(I apologize for the high number of links in this post. I’ve also pretty much decided to no longer speak publicly about game development finance for a variety of reasons, so I’ll be skirting some points and issues.)
No More Tales
Apparently Tale of Tales, developers of Sunset, are closing their doors. Their official site is hammered and down at the moment so the first link is a GameInformer one. The upshot is they went into debt, sold only 4,000 copies between crowdfunding and the Steam sale, and have decided to no longer make games commercially.
It is always unfortunate when a group of creatives can no longer fund their activities. That said there are lessons and warnings here that have have to do with marketing, creative vision, and being realistic.
The first is that knowing who your core audience is, and being able to reach them, is of the utmost importance, more so than ever given that Steam has opened its gates. Tale of Tales has been around as an indie game company since 2002. They had 2,228 backers on their Kickstarter campaign in 2014, raising a total of $64,636 USD. The combination of gross unit sales and backers and sales history (which they know but I am not privy to) should most likely have indicated that their core audience is extremely tiny, almost certainly under five digits.
It sounds like they tried to do everything right in a traditional indie game developer manner; Broaden the appeal, spend on marketing and advertising, and lean on external funding. Whatever the case may be the aggregate result is now failure in a monetary sense.
It is always easy, though perhaps not any more accurate, to pick at details in retrospect. I know first hand how jumbled the process can get when you’re elbow deep in the guts of making and marketing a game. That said there are some broad stroke, red flags:
- A “game for gamers” Sunset is surely not. If they believed this they truly missed the mark in understanding who their audience was and the market at large. There are enough people making abstract art games that it’s fairly well-established as a niche more than an underserved market.
- Advertising, as in the act of purchasing ads, is not useful on a small scale. This, too, is fairly well known particularly on the internet. Maybe a game like Sunset can’t push for hard YouTuber or Twitch streamer cooperation. Maybe it’s just not that kind of game. I can’t offer a solution here, but I can diagnose the problem. That was probably wasted money.
- Good ratings are good, but it has to take into consideration the total quantity of players as well.
The third point is desperately important. With the advent of a more open Steam, GOG Galaxy being in beta, and Itch growing remarkably quickly, literally everyone has wider access to the gamer audience.
It has been my observation that many small indies these days are selling a few hundred to a few thousand copies of their games and are ecstatic. And they should be! Baby steps is how anyone gets through this ever-changing market. But that is not sustainability. When you get 100% positive reviews out of 20 that is not so remarkable. Pretty much anyone can shake up 20 positive reviews from their personal pool of friends, relatives, and friendly developers.
Your parents might tell you your game is the best thing ever, but your parents are not your core audience. As I mentioned in a previous blog post, you need a resounding YES. Not a lukewarm yes, nor a bright YES followed by words and no sale. A marginally interesting game someone will pay ten dollars far is superior to an enormously interesting game someone will not pay anything for. Steam refunds is a thing now, too; software is catching up to the physical goods world.*
This is a hard pill for creatives to swallow, but we’ve all swallowed it in micro-forms throughout our careers. When you agonize (waste time) getting that thing just right that no one ever notices. Even game critics miss this so often – almost every game that’s not a pile of poo was a labor of love, that was iterated over and polished in some parts and not others. It’s just that the games that gain followings, large followings, get examined thoroughly enough to merit such deep analysis. Who wastes their time dissecting games that are popularly perceived as trash?
This is the hard truth – no one starts off caring about your creative prowess, your time and effort spent. You do not deserve their money, their attention, their time; You have to earn it.
This is why so many creatives fall back on the luck argument. It dodges all the hard truths and lends a fallback excuse. People don’t talk about luck when creating material objects nearly as often. Maybe because the physical fetish can somehow snap a critic back into reality – this is a thing*. For some reason software has less of that effect on most people.
My number is 20,000. That is the number I want to personally hit as the number of core users for the kind of games I want to make. In my circumstances 20k unit sales, at something like $10-20 USD each can keep my head afloat and making Next Game™. Other game developers, some more experienced than I am, tell me that this is folly, that I am setting a trajectory for crashing and burning. Maybe they can see something I can’t.
But even if they’re right and I’m wrong, you still need to know your number. You need to aim for it hard. If there is no Next Game™, there is no game after that.
Thanks for reading,