This question has been asked an answered many times before, but none of the answers seems satisfying. I’m going to give you a clear and realistic answer, but you’ll have to work hard to achieve those numbers.
Jeff Tunnell tried to answer this question in 2006, but basically he says it’s in between $0 and what a no.1 selling game on a portal can make. That’s a safe answer, but it’s a pretty wide range to say the least, and therefore totally useless. Part 2 of that article never came… .
The Rampant Coyote also took several shots at the answer, and he provides more clear information. You should definitely check out his articles Yes, Virginia, There Is Money In Indie Games and Should I Become An Indie Game Developer?. But still, no real numbers are given for your first game.
I’m going to give you a more specific answer: If you use what you learn on this site, your first game will make you a few thousand dollars. This is not a lot, you won’t get rich from that, but that’s reality. And this doesn’t mean creating a game and uploading it to the internet. It means working incredibly hard and doing a huge amount of marketing. Or in other words: create (and finish!) the best game you possibly can, and market the hell out of it. I’ll help you with this by providing ready-to-use articles, but in the end, it’s you that has to do it.
If you want some realistic statistics, take a look at the sales data from Immortal Defense, those numbers are still relevant today, and show you what you can expect.
So what about those developers who don’t sell anything?
Well, they are doing something wrong, or are not doing anything at all. (If you’re one of them, subscribe to this blog! ;)). If you want to create a game, make sure it’s a project you can handle. And if you want to sell a game, marketing is everything!
The first day you release your game, you should already have sales. If not it means you haven’t done your marketing properly. At launch, your customers should be lined up to play the demo and buy it. (Yes, all 5 of them! ;))
What about those developers who earn lots with their game?
These developers fall into 2 categories:
- They already released previous games which have built up a customer base.
- They released the right game at the right time to the right audience. Or in other words: they got lucky.
Developers like Positech, Spiderweb, Anawiki, etc… belong to the first category. They will earn a lot more when they release a game, simply because they already have an existing audience to sell to. Remember that it’s always easier to sell something to existing customers than it is to gain new customers. And because you will only have new customers to sell to, you will not reach these numbers with your first game.
For the second category, don’t count on it that it will happen to you. These are the Braid’s or Number 1 hit wonders on portals. You should definitely dream of it, think that it’s possible (hey, there is a small chance!). It will keep you motivated, but don’t forget the brutal facts of reality: it probably won’t happen to you. (If someone knows a magical formula on how to create number 1 games, or how to get hyped on the internet, please let me know :))
So… is a few thousand dollars the only thing you will get out of your first game? Of course not! If you play it smart you’ll build up a customer base. The next game you release will have more momentum, and will have more sales. After releasing a few games, you can become one of those ‘established’ developers I’ve talked about above.
Jim Collins has a great metaphor for building a business like this, explained in his book “Good to Great“:
Now picture a huge, heavy flywheel. It’s a massive, metal disk mounted horizontally on an axle. It’s about 100 feet in diameter, 10 feet thick, and it weighs about 25 tons. That flywheel is your company. Your job is to get that flywheel to move as fast as possible, because momentum—mass times velocity—is what will generate superior economic results over time.
Right now, the flywheel is at a standstill. To get it moving, you make a tremendous effort. You push with all your might, and finally you get the flywheel to inch forward. After two or three days of sustained effort, you get the flywheel to complete one entire turn. You keep pushing, and the flywheel begins to move a bit faster. It takes a lot of work, but at last the flywheel makes a second rotation. You keep pushing steadily. It makes three turns, four turns, five, six. With each turn, it moves faster, and then—at some point, you can’’t say exactly when—you break through. The momentum of the heavy wheel kicks in your favor. It spins faster and faster, with its own weight propelling it. You aren’t pushing any harder, but the flywheel is accelerating, its momentum building, its speed increasing.
Now go push your flywheel!
Below are links to all indie game sales statistics that I’ve found. If you come across other ones, please let me know and I’ll update this list: