You are spending too long making your game

I asked on Twitter How long have you been working on your commercial game so far? Sub-question: Do you think that’s wise? and you can see the poll results above.

Shockingly (at least I think so), almost a third devs are on 3+ year long projects.

The comments I received seemed to fall into three camps:
1) I’m working on a short game and it’s nearly ready, so that’s fine.
2) I’ve been working on this game forever and I know it’s not a good idea.
3) I’ve been working on this game forever but it’s part-time and a have a day job so it’s not so bad.

Dev Time vs Hourly Wage

It’s common to hear that a game has grossed $X and if that number is big it sounds impressive. But the reality is that, depending on the actual costs to develop that game, it might not have broken even yet, and might not ever do so!

Let’s look at an example:
- Game has grossed $100K on Steam in first year, wooo!
- Steam and taxes eat up 35% so dev receives $65K, still kinda wooo!
- Contractors were paid $30K for art/audio and game was exhibited at a show for $5K.
- That leaves $30K of “net profit”, which is a bit less wooo.

But wait, what about the coder/designer? Well let’s say they spent one year full-time making it, then that’s a salary of $30K (about $14 an hour based on a 40-hour work week). For some people in the world that’s a lot of money but for others it’s really not enough to survive, especially if you have kids eating up the cash like little cash-fueled monsters.

What if the game took two years to make? Well then the dev earned less than minimum wage. Your locale may not have have a minimum wage, but here in the UK it is about $10.50 at current exchange rate.

What if the game took 3+ years? Yeah it doesn’t look good.

Of course some games can have a long tail and when you start to add up the revenue from multiple years, maybe that hourly wage goes up a bit, and that has happened for some of my games.

But there are a couple of really important things to consider here:

1) My $100K example above is actually REALLY GOOD. Most games will not make that much money in their first year, only a few good/lucky/promoted ones. So your hourly wage could EASILY be 10x less, or, 100x less.

2) Even if your game does earn $100K gross in year 1, it’s likely to not all occur at launch. (In fact I have another blog post lined up that will go into more detail on this topic.) But the launch might only be $20K, and if you have built up debts whilst making the game, that launch money won’t go very far at all.

What about my games?

OK here are three of my games on Steam with the most recent release at the top. Which one do you think has earned me the most $ per hour?

Shadowhand (a $15 RPG card game with publisher support)
Regency Solitaire (a $10 casual solitaire game)
Spooky Bonus (a $10 match-3 game frequently sold at $6.99 or less on casual portals)

The answer, by a mile, is Spooky Bonus. That game has earned me almost $400 an hour but I bet most of you have never even heard of it.

Why? Well it took me three months and was a casual portal hit. It was my 7th match-3 game and each time I made a new one I reused the old engine and changed the theme and added some new features.

Regency Solitaire took a year, and is my second most profitable game of the above three. I have two other older more profitable games that only took me three months to make (maybe you can see a pattern emerging here).

Shadowhand took my wife and I two and half years to make. It’s not a hit but it is selling OK at numbers that many indies would probably be pleased with. In fact it grossed more than the lifetime Steam sales of Regency Solitaire in its first week!

Shadowhand also cost more to make than previous games due to all the art, fancy audio, and marketing. Also the revenue is split with a publisher. So as you can guess, the $ per hour rate is currently very low. Now, to be fair, it was only released in Dec 2017 and it will hopefully have a good long tail with lots of sales and discounts etc. which will push up the $ per hour rate.

However, even with a decent long tail, Shadowhand is basically NEVER going to match Spooky Bonus for $ per hour. In fact it’s even going to struggle to match Regency Solitaire.

Quicker Games FTW!

That’s why in 2018 I’m focusing on making games a lot quicker. I have a 3 month project lined up and a couple of potential 6 month projects too.

Note that quicker doesn’t mean crapper. I already have an existing game engine that I can re-theme and add in new features etc. Also I won’t let quality drop in areas that matter although I do intend to reign in my perfectionism in areas that no one ever notices except me.

Also, proud as we are of Shadowhand, it was basically way-overscoped. It takes people about 15-16 hours to beat and many people then play it again on hard mode for another 20+ hours. So it’s super-good value for $15 (buy it!) Too good value in fact. Imagine we had made Shadowhand 1 and 2 and both were 8 hours long? Or Shadowhand was 8 hours long and had 8 hours of DLC?

A caveat

Remember, I’m a full-time indie and I need to earn decent money from my games to support my family of four.

I don’t have any money stored up so I can make a giant multi-year game. There’s nothing wrong with that, if you can do it safely and don’t have anything riding on the outcome, but I just cannot at present. Unless I get a patron that is, so yeah uber-rich indies who want to support a genuis game dev, please send me an email, thanks :-)

So, just please be realistic about your game and don’t fall into the trap of making a giant piece of art that earns you nothing except disappointment.

What about you?

How long have you been working on your game? Is that wise in the current market? Let me know in the comments.

20 Responses to “You are spending too long making your game”

  1. Tom Says:

    Very interesting article – for Spooky Bonus though, are you including the time you spent on all the earlier match 3 games you did?

    Because it seems like in addition to making sure not to spend too long on projects, the almost $400 rate comes from being smart and building a series of games which can share an engine and allow you to make incremental improvements with each release?

    Perhaps I’m missing something, but it seems like that might be an important takeaway on par with ‘don’t take too long’. It also reminds me of a graph I saw a while ago showing that folks making games on mobile saw increasing revenues the more games they made and released, with early games not earning much if anything. Could be a similar dynamic involved there, along with naturally increasing skill and familiarity with game development?

  2. Grey Alien Games Says:

    Hi Tom, no I’m not including the time on earlier match-3 games, just the time working on the new stuff for Spooky Bonus. I also used the Spooky Bonus metagame code for Regency Solitaire.

    But yes I agree that is also an important takeaway I could have emphasised more. Plus, as you say, I did get more familiar with making games, and indeed the match-3 genre and marketplace, which helped me with making a game that hit the right spot.

  3. Winterwolves Says:

    Not to sound pessimistic but your example is wrong:
    “Steam and taxes eat up 35% so dev receives $65K”
    Steam’s CUT ONLY is 35%, so you get 65k BUT YOU HAVE STILL TO PAY TAXES!
    So unless you live in a tax heaven, even considering a very low 30% taxation (here is over 50%…) you end up with 40-45K NET.

    So yes, it’s much worse than what you wrote :D

    Apart this you know already my opinion on quick games :)

  4. Grey Alien Games Says:

    @Winterwolves Well if you pay out all the net profit as salary then your company won’t pay tax as there will be no profit. Of course tax will be paid on salaries, but when people discuss $ per hour of salary it is usually measured before tax.

  5. Andrii Vintsevych Says:

    Market in 2015 was way less crowded so it is not a fair comparison. $ per hour for your next short game will be far more valuable.

  6. Grey Alien Games Says:

    Agreed that a more recent data point will be useful, but still the old ones are all I have, and are still interesting.

  7. Nick Says:

    Hi Jake! Another fantastic blog post! I believe I read in an earlier post that you were likely going to make another game in the same engine as Shadowhand. How do you factor future games in when deciding the scope of a project such as Shadowhand and do you recommend spending more time on a game if it’ll allow you to make future games more quickly?

  8. Grey Alien Games Says:

    Thanks Nick. Good question. When we started Shadowhand we basically had three outcomes in mind: 1) it does so well that localisation, DLC and/or a sequel are worth doing, 2) it does OK enough to prove we are on the right track but we reuse the engine with a different theme/tweaks as an experiment, 3) it doesn’t even do well enough to reuse the engine.

    So it’s true that the whole time I was making the game I hoped that I would end up reusing the engine again in some way, and thought it was quite likely. So I tried to write it with some reuse in mind, without going crazy on that front. However, there was still a lot of wasted time on the project that I believe I can avoid in the future.

  9. Roy Says:

    Maybe those projects with more than three years on develpment are side work. So those developers have a safe income source but cant go full time on their games.

  10. Crecente Says:

    In your example with a publisher taking a portion of sales, what money are they giving up front or offsetting?

  11. Tom Says:

    Thanks for the reply, cool to know. I really enjoyed Regency Solitaire btw, great game :)

  12. Grey Alien Games Says:

    @Crecente Well it depends on the deal, the might just put money into marketing/PR, or they might also pay for art/audio, and they might even pay for some/all of the development. The % they claim might vary hugely of course too.

  13. Playtinum Says:

    We are also a small studio making casual PC games in the solitaire, mahjong, match 3 etc. genres and operate with short game dev times and reuse of code. That said, I think when we talk about PC games and Steam, the targeted genres are quite different from the typical ones that we see on the casual game portals. Developers who are building games targeting the Steam gamer demographic are likely to find it difficult to create games in shorter times and make profit with the casual games. Maybe I am wrong but I suppose Spooky bonus or Regency Solitaire were never built for a Steam audience but Shadowhand was and hence took more time. If you consider only the Steam sales of all the 3 games would the hourly rate maths still hold. btw nice post and would like to read about your approach to new games with shorter dev times.

  14. Grey Alien Games Says:

    @Platyinum You are correct in that the Steam sales of Spooky and Regency are not great as most of their money was made on the casual portals. Shadowhand was targeted at Steam and has done better than those other two games on there. Quite a lot of Steam games are bigger and deeper than quicker casual games, but then also there are some quite small games doing great on Steam as well. Also in casual there are some quite big very polished projects as well.

    I think we could have made Shadowhand a lot smaller and it would have sold the same number of units as people bought into the concept more than the hours of content which they didn’t know existed before they bought it. Also with games aimed at Steam it’s still possible to reuse your engine, which is what I’m planning to do with our next few games (reuse the Shadowhand engine)

    Of course if I moved into a new genre, say Roguelike, I would have to code that engine from scratch (apart from core engine stuff I have already to handle UI etc), and that would be a longer project, maybe a year or so. But then I would be wise to reuse that engine and make another Roguelike in a shorter time period. I think indies maybe swap genres too often before they get good at one. Perhaps they get bored. Perhaps they look at poor sales of first attempt and change genre (sometimes validly), not sure why.

  15. Alex Okafor Says:

    One thing to point out that I’ve discovered over the years is several devs who claimed 3+ year Dev time usually don’t disclose that half or more of that time was spent doing contracting or other part time work. They consider it part of working on game XYZ when IMO it shouldn’t.

  16. Grey Alien Games Says:

    Hi Alex, yep agreed. I’m always a bit suspicious when I hear long dev times as to if the devs are really full-time or only part-time. Even if they are only part-time, the fact remains that markets and the zeitgeist change very rapidly, so taking a long time to launch can mean you miss the mark in those ways too.

  17. Loneship Games Says:

    I have a game that’s been in the works for close to 2 years, but this is among other video game projects, college, and now a day job so I couldn’t even tell you how many hours have really been spent on it. I can say I’ve learned a lot and become more confident in my programming, but it still makes progress feel woefully slow at times.

  18. Keith Weatherby II Says:

    Well this puts a damper on my dream game. Of course if I don’t expect to make much then maybe it’s no so bad.

  19. Jason Bolton Says:

    Thanks for the information, we mainly stick to mobile games and focus mostly on the quick games for the same reason. Can I ask what you mean by “casual portals” as I just know that as a category on portals, is that free to play web based game portals or paid etc?

  20. Grey Alien Games Says:

    Hi Jason, I mean casual download (PC/Mac) portals such as Big Fish Games, Game House, iWin, WildTangent etc.

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