Is it possible to earn a living making Indie or Casual games?

OK, so you want to make Indie/Casual games and sell enough of them direct or via the portals to make a living – is it possible?

Well here’s my opinion (based on 3+ years in the industry, my own experiences of making and selling 5 games, talking to other established indie developers, facts and figures I’ve read and digested, and having some inside info about some of the big portals):

– Let’s say you spend 6 months designing/programming a game (working 7-8 hours a day). What do you feel is a reasonable salary for that? Let’s pick a number and say $5000 per month. So you need to get paid $30,000. Sure living costs are HIGHER in some places and way LESS in others, so adjust the figure according to what’s right for you.

– OK, if you ever plan to earn that much from your game, I hope you damn well paid for the graphics and music (or got someone on a good royalty deal). But for ease of calculations, let’s say that the art cost $15,000 and the music cost $5000 (total = $20000). If you can get it made for less, then good for you, but make sure it’s top notch quality or your game doesn’t stand a chance.

– So the total you are aiming to earn is $50,000.

– If you sell direct (on your own site) you’ll get about 90% of the gross revenue, so if you sell for $20 you’ll make $18 per sale.

– So you need to make 2777 direct sales to make $50,000.

– OR if you sell via portals, you’ll get MAX 40% of the net price (net is gross minus some minor transaction fees). So like $8 max per game. Therefore you need 6250 sales. However, many portals offer discounts on their games, and many don’t offer 40%, so you may have to make as many as DOUBLE or TRIPLE that number depending on which portals you use (frankly you should use all the big ones (because it’s all money) and consider if the smaller ones are worth the paperwork (some aren’t)).

– However, to get those sales you’ll need to do a heck of a lot of marketing. Some marketing is free, and some costs money (like shareware submissions, advertising, paid for press-releases etc). So there could be a big cost in marketing. Oh and you need a website of course, which you can either make yourself of hire out the work for a couple of thousand dollars (assuming it’s half decent).

– Who’s going to do all that marketing? Well if you don’t hire a publisher, *you* are – and that may add easily a month onto your game development time (in fact it should be an ongoing process), so you need to earn another $5000 + marketing/website expenses. Of course if you hire a publisher, they’ll take a big % of the profit but hopefully will generate way more sales that you ever could (otherwise there would be no point, it’s the same with advertising)

– OK then, which do you think is easiest? Making 2770 direct sales or 6250 to 18000 portal sales? (or some combination of both). The answer is neither.

– Making 2770 direct sales is a major challenge. People have been known to do it but they have normally made several games before and have built up a fan-base and then they release their next game on their site ONLY for a few months before putting it on the portals. An example of such a developer is Positech and their specialist games like democracy. I happen to know that their direct sales are GREAT. But they’ve worked hard at building the customer base for YEARS (and they uses portals too).

– How about making say 10,000 sales on a portal? Well that is also extremely hard. You are competing against many other highly polished games (probably all Hidden Object games right now). If you game doesn’t reach the top 10 on at least a few portals, you’ll never make that many sales. Also if you do reach the top 10, there is a hell of a lot of difference between no.1 and no.10, the curve is seriously exponential. Then there’s how long you stay in the top 10, and after the top 10, how long you stay in the top 100. Games that hit no.1 will make 10,000 sales EASY btw. But how many games never even get in the top 10? … To be a top 10 hit, your game needs a proven mechanic (or a unique one which takes the market by storm – but how easy do you think that is?), addictive gameplay, a popular or original theme, bucket loads of polish, meta-games and mini-games etc. and then there is still no guarantee of success.

– One good thing about games is that they can have a long shelf life. We all know that you get a huge spike of sales when the game is first released on a portal (or when your initial batch of marketing for your website kicks off), and then it rapidly tails off. However, hopefully you’ll get a steady number of sales for a couple of years at least. You may not in fact make your $50000 until the second year after the game’s release! You need to factor this in when making a game i.e. you will not receive the money straight away, it may take a long time to recoup the money. The good thing is that once the $50000 is made, any extra sales are pure bonus!

The good old days

Making Indie/casual games may have been easier in the past because a) there was less competition b) games didn’t need as much content (meta games, unlockables, graphics etc) and c) games didn’t need as much polish. So it was possible to make a game in 3 months with a very low art/music budget. However, those days are GONE. Why? Because everyone jumped on the band wagon and upped the ante! Development times are longer due increased content and polish and art and sound budgets are much higher. It’s a fast moving business and to stay afloat you have to move with the times or get left behind. Having said that, in the past there was less awareness of downloadable games and there was less marketing done on them so it may have *still* been hard to earn a living from it. It took Steve Pavlina 5 years before he finally made a profit – then he quit and became a self help guru 🙂

What if you are starting today?

So what if you are just starting now? Is it possible to make living? Well have you practiced making really good free games first? Small ones that you can FINISH easily. These are “portfolio” items that you can use to get other parties interested, either to help you make the art and sound or to hire you to make a game for them. If you’ve never made a game before and you try to get some other team members on-board for royalties only (instead of paying them) then you’ll have a very hard time or you’ll most likely get sub-standard team members.

Another option exists – get a LOAN and INVEST some money in art and sound and make a quality game that has a chance of succeeding. You may LOSE some or all of the money, but you have to make mistakes to learn. Most millionaires claim they have made *way* more mistakes than most people because they kept on trying until they got it right. I invested money that I didn’t have in my Holiday Bonus game and made it back 5 times over (so far, the figure grows every day) – but it took nearly a year to make back the initial investment.

This is a long term game, there’s no get rich quick. It’s about building skills, contacts and a career in making games.

Are you committed?

So if all that sounds like hard work, you are correct, it is! Any many will not succeed. But if you don’t try, your chance of success is 0%.

I’m a black belt in Aikido and I’m going for my 2nd dan this year. Have you ever wondered what % of people who start a martial art get to black belt? Do you know what?…

It doesn’t matter, because if YOU want to be a black belt and you go for it, the chance of you getting one is 100%, whereas if you give in, the chance is 0% – it’s that simple folks! (Thanks to Steve Pavlina for the inspiration on that one).

One more thing…

As Columbo always says “just one more thing”… Notice that the title of this post is “making games”, not “selling games”. By making games I mean programming/designing and then selling. You could of course try to make money from Indie/Casual games by just selling other people’s games by starting up a portal, or becoming a publisher, or by joining an affiliate program. All of those are valid options, and done right could be big money too. But it’s a whole different topic that I’m less experienced in, so I’ll have to save that for another day…

10 Responses to “Is it possible to earn a living making Indie or Casual games?”

  1. Adam Schmelzle Says:

    This sounds fairly reasonable for somebody who is only considering game sales. However I have to say that a single person can still make good money as an independent game developer, you just need a different approach.

    I make mobile Java games, give them away for free, and make my money through in game ads. Let me contrast my mobile game experiences with your PC game experiences…

    1) Development time:

    Standard casual PC game approach: 6 months = $30,000
    Mobile Java game: 1 month = $5000

    This is based on my own personal development experience making mobile Java games. The games require much less time than a PC game because they are ‘disposable’. You don’t need as many features, don’t need it to last 15+hours, or have the same level of overall polish. This is because it’s not hard to convinced somebody to download a free game, they’ll try anything that’s free.

    2) Art and music costs: Standard $20,000
    Mobile Java game: $200 -> $400

    This is because you don’t need much in the way of art when your game screen is 176×208, and the runtime memory on the target devices is counted in the hundreds of kilobytes. Also you are constrained by a max game .jar size of between 64KB and 300KB. You simply can’t squeeze very much in the way of expensive graphics/sounds into such a small package. In fact you can often omit the music/sound completely, as most people turn off the sound on their phones anyway.

    3) Total cost: Standard = $50,000
    Mobile Java game: $5,400

    To make back this money using an ad-supported model, you simply need to make a game that people will play. If you go with a service like the one offers, your game is automatically distributed through their entire network of websites that serve the free games. At the moment there are over 40 catalog partner sites where people can download your ad supported game. It’s also a completely free service.

    Lets assume that your game makes you about $0.02 every time somebody plays it. So that means you’ll need to have your game played 5400 / 0.02 = 270,000 times. Sounds like a lot, but if the average person plays your game 4 times, you’ll only need to convince 270000 / 4 = 67,500 people to play your game. Now I can’t be 100% certain of the shelf life of a free mobile java game, but the games I released over a year and a half ago are still generating money for me. Lets say you expect the game to continue to be downloaded for 3 years. So (3 * 365days) = 1095 days. How often does your game need to be played?

    67,500 / 1095 = 62. That’s right, 62 people a day. Or 62 * (4 plays) = 248 plays / day.

    Now this of course will take a few years to make your expected development costs back, BUT this analysis also assumes that your game sucks. From personal experience, a reasonable game can easily get played 500 times a day. So if we assume the 3 year life expectancy…

    (500 plays) * (1095 days) * ( $0.02 / play) = $10,950

    My better games are played 3,000 to 4,000 times per day. The payout per play varies depending on the current ad campaigns and location of the player. Also, it’s hard to estimate how much a game will be played, because this is still a rapidly growing industry. I would not be surprised if my games are being played by 2, 3 or even 4 times as many people by this time next year, without me even changing a single line of code.

    Maybe my personal experience is abnormal. I’ve never worked for anybody else in the game industry, and don’t know other people that do what I do. When I graduated from university I couldn’t get hired at a local mobile game studio, so I simply decided to do it on my own. Worked for me, maybe it’ll work for you too.

  2. Grey Alien Games Says:

    WOW, that was an EXCELLENT comment. Real gold dust, many thanks for such an insight into that model of game development which I know very little about. Sounds like you are very successful and will continue to be as the market grows – good luck!

  3. Adam Schmelzle Says:

    Thanks! I’m slowly trying to fill the world full of free games, where piracy no longer exists. Strange thing about this business model, is that the MORE people share my games the better! If all games are free, piracy actually helps out the developer.

    If you have any questions feel free to ask away. Anything I can do to spread the word!

  4. Arby Says:

    Adam, what services are there for displaying ads in mobile phone games?? Can you enlighten us by posting at ?

  5. Maupin Says:

    Nice post! (Except you misspelled lose 😉

    I think the affiliate route is a great way to go when you’re building up your game portfolio, building your skills up to the level where you can release a commerically successful game, or even if you just like making smaller, freeware games. After approximately one year of running a BFG ad next to my freeware game Natto-Cat, I’m now making up to $4 or $5 per day (sometimes more, sometimes less) from it. That’s a nice bonus… and money I can apply to the graphics or audio budget of my next game.

  6. u2o Says:

    What great reading and insights! I think between the lines, the trick is to write your games in your spare time over 12/18 months while you still have the luxury of employment (if you are in any, otherwise you have nothing to lose Adam) and see if anything develops. It seems a fairly safe route.

  7. xDan Says:

    Nice article grey alien 🙂 I hope (and only hope ha) to make a living this way, when I finish Uni (and then the degree will have been for nothing haha)

    @Adam Schmelzle: Nice comment too, sounds almost too good! I wonder, do you have any pointers for someone who’s never done java/mobile game dev? Like what keywords to google to get started? any frameworks you recommend? 😉

  8. Grey Alien Games Says:

    @Adam: Yeah it’s pretty cool that piracy is a non-issue!

    Maupin: For sure affiliate sales is an interesting route to take. To make real money in it though it needs to be your main job rather than a side line (like my site is). I also like the approach of building of money to invest and then reinvesting the proceeds. The only thing is that can be slow, so getting a loan can be a lot quicker…

    u2o: Thanks! I hear you but there is a school of thought that says “burn your bridges on purpose” so you have no job and are thus FORCED to succeed. It’s actually what I did. Wasn’t easy but it panned out. Disclaimer: if you follow my example and it doesn’t panned out, it’s not my fault 😉

    xDan: Go for it! Of course the degree will hopefully teach you many other skills like self-discipline, self-organisation, working in teams etc. It won’t teach you directly, but you can develop those skills at the same time. And you’ll also have pretty good fun meanwhile I’m sure…

  9. Adam Schmelzle Says:

    For anyone who wants to discuss J2ME development further, you are all welcome to stop by my message board… . It’s fairly low-traffic, so it’s easy to keep on topic. I’ve got a post about starting out with J2ME on my board at:

    I get lonely on my message board, so any visitors are always welcome.

  10. Photon Storm » Blog Archive » Is it possible to earn a living making Indie or Casual games? Says:

    […] another fine post over at Grey Alien Games asking (and answering) the question: is it possible to earn a living making Indie or Casual games? The article itself is interesting reading, and while it focuses on the PC side of game dev the core […]