation I should be aware of?

- No, it’s very fast, stable and totally suitable for commercial casual or Indie games, as long as they are 2D. I’ve made 4 commercial games with it (and 2 with BlitzPlus) and know several other professional developers who’ve done very well from BlitzMax games.

11. What revenue can I expect on a small game if the sales are bad?

- You could expect $0 or < $50 from direct sales (if the game is bad, portals won't accept it anyway.) Plenty of people have really crappy sales of their first game. Many give in, but you have to try again and keep on improving.

12. What revenue can I expect on a small game if the sales are in the top 3?

- On a casual portal, you could get over $100K easily. Getting in the top 3 is not easy at all. Don’t bank on it.

13. What is the revenue cut, Steam take 30%, so does gamers game and direct2drive, but I consider them the “big” actors, I’m curious how the market looks at the smaller places.

- Most of the casual portals give you between 25% and 40% (so they take 60% to 75%) depending on the deal you strike. That may sound bad, but they have a huge customer base, so the sheer number of sales makes up for the crappy %.

14. Localization, have you done this? Released or ported a game and released it in country-specific site?

- Yes. Fairway Solitaire was localized into German, French and Spanish. Unwell Mel was localized into those languages and Japanese. It was a pain in the ass, and much was learned from doing it about how to make future localization much easier. Make sure as much of your text as possible is in a Unicode text file, and not hardcoded or done with fixed graphics. Finding a font with all the correct characters is a pain, and bitmap fonts with Kanji are a real pain. Also you need to leave enough room in all your game interfaces for longer localized text such as German where many words are very long.

15. How long are the handling times when talking to these sites? Should I expect weeks, months?

- Some are quick. Big Fish are quick and I heard that Gamehouse are good too (I never got my games on their portal as they didn’t want seasonal games/match-3s). When I say quick, I mean it could be several days or longer. Other sites are really crap and sometimes never get back to you. Make sure you have a strong pitch (great screenshots, demo, good text straight to the point etc.) and keep on (politely) hassling them.

16. Are there any “publisher” requirements, such as “you cannot use blood” that could be good to know?

- For casual portals you should probably avoid blood, violence and sex, although some Hidden Object/Adventure games have some fairly “racy” themes. Religion is a definite no no, and so are drugs and politics probably.
- Other requirements are things like not having any URLs in the game (not even your own), and not having any Internet connectivity (in case the customers get scared when Windows Firewall warns them that your game is trying to connect to the Internet). Portals will supply a big list of such things when you get your game accepted.

17. I just love multiplayer (over the internet), is there a place in the causal market for this?

- No, not in the traditional casual download market. However, Facebook is a different matter…

18. Can it increase a game’s sales it it supports multiplayer?

- Not casual games, but for certain types of Indie games, sure it could do, but you’d be better off asking someone who’s made a multiplayer game as I haven’t.

19. Are there any multiplayer-only games?

- Not that I know of in the casual space. There are in hardcore games of course, such as Quake 3.

20. Did you ever try to pay for advertisement for your game?

- I paid for some traffic to my site via another site, but it was crappy. Also I submitted my games to a bunch of shareware sites via a paid PAD submission service that cost about $30 I think. This generated traffic and has paid for itself. I didn’t try google ads for my site, but have tried them for another business and they were very successful. I haven’t done banner ads on other sites.

21. I saw you had a lot of links on your site and you use Google ads. I also used Google ads way back but since I never updated the site
it never brought much income, though it still gives me tiny amounts each month, probably bots or something though. How much do you get on google-ads? Can it be viable to be ad-supported (free game) ?

- I don’t get much money from google ads, maybe $10-$15 a month (it was quite a bit more in the past when I was writing game reviews for another site that had good traffic). It covers my hosting fees. It’s all about traffic. 10x the traffic and $150 would be a nice little bonus. 100x and, yeah, that would be nice. If you have some kind of viral hook then an ad-supported game might be OK. Flash games (and some Facebook games) make money from ads (and sponsorship) but they have to have a ton of views to make any real money.

22. Any tips on how I can do to get some extra cash from ad-sharing?

- I don’t really know what you mean by ad-sharing. I have sold textlink ads on my site to gambling sites which feels like whoring out my site, but seeing as I wasn’t doing much with direct sales, it was easy money. So far nearly $5000 from those ads. Watch out though as Google may “Google Slap” you and lower your page rank.

23. Have you ever used in-game currencies? So called micro-transaction models.

- Not for my own personal games, but at Big Fish Games Vancouver, we released a Facebook game in March 2010 which uses an in-game currency so I know quite a lot about that, but I can’t really talk about it due to my work contract. Let’s just say that it can definitely work if done right, but there’s a whole science behind getting it right.

24. Do you know of any good system for this?

- Facebook (they now have Facebook credits). There are also lots of other payment providers who can do this kind of thing like LiveGamer. Also there are people like TrialPay who let customers earn credits for “free” by signing up to stuff like Netflix. You might even be able to rig something up via Paypal, but if the transactions get too small, they’ll take too much of the payment to make it worthwhile. Also the iPhone has it’s own microtransaction stuff build into the API. There’s plenty around if you go looking, but I haven’t seen it done much in normal downloadable Indie games, only MMOs.

Phew, OK that’s it. I hope you found the answers useful. If you were to ask some of these questions on the Indiegamer forums, I’m sure you’d get some great answers from people more experienced than me in different areas.

If anyone has some more answers for these questions, please post them below!

10 Responses to “Inside Info about Grey Alien Games”

  1. Bango48 Says:

    Great article! Really nice read. Thanks!

  2. Robert Cummings Says:

    Informative insights as always Grey. I briefly liased with chillingo too and they seemed convinced that rendered softer styles sold better than harsh cool scifi or stylised styles.

    One of the things about indie is that it is easier to create hard lines or stylised graphics than it is to create genuinely good looking consistent high art quality games. For example mystery case files springs to mind.

    There’s no escaping it, high quality time consuming art sells games. My advice to indies is get a reliable artist on board, and don’t skip this most essential part of your game.

  3. McFunkypants Says:

    This is a fantastic post. Thanks so much for sharing your valuable insight. Reading about the %’s that portals take, your experience with ad revenue, and hearing your ideas regarding genres is so helpful for us indie devs who are just starting down the path you have taken. Much appreciated!

  4. Grey Alien Games Says:

    Thanks all.

    Yes totally agree Robert, great art is key to selling casual games, and great art takes time and costs money. Thanks for the info from Chillingo (who got bought by EA last week).

    @McFunkypants: The interesting thing is that the path has changed since I went down it, some things that worked back then (like crappy graphics) don’t work now, and also there are now lots of new opportunities like Facebook and iPad and Steam and XBLIG – if they were around 5 years ago, I probably wouldn’t have made a match-3 game as my first commercial game.

  5. Jim Robb Says:

    Hi Grey Alien, basically what spec PC do you create your games for? Would a game that needed fast 2/4 cores and decent Graphics card sell well on these portals?

  6. Grey Alien Games Says:

    Hi Jim, no a game that needed a high spec PC would not do well on the casual portals, although it could do fine on Steam. I aim at 1024×768 screen res and a graphics card quite a few years old (I try not to use more than 64MB VRAM) + a single core 1-2Ghz CPU.

  7. Rye Says:

    How about sales for Linux and Mac, do they increase sales a lot?
    - For me, Mac conversion rates were double those of PCs and so it was definitely worth converting my games to Mac.

    I’m not a developer, just a casual game player who enjoys your blog. Not sure what you mean by “conversion rates”. Did that mean you sold twice as many copies of the Mac version? I have Macs and it’s great seeing so many games being released for us now.

    Also, I don’t know if you have ever mentioned this before, but developers might want to go to the game portal forums and read what the gamers say about what they want from a game. So often I will read comments like “this would have been a perfect game except for … and that means I won’t be purchasing this game”.

  8. Grey Alien Games Says:

    Hi Rye, thanks for reading! OK so conversion rate is what % of people who play your demo end up buying the game. Typically 1% of people who play your demo may buy your game (yes only 1 in 100), and some people think that’s good. But in reality a very good game can get a 5% conversion rate and DOUBLE that on a Mac (or course many games have much lower than 1% conversion rate, and those developers need to practice making good games a bit more). So if you had 100,000 Mac downloads you could get 10,000 sales with a 10% conversion rate, which would be sweet!

    Agreed, developers should read what their players are saying, I do that for sure. Then you can either improve your current game and release and update, or at the very least, learn from your mistakes and make the next game better. The only thing to consider is that forum members are a vocal minority and they may not be wholly representative of your entire varied audience, so sometimes the advice must be taken with a pinch of salt. Players think they know what they want but sometimes metrics tell a different story. Also, sometimes, what sounds cool to add in the game may only cater for a very small % of players, and so may not be cost effective to program when you could cherry pick something else that everyone benefits from.

  9. Intermediaware Says:

    Hey Jake, again a great article from you.

    As for micro transactions: There are payment vendors who are specialized on micro payment (https://www.micropayment.de, paysafecard, http://www.daopay.com ….), but I know no casual game who makes use of such things.

  10. Grey Alien Games Says:

    Thanks Joe(?) Also Paypal have introduced a new micro-transaction rate now too.